Saturday Cinders: Despair has an expiration date

When local folk trio Saturday Cinders gets together to practice, sometimes they don’t even bother picking up their instruments. For them, the band is more than just a shared passion for music. It’s a support group with the added catharsis of creative expression. It’s a form of therapy.

This has been a defining year for the band. Guitarist Rodolfo Chavez and keyboardist Rayne Keys both went through divorces and have been on a path of redefining their personal religious beliefs, while trumpet player Katy Bergstrom recently came out as transgender.

“We had no idea that all three [of us] were going through those things,” Chavez said.

Despite the personal battles each band member had to face on their own, they are closer than ever. The shared weight of finding their own identities together has only fueled their drive and optimism for the future.

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Ro Chavez, Rayne Keys and Katy Bergstrom of Saturday Cinders perform at the Performing Arts Center on Feb. 14, 2017. They will be performing at The Avenue on Thursday, Nov. 9 at 9 p.m. Photo credit: Will Koeppen

“It’s weird, but it’s cool we found each other at the right time,” Chavez said.

Prior to forming the band back in 2014, Chavez had been thinking about starting a new project, but he wanted to do something different than the heavy rock or Christian worship music he usually played.

The spark ignited after he and Keys played a church gig in Seward. On the way back to Anchorage, the two didn’t talk much, but they did sing along to folk-pop duo The Civil Wars. Chavez took the lead while Keys sang harmonies. Everything seemed to fall into place.

One of the first conversations Chavez and Keys had when they formed the band was asking themselves why they wanted to do this. Were they looking to become a big Alaska band or push it even further? In the end, with work and family responsibilities, they decided to just have a good time.

“Our main focus is to have fun and for people to have fun with us,” Keys said. “When I see the audience really getting into what we’re playing — singing or dancing — I’m like, ‘Yes!’ That’s what feeds my soul.”

Like countless folk bands before them, Saturday Cinders started off playing open mics and coffee shops. After a set at TapRoot, staff approached the band and told them to contact local musician Evan Phillips to get something recorded.

Most of the songs were already complete before they went to Phillips’ home studio, but having his support and occasional input helped the process go smoothly.

“It was very comfortable,” Chavez said. “[Phillips] was open, but at the same time very kind and nice, so we felt, like, home.”

The resulting EP, “We Marry in the End,” which features drummer Josh Maddox, is a snapshot of the band’s harmony-heavy style of poppy folk music. In five songs, the record goes from the optimistic ballad of the title track to the brooding tango of “Angustia” to the sentimental “Where Time Stood Still,” ending with the boot-stomping country swagger of “Four Walls.”

The band released the album in May of last year with a performance at TapRoot, and although the venue is gone now, it lives on as barroom ambiance in the track “Angustia.”

Chavez wrote most of the lyrics and sang lead vocals for most of the record, but he wanted Saturday Cinders to be more of a collaborative effort.

Keys on the other hand was reluctant and found writing difficult. The two worked out lyrics for “Where Time Stood Still” via text message one evening and, although she lacked confidence in her songwriting, having Chavez to break ground and provide support helped Keys find her voice.

“I know [it’s] in her, because if I didn’t see anything, I wouldn’t be pushing, but I know that she had it,” Chavez said.

Keys tried to write songs in the past, but felt like they were never good enough. With her insecurities held at bay, she wrote the intensely personal song “I Will Not Fail” about her younger brother Jonathon who passed away from an accident in 2005.

“Writing that first song with [Chavez], it gave me the confidence — and I didn’t even know I was writing a song about my little brother until I got past like the first and second verse, and then I was like, ‘Oh shoot, this is a song about Jonathon’ and I just continued from there,” Keys said.

About a year ago, Bergstrom joined the band as trumpet player and multi-instrumentalist. Adding new members to a group can change the whole dynamic of the band, but all three had played together in the past and Bergstrom fit right in.

“We’re very picky about the [band’s] chemistry and we didn’t want to mess that up,” Keys said.

Bergstrom rounded out the group’s sound in a way Keys describes as being “the fantastic seasoning” of Saturday Cinder’s metaphorical steak.

The more people in a band leaves more chances for conflicts or misunderstandings, but the tight-knit group has managed to avoid any blowouts. Even if they didn’t play music, the trio would still hang out.

“Our friendships come first,” Keys said.

Back home in Peru, Chavez used to serve as a youth pastor. Keys, originally from California, grew up singing in church. Both were raised in musical families and their Christian faith was a fundamental part of their identities, but things would eventually start to change.

Keys and Chavez would regularly serve as rotating worship leaders at the church they both attended, but they saw cracks form in their belief systems. Each started to question their own faith and began separately figuring out what they really believe.

“I find my church in the mountains,” Keys said. “I find that I’m more connected to whatever is out there when I’m away.”

“I’m trying to learn from different people, experiences, cultures and everything — and I think it’s making me appreciate life even more,” Chavez said.

While their paths to self-discovery are ongoing, they weren’t the only ones in the band finding their true identity.

While Chavez was going through marital issues, he told Bergstrom that he needed to tell her something. He was reluctant to let on that he was getting divorced, but felt like he could confide in her. At the same time, she had big news for Chavez. When Bergstrom told him that she’s transgender, Chavez felt “honored” to have that kind of trust.

“Immediately I was like, ‘Heck yes.’ Let’s keep playing together, let’s show people that we love each other, that’s it. We trust each other, we love,” Chavez said. “That’s all that matters. And I know we’re going to have some times where, you know, things are going to be difficult, but we try to tell our friend, ‘Hey, we’re with you.’”

“Bringing Katy [Bergstrom] on, I wanted it to be the same place it is for me,” Keys said. “It’s a place to come and be myself and relax and have a therapeutic outlet where I can express myself through song or we just joke around,” Keys said.

With the band fired up to keep on going, the members hope they can start writing a new album next year.

“I think it’s the right time,” Chavez said. “All three of us this year, it’s been a year of major transitions and a lot of pain, you know, a lot of suffering, but I think this is going to be inspiring and [you’re] going to be able to see it in our writing.”

Next summer the band plans on playing anywhere they can. They want to set up a living room tour of Alaska and not only play their set, but have a meaningful dialogue with the audience.

“Let’s talk about it, let’s find out what we agree on and make this world a better place,” Chavez said.

“And also play music,” Keys added.

Saturday Cinders will be playing at The Avenue on Thursday, Nov. 9 and the Yukon Bar in Seward Nov. 17 and 18.

Stream the EP “We Marry in the End” at www.saturdaycinders.com.