Mukiss puts on a 'Happy Face' on debut EP

Joel Oliphint
Caeleigh Featherstone/Mukiss

After touring Europe as a member of Saintseneca, Caeleigh Featherstone spent a week by herself in Italy, and the time alone turned into a personal journey that began with a groggy train ride from Paris to Milan. As she traveled through the Swiss Alps, the beauty of her surroundings kept her eyes glued to the windows.

“I couldn't sleep because it was so gorgeous. I was taking notes in my sketchbook of all these colors that I wanted to make a painting about when I got back. And then when I got back, I was more inspired to be writing music,” said Featherstone, who turned those notes into verses for similarly lovely song “Switzerland," the first single from Happy Face, the debut EP from solo project Mukiss. “That whole song has always felt to me like a giant poem that was intended to be a painting, but accidentally ended up as a song. It feels otherworldly to me, like it doesn't have a place, but it's so special to me for that reason." 

While Featherstone now embraces the symbiotic relationship between her visual art and her music, it hasn’t always been that way. Growing up in Delaware, Ohio, she learned to play violin from her mom (who also added violin parts to “Switzerland”), and in high school she got into musical theater and choral ensemble before infiltrating a Nirvana cover band that later turned into WV White.

After leaving WV White, Featherstone played in local psych-rock act the Sweet S, then quit music cold turkey. “I was super affected by the male-dominated presence in the music scene. I just felt like my opinions and voice didn't matter. I think I manifested it as stage fright, but that was the deeper issue,” she said. “So I focused on visual art because it was something that mattered less to me, almost, as something I could focus on that was artistic but it wouldn't affect me if someone had a negative opinion.”

Around 2017, after focusing solely on visual art for a time, Saintseneca offered Featherstone the opportunity to join the band on tour. “I went from not playing music for two years to this six-week tour with Saintseneca,” she said. “It was really intense, but it reignited this feeling that it's really important for me to be playing music. So I jumped back in the deep end.”

After attempting a solo project in fits and starts, Featherstone began performing as Mukiss about two years ago, inspired in part by her friendship with Mery Steel’s Ryan Stolte-Sawa, who had gone through similar experiences navigating the male-dominated music scene. “I felt very empowered by her friendship,” Featherstone said. “I have to [wonder], if friends like Ryan or other women were more visible in the scene when I was younger, if I would have quit doing music. That's why it feels important to be putting something out now. I want to be a voice and a message for, ‘This matters. Make your art. Put it out. It's important.’”

After playing a show with Mery Steel, Featherstone reconnected with engineer/producer Glenn Davis, who previously worked with her on standalone single “Bruise Blue,” and in December, they began working in earnest onHappy Face, which releases this week. (In lieu of a standard release show, Featherstone islivestreaming a performance through Baby TVat 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, with Zac Little and Smidley; proceeds will go to the Black Lives Matter Movement.)

“I was trying to find what sound I wanted to make, and it really was just me simplifying everything — just songs I'm coming up with in my head and a guitar, and that's it. Not making it complicated. Not making it scary,” she said. “I had spent so much time not performing because I was focusing on complicating it. I was focusing on making sure that everything was presented perfectly.”

I’m so much older now and a bit more secure of myself,” Featherstone sings on opening track “Body Lines,” and that confidence shows throughout — not becauseHappy Face is showy or bombastic. Rather, it’s the warm, comfortable way that Featherstone inhabits a Mukiss song, effortlessly weaving together the sweet and the sour.

While the EP’s title paired with Featherstone's un-smiling face on the cover mirrors the emotional dichotomy present in most Mukiss songs, it’s also a tribute to Featherstone’s friend Daniel Sebastian Loper, a local artist who died by suicide a few years ago. “He was a really welcoming, warm person. He just created community around him, and he had a project when he was in high school called Operation Happy Face that was based around the idea that nobody has to be alone. You have this community you can go to if you feel like you're alone,” Featherstone said. “I got permission from his mom and asked if I could name this EP that because, honestly, his presence in my life when I wasn't making music was a big reason why I started making it.”