Songs from the city: Katie Costello releases her second album, Lamplight.

Katie Costello, who plays the Planet Earth Eco Café Thursday. Photo by Deborah Lopez

In late 2008, a 17-year-old woman showed up in New York City, alone.

Katie Costello came to the city to write songs. She was technically still a senior at Mira Costa High School, but she’d already released her debut album, Kaleidoscope Machine. She had recorded part of the album in New York and subsequently convinced her parents to allow her to move there and finish her high school degree via online correspondence.

She had no idea what she was doing. She just knew that she needed to be in the city.

“I had no idea, literally no idea at all,” Costello said. “It’s only now – I’m like, ‘Wow, that is amazing, I moved so far away and I had no idea what I was doing, which is really adorable.’”

Costello rented a little shoebox apartment that sat atop a winding set of creaky stairs in an old building in the East Village. She somehow managed to haul her little upright piano, which went by the name Lincoln Woodrow, into her new home. And she befriended a funny looking dog named Dexter, who looked like a dwarfish deer but happened to be a very good listener.

Thus situated, she commenced to write more songs.

It is only partially accurate to say that Costello has been writing songs – or “song doodling,” as she described it at the time – since she was 12. Rather, songs just seemed to emanate from her – unusually world-wise little gems of songs, strange and wondrous little vessels that contained all her outsized imaginings and were mostly written in her childhood bedroom in Hermosa Beach.

Her career, in a sense, began at 2 a.m. one morning as a 12-year-old when she arrived in her mother’s bedroom and announced she’d written her first song. Costello’s mom and step-dad dutifully marched to her bedroom, and Katie sang a song called “Alone in the Crowd,” a wry little jazz-pop number about social awkwardness that could have been written by a character in a J.D. Salinger novel.

When she was 16, former KCRW music director Nic Harcourt – one of the most influential deejays in the country – caught wind of one of her songs and put it in heavy rotation. She’d just begun recording and hastened to complete Kaleidoscope Machine. Before the record was even released, several of its songs were used in television shows such as 90210, One Tree Hill, and Private Practice. The record itself garnered critical raves in the national music press.

And so by the time she arrived in New York, Costello was already a professional songwriter. She just didn’t know exactly what that meant.

One thing it meant, that first year in the big city, is that a lonely wisp of a little blonde girl could often be seen whispering into her iPhone. Sometimes on the subway, or at the grocery store, or just walking down the street, snatches of songs would occur to Costello. She’d grab her iPhone and very quietly sing to it, something she acknowledges was “a little bit creepy.” But it was also extremely effective, songwriting-wise, albeit with some accompanying technological problems.

“Honestly, it’s kind of like a space issue now,” Costello said in an interview this week. “Like, I have multiple gigabytes worth of voice memos that are all these whispered things….But it is one aspect of technology I am so grateful for. That is my greatest fear, forgetting something that I want to write.”

What she would do is return to her shoebox with these whispered fragments, song doodle them into fuller fruition, and sing these newly hatching songs to Dexter the dog. Soon she had the collection of songs that would become Lamplight, her second album, which was released in February of this year. Only when she heard the record did Costello realize it actually documented a very difficult time.

“I just wanted to be in New York so badly, that when people asked me if I was scared, if I was nervous, I felt no other emotion other than this psychotic happiness,” Costello recalled. “No other emotion presented itself. All of these songs were written in that time, and it was only after I emerged from that weird haze that I realized, ‘Wow, that was really weirdly difficult, being alone a lot, finishing school, figuring out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, and how to spend my time doing it.’ I didn’t recognize I was experiencing those things while I was living them. Lamplight, as a whole, is kind of proof that I did experience those things.”

Lamplight, Katie Costello’s newest album.

Lamplight is actually named for the light of the lamp under which she wrote, sang, and made songs. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the illumination, the warmth, glow, and occasional terror that comes when one explores the realms of one’s own imagination. The song “Old Owl” explores this territory.

“I wrote that song about an episode of the Twilight Zone,” Costello said. “I was sort of like, ‘Yeah, this about this person, this concept…’ But after I was done writing the song, I had this crazy moment: ‘Oh, this is about me. Goddamnit!’ Like oh my god, I am kind of scared to go outside because I am trying to do really good things and learn…I have a tendency to stay inside and read and do all these things to make myself a better person. But it doesn’t matter what you learn inside your own house if you never leave.

“I feel like, to me, the concept of a lamplight illuminates, figuratively and literally,” she added. “Sometimes there are these streams of thought that sort of light up the room you are in. For me, I was alone in my apartment, I had this lamp above my desk, and it was with me throughout everything. I guess the imagery of the lamplight was about those little moments of clarity, and also of extreme confusion.”

Costello fits things into her songs that few other songwriters do. If her songs are vessels, they are bursting at the rails with people, ideas, and stories. She is literary and lyrical and goofy and truly musically gorgeous. Hers is an artistry of a fairly large magnitude.

Take, for example, the story of the man who lived in a hole in the ground. In her travels in New York, Costello met a man who had once dug a hole near a forested seaside cliff in San Francisco. He’d wandered there disconsolate, after experiencing heartbreak. After sleeping in the bushes a few days, he decided to dig himself a hole. But it wasn’t your typical hole – he made hardwood floors and a roof made out of hundreds of small tree branches (which was held up by two larger intertwining branches he said were two ancient lovers reunited). He lived there for five years, working all the while in the financial district downtown. By dint of his own outsized imagination – or its limitlessness, more to the point – he made a home for himself.

Costello heard the story and transformed it into a joyful anthem called “Let’s Dig a Hole.” She didn’t tell the story; instead, she got at the marrow of its meaning: “Isn’t this house really a box?/Isn’t this life really a hole?/In this day to day feeling of static-fearful-thinking/Am I really alone?/So let’s dig a hole/Where we can build a home/Where the previous feeling of static-fearful-thinking/Can leave us all alone….”

Another song, “Cassette Tape,” is actually co-written by a fellow Mira Costa alum, Caitlin Raftery, an artist who moved to New York a year before Costello and who has illustrated both of her records. The song neatly fuses a sort of 1930s rollicking jazz age sensibility with the world of social networking and touches upon one of Costello’s persistent themes – our desire for human connection and the ungainly means in which it often expresses itself.

Along with Dexter the dog and Lincoln Woodrow the piano, Raftery helped keep Costello afloat during that lonely first year, listening to first drafts of songs and wandering city streets in search mischief and songs alongside her.

“I would be in a ditch if I hadn’t known Caitlin,” Costello said. “I mean, it’s really true – I still feel that way. She is absolutely my best friend. I have never met or known anybody like her. It’s great to know someone that crazy yet so functional. It’s a cliché, but I don’t know what I’d do without her. To have a counterpart who is so similar to you but so fantastically different is amazing. I am so grateful.”

Costello has become part the burgeoning musical community that orbits around Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan. She has found her own kind, something she presaged with the exuberant song “Out of Our Minds,” a duet with fellow Rockwood musical traveler Greg Holden that would be playing on every radio in America if we lived in a more sensible time. Alone in her shoebox, she sang her world into being:

“It’s a long shot to not think that we’re alone/But it’s not far off to know someone else is here and there and home/Let’s get out of our minds today/And take a little time to look at the stars and the moon above/Wishing someone like you/Was staring at them too…”

Katie Costello plays June 2 at the Planet Earth Eco Café in Hermosa Beach beginning at 6:30 p.m. and at Room 5 in Los Angeles June 3. For more info, see katiecostellomusic.com. ER

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