A few years ago, Caeleigh Featherstone moved to the city's South Side, landing near a community garden tended to by a retired gentleman.
The spot has become a favorite for the musician and recording engineer, who frequents the garden on walks with her dog, sometimes picking and eating wild raspberries – an act that transported her back in time, first to her childhood in Apple Creek, a small village in Northeast Ohio, and then to the year she spent living in the mountains of California at age 18.
“We lived on a couple of acres, and there was a creek at the end of the property that had all of these blackberry bushes, and I have fond memories of eating blackberries as a kid,” Featherstone said. “And then later, when I graduated high school … I did a season of wildland firefighting. … I was living in the woods in California, and it was very lonely, which was a feeling I had a lot as a kid.”
Cut off from grocery stores and generally ill-equipped for life on her own – “I was just so new in the world,” Featherstone said – the musician barely sustained herself on eggs gifted by a neighbor and the blackberries she picked from the bushes that grew wild in the surrounding woods.
“And it just got me thinking about how random a lot of things in my life are, but how there’s this thread of niceness, like eating those blackberries,” Featherstone said. “And I’ve been exploring that theme in songs. … There’s this thread that goes back to childhood: How do you nourish yourself? How do you take care of yourself?”
In mid-June, Featherstone, who records and performs under the name Mukiss, released the first of these songs, “In Your Room,” a warmly sentimental, enveloping track in which the musician trawls the creek for crawdads and tries to slip by unnoticed in her older siblings’ bedrooms. “I know, I know,” she sings on the chorus. “I’ve been in your room.”
“I was messing around on the keyboard … and that chorus line came up and it just made me laugh,” Featherstone said. “It fit so well, and it conjured these memories of being in Apple Creek and being kicked out of my siblings’ rooms. The whole story of that song feels like this lonely, bratty kid being like, ‘I’m in your room.’”
In revisiting childhood, Featherstone also connected again with her first instrument, the violin, which she initially picked up at the behest of her mother, one in a line of family violinists running back generations. Featherstone said her mother used to teach violin lessons out of the home, and one of the musician's earliest memories involves listening to her mother play the violin alongside a neighboring harpist. To this day, the sound of the violin still hits Featherstone “like a knife in the heart,” she said, though she’s struggled to regain the skills she had as a child.
“There’s a way I interact with the violin, where it looks like I know what I’m doing,” Featherstone said. “I have the position down perfect, because it’s just core body memory, but playing is still super hard. … Something that would take someone who is good on the instrument like half an hour to record probably took me like four hours.”
These more retrospective Mukiss songs began to arrive early in the pandemic, Featherstone benefiting from having the time and space to focus on creation – something that previously felt like more of a luxury.
“I grew up pretty poor and I have a lot of anxieties around money, as a lot of people do,” she said. “And so, I'd never stopped, and I’d never given my art the time of day, because that would require not doing other things that felt more life or death to me. So, while other people were having these terrible experiences in lockdown, I feel like I finally experienced freedom. … I would wake up every day, have coffee and start working on music. And it felt so nourishing, like, wow, this is what it’s like when you have the space to be introspective and creative. And that became a catalyst to get out of the service industry.”
Amid the pandemic, Featherstone enrolled at the Recording Academy in Coshocton, Ohio, where she studied audio production, and in December 2022, she landed a job as an audio engineer at Secret Studio, where she currently works alongside fellow producers Lydia Loveless and Keith Hanlon. In addition to recording Mukiss tracks, Featherstone is also engineering a new album for Rachael Scott, whose songs exist in a strange sort of sonic embrace with her recent childhood-focused output, centering the idea of motherhood.
Featherstone said she’d long had an interest in audio engineering but resisted pursuing it as a career for a number of reasons, including a belief that she couldn’t make a living in the field and the reality that she didn’t see herself represented in what remains a male-dominated industry. “And that made me feel very unwelcome in that space,” she said – a feeling that runs in deep contrast with the open-armed, communal vibes Featherstone has experienced since landing at Secret Studio.
The Franklinton studio has also given her license to experiment, with Featherstone adopting Mukiss recordings both as a way to become acclimated to the new equipment and as a sonic playground for trying new techniques. It's a process that require the musician to reconcile two seemingly disparate parts of her brain: the organized half that directs recording sessions from the control room, and the comparatively messy half that embraces the creative process like a kid with finger paints.
“I will double back on something I did in a creative moment, and my logical brain will be like, ‘This is fucking stupid. Now I have to spend all this time undoing this,’” Featherstone said. “It’s like there are two people in the room sometimes.”