It’s hard not to smile when Cassia are in the room – be it during an interview or watching them joyfully play headline dates to sold-out audiences. Their infectious personalities glow just as much as their sun-drenched calypso sound which, as Clash described, “transforms even the dreariest of days into a feel good carnival.” Cassia combine the positive indie pop of bands like Foals and Vampire Weekend with the jazz-tinged afrobeats of Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor and American folk influences like Paul Simon to create an individual sound that uplifts. In the words of Gigwise, the music comes from a band “on a mission to spread positivity.”
“We wanted to create a feeling of vibrancy when people listen to us,” lead singer and guitarist Rob Ellis says, something echoed by his fellow bandmates, bassist Lou Cotterill and drummer Jacob Leff. Having met variously between school and the gig circuit of their home – the northern market town of Macclesfield – the trio discovered a shared love of world music inspired by the travels of Rob’s family. His father and grandfather lived in Zambia for several years and both returned with a record collection documenting the sound of their travels. During his teenage years, Rob started to explore the collection in more detail – something which sparked a curiosity in listening to music from afar.
“I listened to the records they had amassed but then we also came across a website where you can go through decades of music from all over the world and we listened to so much, including music from fifties and sixties Cuba and the Congo. It was just such an incredible, interesting discovery,” Rob explains. “If you listen to Fela Kuti he was an artist we were enthused by mostly because he used music to create positivity and that’s what we wanted to do with our own music.” Other artists the band drew upon were Franco and Paul Simon; later, they started to experiment with different instruments as a result of their musical discoveries. “Jake brought a djembe drum to rehearsals one day and it completely changed our sound and the way we went on to write music together,” Rob describes. “The drum was made of Cassia wood and that’s how we came up with our name. As it developed our sound so much, we knew we had to stick with this for our name!”
At such a divisive time socially, Cassia believe unity can be found through music – but not necessarily by preaching a political message. “Our music is the antithesis of that right now,” Rob says. “We want to play shows where people can just dance, groove and have a good time enjoying what is hopefully uplifting and unique sounds that they might not have heard before. That’s far more important to us than pushing out something that’s an egotistical edit of some kind.”
Cassia’s sound is one quickly chiming with audiences, having already sold out headline dates both in the UK and Europe. Playing to a homecoming capacity crowd at Manchester’s O2 Ritz as well as The Garage in London, the band have amassed a large following having pursued a largely traditional route via local gigging whilst writing and rehearsing in their local studio. Their vibrant live shows have proven a joy with fans, something that resulted in them earning a nomination for Best Live Act at the Association of Independent Music Awards alongside Idles and DMA’s. The band have a busy summer ahead, beginning with a performance at Kendal Calling.
Whilst holding down full-time jobs, the band saved up enough to afford studio time to write and rehearse. After signing to Distiller Records in 2018, the band gave up their jobs and ventured to Bath to record their debut album, Replica. With early single releases ‘Loosen Up’ and ‘Get Up Tight’ amassing over 100,000 streams each, one of their most popular songs, ‘100 Times Over’, has received almost two million Spotify streams – impressive for a song that was originally written when Rob was just 17-years-old, in his school music studio. “I remember messing around in the studio with my friends and not doing any maths homework,” Rob laughs. “After a lot of jamming and experimentation, ‘100 Times Over’ emerged and it remains one of our most popular songs and ones our fans really love.”
Clash’s description of Cassia as “an unstoppable force” certainly seems apt in light of the recent
support they have received from Radio 1, Radio X, BBC Introducing and The Independent’s ‘Now Hear This’. Listening to their sunny music receive such prominent air play at home in rainy Macclesfield is something they’re still getting used to. “I do remember the first air play,” Rob says. “I was driving in my car and it suddenly came on. It was bloody crazy!”
Having employed a DIY approach to their career to date, the band say they tried to make the most of each day in the studio last year, recognising the immense opportunity they’d been afforded. “I don’t think we ever took it for granted once,” Lou explains, Jake agreeing with his sentiment. “The opportunity was phenomenal and we had a long time to get things right, which we were hugely grateful for.” Rob adds: “We were in their every single day from 8am until the early hours of the morning. It was a great, mad experience all at once because we couldn’t quite believe we’re doing it but then we were in there pretty much every day for months. We just loved being in there and putting it all together.”
Speaking about the album, Rob explains that much of the sound came from the band improvising in the studio live, before working hard to perfect their sound through further production and experimentation. “A lot of stuff came from us jamming together and working through ideas and from that, through allowing the music to happen more naturally, some of our best ideas emerged. It was like uncovering a secret,” Rob elaborates. Despite the unknowns of creating in this way, Rob explains that they still had a very clear vision of how they wanted the album to sound from their very earliest days together in the studio. “We knew how we wanted it to sound and we knew if we were going to do this album, it had to be the best thing we could do – it also had to be a cohesive body of work for us too: that was important.”
The band became closer during the recording sessions and braver with sonic experimentation, as shown on ‘Under the Sun’, a song which went through multiple transformations before the final version emerged, and was ultimately finished at 3am on the day their album was due to be delivered. Rob describes how all three were thinking the original song needed work, but weren’t sure how to broach it with each other. In the end, honesty prevailed, as Lou explains, with the band taking greater risks in order to develop their sound further. “We were like, ‘there’s something not quite right about this’…we stopped, reworked the beat and Jake decided to go on the piano to add some new melodies. Rob changed the lyrics too, more quickly and that really worked too.”
After being encouraged to try out new styles and structures by their producers, the band grew in confidence. “Recording ‘Under the Sun’ was probably one of my most favourite and frustrating moments in the whole recording process,” Jake laughs. “We started to try out new structures as a result of that, like songs with ridiculous drum beats and riffs and it was really fun.” For Rob, he also gives each finished song a “listening test” to make sure they’re just right. “I listen to it around a hundred times or something,” he says, smiling. “If I still like it after that, then it’s normally alright. We want them to be catchy, relevant and interesting and we keep pushing until a song is all of those things, until we capture that. And of course, we want them to be ultra-positive. Dwelling on sadness isn’t for us.”
Lyrically, Cassia draw from the ordinary – from everyday life, routine conversations and the importance of recognising the little things in life amidst the chaos as is perhaps epitomised by one of the band’s favourite songs from the album: ‘Loosen Up.’ “We think ‘Loosen Up’ is one of the best tracks we’ve come up with together so far,” Rob believes. “It sums up what we think is important as a band and the message we want to spread in the future. We want to write music for people to loosen up but to also come together with to. It’s definitely one of our favourites, we think it’s a bop.”
Speaking about the band recently, Rob Adcock from BBC Introducing described Cassia as “one of the most exciting bands to come out of Manchester in years.” With their confident combination of carefree lyricism, joyful melodies and infectious riffs, 2019 feels like the year when Cassia will finally emerge as one of the UK’s brightest young talents. You can’t help but smile when you listen.