Interview with CocoRosie
By Renae Mason
The verdict isn’t quite out on CocoRosie. Mythology surrounds them like a modern-day mystery tour that begins with two sisters making music in a Parisian bathtub. Backtracking a bit, the tale expands to elaborate on their childhood as daughters of spiritualist, teacher and shaman Timothy Casady. The two went their separate ways and reportedly didn’t get along as kids. Bianca studied sociology and linguistics in Brooklyn while Sierra absconded to study opera in Paris. In a chance reunion, CocoRosie was born. Initially they made music as a private affair, more an internal compulsion to capture the energy between them, a shared sonic diary. These recordings were never intended for release, that is until Touch and Go Records pursued them and it became their debut album, La maison de mon rÃªve.
Quickly heralded as the media’s reluctant darlings, critics and fans alike fell in love with their self-contained universe. It wasn’t long before their follow up album Noah’s Ark hit the stores, complete with much acclaim. Yet the praise, previously spread thick seems to have shifted with the release of their latest offering, The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn. Where their concept art music was once described as intriguing and otherworldly, now it’s common to hear the terms ‘pretentious’, ‘vague’ and even ‘annoying’ bandied about. Yet the CocoRosie attitude precludes this from being of any great concern and bad reviews mean next to nothing in real terms. Sierra explains: “People found a really strong connection between the first and second album. I guess we don’t pay attention to what journalists and the media says, our circle of friends is quite small.” I wonder if the current album been produced with more of an audience or fan base in mind? “No. We definitely write the music for ourselves and we hope to always be changing. We found in each in other a real kinship and we have agreed on every artistic phase so far. It’s also important for us to honour our own needs for personal identity and growth.” It’s a methodology that’s working, as Sierra fiercely denies any hint of sibling rivalry: “We act very much as friends, sometimes like a married couple even!”
Most have trouble trying to pin down the essence of what CocoRosie is about, finding that they repeatedly defy attempts at categorisation. With a diverse mix of skills and experiences to bring to the project Sierra agrees that it’s more an approach to music making that defines their output rather than a particular sound. “Yes… sometimes we think of our music as being visual, or instructions to a story, or a treasure hunt, or even sometimes as cinema for the blind.” This makes a great deal of sense, considering that neither sister ever imagined releasing music in the commercial sphere and Bianca possesses not a whisper of formal musical training. “Bianca is a writer and a painter, she’s been involved in photography and film, but in the past three years she’s been really into the project and has channelled her creativity for those things through the music.” The press release captures this point in a whimsical manner.
Sierra comes from the classical world: control, mastery, dominance. “The classical world has its own bulimia, ballet, torturous feet and leg bending contraptions â€” classicalism is like contortionism. It’s a cruel circus, like hunting unicorns or killing My Little Pony. Bianca, on the other hand, she’ more of a lazy-toed lobster, somewhat of a psychological pistol. Much in the same way as Bianca, ‘Stillborn’ is definitely the littlest champion. She’ always ruminating on blurry words and they, in turn, are always mutating, changing, transforming.”
If you feel a bit lost by all this talk then never fear, CocoRosie isn’t about making sense of things at the best of times. Their storytelling is defeated by a realist glare, and those inclined to search for deeper layers would probably just come back scattered and lost. After all, there is no sense in dissecting a psychedelic dream, a stained glass reverie, into its component parts and expecting it to stand up to the logic of the waking world. Their music begs an acceptance of mystique and allusion that allows for suspension of disbelief. Yet The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn is a struggle. There’s an uneasiness in the balance of artful leanings and documentary colours that tips the album uncomfortably toward the nonsensical. The girls state: “It just suited us to present these stories in a more upfront way that’s not quite as ethereal and abstract. The stories are quite personal, but also straightforward.”
Most of the songwriting was conducted in a creaky old barn in Southern France, a resplendent site of palimpsest. It was there that the aliases ‘Ghosthorse’ and ‘Stillborn’ were conceived. “Like a lot of things in our life we try to follow signs and voices and it was a place that had been calling to us for a while. We found a tranquil and focused environment to work in that was very isolating. There was a small graveyard disconnected from the farmyard, and in one of the earlier stages of the project we collected field recordings around there. There was a list of when the children were born on the gravestones and we noticed that one of the dates for birth and death were the same. So we began with ‘Stillborn’. Through our relationship to that character we felt we needed to develop some of the legend that was never able to be lived out… to express her stories throughout the songs, she floats throughout the record almost like a narrator.” ‘Ghosthorse’, while no less significant to the tale was simply an animal friend they made on the farm.
The album begins with, ‘Rainbow Warriors’ a song boasting a video with all the production values of an expensive R&B clip yet the imagery blends something more akin to Hong Kong ghost fatale, geisha and drag king in a blur of acid. Sierra explains: “It’s based on personal experiences and the Native American idea of the rainbow trail, but our own interpretation of that. An ode to inner strength and spirituality.” At this point in the interview I find myself flailing in the New Age and seek for something a little more concrete, so I switch to the topic of Valgeir Sigurdsson, the well-respected Icelandic sound engineer who has mixed albums for the likes of Bonnie Prince Billy, Bjork and Mum. “We met him traveling through Iceland. In the early stages of the album we realised it would be a good idea to mix everything in a contrasting environment. We found it as being the opposite world to the farm. Working in his studio was beautiful, much like a spaceship, very sterileâ€”a lot of white, a lot of silver and dreamy, in that way.”
Now I’m watching the clock and realising there’s only a few moments left, I chip in with some extra things that have been on my mind. One is about Sierra’s obvious musical talent that could possibly be somewhat restricted in the CocoRosie world. She’s a multi-instrumentalist, known to play the harp, piano, guitar and violin in the space of one live show. She can also produce an incredible range of diverse sounds with her vocal chords including classical operatic, folk and rap. Plus she’s an entertaining dancer and can do handstands on stage. There’s not much she can’t do. But does she miss the original dream of the classical music world? “No I don’t miss it. I find a way to channel that, what I think of as, Gothic romance in our songs, and in our work. Maybe a little more and more, I think.”
To sum it all up, perhaps the goal driving CocoRosie is the same as the motivations behind Bianca’s side project VoodooEROS: “A big house for underground artists.” Sierra describes the aim of the Brooklyn-based collective as, “to recognise what may not be so recognised by others,” suggesting that, despite their dismissive air about the existence of a broader public for their work, they still value the power in drawing attention to the things in their realm that matter to them.
The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn is available from Inertia.