Caiti Baker wakes up

With her new album, Zinc, Darwin-based Caiti Baker genre-hops between a mix of soul, blues, RnB, jazz, and hip-hop. The singer-songerwriter lets us in on the origin story of her first solo record.  By Mia Abrahams

Four days was all it took to cure singer-songwriter Caiti Baker’s years-long battle with chronic fatigue. That’s how long it took for her to “wake up” after years of doctor’s visits, medication, and sleeping as life’s moments passed her by, Caiti tells me over the phone from Sydney, where she is on tour for her new album Zinc.

“Wait, back up,” I say. “Four days?”  I think I must have misheard her.

“Four days”. Caiti, like many Territorians, as she later explains to me, doesn’t waste time beating around the bush.

Zinc is a deeply personal record that traces a personal struggle with an undiagnosed illness, chronic fatigue symptoms, and bipolar disorder — it wasn’t until a chance meeting with a friend who figured out that there might be something else going on, that Caiti’s whole life changed, almost overnight.

Caiti has Pyroluria, a genetic blood disorder. The symptoms often mirror chronic fatigue syndrome and mood disorders like bipolar. People with Pyroluria also have a deficiency in zinc, which inspired the title of the album.

When Caiti looks back at photos of herself in her previous band, Sietta, the effects of her illness are clear: “we toured and we had a successful career, in our eyes, but I don’t remember being completely conscious, I don’t remember a lot of things — there’s photos of me asleep on the tour bus, asleep in the studio, I wasn’t there.” But, by changing her diet, undergoing nutrient therapy, and a mindfulness course, which was “the icing of the cake, getting me to a position where I am truly who I am and who I am meant to be all along,” Caiti was able to drastically improve her physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Of course, suddenly waking up after years can bring with it a new set of challenges, as Caiti explains. “I didn’t know who I was —I was coming online in the physical sense, and there was a journey through a bunch of new life experiences,” she says. “I had to learn about time management because suddenly there was so many more hours in the day that I was awake for.”

Luckily, for Caiti, music had been there for her as a constant, and she describes it as her therapy. “It’s something that I need to do —I love playing music; need to; want to; have to — figure into this. I’m going to it no matter what, if I’m unwell or well.”

Even though her songs are deeply personal — for example, lead single “I Won’t Sleep” tells the story of her battle with chronic fatigue — Caiti tells me that once she records the songs, she relinquishes the meaning behind them. “Once I’ve written what I’ve written, and it’s on the recording, in a way, then the meaning ceases to become relevant to me—it becomes subjective, people are going to experience and feel what I do in their own personal way,” she says.

The origin story of Caiti’s complex, deeply personal, new album doesn’t even start with her incredibly journey from illness to health; they start with a USB stick full of music from her previously-estranged blues musician father, to whom Caiti hadn’t spoken to for four years.

“Upon reuniting with him,” Caiti explains, “he gave me a USB of recordings he made into a shitty Nokia phone, of him playing guitar, noodling, coming up with ideas, talking to the cat, harmonica lines, crazy ideas. She gives the recordings to producer James Mangohig and a hip hop producer, “and he finds tasty samples and builds his signature production around those samples, and then gives them to me, that was kind of the beginning of the theme of this album in particular,” Caiti tells me.

Now, her relationship with her father is in a good place, Caiti tells me. “He loves the album, he’s proud of it, he’s a co-writer essentially, because his samples have dictated the sound of the songs,” she says. “I’m happy we have a relationship now… This album has been a big part of that.”

No stranger to the Aussie music scene, Caiti has toured with everyone from Hilltop Hoods to Dan Sultun during her career, but I was most excited to hear about the time she spent on tour with the late, great, Dr G Yununpingu.

Caiti assures me he’s about as wonderful as I would expect, describing him as a funny, cheeky and ”exceptionally amazing musician and singer”.

“I’m lucky to have known him as a human, and musician,” she says. .He just loves music, and loves playing,” she adds. “He would play practical jokes and have a good laugh and that’s a side to him when people watch his music they might not get.” But, Caiti reiterates, “He was also just a guy. A guy with a sense of humor who loves to play music.”

As a musician based in Darwin, I had to ask what influence the Territory has had on Caiti’s music, and on herself as a person. “It’s perpetual summer all the time, so people are no bullshit, it’s too hot to be anything but yourself. Territorians are straight up, you know what you’re getting. We just don’t want to waste time beating around the bush.”