Cara Jean Wahlers has spent the majority of her time in the Indianapolis music scene in the background.
She's played accordion for The Warner Gear, sung backup and played bass and accordion for Cliff Snyder. Now the elegantly understated chanteuse is striking out on her own with Goodnight Charlotte, a collection of vividly-constructed songs she recorded with cellist Grover Parido.
"The songs are very much autobiographical," Wahlers said over cold green tea in her living room one recent evening. "They come across as being really intimate. And they're not fantastic stories – not that fantastic that they couldn't happen to anyone."
Musical instruments are a big part of Wahlers' living space, which she shares with Anna, a Doberman mix she rescued from the Hamilton County Humane Society. A couple bass guitars, including an upright, stand guard on either side of an old piano in the front room. There's a banjo in the corner next to the couch.
"I like walking around my house playing guitar, and I make up words and all of a sudden there's a song," Wahlers said. "It's really free association."
Some come as easily as while she's driving home from work. Others, not so much. There's one Wahlers has worked on for five years now.
"And when I get it, it's going to be spectacular," she said, arms raised. "No it probably won't be because I'll overwork it. I like to shoot from the hip sometimes. When you write intuitively, things come out in a way you wouldn't expect."
Interlochen and The Beatles
Born in Akron, Wahlers moved to South Bend when she was 6. She attended high school in Muncie (and Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan) before coming to Indy to study at IUPUI's Herron School of Art & Design.
Wahlers is a fourth-generation musician, something that didn't actually occur to her until this year.
"It wasn't something that was this legacy when I was growing up," she said.
Her mom was a wizard on 12-string guitar, Wahlers started on the upright bass at age 7 and her brother took up percussion. Family jams in the living room weren't uncommon. Wahlers has fond memories of taking the train to Cleveland to see symphonies, operas and ballets.
Wahlers studied classical music, but she managed to sneak Beatles songs into her repertoire. She'd even ride her bike to the local Sam Goody to buy sheet music of the day's popular hits to arrange for a string quartet she started.
Torment from peers wasn't uncommon. Then again, all her friends played music, so it never seemed unusual.
"For some reason I didn't quit, and I have no idea why," Wahlers said. "That would've seemed like the path of least resistance. I guess I just got really good at it and decided that's what I'll do."
She wrote silly songs as a kid, but it wasn't until about five years ago that Wahlers was able to finish a composition without making a joke out of it. That was a difficult time in her musical evolution.
"She was frustrated in what she was doing musically," said Greg Ziesemer, a longtime Indianapolis musician and friend of Wahlers. "She had hit a wall. She was working on original material and trying to develop herself as a songwriter. We talked about being true to yourself and to not deny what you're feeling."
Wahlers tapped into that, relying on memories to craft nakedly confessional lyrics about the human spirit and its metamorphosis.
"It's like this big rubber-band ball that keeps getting bigger and bigger so the shape changes and it might be a little different," she said of her words.
Such exposure doesn't come without a hitch, and Wahlers fears giving too much away. Wahlers cites the chorus to her song "Marks on the Earth" (follow link to full stream; "I'm tired of trying to prove that I'm beautiful / Burning for you / I'm tired of trying to prove that I'm good enough / Broken hearts can burn, too"). That actually came to Wahlers while at the State Fair, when she felt a little sad. In song it comes across as more epic than it really is.
"Why did I feel the need to say that, then record it and put it on an album?" she said. "That sometimes bothers me. On the other hand, I think it's a really relatable song. A lot of times when we perform it, people really respond."
By we, she means Parido. When Wahlers set about to record her first collection of songs, she felt something was missing.
"I knew I didn't want to just do it by myself, but I also didn't want the typical rock band feel," she said.
Then Wahlers saw Parido play cello with Blueprint Music at the Indianapolis Art Center's Riverfront Amphitheatre.
"I was just really moved by him," she said. "He's a very expressive cellist. He's not someone who just plucks out a bassline. He has a wonderful tone and sensibility."
Wahlers eventually worked up the nerve to ask a mutual friend to introduce them. She asked Parido to play cello on her record and he accepted.
"It's funny because a lot of musicians I play with start out as friends," Wahlers said. "With Grover we started as collaborators and a friendship blossomed out of that."
"I think we've got a really interesting combination," Parido said. "Audiences really seem to respond to it. Cara's lyrics are very theatrical and visual. That lends itself to the style of cello I play. I'm able to underscore a lot of these images she's presenting."
Charlotte in Paradise
Goodnight Charlotte isn't even officially out yet and it's already garnering attention. Andie Redwine, a Bloomington-based writer, recently completed filming a screenplay she wrote called Paradise Recovered, about a young woman's journey and recovery from a fundamentalist Christian sect. Redwine and Wahlers went to high school together but had lost touch.
Redwine specifically wanted cello music her the film. After finding Wahlers on Facebook, she checked out her website and immediately asked to use Goodnight Charlotte as the film's score. Wahlers agreed, figuring it was a short. To her delight, "Paradise Recovered" turned out to be feature-length.
"And it didn't look like she made it with a camcorder either," Wahlers said of Redwine's film. "But it didn't surprise me because she's very sharp."
Aside from Goodnight Charlotte, Wahlers has another iron in the fire. Last year she got a gig playing the Pioneer Village at the State Fair. She was invited back, and asked a couple female musician friends to play with her. This effort has now ballooned to include seven women.
They're calling themselves Alice Chalmers (a play on the antique tractor brand) and the Stick a Cork in Your Jug Band. Fellow bass aficionado Dean Metcalf helped with the name. They perform 10 a.m. to noon Aug. 10 at the fair. Wahlers plays everything from banjo and auto harp to the washboard.
"With string instruments, once you understand the concept of an interval, it's not too terribly hard to pick something else up," she said.
It's more gratification for someone who has emerged from the shadows to forge her own musical path. And despite the many complaints she's heard over the years — there's nowhere to play, there's not enough musicians — Wahlers has found a receptive and supportive network here.
"There's a ton of different venues," she said. "There have been some that have closed, some showcases that have disappeared. But there's house concerts, coffee houses, bluegrass picking circles in someone's backyard. There's a strong community here. We're fortunate to be part of it."