Back to the Bathtub: CocoRosie Returns to Their Bizarre Basics with New Album

We talked to the freak folk duo about how criticism has affected their work, what it's like to collaborate closely with your sister, and their new album, "Heartache City."

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Sep 18 2015, 3:10pm

Photos by Patricio Colombo

Genre names used to describe the haunting mash of avant-garde whimsy that is CocoRosie include: hip-hopera, folkadelic, New Weird America, and, most commonly, "freak folk." But it's likely the two sisters who comprise CocoRosie—Bianca (Coco) and Sierra (Rosie)—don't think too much about what other people are saying about them. Legend has it that the band has been around since 2003, when the sisters met in Sierra's garret in Paris after spending ten years apart. (Although their relationship to France has caused some confusion about their origins, they're from the United States; Sierra, the elder, was born in Iowa, and Bianca was born in Hawaii.) They immediately began to embark on making music, using recollections from their tumultuous childhood—there are rumors that the sisters are estranged from their father, which Bianca says are untrue, though he was into shamanism, peyote, and hallucinogenic mushrooms while they were growing up—and Sierra's classical voice training. The echo from the bathtub was a nice touch. They'll confirm this for you, but it's still vaguely unbelievable, especially if, during your conversation, you imagine you're talking to the photos that have circulated of the sisters throughout their careers: Bianca stoic in a mustache and clown makeup, Sierra glitter-faced in one of many headdresses.

Since then, their particular brand of costumed weirdness has played a part in making non-sequitur normal. This week, they're releasing their sixth album, Heartache City, which is available in full below. They say it's a return to the low-tech experimentation of Sierra's cold-water Parisian apartment 12 years ago: There's little production, little electronic sound, and a lot of tinkling toys.

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I talked to Bianca and Sierra over the phone about the process of making Heartache City, how criticism has affected their work, and what it's like to collaborate closely with a family member (who might not always agree with you). Most of the time, the sisters are in different places; Bianca says she's not particularly settled anywhere, and Sierra is mostly in Paris, doing what she says is the "slower, more steady work" of the two. They did their interviews separately, Bianca while she was waiting to board a flight. However, their responses are edited and condensed together below for clarity.

BROADLY: With the new album, you were trying to sort of return to what you were doing with the first album, right?
Bianca Casady: The last few records were experimental and complex in terms of production, and we had a desire to sort of break up technology addiction and return to something closer to our first approach, our first record, which is the four-track record.

Why did you want to get rid of the electronic sound?
Bianca: In a way it was an experiment.
Sierra Casady: That's been something exciting for us as far as working with very simple instruments and some old toys that date back to our first record. We recorded most of (those songs) in the south of France, opening old suitcases. We found old poems, and an old bell piano that is the main instrument for the record; we used some organ sounds that have built-in speakers. The studio space was an old barn, and it amplified all the sounds that you hear [on the record], and we recorded them in real time.

Did you move away from production because you think it's played out?
Sierra: To be honest with you I couldn't comment on that—I'm so out of the loop that I couldn't tell you [if electronic stuff is played out]. We just wanted to refocus on poetry and wanted that to have another platform.

What do you mean by poetry?
Sierra: I mean lyrics and giv[ing] them a space that is less distracting.

To be honest, it's always excited me a little bit to receive any strong reaction, really.

Do you ever have a plan before you start making music, or are you always fully experimenting?
Sierra: The process is very elaborate and psychedelic. An old poem is interpreted by me on the bell piano, melodically. Then Bianca will sing a verse, and I will sing a chorus improvised without any preconception of lyric or melody, and then finally we will add percussion and toy sounds. For this record there could not have been any distance [between me and Bianca]—this all happened together, on the farm.
Bianca: This is the most planned out we've been in a long time—by just setting really specific creative limitations, but for what would happen with the new material.

How long did it take you to make it?
Sierra: The process I just described would happen late at night, and we were making maybe two songs per night. It was a lot. We loved a lot of first takes.
Bianca: It was kind of fast. A few really concentrated weeks on this rural farm and then going to Argentina to make the record. But a lot of poetry and things had been collecting for many years, so it's hard to define how much time it actually takes to do something like that because it's a building-up process.

It seems like a lot of your music—and process—has to do with traveling and sort of ending up places.
Bianca: We do travel a lot. We've never really been settled people, and in between tours we're always doing other projects. I spent two months in Norway this winter directing a play, and then I went with my sister to Moscow for two months to do the music for a different play with a theater director named Robert Wilson. We kind of go from project to project, so we end up meeting people.

Do you ever wish you were more grounded? Do you still have an apartment in Brooklyn?
Bianca: I don't live in New York anymore. Sure, sometimes I kind of long for that, but I'm also very good at making myself at home anywhere, and I really love being on tour, too, actually.
Sierra: I'm based in Paris most of the time. We're both really at home on tour; I'm really excited to be in Mexico City for Day of the Dead. We've been presenting in our shows a kind of open call for dress-up and clowning around, giving out prizes for the best-dressed clown in the house. I've heard from our Mexican audiences that they're pretty excited about that.

I know you did the magazine Girls Against God a couple of years ago, and you have the Future Feminism project. How do you think those relate to the musical project, if at all? Do you see the music as political in any way?
Bianca: I feel like we relate to a certain kind of artistic goal to push boundaries and to ask questions and to also look at taboos in society. We don't particularly aim to send out a specific political message—it's more about deconstructing things. I feel like art is inherently political, but it feels more like our role is to initiate dialogue.

You guys have gotten a lot of flack for things you've done in the past. Does public criticism of your work ever affect the new projects you pursue?
Bianca: To be honest, it's always excited me a little bit to receive any strong reaction, really. I think it just kind of goes with the territory if an artist is dealing with sensitive topics. We got a lot of flack about racism, and it's kind of what happens if you host these discussions. It gets really messy, and I think it's naive to look at our lyrics and call [them] racist, rather than understanding that it's dealing with the subject of racism.

We're just not doing traditional Scottish jigs; we're working with what is available.

Right—I guess what I'm referring to is that some people think of you as privileged white women who decided you were going to travel around the world and then make a commentary on racism. Have you ever responded to that kind of thing? Does it change the way you think of, say, "Jesus Loves Me," which is the song that people were most upset about?
[Ed. note: The song "Jesus Loves Me," from their first, four-track album La maison de mon rêve, contains the lyrics: "Jesus loves me / But not my wife / Not my nigger friends / Or their nigger lives." CocoRosie have also cited hip-hop influences, such as Tupac and the Wu-Tang Clan, which some have called appropriation.]
Bianca: I don't think it changed the way that we work.

So you leave the controversy agreeing with yourself more?
Bianca: It wasn't so much about agreeing, but I accepted this adversary of an artist's experience.

What are some of your influences?
Sierra: The film White Chicks—I don't know if you've ever seen that. Our performance is like a transracial minstrel show.

What do you mean?
Sierra: The exploration—just being present with where we come from and the time that we're in as, like, being white and growing up with hip-hop culture and just exploring that. We're just not doing traditional Scottish jigs; we're working with what is available.

How's working with your sister? Is that always fruitful? Do you get into fights a lot? Or have you figured out a way to do it, since you've been working together for so long?
Bianca: We've been a band for twelve years, and we've learned a lot from each other. We've grown up a lot in terms of our egos and in terms of respecting each other a lot more. We're really passionate about aesthetics, so we battle about aesthetics a lot. There's always been a tension there, and what's born out of it is ultimately what the work is and what it looks like. It's the kind of third being [in the group].

What kind of tension? Do you have the same recurring tensions with each other, or is it always different?
Bianca: It's very much always the same. Sierra's a kind of minimalist and a perfectionist, likes things to match and for things to be in tune and for things to kind of have schematic logic. Whereas I really like to make a big mess, and I'm not very self-editing, and I like to mix really new and really old aesthetics. It can be disturbing for someone whose sensibility is minimal and who likes a lot of order.
Sierra: This is why I've enjoyed so much this record, because it hasn't been so much about that type of discussion. We used a drum machine, which is new for us, and Bianca did all the drum machine stuff live, manually. I recorded the accompaniment live as it was happening. I think we kept all the first takes; I really wanted to respect that and not add anything to that. [Bianca] just wanted to add drums—there was some tension [with that]. I didn't want it to be so raw.

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What do you mean?
Sierra: I think she just wanted to play [drums]—I said that's great, you can play, let's play live. That's what this record is about: unproduced, messy, raw. She just wanted to rip on the drum set. And you know what? It was awesome. There are three or four songs where we just opened up the music.

How do you come to an agreement? I think it would be very difficult to work with someone who's so different from me.
Bianca: Yeah. I just kind of keep fighting, and keep fighting, and keep fighting for the things that I really care about. I think somehow the ideas and the become more and more distinct through this fight. The things that we're fighting for, the things which remain, I think, end up being the strongest things that we both have.

How often do you talk when you're not together? Do you talk everyday?
Bianca: No, no, no, no. We typically lose touch with each other when we're not really working. We're also both not really telephone people. I just happen to have the phone right now for a specific [reason]. We're pretty disconnected.

Do you send emails?
Bianca: We don't even email. When we're together it's super full on, and we work together so much, I think that we just kind of respect each other's space in between.