When Matt Sheehy discusses writing and recording music on the Oregon Coast, he gets a little embarrassed.
"It's hard to talk about without sounding super-cliché," says the Alaska-born musician, who fronts the Portland band Lost Lander, "but being by the ocean, you're on a threshold between one universe and another universe. It makes you think about bigger-picture things."
Sheehy knows the coast well. Working as a technician for Northwest Forestry Services, he spent extended periods in cities like Wheeler and Oceanside, where he wrote his first solo album, Tigerphobia. So when it came time to record the debut of his Lost Lander project, DRRT, in 2011, he and producer Brent Knopf headed to the beach. For an album whose analog-digital mix reflected themes about the collision of nature and technology, the setting just made sense. "I think the feeling you get when standing on the sand, with more sand behind you, it feels like you're at a doorway," Sheehy says. "In front of you is a place you can't go, and behind you is your world. It's that feeling of being big but small at the same time."
So yeah, it's a little heady. But plenty of independent Portland artists have felt a similar pull. Recent albums by Laura Gibson, Radiation City and Aan, among others, have all been recorded, in whole or in part, in tiny towns along the coast. It's not because there's a secret glut of cheap recording studios out there: Most work in rented cabins or beach homes, using portable equipment. Often, it's something less pragmatic, something that's difficult to pin down. What you might call "the vibe."
"A lot of creative, sensitive people are drawn to the restorative power of the ocean," says psychedelic-folk songwriter Jackson Boone, who made his latest album, Natural Changes, while staring out at the Pacific from the windows of his family's beach house. "One thing I love about the Oregon Coast is, it's broody and ancient-looking, with beautiful, temperate old-growth forests, a lot of dead logs and tall trees."
Clearly, there's not a lot of "Surfin' Safari" knockoffs coming out of this particular coastline. At his studio, the Sparkle, in Pacific City, composer Pete Broderick has produced albums for the likes of Corrina Repp, Loch Lomond and his sister, Heather Woods Broderick—as well as artists from Belgium, France and Ireland—many of which are imbued with a certain natural ghostliness. In several cases, the moody landscape has seeped into the recordings in the form of textural found sounds, from the gentle pulse of the sea, a babbling creek bed or a chorus of frogs.
But Broderick says the main draw of recording at the coast is a bit more obvious.
"I do think people love to get out of town to work on a project, to leave their normal hometown worries behind and go somewhere they can focus," he says. "And in a town like Pacific City, there simply aren't a million incredible coffee shops and microbreweries to distract yourself with, and no friends around either, so I think the environment really fosters a focused creativity."
Sheehy agrees. "The coast is this beautiful place to go to, not a cool, hip place to go to necessarily," he says. "It feels real, in a way."
Of course, there are some drawbacks to all that chill. If you're not careful, the vibe can consume you.
"We tracked [one song] way too slow, because it was too vibey," says Boone of a recent session back at his beach house, in which his band got caught up gazing into the inky blackness at the lights of ships dotting the horizon. "It actually took away from the song, because we were too entranced."