Ray Raposa is not afraid of abstractions.
"Those are the terms I prefer to approach things on," the twentysomething songwriter says from a tour stop in Arizona. Which is not surprising, given the brazenly diffuse, twilit sound of Castanets. The band's recently released First Light's Freeze is a musical scrapbook of chilly, crystallized moments creepy banjo stomps, reverbed acoustic guitars, slow-tapped drums, wailing horns that occasionally thaw into wind-whipped, electro-ambient squalls. Raposa is the band's sole permanent member and its primary driving force; the music is entirely his vision loose, noisy, and potently evocative. His voice, faraway but confidential, sings a story entirely his own.
"I have these bouts where I do writing outside of music, and I sort of outsource a lot of those themes and characters for what ends up being a song," he says. "They're linked, they're tied together. They come from a similar place or a similar geography. And I suppose it was a little bit colder of a place for this record."
Geography has been a powerful factor in Raposa's life. Born in the Midwest and raised in San Diego, he relocated with his mom to a tiny town in Baja California, Mexico, when he was thirteen. "Every day, that was it: surfing, playing chess, and making tortillas," he says. "It was a pretty big shock to go from the middle of seventh grade to home-schooling in Baja. It's a terrifying, beautiful place, depending on how you're looking at it." After moving back to San Diego, he earned a high school equivalency certificate at age fifteen. He began writing for surf magazines and local weeklies, and over several years took in vast drafts of the American landscape via Greyhound bus.
Those ramblings bred a certain comfort with displacement, a sensitivity to unfolding landscapes and seasons that permeates First Light's Freeze and the prior Castanets album, last year's Cathedral. There Raposa numbers a few of the songs beginning with moaning saxophone on "Cathedral 2 (Your Feet on the Floor Sounding Like the Rain)," ending with a warm, organic groove of "Cathedral 4 (The Unbreaking Branch and Song)." He inserts miniature ambient interludes between songs and then sings, rhythmically and understatedly, of personal trials that nod toward the universal. This is the intersection between his fiction-writing and songwriting.
"They come from sort of a plot line, these people and these things," he says. "So I like to keep a little bit of it left over for the record. It gets more sonic than verbal at a point, and the interludes serve that purpose for me, of preserving that thread, that narrative. But it's important for me to not make it too storybook."
Back in his home base of San Diego, Raposa involved himself in a startling variety of musical projects, from free jazz to grindcore to solo performing. He also felt an affinity for the older musicians who composed the original San Diego rock scene bands like Three Mile Pilot, Tristeza, and Rocket from the Crypt.
"The people in my peer group, a lot of them were kind of eyes-on-the-prize, indie-rock style, and it wasn't anything that really captured my interest," he says. "So when I had to find people to work with out there, it ended up being these people a couple years above me who had done a lot of good work in the San Diego scene. But I don't know if there's a common ethic. We're all pretty casual. It's the Southwest."
In late 2002, Raposa hit upon the eerie, autumnal, sorta-Appalachian Velvet Underground sound of Castanets.
"Around the time I turned 21, I was making a record with a friend of mine in San Diego named Nathan Delffs," Raposa says. "I had a couple songs around the house that I would share without any real intention of making anything of it. But there was a long, strange, weird winter in San Diego, and Nathan and I just buckled down in his basement there and recorded a record called What Kind of Cure. And then that was that."
While that original album remains a sought-after self-release, both followups were released by Asthmatic Kitty, a small, Michigan-based indie run by musicians Liz Janes and Sufjan Stevens. Raposa's basement buddy, Nathan Delffs, helped produce Cathedral and First Light's Freeze; multitalented, indie-folk darling Stevens plays on the latter.
"He has some singing parts on the record that are really nice," Raposa says. "It's just amazing how many things that guy is almost virtuosic at. I mean, he plays the oboe."
Foremost a songwriter and arranger, Raposa takes a decidedly different approach to playing. "I pick things up. If I start getting good at something, I put it down," he says. "That's sort of the idea with instruments for me. I don't want to be too much of a chops guy. When things start getting technical, a lot of the joy of it gets lost for me. I like the feel of things, the bigger picture of things, not a technically flawless guitar solo."
Now that Castanets are on the road with what Raposa calls a "classic rock band two guitars, bass, drums" there are plenty of opportunities for accidents onstage. That cast-to-the-wind approach imbues the music, even in its cold, dark distance, to retain an inner warmth. Abstraction, in Raposa's case, leads to concrete results.
"It's good we're getting really settled in with each other, where things are expanding and contracting in a really natural way from night to night," he says. "Which is a good feeling. It's still not tight, indie-rock style. I like having a couple mistakes, you know."
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