On a recent day at Boyle Heights' Theodore Roosevelt High School, English teacher Cassandra McGrath found herself stuck on lockdown in a classroom with her 26 Senior students. Another bomb threat had been called in. It was a familiar moment for McGrath. Back in the fall, the entirety of the L.A. Unified School District had been shut down due to what seemed to be a credible terror threat. And it was then that McGrath made headlines. Despite the school being closed, McGrath asked her class to complete an essay assignment from home, causing some of her students to lash out on Twitter and call her decision, "savage." Then her story went viral. "No one is going to deny your right to get an education," McGrath told TIME magazine, about why she kept the assignment for her students. "I don't want some terrible person to deny you that. It's your right. No one is going to silence your ability to write an essay for me."
On this second go-round, just a few months later, McGrath and her students were instructed not to leave the classroom for any reason. "No one could leave," McGrath says, "everyone was freaking out." One student had a beat-up guitar so her class made a request. "[They] were like, 'Please play us a song! Play us a song,'" McGrath remembers, "so I was like, 'Honestly, I don't know what else to do with you right now. So, I'll play a song.'"
The reluctant, impromptu concert wasn't her first time in front of an audience and the students' request wasn't unfounded. Outside the classroom, McGrath is an accomplished singer/songwriter with a thriving music career.
As a musician, McGrath goes by the name Cassandra Violet and has been writing and recording music for several years, gaining attention for her Laurel Canyon-inspired folk-meets-pop along the way. For her live shows, she sometimes performs solo, looping her vocals and a Capella beats, like on the song "Nobody's Mother," where she creates a wall of sound all on her own. Onstage, she summons various personas: performance artist, pop star, folk hero. She's a peripatetic creative, developing imaginative music videos and sometimes performing with the band Air Life too. Despite her visibility as an emerging talent, she still hasn't gone out of her way to introduce her music to her students, opting instead to keep the two sides of her life as neatly separated as possible.
"The thing is that my songs are really personal," McGrath says. "I'm embarrassed to play [them] in front of my mom. It's a lot about relationships and self-doubt." But, given the few keystrokes it takes to unearth treasure troves of information on nearly anyone these days, some of her students have learned about her moonlighting. "The kids who know are like, 'Whoa, that's cool!' or 'I bought your EP!" which is super cute," she says. And few students know that their own stories often make it into McGrath's songs too.
McGrath might find the tidy separation of the two halves of her life even trickier after January's release of her second, self-produced EP "Body & Mind," which could be her breakthrough album. She debuts her new songs at her record release show Saturday, February 13 at the Lost Room. The meditative and soulful collection of folksy pop with a full band goes down silky smooth and the lead single, "Lady," has already started making waves thanks to her highly-produced music video, which features a woman breaking free of a cult. It's like watching an immersive, full-length movie packed into just over three minutes. The theme of freedom and self-discovery appears again and again in the songs, which McGrath sees as directly connected to where she was when she began writing. "[I was] at the end of a relationship where I was not super happy and I was frustrated," she says. "I felt like the only way I could have power and assert myself was to do it through songs... that was a surefire way I would get listened to."
The native Angeleno grew up in Venice and she's bilingual, which has led to teaching jobs everywhere from South Central to Downtown L.A. She sees the city and her relationship to it as another inspiration for her newest batch of music. Instead of recording in a studio, as she did for her first EP, McGrath wanted to be free to experiment at a variety of locations. She enlisted a band, and ended up recording in a wild array of spaces, including a closet in Marina Del Rey, a bedroom in Echo Park, and a dentist's office in Orange County. Her co-producer, Derek Howa, had access to the office because it shares space with where he teaches piano, but it meant recording late at night in a florescent-lit space normally reserved for nervous patients waiting to get fillings. "It was 11 o'clock on a Thursday night in August and we recorded drums for three hours in there," McGrath says. "[We were] moving fake plants around and setting up a drum kit. Very strange. But, actually, it sounded pretty good!"
This pastiche of locations as well as McGrath's own multi-hyphenate existence all come together to create a unifying vision for the singer-songwriter, "I think it's a very L.A. record to me," she says. "L.A. is all about piecing together different places and I feel like the whole record is this statement about these different elements of me and also different elements of L.A."
Back in the classroom on lockdown, McGrath surveyed her students after finally caving and playing a few of her songs for them. The response? "They were like, 'OK, cool.' They were kind of confused I think," she says with a hearty laugh.
The balance between teaching and music is a challenge for McGrath. If her music career begins pulling her away from teaching and demanding her on the road during the school year, McGrath says she has a difficult decision to make. It's hard to leave her students behind. "It's definitely hard to just say, 'Alright, bye!' I can't do that," she says. "I have to do a good job. Everyday. If I don't do a good job, it's 26 kids who are like 'What the hell?'" Then she pauses and adds, "And I really enjoy doing a good job."