Sacha Mullin Makes Solo Music With A Communal Mindset
Written by Vocalo Radio on November 3, 2023
Chicago singer-songwriter Sacha Mullin is learning to let go of control on his third solo album Casino Wilderness Period.
For his segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Sacha Mullin discussed his musical origin story and Nov. 3 album.
Sacha Mullin never expected to pursue music professionally.
“I was just a kid who happened to stumble into music,” he reflected.
Coming from a musical extended family, it seems inevitable Mullin would wind up musically inclined. He recalls being cognizant of music and sounds throughout his childhood, picking up on background music patterns in TV shows on Nick At Nite. Encouraged by his mother, he started creating his own TV background music, and making up songs to record his own pretend radio show on cassettes.
“We had this Wurlitzer piano, an upright, growing up and it was always out of tune,” he explained. “I would sit down at this piano and I would just play little chords and be like, ‘Look! This is the song for people coming into a library. Look! This is the song for people going into a haunted house.’”
Mullin got deeper into the industry almost by accident. At around 10 years old he would write letters to composers featured on TV shows or CDs he liked, including Annmarie Cullen and Emily Bidinger — who, to his good fortune, wrote back.
“This sort of thing kept happening, where I was unintentionally stumbling into industry people, just because I was genuinely this wide-eyed child going, ‘I like sound!’” he said.
Taking inspiration from the musicians and industry experts he communicated with via letters and email, Mullin went on to study genres and music styles across the spectrum throughout his teenage years. Now, Mullin has become a solo artist in his own right — but not without strong communal principles.
“I’m always trying to invite other vocalists in and use them as a texture and not just as wallpaper,” he explained. “Even though this is my solo work, and this is my third one, it still doesn’t feel like I’m alone.”
His third solo album Casino Wilderness Period — produced by Chicago’s Todd Rittman — is out Nov. 3, and follows up the critical acclaim of his 2017 release DUPLEX. As with his music education, Mullin’s new album spans many genres and styles, but at its core is his ethereal vocals. The album will be available on Bandcamp.
Are you from Chicago?
I’ve been based in Chicago for at least a decade. I grew up largely in Minnesota, was born in California, have a lot of family in the UK and New York, and mostly feel like I belong to the couch at this point.
After I graduated college, you just have a bit of a wanderlust sometimes because I’d spent so much time in Minnesota. I moved to Wicker Park, which is so funny because I didn’t, I was just kind of like, “I’m just gonna move!” Normally I’m one of those people that very methodically plans out my possibilities, I can kind of be devil’s advocate for possible outcomes. I watched a lot of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” growing up and there was always a stupid time travel episode where you made one consequence and you ended up there. For some reason my brain was just like, “Oh, I found an available apartment with a couple of people I’ve never met, let’s have one ancient Skype call with them and hopefully it’ll end up for the best!”
I moved, I left Wicker Park and then, suddenly, the exciting world of gentrification started to happen right after that. Please know there’s a significant amount of sarcasm in that assessment! I live in Logan Square.
How did you get into making music?
I guess I kind of never really thought of myself as someone that would be pursuing music, because I was just a kid who happened to stumble into music. My family, my extended family, most of my family members are musically inclined. We had this Wurlitzer piano, an upright, growing up and it was always out of tune. But I guess I watched enough television, especially a lot of Nick At Nite growing up, like “Bewitched Be-Wednesdays,” “Mary Tyler Mondays,” that kind of thing. And I would pick up on music cues subconsciously, and be like, “Oh, so when this kind of song happens, or this kind of chord happens, then it means that this character is coming in.” And I didn’t have any words for that, it was just an understood concept to me. I would sit down at this piano and I would just play little chords and be like, “Look! This is the song for people coming into a library. Look! This is the song for people going into a haunted house.” And my mom was like, “Oh, that’s so cute. Keep going,” in a sincere way. That was nice. And then I had a fake radio show on cassette tapes, and I had to make up songs all the time, because I couldn’t let the zeros of listeners have dead air.
My family did not have the premium channels, but they… would do that thing where you’d get the special channel for like 30 days, and then take it away and then have your child cry after a bit. I did not cry, but I did watch enough of this show and the music and it was really folk-rocky. But it hit me in such a particular way, and it starred Mackenzie Phillips from The Mamas & [the] Papas lineage. And I was such a fan! I ended up writing, I watched the end credits because I was obsessed with credits for things, for some reason. That was my thing. I think a lot of it had to do with disembodied voices in music and television. I was just hearing sounds and going, “Where is this person? And how do I get to be a disembodied sound?”
I wrote a letter to the composer Annmarie Cullen, she wrote back to me and we just kept trading letters and she was super kind… physically writing letters and then eventually emails. The same thing happened to another woman, Emily Bindiger, who is a really prolific session singer and she’s on everything from Leonard Cohen to “Cowboy Bebop,” her entire thing is so all over the place. But I ended up finding a CD, and she was on it. And there was like, “Write us a letter here.” So I wrote a letter, and she was super kind. And this sort of thing kept happening, where I was unintentionally stumbling into industry people, just because I was genuinely this wide-eyed child going, “I like sound!” And they were all, in retrospect, I was like, “Wow, these are all just really strong women who are just making music.” I was kind of inspired. I was not kind of, I was directly inspired by these women, not just for their kindness of writing back to me and indulging me in questions like, “So tell me about a countermelody!” I could have just asked a teacher or something! But I’m writing to these people in other states, and I think it was before you could constantly be on check for everyone. Thankfully, there’s no creepy undertone to me as like a 10-year-old stalking these people.
Did you study music?
I studied jazz for a really long time. I had the dream of maybe becoming some sort of soundtrack composer for a while. But that kind of world is really dicey. The jazz world can get kind of catty. The more you start to study a genre or a group, sometimes the gatekeeping can kind of take out the fun of it. It’s like, I have a lot of friends and all those things, but I don’t have the wherewithal of being like, “Okay, I’ve got my business suit on for this genre today.” And so, I think my music has ended up just kind of this unintentional — forgive the buzzword — but this synthesis of a lot of different things, but because I genuinely appreciated all the different kinds of things. I would go in, I would talk to people, I would study the music for a long time. I studied under people… It was almost unintentional ethnomusicology, when I was a teenager. Again, I’m just absorbing things, but trying to be true to what someone is telling me, rather than appropriating what I’m taking in.
Though he’s been releasing music for years, Mullin feels more at home in the studio than on the stage. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio
Where do you usually play out?
I don’t play live very often. I really like being a studio creature. And it’s not that I can’t sing live, I sing live often. I host karaoke quite a bit! Which is another thing in the quilt of all of this. I think that there are people that function really well just in the studio, and people that function really well solely live. Sometimes you can’t capture that live energy, or sometimes you do and you’re like, “Oh, it’s not quite the same.” I know how to straddle both worlds. My teacher Judy once taught me that people listen with their eyes. And that’s the biggest thing for me. It’s not superficial, people do make judgments and assessments based off of something. And the biggest thing that people have always said about me is like, “Oh, you’re so unassuming. You’re like this bland-looking Midwestern boy.” And I go, “Yeah, I know that! But there is a voice.” And so if I don’t sing live, it makes it harder to get that message across to people.
I never thought I would ever end up a solo musician. Because the way that I approach music, mentally, feels so communally-based. I’m always trying to invite other vocalists in and use them as a texture and not just as wallpaper. I’m always trying to think about specifically, like “Who’s drumming this? Because I like the way that there’s like a dance to what they’re doing. And I like the way that they strike a snare in a specific way… that’s super cool. And I think of you.” Everyone has an aspect of a palette. And I think that’s really great. Even though this is my solo work, and this is my third one, it still doesn’t feel like I’m alone. I’ve come to this third record with my name on it and … I’ve never felt more proud to have something that has my name on it, because I finally, after all this methodical planning, I just allowed something to be.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Written introduction by Morgan Ciocca
Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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