Heartache City, Bianca and Sierra Casady’s sixth album as CocoRosie, intentionally upends the sonic trajectory the band appeared to be following.
On 2010’s Grey Oceans and 2013’s Tales of a GrassWidow production grew increasingly layered and prismatic. But, as Bianca Casady explains, their recent compositional approach resembles methods used on their 2004 debut, La maison de mon rêve. On that record the sisters worked with minimal effects and in maximum seclusion.
Heartache City isn’t completely stripped bare, but it is a case of stylistic ideas coming full circle, or maybe full spiral. An example of stepping back as a way to advance. On La maison and the two albums that followed, CocoRosie’s auditory and semiotic mashups confused and upset people. Time has softened some of the criticism. Or, more likely, the Casadys have held a singular worldview long enough earn respect from those who first viewed the project as a trifle.
In a calmly unfolding voice, quite different than her house of mirrors vocal style, Bianca shared thoughts on the new album and the band’s conflicted reputation.
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Is it at all strange to do a CocoRosie interview with just yourself?
Not really. I’ve actually been doing it all these years. My sister’s not that talkative, actually. So I’ve kind of gotten used to representing the two of us. We sit through interviews side-by-side and I do most of the talking a lot of the time.
I’ve been listening to the new album and I find this one to be a lot more delicate, a lot more fragile and stripped down. Why did you take this approach for this release?
It was a challenge to break what had become an addiction to this hyper-technological, freaked-out approach to music making. We had a lot of fun and developed a lot as producers, but we felt quite addicted in a way and I think that’s what prompted us to create the certain limitations around this record and just see what would happen. And it was kind of hard at first but then once we got the hang of it we stuck to very specific rules like no looping, no synthesizers, no layering, and very minimal effects. It was a kind of creative exercises to bring ourselves back to something essential, not really knowing or having an expectation of the result. That’s how we ended up with this kind of sound.
You compare the technology to an addiction. I guess it probably was challenging to step back from that. How long did that take?
It actually didn’t take very long once we got into it. I think that the idea took a long time. Like, we’d been saying we were going to do it for a while and it just wasn’t happening. We think back to our first record often, the way that it just happened. Sharing vocal tracks. One broken headphone. One vocal mic. No effects. And somehow it had its own sound. And it seemed impossible to go back in a way. But once we actually got together and started making the record, it was like a day or something and we were suddenly in a new rhythm. But I guess it was the leading up to it that took a long time.
In terms of location, I understand the album was written in France and the actual recording took place in Argentina. How do you think location influences how the record turned out?
We maintain a pretty tight bubble when we work. Argentina was more about the engineer that we were working with who we worked with on two previous albums. His name is Nicolas Kalwill. We went there for him. We had been in big studios with him and he just built his own studio which is really small and quite simple but somehow he just has what we need to tie it together and make it all work together. So we went there for him, although we kind of really fell in love with Argentina during that trip and ended up extending out trip and playing concerts and shooting a music video and making a lot of friends and plans to go back. So maybe the spirit of a place somehow gets in there but the aesthetics and the poetry and references, they’re not really connected to that particular landscape. There’s one exception, but it’s kind of by chance, it’s the song “Un Beso”, with the kind of Cumbia rhythm that coming out of an old organ, but we weren’t even in Argentina.
The name of the album references location as well. Metaphorically, where is Heartache City?
I feel like geographically, in the American West, Southwest maybe. Somewhere where people are just passing thorough and have nothing to lose. And there’s a kind of starting over feeling, like a cheap motel and a desert highway or something. And sometimes, often with titles, it takes time for us to unwind their meaning and know what they’re about, they’re kind of ahead of us in a way and they’re usually not used in a literal sense.
What other influences were coming into this record, either musical or anything?
There’s something really honest and pure working just the two of us and not really involving other musicians. We did our most essential creative process by being isolated and simplistic in our tools. I feel like our own musicality, our true musical personalities really came out the most. Opposed to two albums ago for instance, Grey Oceans, we worked a lot with this incredible pianist. The music got much more complex. He did a lot of synths. It became very layered and plush. This is just the two of us in a simple space and I started exploring a lot more complicated rhythms in how I dealt with the text. I feel like Sierra’s sense of music is very reminiscent of our first record. Somehow this is more of what we really sound like. We just took everything away you know?
This is your sixth album. You guys have been a band for over ten years. Going back to that first album, did you have any idea that this project would be still ongoing?
Definitely not. All along the way it was always a surprise. We had no idea about it being a record, about being a band. Anything. It’s totally surprising. We have been so involved in each other’s lives all these years it’s kind of astonishing and it’s given us so much. It keeps opening up really. We’ve been working a lot in theater and getting into composing for small orchestras. It just kind of keeps opening up at every turn. It’s all been really shocking every step of the way.
Your band has been polarizing to an extreme degree. I feel that a lot of reviewers and critics have been very tough. Down to your album covers even. How much attention or energy do you give that and also what do you think is the biggest misconception about CocoRosie?
That’s a good question. I think we kind of accepted a long time ago the sort of ridicule, the polarity we inspired in people. A kind of love or hate thing. I feel like we’re kind of fetishized and infantilized for being females and being sisters. And also, being considered weird, I always found that to be a kind of inadequate way of describing art.
I feel like that’s the quickest way to shut down anything. Is just to say it’s weird.
I feel like it’s supposed to be weird. I don’t know. Or at least different. I mean we’ve been called racist a lot. Race for me, and racism, is a big subject. It’s a big color and theme in our work and it doesn’t surprise me that someone would notice but overlook the fact that we are consciously opening up this kind of taboo dialogue. To overlook that we’re engaging with the subject in a kind of self-reflective and deconstructionist way; that’s one of the bigger misunderstandings, to just simplify it, to view our lyrics or our visual expression at face value or a sort of one degree thing.
Often your songs take the perspective of a marginalized person. Why is that an approach for you?
On a personal note, I think not having had certain rights as children, like we didn’t really have the space to be children in a sense. I think it comes a lot from personal experience of not being considered in a certain way as children. I think children are the most voiceless of all. It’s something I can’t easily answer though. We definitely explore a lot, expressing from a child’s point of view also because a child sees what’s going on around them but doesn’t really judge, and tends to reflect back certain ugliness and then they also don’t have shame necessarily, or certain social restrictions on the way that they talk. I think maybe we find a creative freedom in using that voice.
Speaking of the freedom to express in a way that children often will, in your band there’s a sense of make believe, a lot of play and definitely an exploration of different personae. How does the practice of assuming different a persona help the creative process?
If I can speak on behalf of my sister for a second, she will talk about how different characters, like vocal characters, taught her a lot about herself. That the voice itself, and characters in the voice, have been her biggest teacher. There’s all kinds of mythology in characters that have come out of our music that sometimes start from the voice. Like we have this character called The Bloody Twins, which are kind of gothic Siamese twin sisters. We did a song called “Bloody Twins” on our third record and then on the next album there’s a song called “Gallows”, and there’s a video, and it was an image on our record cover. It started actually with an experiment in our studio, a vocal experiment. Sierra was singing with these two voices really really close together, a certain double, and for us it was this clear image of these twins, and all this imagery, a story, started to pull out just from something that happened vocally.
That leads into the idea of collaboration. It reminds me of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s idea of the Third Mind. When they would collaborate what was coming out was its own entity that was a result of the creative energy of two people.
We’ve always felt that way. CocoRosie is kind of a being and it has a certain force and a certain personality. Sometimes I can remove myself from it and I can be into some other style and some other thing, but it still goes on somehow. It has a momentum. I’ve always thought of it that way, as a third presence.