In the video for “I Confuse Us,” the lead single off Caitlin Cobb-Vialet’s upcoming debut EP, the Oakland singer-songwriter takes part in a cathartic, defiling ritual of daubing mounds of paint — not really makeup — on her face and then carelessly spreading the materials until her cheeks, lips and forehead are a messy mix of color.
She ends the two-minute serenade by smooshing her face against the camera, breaking down the fourth wall of the performance while further sullying her appearance, leaving the viewer with a disjointed glimpse into her world of pleasure and pain.
It’s all very melodramatic, evoking classic vaudevillian scenes of the sad clown, and all those over-the-top theatrics are very much the intention of Cobb-Vialet. A trained actress who mastered her craft at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Cobb-Vialet is hoping to bridge the gap between vintage cabaret and pop music, connecting the two disparate elements that inspired her early creative endeavors.
“My dream is just to meld it all — I don’t want to leave anything behind,” says Cobb-Vialet. “I want to be multi-disciplinarian — I like the idea of writing musicals that are really weird and that play with the idea of pop music. It’s like these are theater songs in my head, and my life is the musical.”
Cobb-Vialet may be exploring the concept of acting and performing with her pop songs, but there is something disarmingly real and genuine with her approach to the craft. “I Confuse Us” details the messy, confusing end of a relationship, offering a candid preview into her psyche. In this play, the actor is not merely reading lines — there is real pain behind the performance.
“This song is very much rooted in real life — I had a really intense relationship with an amazing person and when it ended, I was genuinely confused by how I felt,” Cobb-Vialet says. “This person inspired me and then they were gone. I had to extricate myself from them, to rediscover myself. It’s definitely a love-hate kind of thing, but it’s also about myself — how there are these two sides to yourself.”
Cobb-Vialet will be performing “I Confuse Us” and other songs off her debut EP at the Rickshaw Stop on July 23, opening for space-country rockers Juan Wayne and indie poppers French Cassettes as part of showcase put on by the local production boutique Fast Times Presents. It will be Cobb-Vialet’s first time playing these songs live, and although many of her tunes contain painfully bare confessions, the young singer-songwriter doesn’t anticipate being starstruck by the moment. Unlike other neophyte musicians, Cobb-Vialet has plenty of experience performing in front of an audience.
A native of Oakland, Cobb-Vialet grew up in the local performing arts scene, singing in the San Francisco Girls Chorus and acting in Berkeley’s Youth Musical Theater Company before enrolling in NYU. While in New York, Cobb-Vialet immersed herself in the Broadway scene, eventually landing gigs at venues like Joe’s Pub, a famed performance space on the other side of Manhattan.
Eager to forge her own identity through music and art, Cobb-Vialet moved back to the Bay Area late last year, a relocation hastened by the pandemic that decimated New York’s thriving theater scene.
Back home, Cobb-Vialet linked up with prolific local producer Jim Greer (who has helmed records for acts like Foster the People and Geographer, among scores of Bay Area groups), and while her songs have a distinct melodramatic aesthetic, they are not formulaic show tune photocopies. On her upcoming EP, Cobb-Vialet deftly weaves in pop elements and winding narrative structures, blending the raconteur-ish musings of artists like Country Barnett and Regina Spektor with the bright and buoyant atmosphere of cabaret material. Brass instruments and bold piano riffs are melded with poppy synth hooks and silken beats.
That intriguing combination caught the eyes of Andrew St. James, a member of Juan Wayne and co-founder of Fast Times Presents, the prolific production outfit putting on the show Friday night at the Rickshaw Stop.
“It’s really special to be able to introduce Caitlin to the scene — we’ve all been struck by her song craft and I’m excited for her to be a part of our world,” St. James says. “I think it’s important for Fast Times as a promotional entity to create space for new artists to perform alongside veteran acts, and this show at Rickshaw on the 23rd is that concept in action. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Like a savvy playwright, Cobb-Vialet knows how to craft pieces of witty dialogue (“Spend most of the year/Building myself some self-esteem”), but her songs are imbued with the deep pathos found in tunes like “I Confuse Us.” Although she may be putting on an act, there is no doubting her earnestness.
“I try to write music about whatever is consuming my thoughts at the moment,” Cobb-Vialet says. “If there is something pressing in my mind, I have to get that down. So, I end up being pretty direct in my songwriting. The most important part for me is always the emotional aspect of the song.”
Cobb-Vialet will be performing only a handful of tunes at the Rickshaw Stop, but she is steadily building her forthcoming LP. She has plans to release an EP later this year — tentatively slated for October — and she aims to put out a full-length album next spring.
While she builds out her catalog, Cobb-Vialet says she still plans to continue pursuing acting roles in the Bay Area. She also wants to collaborate with other local artists, perhaps by writing songs for fellow musicians. For the time being, she sees no reason to limit herself to one particular artistic field.
“I really want to try and do everything,” says Cobb-Vialet. “I think there are opportunities out there for me both for music and for acting. I’m excited to see where this takes me.”
Cailin Cobb-Vialet, with Juan Wayne and the French Cassettes, Friday, July 23, 8 p.m., at the Rickshaw Stop. $15; rickshawstop.com
Will Reisman is a contributing writer. @wreisman