VMP Rising: Jackie Cohen
VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today we’re featuring Tacoma Night Terror, the new double EP from L.A. singer-songwriter Jackie Cohen. You can buy our exclusive edition over here.
There’s a specific type of anxiety that comes from not sleeping: that slow-moving worry that gets more intense as you watch the flash of the bedside clock go from double digits to single and back again. Are you living your best life? What does that coworker really think of you? Why are you not asleep? Is your mom OK? Does your partner actually love you? Why are you not asleep? Are you doing well at work? Did you handle that conversation with your sister like you wanted? Why are you not asleep?
You get the point. That specific, well, terror, hangs over Jackie Cohen’s two-part debut EP, Tacoma Night Terror, a nine-song cycle about worry, dread and coming to terms with yourself, despite maybe hating parts of it. Written in 2015 in a house she shares with now-husband Jonathan Rado (Foxygen, and indie rock producer) and featuring The Lemon Twigs as her backing band, Cohen spent a year tweaking different elements of the EPs (split this year into parts titled I’ve Got The Blues and Self-Fulfilling Elegy) before debuting them this year and opening on tour for Alex Cameron and others. As a whole, Tacoma Night Terroris a stunning and complete debut, a mixture between Harry Nilsson, Fleetwood Mac and Nancy Sinatra performing someone’s LiveJournal entries.
We recently called Cohen while she was in between tours in a car on the way to a wedding in upstate New York. We talked about the process that saw her go from Foxygen backup singer to frontwoman, teaching herself to play piano and the terror of not sleeping.
VMP: You’ve been going out on tour a lot lately; how has it been playing stuff out live?
Jackie Cohen: It’s so much fun, it’s, I’ve got a great band, my line-up has changed a little bit for this next tour but, yeah, I mean, we’ve just been playing great audiences. I did a tour opening for Alex Cameron, and he’s got a really great live energy, and that’s something that I like to, touring before, having like a really fun show. I’m having the time of my life.
How is it different being the frontwoman now?
It’s a lot different. I don’t know, I mean, it’s sort of a natural, it feels like a natural progression for me. I’ve been touring and playing shows and you know, like singin’ and dancin’ in front of audiences for a lot of years now. And so, I guess I’m not really like stage-shy anymore. Now, I’m playing guitar and it’s my songs, and it’s a lot more personal to me. And so, I don’t know, it’s a different headspace, but it’s not as big of a leap I thought it was going to be before I started.
Let’s go back a little bit, can you give me some of your background? How did you start doing music? How did you find yourself putting a record out on Spacebomb?
I started in music I guess when I was kid, I was like a musical theater kid. And then after high school, I went to college and sort of took a break from that stuff. And I was studying English and writing. That’s when my husband [Jonathan] Rado signed a record deal and started touring, and I had played shows with them before they had a deal, I’d done a small tour with them and I played a show with them in high school and stuff, so, I’d been in the band before, but when they started touring in earnest, I started hopping on. Like, I did CMJ with them, and I started being a backup singer. I guess when I was in school and I was just sitting around in my apartment I started messing around with instruments that were laying around and started teaching myself a little bit of guitar and then just sort of naturally started writing little songs, and they turned into better songs over the course of a couple years.
Take me through the recording of Tacoma Night Terror, because it was finished a couple years ago, correct?
Yeah, we did it summer of 2016, so this was after I’d moved back to L.A., I was living in New York when I went to college and then moved back to L.A., and we were touring and then we’d have a lot of time off and during those breaks Rado was producing, and I was home with nothing to do and we had a piano for the first time. And so I wrote all those songs pretty much that summer, and after Rado finished Do Hollywood with The Lemon Twigs at our house, I’d written an album and we decided to record it and use the same setup, and use The Lemon Twigs as the backing band.
How long did that process take, from starting writing until when you finished recording the record?
I was kind of writing like crazy, and so it was just like these bursts, and so I probably wrote all of the songs for that EP in like — save one or two of them, like “Bold” was written earlier while I was still living in New York, and “I Hate My Body” was written once we’d started recording already — but big chunks of those songs were written really quickly during that summer. And then, we did all the instrumentals with The Lemon Twigs and did all the backup vocals, and then I spent a long time after that tweaking the lead vocals and redoing stuff and kind of nit-picking, and I did that for a while. So it took me, it probably took me a year from the time we were finished recording until the time I was finished nit-picking to put it online.
Yeah, I mean, I was really self-conscious about it and I would put stuff up and then pull it down and then I’d put up like a demo that I’d done and pull that down — it just took a long time and a lot of encouragement from Rado and some of my other friends who I showed it to to get brave enough to put something out and be like, “Hey guys, I did a thing.” (Laughs.)
I mean, it’s the same with writing to a degree as well, it’s like, there’s a point where if you don’t have like a hard end date, you can re-tweak things basically forever. It never stops.
Right. I’m a really obsessive editor. I always, in every type of writing, even if I’m just writing an email or something, I pick it to death. So, with something as sort of revealing as a record, it was really hard to just say, “OK, it’s done now.”
You said it’s a revealing record, it, a lot of the songs on this, I think you’ve described them as “journal entries.” Is it tough to be this open about yourself on a record?
It’s intense. Because like, it’s not hard to write in that way. It’s not completely confessional, there’s confessional aspects and then there’s also some narrativizing and just some straight-up wordplay and things like that, so it’s not a straight-up autobiographical record or anything like that, there’s fiction involved. But it’s not hard for me to write in that way because I’m kind of like a horrible over sharer (laughs).
So it’s sort of my natural inclination to reveal way too much about myself all the time. But I also kind of hate being asked about it. So it’s like, it’s easy for me to write that way, but if I write poems or songs or whatever, I don’t like telling people what they’re about.
Yeah, and I mean it’s sort of like social media in a way, like, you don’t want to get interviewed about shit you’re tweeting about at 2 a.m., you know?
Right, like I gave you the tweet (laughs).
(Laughs) Like, all you need is right there, you decide how you deal with this, I’m done with it. You mentioned in a different interview that you, and you said here too, you learned to kind of play the piano while doing this, so how did that come across in how you were writing these songs? Because you said you would teach yourself chords in the morning, and then at night, that would be the chord you would use on the song.
Yeah, I mean, I’d never had a piano before, like, not growing up or any time before this year when we moved back to the Valley after college. And Rado found an electric piano and put it in the house in a room that was like kind of private, because he was working in the garage, and I wouldn’t go and like hang out there a lot, and especially if I wanted to play I didn’t really like anyone watching me, or listening to me, and so we had this piano in this private little area in the house, and I had a laminated sheet of chords that my dad gave me (laughs). And, I would look up a song or something and see what the chords were, and if I didn’t recognize one, I’d look at the chord sheet and sort of figure that out and process it.
You mentioned you recorded with the Lemon Twigs. What did they bring to Tacoma Night Terror that you were especially excited about?
Oh my God, so much energy. (Laughs.)
And they were just like, they were just fresh from Long Island at that point, right?
When we were doing the record, they had just finished recording their Do Hollywood with Rado, so it wasn’t out or anything yet. And yeah, I just had all of these songs, a couple of them had fuller demos, most of them were just like my voice on my phone, with either like guitar and singing, or singing and piano. And I listened to the demos with them and talked about what type of song I wanted it to be, and then Michael [D’Addario] would sit down on the drum set and start writing like a maniac. And they’d just knock out the track in a day. It’s crazy, because I think what was so cool about that record is that it has this really untrained vibe on my end, just naïve a little bit and then it’s surrounded by this incredible trained musicianship. I mean, my record is really hard to play, I have to tour with really good musicians and then I play guitar and I’m strumming my chords or whatever and I’m like, “Sorry, I didn’t know it was this hard when I wrote it.” (Laughs.)
One of the things I wanted to kind of talk about with this is that, dreams, sleep and anxiety are a big theme that runs through this. And it was something that I kind of realized while listening to this that like, you know that other people have problems sleeping, but it’s not something you ever really think about, because your own sleep problems are your own sleep problems. And so, it felt really revealing to me, in an intimate way. But it like, it just dawned on me that I don’t know that many people are open about talking about their problems sleeping.
And I don’t know if I have question there, it’s just that that was like a weird thing that I thought of while listening to this a lot.
It’s a huge part of the record, and it was like, it was the part of my life that was ruling every other part of my life at the time. I was like a zombie during the day. But at the same time, when you’re not sleeping, everything becomes so heightened. And it’s like the stakes of your day feel so much higher. So like, every day felt like life or death. It was like a kind of a scary time, which is weird because it was also sort of a very creative time. I also hate, I hate that I just said that, I hate that I’m linking those things, because I don’t think that you have to be in the middle of a crisis to be creative. (Laughs). And I think that’s a dangerous trope. I think some people think that the key to creativity or inspiration or whatever is suffering, and I think that’s so untrue. I think I would have written songs anyway. But yeah, that record was really influenced by, I mean like all of those songs are me being awake for the third day in a row.
My wife also takes Lorazepam, so [when you mention it on the record] that was a real like, “Whoa, I’m familiar with that drug and everything that comes with it.” I find it interesting that when you go to health professionals, if you go to therapy and they find out you’re not sleeping, they’re basically like, “Yeah, go home, here’s sleeping pills. Because none of this other stuff is going to matter unless you’re sleeping.”
Right. The sleep problem was, I mean, I’m sleeping a lot better these days and it’s not like addressing the sleeping problem fixed all my other problems, but it definitely made them less desperate, day-to-day.