11 questions: Cayley Schmid

interview by Brent Cole

Cayley Schmid rules. As the fiddle player for Polecat, she’s known for her outstanding and dynamic playing style. When not playing with the band, she’s working in the community to get kids involved with the fiddle as well as working with the Whatcom County Library System. Raised in Bellingham, she loves community and this month, she’s our 11 questions.

Tell us a lot about yourself. What’s your background?
I was born in Vancouver, B.C., but my parents moved us to Bellingham because I didn’t seem like a big-city baby. I was mostly home-schooled. When I turned ten I saw Riverdance and decided that I should learn to do Irish step-dance so I could be in the show. I took lessons from Clan Heather Dancers in Bellingham, but switched directions and competed in Scottish Highland dancing for eight years because I discovered I also love bagpipes. During one of our dance performances at the Mount Baker Theatre, I saw a woman named Anna Schaad playing electric violin in a long medieval gown with a smoke machine behind her and I was sold. I took fiddle lessons from Anna for ten years.

Tell us about the first time you ever picked up a fiddle? What is your strongest memory from that moment?
We were passed down a fiddle when I was 12, and I definitely remember the first time I tried to play it. I was completely horrified. Fiddle can be an extremely discouraging instrument to start playing because the basic idea of playing it is trying to make friction not sound like friction. I probably would be a better player if I’d started at a younger age, but I don’t know if I would have stuck with it if I had.

Aside from your time in Polecat, you started the Bellingham Ceili Club. Can you tell us what the project is about and what you have coming up?
One of the best things about Irish music is that you can sit down with anyone who plays it and have a common repertoire. I have about 15 fiddle students that I work with privately each week, but they weren’t getting the experience of playing together in a group. The Bellingham Ceili Club is an open group of Irish musicians of all ages and abilities that meets once a month to play traditional tunes by ear in a session-like style. The first hour I teach a tune, the second hour is a slow session so everyone can participate, and then the third hour we usually get a little faster and crazier. Most of the time we meet at the Roeder Home and we get Irish players from all over the place who are passing through and want to come join. My goal is to build a vibrant, inspiring, multi-generational Irish music community in Bellingham that gets new people excited about this style of playing.
Every few months I put on the Bellingham Ceili Camp which is an affordable day camp that offers workshops for kids and adults who want to try Irish music and dance. We have instructors offering beginning Irish fiddle, guitar, mandolin, cello, bodhran, Irish dance, Scottish dance, folklore, and crafts. Our last one was in November and we had about sixty attendees. You probably know some of our teachers: Norah McLaughlin, David Pender Lofgren, Zach Bauman, Clea Taylor, Brit Keeton, Harper Stone, Sam Vogt, and Melanie Flink.
The next camp date is Saturday, March 8 at Happy Valley Elementary and you can find registration forms at www.belinghamceiliclub.com.

Having grown up in Bellingham, what is your favorite childhood memory of the town and what do you miss the most about old school Bellingham?
My parents signed me up for lots of camps and workshops during the summers. The Parks department used to have all sorts of fun stuff like ceramics and acting classes held at the Roeder Home. I also loved going to art camps, soccer camps, and American Girls camp at the Bellingham Cooperative School. I went on one overnight adventure trek sort of situation where a group of ten pre-teens who had never met each other or the leaders put all of our stuff onto alpacas and hiked up one of the trails off of Chuckanut to spend the night. Does that still exist?! That’s why Bellingham is amazing.

What is your favorite aspect of touring?
Laughing constantly. I honestly think I laugh 25 percent of the entire time we are in the van. How cool is it that five extremely different people can travel together for weeks at a time, run a business together, share an artistic vision, and still almost pee their pants when we hang out. That’s pretty special. I noticed this especially when I was putting together our little ‘Polecat in 2013’ clip video. I’m holding the camera for most of it, but my cackling is one of the loudest things throughout the entire project.
One of my favorite things written about Polecat was actually in a What’s Up! issue by Haylee Nighbert in 2010. “The core audience of Polecat is, well, everybody. They try not to take themselves too seriously and let the music speak for itself, making it more approachable. The age group of the fledgling band is as wide as it is diverse.” After quickly abandoning our original ‘bluegrass’ genre in 2010, we adopted the term ‘stomp-grass americana’ to try and describe what the heck was going on, but we have reggae break-downs, Irish reels, and so much more that defines us. Is ‘having fun’ a genre? A lot of bands face this problem because genres are only for people that haven’t heard your music that want to know if they’ll like it. This has absolutely nothing to do with the question.

When you aren’t playing music, what is your favorite hobby?
Making stuff. Halloween in Bellingham is one of my favorite shows to play because I get to make costumes for it. I don’t necessarily make things that are expertly constructed or supposed to last a very long time (there is often a lot of duct tape and staples involved), but I have lots of fun doing it. The first Halloween I made costumes, I was trying to sew a shiny gold C3PO costume for Jeremy with a cardboard codpiece and breastplate. The day before the show was the first fitting we did and I’d we realized that I’d cut the entire thing about five inches too small in every direction which left Jerry looking pretty uncomfortable. I didn’t have any more money or time, so he got my roomy Princess Leia gown and I pinned myself into the gold lame. Luckily there is only one picture of this. Sesame Screech was a great one even though I struggled with my giant HELL-mo head, but I ran into a lot of things and it involved another shiny onesie. Last year’s Ursula for the Darker Side of Disney was probably my favorite one to make because it was so extravagant and took up the majority of the stage. I didn’t have any more money for stuffing to fill the tentacles so I crumpled up about forty brown paper lunch sacks. We’re also very excited to be playing a Renaissance Faire this year, so we’ll see where that leads us. Stay tuned for men in stockings.

It’s a warm Sunday morning and you have the day off, what are you doing?
Probably microwaving a grilled cheese sandwich because I don’t want to wash the pan, and then playing computer games until I feel too guilty about it and leave the house.

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise even your closest friends.
I have an extensive collection of hockey cards from the 90’s and early 2000’s that I hope will one day pay for an extravagant European vacation, but they probably won’t. If I had the option, I would live most of my life with disco music playing. My relationship with gummy vitamins is unhealthy. I always put my left sock and shoe on first. Always.

What are your three favorite movies of all time?
Any Kevin Hart or Dave Chappelle stand-up feature, The Castle (Australian), and A Mighty Wind.

What is your favorite town to play while on tour and why?
Bend, Oregon! The first time we played there was on our first tour outside of Washington when we borrowed my parent’s Minnie Winnie (thanks guys!) and took off from Bellingham after a show. If you haven’t heard this story, I’ll summarize: 2 popped tires, 1 new tire that never was filled with air, an amp falling on Richard’s bass and hours of repairs on the floor of the moving RV, a broken septic hose, the water pump being accidentally turned on and soaking thousands of dollars worth of gear, and several nights sleeping at truck stops. Getting to Bend seemed like a miracle in the first place. Every show we’ve had there (10?) has felt wonderful and the people are so generous and kind. We’ve been offered more places to stay, delicious meals, craft beer, kayaking trips, and fun after parties in Bend than all other cities combined. It feels a lot like Bellingham.

If you had the chance to meet with any fiddle player in the world, who would it be and why?
I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve met and played with one of my heros, Alasdair Fraser. I think he is a perfect model of honoring traditional music while being personally innovative. He and his amazing cello counterpart, Natalie Haas, hold a weekend retreat in January every year at Fort Casey on Whidbey Island. It’s a solid 48 hours of learning tunes, dancing, and late-night session-style playing. The first year I went, we were in the middle of doing one of my favorite things which is playing an endless set of reels at 120 bpm for several hours, and Alasdair stopped playing to throw a dollar bill at my feet. I think it was a compliment. I saved it.

What’s next for Cayley Schmid?
I’m transitioning into being the Whatcom Homemade Music Society’s main contact under the mentorship of Bellingham’s Flip Breskin. I’m trying to continue her legacy of working to keep free community music circles and concerts happening at the Roeder Home. When this is published, Polecat will be somewhere in Montana or Wyoming or Idaho doing a fun two-week winter tour. Feb. 12 is the next Bellingham Ceili Club session and it will be at the Mount Baker Theatre’s Encore Room. Feb. 13 Polecat be playing at the Wild Buffalo with one of our band crushes, Fruition from Portland. Polecat has had close to 400 shows over the last four years and the nights in Bellingham will always rank among our favorites.