Queen of Blossoms on Trees: An Interview with Coco Columbia

Queen of Blossoms on Trees

By Eric Evans

Conducted at Blossoming Lotus Restaurant, Portland, OR, January 15, 2015

Even in a 2014 packed with great releases, Coco Columbia’s 7-track album The Weight stood out as exceptional: a sophisticated yet seemingly effortless hybrid of jazz and electro-pop with accents of hip hop. It sounds more like a confident third or fourth album than a debut due in no small part to the accomplished musicianship on display and the nuance of the production. Interestingly, Columbia makes no effort to reproduce the sound of the album live—a decision no doubt influenced by the clean, sharp playing of her band. Grant Saylor does some heavy lifting, playing many of the record’s complicated keyboard parts transcribed for guitar, and Brandon Braun is an absolute monster on the drums, playing with intensity and precision. When played live the songs become sinuous extended jams linked to the recorded versions only by Coco Columbia’s pure pop lead vocals. Her stage persona—giant pink cotton-candy hair and rave kid outfits, giggling between songs yet roaring at the chorus—sets her apart visually. But the keyboards and vocal chops mesh perfectly with the jazz sound of the rest of the trio.

During a flurry of gigs to start 2015, Coco sat down with Black on the Canvas to discuss her development as an artist, her live sound, and her plans for a follow-up album. Her easy manner and goofball humor didn’t disguise the fact that she’s serious about her art and determined enough to beat the odds.

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[Fumbling with iPhone] OK, the voice memo is recording!

Coco Columbia: I feel like voice memos have saved my life for just writing. Like when I’m driving and I get an idea and I can’t write it down, I can just sing it into my phone. I’ll have these memos that I forgot about… like, I’m writing for a new album right now and one night I couldn’t think of anything and I went back through all these old voice memos from, like, May and found a bass line. You forget you have them until you go through them again. It’s awesome when that happens: “I can’t use this for anything now, but…” And months later it saves you.

I’ve heard that from a lot of musicians. A memo or a good line in an old notebook can help you out down the road.

Coco Columbia: It’s so true. If I’m working and coming up with stuff but it’s not quite right for the current thing, I feel like I just wasted three hours. Then I’ll come back to it a few months later and use a piece. Now when I do that I trust that it might not be anything for four months, but…

So, first official question—is “Coco Columbia” a stage name, like a character you inhabit?

Coco Columbia: It was definitely supposed to be a stage name but I do think of her as a character. That’s where the wig comes in. I think I do it for the same reason that a lot of artists pick stage names—an idea of a character, a vibe that sort of embodies that. Deciding to do the wig thing… I played drums when I was little, I’ve played drums forever, and I had this teacher who became my composition teacher a little later. I was talking to him about performing. He tells his students to wear something ridiculous when they’re performing as a way of getting over your fear. So it’s that, and I’m kind of new to performing. I wanted something that was bigger than me in a way, so I would have to rise to it when I get on stage. And I really like Japanese kawaii culture and fashion, so I decided to get a funny wig and create this character.

Not to make this weird but my first exposure to you was a topless photo on the poster for your gig. It’s not exploitative, it’s body positive, it’s artful, but you were just… out there. It seems like nothing BUT confidence.

Coco Columbia: [Laughs] What’s funny about that picture is I had a few songs on the internet and wanted to finish the album, so I went on tour last year with Dresses as their drummer. We were opening for The Limousines. They did a Kickstarter for their album that made like $75,000.00. I made friends with them and told them I wanted to record but I didn’t have much money. They said I should do a Kickstarter. I didn’t know how it worked; I thought you had to be more established. Everyone knew me as a drummer, not as a singer, so I didn’t think it would be possible. I decided to go for it. I launched my Kickstarter at the end of November and needed pictures for the site. I had done my EP cover and I thought it would be funny if I wasn’t wearing a shirt but had, like, cat heads covering my boobs [laughter] and my roommate at the time did graphic design, so I got him to do it. We took a picture of me wearing pants and no shirt in front of the garage at my old house.

Really glamorous!

Coco Columbia: Right? REALLY glamorous. One of the pictures she took I really liked and I sort of didn’t want to ruin it but I was afraid to use it because I have Band-aids over my nipples.

Were they bejeweled band-aids?

Coco Columbia: Hello Kitty. Technically toplessness depends on whether or not you’re showing your nipples, which I think is pretty crazy. Free the nipple! But anyway, I did it for that and the EP cover. He put these crazy characters all around me but not over my boobs. I kind of liked it, it makes me look kind of insane.

It’s not sensationalistic, they’re good photos.

Coco Columbia: It’s another of those things where, um, I was just super not-confident in anything I did so I thought “I have to do something like this.” A lot of people were pissed about it. Not just my family, random people would contact me and be like “Why are you using these photos? It’s totally taking away from your music, people won’t notice that you’re really talented,” blah blah blah. In a way I wanted it to weed people out. That was sort of before I came up with the whole persona. What’s funny is before the Flavr Blue show* I tried to remove that image from everywhere but the Kickstarter page because you can’t delete anything on those. The promoter ended up finding it and used it to make the poster.

I didn’t know anything about your music, I didn’t know if it was a burlesque thing or what. “Coco Columbia” would be a great burlesque name, a roller derby name…

Coco Columbia: You know how you get your stripper name, the name of your pet and the street you live on? That’s how I got it. I was living on Columbia Street downtown for two years and I had a cat named Coco. I heard about that, came up with Coco Columbia, and decided I wanted that to be my music name. Until someone pointed it out to me, the drug connotation had not crossed my mind. That’s how naïve I am. [Laughs] I’ve had a few people ask if I’m a big cokehead. Uh, not at all.

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How did you get started in music?

Coco Columbia: I grew up in Bend, Oregon. I started playing drums when I was 12. I didn’t play super seriously until high school when I joined a youth jazz band. I started getting into playing jazz. I didn’t listen to it much and playing music you don’t listen to is a bad idea. When I was 16 I started listening to a lot of jazz. I had a friend who was a saxophone player, a total jazz nerd, a few years older than me. In Bend there’s this radio station where you can take a class and do your own radio show, so we did. I listened and learned. I played in a prog-rock kind of band too. My junior and senior years I played in a few combos, got paid to play restaurants, clubs, weddings. I ended up deciding to go to school for drums. I went to University of Oregon for a year and I wasn’t super happy. They have you play a lot of classical on top of all the jazz, so I had to learn marimba and stuff. I didn’t read music until I got to college, it was really tough. My first year was with all these students who could of course read music, they had been in music school their whole life and I was just this [in doofus voice] “Uh, I’m gonna go to music school, I’m a drummer!” After a year I decided I didn’t want to be in that program anymore. I came to Portland, went to PSU, started playing in a combo. After a year and a half of that I realized I didn’t want to do the school thing.

When did you start singing?

Coco Columbia: I never sang or wrote songs in school, I focused on drumming. I didn’t start writing or singing or playing piano until I finished with school, about two years ago.

Is it you playing piano on the album?

Coco Columbia: No. Obviously I play piano live now but at the time we recorded the album I couldn’t play super well. I wrote the songs, played drums, I produced the beats, and recorded the vocals. It was after the album was recorded I started really learning piano so I could play the songs live. George Colligan plays on two tracks, he’s a real jazz dude, a professor at PSU now. He’s toured with Jack DeJohnette.

The sound of the record is really different from what you guys do live. The record has synth, sound effects, beats, and live you’re this tight little jazz combo. Was there ever a plan to recreate the sound of the album live on stage?

Coco Columbia: That was the issue. We recorded it, I had reference tracks, and the guys in my band now, I hired them to learn the parts. We maybe rehearsed each song once or twice then recorded them.

Wow. It sounds like you’ve played together for years.

Coco Columbia: My drummer Brandon was a friend in school. The guitar player—Grant—is actually my boyfriend now. They were both in the music program at PSU. So when this came together I knew who I was going to hire. But when we were producing it, adding these layers to it, I was scared because at that point I had never performed live. I had reference tracks but I had never sung in front of anyone. So I had to sing in front of people and get used to doing that, which I was super nervous about. Then figure out how to replicate this live, especially the electronic grooves that I made? I didn’t know how to do that. Right now I’m too poor to pull off what I want to do live, honestly. We’re making the most out of the trio, doing more with less. We’re getting a drum pad so we can at least get some of those drum sounds but obviously we can’t replicate all of it. We’d need a horn player, a piano player that can actually shred—not someone who’s only been playing 6 months like me.

I’m amazed you haven’t been playing longer. I would never have guessed.

Coco Columbia: I had this sort of crisis once I started writing and singing. I thought, man, I love this so much more than playing drums but I had 8 or 9 years of working toward that. I wanted to tour as a drummer with rock bands, funk bands, hip hop. I still want to play drums on the side but I haven’t really touched the drums for a year. When I record again I want to play some of the simpler songs, more backbeats. I want to play drums again, but I definitely have this crisis.

When I started playing drums in middle school boys would give me a hard time about it because I’m a girl. And I realized that part of the crisis was me not wanting to give up and do the more stereotypical thing, sing in a band or whatever. I got over that eventually; it doesn’t matter. But I was scared about giving it up. I can still play drums if I want to, but if you want to really go for one thing you sometimes have to give up other things. That’s what I decided I had to do.

So you internalized enough jazz that it came out in your music. It’s not a jazz album but there’s enough of it there to be recognizable as an influence.

Coco Columbia: Well, everyone who looks at my charts says that my chord progressions are really strange. But I think it’s the chord extensions I use. In a lot of pop it’s triads; in a lot of funk or R&B the chords have sevens on them, chords that allow extensions. Players can read the chart and say “OK, that’s the chord, now I’m gonna add these voices on top too.” I wanted to leave room for that. The chords are there but the progressions aren’t necessarily typical.

I was afraid that I was going to hate the way we sounded live compared to the album and kind of the opposite has happened. When we record again we’ll add to it because I love layering but for the second album I want more punk rock. Not to sound like punk, but more of a punk presence. To sound distorted, less…

Polished? The album sounds very polished.

Coco Columbia: That’s just my own criticism. I don’t listen to it but when I do hear it, it sounds very “la la la.” What we have now, that in-your-face presence, I want that on the second album. So I’m figuring out how to work it in.

It’s not uncommon for a band to sound different live than on record. For example, Radiation City’s albums have a gentle, delicate AM radio vibe but live they’re really muscular.

Coco Columbia: Well, I’m glad that it’s that and not weaker live… It always bums me out when I see someone live and it doesn’t have the same “oomf.” It’s nice when it’s the other way around, when you see someone and you’re, like, “whoa.” What we have live now, that intensity, I want that on the second album so I’m figuring out how to work that in. There’s this album that came out this year, Julian Casablancas + the Voidz? Everyone hates it and I LOVE it. The way it sounds, the guitars and the voice, this odd phrasing where he’s singing and it’s cut off by guitar and he comes back in, it’s this mashup and I think that’s why people don’t like it. But I love the weirdness of it. I’d like to experiment with stuff like that but apply it to the way we sound. We recorded two live videos that I’ll put out in a week or two, just for fun. It’s nice to have an example of what we sound like live, something to show people.


So the album came out last August and you’ve been playing a lot of shows. What’s next?

Coco Columbia: I’m doing another Kickstarter in May, I think. I’m nervous about it because I know what I need to ask for.

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Well, you’re good about getting the word out. You promote your shows, you have merch.

Coco Columbia: [Laughs] Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of stuff like that we don’t have down right now because we’re such a new group. We have albums, CDs… I contributed vocals to some pop stuff, I’m hoping those tracks and videos come out before I launch the Kickstarter so I have a bit more of an online presence. I sing with this band Gold Casio sometimes, in fact I cowrote the track “Goldmine” from my album with them. They have their own version of it that sounds very different, and I think we’re doing a music video for it. That’s supposed to come out sometime in the next few months.

So you’re already working on a follow-up?

Coco Columbia: Well, with the first one I was just learning how to sing and record. Even the beatmaking I’d never done, so it took forever to get that stuff together because I was learning it as I was doing it. I had the songs for a while before then. There’s definitely one or two songs where I’m not unhappy with the way they turned out but they were an older thing. So I want to get something else out.

I have this goal: I want to try to put out something every year. Traditionally bands on labels could only put stuff out every two years and I think that would drive me insane. My ultimate goal is pretty simple: get to the point where I can make a living touring, just tour so much that I could crowd fund everything. Even if it’s not that much, barely scraping by. Tour, record, tour. Travel the world. I’ve always wanted to travel but I want to travel with music, you know? It’s so expensive to travel and I’ve never had the money to, but if I could do music and travel the world for free… yeah. Hire the people I want to hire to travel with me. I definitely have an idea for the kind of group I’d like to assemble if I could.

Just maintain an online marketplace for your music?

Coco Columbia: Right now… even if I were to sell my music online that’s barely a thing anymore. I like having access to free music. When I did my Kickstarter I said that if I make my goal, I’ll put the album out for free. I’ll probably continue to do that but I have had some people pay for it on Bandcamp and that’s been really nice. Maybe I’ll charge for it but just a small amount, $3 or something.

I think a dollar a song is fair.

Coco Columbia: I do too, maybe I have a bias because of the culture I grew up in—I was raised to think art had no value. [Laughs] It’s something that I want to share with people. It’s something everyone is struggling with, it’s just the way it is.

Months ago I was worried about what kind of label would want me. I’m not poppy enough for a pop label, not whatever enough for the others. A lot of people were saying that i don’t need to be on one, and it’s probably the better way to go.

It’s tough to be a new artist these days. Unless you’re a trust-fund kid you have to be creative with funding.

Coco Columbia: When I went to school most of my friends were… well, they weren’t trust fund kids but they didn’t have to work or anything. I’ve been working since I was 12. I’ve had, like, 8 million jobs. I’ve done everything, every kind of weird job. This is the first time in my life I’m not working full time. I’m nannying, which I’ve done for the last few years—

I’ll bet you’re a rad nanny!

Coco Columbia: [Laughs] I think the kids like me. I can definitely level with kids in a certain way. But I’m getting away with working less right now because my rent is really cheap. I’m paying for a practice space but that’s not too bad either. I can work half the amount of time and that’s awesome, it’s the first time I’ve allowed myself to take the time to devote to something like this. I’ve had time to work on this whole other side of it, the networking thing, and I’m getting better at it. Which is nice. Sometimes it feels like a game, a weird popularity contest. But I also love it, it’s forced me to go out more and see a lot of shows the last few months, I’ve been seeing way more bands. I wasn’t really going out for a while… two years ago I would only go to jazz shows. I barely went to any pop shows at all.

Go to any small show in Portland and about half the people in the room are musicians.

Coco Columbia: That’s how it is! I haven’t gone to a show recently without running  into a bunch of people from other bands and making a connection with someone: “We’ve got to play together sometime!” Which is cool. It’s hard to know what kinds of bands we fit with, who we should open for. You have to find a show to jump on. I kind of obsessively go online to all of the venues’ calendars and try to figure out, OK, what dates are open? What people don’t have openers, and of those who do we fit with? A lot of the stuff that’s popular here is folky, and I don’t feel like we fit with that very well. At all. Like, when we saw Thundercat open for Flying Lotus. I feel like we’d be a good fit for that but we can’t open for Thundercat! Maybe we need to live somewhere where that style of music is more popular.

* Coco opened for The Flavr Blue at Holocene, Portland, Nov 26, 2014.

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