This article was originally published, with photography by Melanie Pullen and page layout by W.T. Nelson, in Arthur No. 10/May 2004…
Glitter and Gleam
The two sisters who are CocoRosie have made an astonishing, haunting debut album. Trinie Dalton finds out how they did it.
CocoRosie’s debut La Maison de Mon Rêve capitalizes on its sexy feminine allure to seduce the listener into a dream state, one that’s half bliss, half nightmare. CocoRosie’s two singers and sole band members, Bianca and Sierra Casady, could be compared to sirens if their wailing was deeper instead of high-pitched and tweaky like Billie Holiday’s on 45rpm. Listening to La Maison gives you an opiated sense of well-being; here are two beautiful young ladies singing sweet harmonies together, their lyrics about Skittles and diamond rings and other things being disturbed by an undertow of discontent. CocoRosie songs put old folk tunes into new perspective; take the sardonic lyrics that critique Christianity in their cover of “Jesus Loves Me”: “Jesus loves me/but not my wife/not my nigger friends/or their nigger lives/but Jesus loves me/that’s for sure/‘cause the Bible tells me so.” The last song on the album, “Lyla,” is about a child prostitute sold into slavery who “ate McDonalds all day/ and never had a chance to play.” Toys, penny whistles, Casios, and thrift store drum machines keep the beats: they’re reminders of sinister deeds. The magic of childhood is built up then trashed like a sandcastle.
The acts of reminiscing, relishing and examining childhood were a natural place to start for two sisters who hadn’t seen each other in years. Bianca was living in the U.S. while Sierra studied music in Paris. Once Bianca decided to move to France, they found their interests finally overlapping, as Bianca had just begun to write songs…
Q: Sierra studied gospel and opera. Did you study music too?
A: Not at all. I didn’t even start singing really until over a year ago. I used to read poetry out a lot but there was something unsatisfying about it. Then I wrote a small series of songs that weren’t very typical, they didn’t have choruses or anything, and I did a show where I sang them a capella. I felt really good singing. That was right before I went to Paris. I had never sung in front of an audience.
Q:Was it scary when you first started performing?
A: Yes, it was. It was scary but it was a wonderful high simultaneously. I got sort of addicted to it. It was way more intense. I think that my writing is more accessible through music, or more enjoyable. Sierra has been singing most of her life. She always sang. In junior high she was in a choir, she got really into choral music, had a special teacher who encouraged her. Immediately her teachers saw that she had an operatic soprano voice and pushed her into that. She just went for it. So she spent the last five years in music school. She did really well, got many accolades, won awards…she was told that she should go for it. But it takes 100%. Not just of your time, but you can’t want anything else. It’s a thing that’s so hard to succeed in, that you can’t even lie to yourself, you have to want it all, and she didn’t. It was creatively stifling. They didn’t encourage her to compose, or try other types of music. It’s as if that’s your only job in life.
CocoRosie isn’t a single-album anomaly, however. They’re both fond of being sisters in a band together. The song “Butterscotch,” harkens back to their childhood, but delves into much deeper territory. Bianca set me straight after I got over attempting to guess what toys they used in recording it.
Q: One of my favorite songs on the album is “Butterscotch.” I remember having this Fisher Price farmhouse when I was little, and when you opened the door it made this mooing sound that’s on the song…
A: Somebody else said the same thing to me!
Q: Did you use that on the song?
A: We didn’t. We bought all these toys in Paris, so they’re French versions of those American toys. You can hear, in “Madonna” and in “Terrible Angels,” the French take on the tiger and the elephant. They weren’t Fisher Price, but we were very conscious about it so the sounds could ring home to the American childhood of our era.
Q: The line “black widow and white wood” reminds me of making up spells with my girlfriends when I was little. That’s another great sound you have, a real girlie one. Do you think that sound happens because you’re sisters? How does sisterhood influence your music?
A: That song is so complex, with what conceptually is going on. It’s really specific but it’s not one thing. Definitely childhood and sisterhood have a huge influence on the record, but I think that we’re probably moving out of that. Sisterhood was the first place, the most intuitive place for us to connect, because we kind of grew apart and had different artistic experiences for the last ten years. So our first instinct was to reference our early times together. That song is so complicated, it’s dealing very much with childhood…the black widow and white wood…it’s not that important. I’m going to explain it to you but what’s more important is that each individual response is completely right. It’s not important to me that listeners understand where I was coming from, it’s more important how it came off and what imagination it sparks.
Q: Oh, I don’t mean to try to make you explain the songs, I was just bringing up things to see what your reactions are.
A: Definitely. In the dictionary I looked under “black and “white” and started making lists of what I associated with black and with white. Black widow was the last one on the black list and white wood was the last one on the white list, and they’re actually explorations about race for me. So they were automatic writing responses, about the white man and the black man. The references to “mailman” and “baseball player,” those were my first responses. Then I made lists of what my instant responses were as a child. The black character was someone to run from, this drug-dealing character. The rest of “Butterscotch” is about early taboos we learn regarding sexuality. How things feel good that are taboo.
Q: Isn’t the line “the darkness of a forest eerily returns” in that song? I love that line. It undermines all the cheerful girlie stuff. That totally comes through. The racial issues come through in the other songs too. It’s interesting that you were exploring why people trip out on race, black and white, while your sister was studying gospel singing…is that a place you two come together a lot?
A: Yes. For her, it’s more of a basic affinity for gospel. I use it as an opportunity for cultural commentary. How Christianity comes into play, how racial politics come into play within Christianity in America. The contradictions…like in “Jesus Loves Me.” So I think the predominant themes are girlhood, religion, and sexuality.
Q: Do you think you were coming at the religious skepticism from a more sarcastic point of view? There’s a cool contradiction there too. “Jesus Loves Me” is sung from a male point of view, but you have this high-pitched female voice. It seems sarcastic, making fun, but also not, because you’re respecting that tradition of music.
A: Yeah, there’s a fine line. I feel really sincere that the lyrics are ironic but they’re also representative of both sides as opposed to slandering one. Coming from the source of those things but then showing the flip side of them.
What’s really unique about CocoRosie’s approach to irony is that overall, they maintain a positive attitude. Their songs aren’t cheerful but thematically almost every song on the album is about love. Working with this subject matter distinguishes them from many bands (in the tradition of Joy Division) that are fatalistic-life sucks, the world is fucked, there’s nothing you can do about it so kill yourself. But as many new bands take up similar depressing concerns regarding political corruption, religious hypocrisy, racism and poverty, there seems to be a renewed sense afoot that love’s power can overcome hardship.
Q: If you do have this disillusionment about Christianity and racial issues in this country at least, it seems like ultimately the album is optimistic in the sense that these are romantic, lovely songs. It’s a question of beliefs. If things like this exist that are so ridiculous, the contradictions in Christianity and all that, then there’s still love that’s good in the world. Did you think that too or did you consciously make the album overall an optimistic thing?
A: I think it’s just who we are. Even though we’re conscious and aware of the things we’ve said, none of this was very intentional. Our attitude is generally positive but it’s also deconstructing society and culture. I think it’s important in art. Art’s more successful if you can still come across with beauty and with something positive while still shedding light on stuff, not ignoring things. So I’m pleased if that’s coming through. People can stomach it. Also, in our complimenting each other, Sierra has this way of making hooks and melodies that are really easy to handle, pretty, and simple. So combine that with my overtly political and ironic [approach]…that’s probably our strongest point.
Q: That definitely comes through. It’s hard not to think about that when you’re listening.
A: A lot of the songs too, are from the child’s perspective on sexuality and religion. Obviously, I’m writing the songs as an adult but that childhood attitude isn’t at all cynical or even judgmental. The music’s pretending to come from that naïve place. I tend to objectify myself and my childhood perspectives as a way of studying where I’m at. So that’s what’s happening, it’s that innocent voice.
Maybe this ability to tap into “that innocent voice,” a place devoid of cynicism, has to do with the fact that many of these musicians now in their early twenties were raised by hippies and idealists. Bianca said the Casady sisters grew up “sort of on the west coast, but moving a lot. Sierra was born in Iowa. I was born in Hawaii. My mother just likes to move, and our parents are separated. The time we spent with our father was spent strictly on the road. He drove us around the country. There was a lot of time camping and being lost in the wilderness. We lived all over California, New Mexico, Arizona…” When asked whether or not this made her detest natural settings, Bianca replied, “I became the city slicker. I fell in love with New York. I came here about five years ago. Sierra’s always been more of a nature girl. She really likes the ocean, loves to swim in it night and everything. I like the extremes-going into the middle of nowhere. But I think I got too much of it growing up, being in all the national parks…I’m just more interested in the dynamics of the city.”
CocoRosie’s music acknowledges nature as an inherent part of the romantic music tradition. “Good Friday,” for example, is an ode to nature in that it relies upon actual sounds in nature (birds chirp in the background), while the lyrics attest to nature’s hypnotic allure: “I once fell in love with you/Just because the sky turned from gray into blue.” But other songs obliterate nature’s grandeur by showing love developing as the world implodes on itself; in “West Side” they sing, “I’ll wait for you until the streets become sand/ and all the ceilings in New York have come down/ I’ll wait for you until the stars dominate the skies again.” Bianca thinks of this song as “almost apocalyptic.” These contrasts give listeners the hint that CocoRosie’s music is more than just a throwback to 60s psychedelia or folk.
Yet the connection between folk artists of the past and new musicians who can be seen as revivalists—artists like CocoRosie and Devendra Banhart—can be drawn because of their affinity for acoustic instrumentation, and also because of their interest in considering love as the most important force in the universe. Songs about love are the oldest kinds of songs!
Q: I was researching what people have said about your album so far, what the critics are saying, and you’re already being compared to Devendra. You’re being grouped together as this new positive force in music. Maybe that’s why people call it a sort of folk music, even though you use all different kinds of technology. There was this whole thing recently about how there could be no more good love songs, and I think you’re completely proving that wrong. Are you really into love songs, or who did you listen to when you were growing up? What about the Beatles?
A: It’s funny, I’ve been hearing comments about love songs and I thought “we don’t write love songs,” but when I listen to love songs, it’s usually the love songs that I love. Even though I thought I would hate writing love songs. I think it’s because we’re not writing love songs about our love. We’re not referencing our lovers, it’s more historical. Growing up, I wasn’t a huge music listener. I was never into the Beatles. But I love Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, some of his softer love songs. Sierra’s been much more into folk music, obscure ‘70s stuff. I’ve just recently been getting exposed to it. She’s a music connoisseur. I’ve been in my own world. I don’t listen to many new things. She’s been in love with Vashti Bunyan for years.
Q: What about earlier classic rock bands, pop songs?
A: I don’t think our music is very influenced by other music. There’s definitely a bluesy, old Billie Holiday sound, but I haven’t saturated myself in too much of it.
The idea that a musician isn’t necessarily influenced by other artists is one that Bianca stood behind in our discussion. That perspective in itself stems from an entire tradition of female musicians who argue that complete originality is viable. It’s one of the tenets of folk: an artist can develop their truest sound if exposure to other music is kept to a minimum. Think of Elizabeth Cotten, who worked as a housekeeper her whole life, or the bizarre version of pop The Shaggs came up with in their garage. Perhaps that notion is more female, though, rather than folk-based. Early European female punk bands like The Slits, Kleenex, Lilliput, Ut, who have been reinvented by women like Chicks on Speed and Peaches, delineated “female” sounds from “male” within their genre. Odd, irregular beats, screaming, bitchy vocals matched with coy purrs, and lots of harmonization differentiated their brand of punk from the speedy, driving sounds of their manly contemporaries. Folk, punk, or somewhere in between, the do-it-yourself approach to music making is another parallel between CocoRosie and generations of fiercely independent female musicians. This sense of individuality can be traced all the way down to the recording level: CocoRosie produced their album almost completely on their own and are adamant about retaining creative control over future projects.
“We did all of it on four tracks and we took our time, and found ourselves to be pretty good engineers,” said Bianca. “Sierra does most of the mixing, she has a knack for it. We mixed the songs over and over again until we had them right. She did ‘Lyla’; I actually left Paris after I’d written the song and sung it. When I left and she gave it another stab. She took the four track to one of the rooms at her school that had a piano in it, and it’s all natural reverb. It was so beautiful, so we kept it. So, there’s no loops, there’s nothing [done on a] computer. Even on ‘By Your Side,’ there are no loops, she just sang the part over and over again. She knew why she was doing it, she was trying to get that effect. There’s some kind of magic to not having math in the music.”
Q: Do you only have four tracks on each song or did you bounce tracks?
A: We didn’t bounce any. But you can use the fifth track when you’re mixing two tapes, so we did that. It’s funny, we never did any recording before but we were really good at it. We were sharing vocal tracks. We had to break the headphones apart so we could each have one. There was so much pressure when my parts came up because we just passed the mic without making mic grips! We were so careful, so we never peaked out or anything. We only had so many choices in mixing.
Q: Are you still working with that or are you going to record your next record in an official studio?
A: We’ve been playing around in a couple studios that have 16-track tape. It’s interesting to see the difference. But we’re definitely going to keep going with the four track.
Q: You can be in the space you’re most comfortable in, which is a big element.
A: We’ll just keep experimenting. We don’t have any ideas that we’re not willing to change.
Q: Do you have another album coming out or are you just working on songs?
A: The situation is pretty much that [Touch and Go] are into us and hopefully they’ll put out whatever we have. When we’re ready we’ll give it to them. If they’re not into it, we’ll give it to someone else. They’re really supportive at the label, even personally. It’s really cool, just like do what you want as the artist.
Q: Yeah, it’s so much better to go with a good, small label.
A: It’s just about working with whoever will let us do exactly what we want.