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An Ocean Between: Erin Cole-Baker's new record investigates life as an American New Zealander 

Erin Cole-Baker addresses her struggles as an American New Zealander in her new album, Big Sky.

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Plenty of musicians struggle with identity and write songs about how they're trying to find themselves. Some do this well and other times it seems contrived, but on Erin Cole-Baker's new album, Big Sky, we find an artist addressing a fundamental question she's dealt with for most of her life.

"Big Sky is about the struggle between having two homes and how to deal with that as a musician and a person," says the 29-year-old songwriter, sipping a warm drink at the same Backporch Coffee Roasters where a few weeks earlier she shot the video for the album's first single.

Cole-Baker uses her well-crafted 11-song album, her fourth such creation as a solo artist, to investigate what it means to have been a young American growing up in New Zealand, and then a New Zealander trying to make it in the United States. Cole-Baker was actually born in Santa Barbara, Calif., but moved with her family to New Zealand as a child and immediately found herself an outcast of sorts.

"When I moved to New Zealand, I had an American accent and I didn't fit in," says Cole-Baker, "Everyone knew I was the American girl."

She spent her school years playing piano in jazz ensembles, oftentimes alongside her brother, Nathan Torvik, whose excellent string instrumentation can be heard through much of the Americana-infused folk pop on Big Sky, marking the first true recording collaboration between the two siblings, who, despite living on different continents, work quite well together, at least from what we can hear on the album. It was during these years playing jazz that Cole-Baker met her husband, Bruce, who has become a mainstay in the local cycling community here in Bend. After the two were married in New Zealand, they decided to head to the U.S. where Cole-Baker figured she'd give a try at expanding the songs she had been writing into a full-fledged musical career.

"When we were moving to the states, I said, 'I'm going to go there and play music. It's the land of opportunity,'" she says with a laugh, now acknowledging the naivete that was fueling her at the time.

The Cole-Bakers toured around the States for a bit before heading to Sisters for the 2005 Sisters Folk Festival, not for Erin to perform, but merely to take in some music as fans. They didn't know much about the area, but loved what they saw (and heard) at the festival and rather than packing up and heading back across the Pacific, the couple decided to stick around Oregon for a bit. Now, more than five years later, they're still in Bend, where the soft spoken Erin ("I try to be more outgoing but it's not my style," she says) has long been one of the most well-known singer-songwriters in the area, both with her work alongside Erin Zurflu as The Erins, in addition to her solo albums.

Her longtime friendship and artistic collaboration with Zurflu was another challenge for Cole-Baker this year after her friend was diagnosed with cancer. But Cole-Baker and others wasted little time in organizing a wildly successful benefit show that brought in a substantial amount of money to assist Zurflu, who was attending medical school at Georgetown University before returning to her native Bend after being diagnosed.

Now, with her new album out and plans to play live throughout the summer, Cole-Baker is looking at the next phase of her life, and consequently, her musical career. She wants to make more of an impression in New Zealand, where she's performed previously, and has at times contemplated returning to. She's not sure exactly where she'll end up. As can be heard on the album, she's clearly torn about her new home vs. her former home, which makes for great music, but also some internal conflict. While there might be some uncertainty ahead, Cole-Baker is sure of one thing - music.

"I really love playing music and I hope to do be doing it for the rest of my life," she says.


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