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Cemetery Songs

music_cocorosieCocoRosie’s Bianca Casady on songwriting in graveyards as therapy
The term “freak folk” might be a misnomer when applied to the likes of Vetiver and Sufjan Stevens, but it’s a more than appropriate description of CocoRosie. The group’s avant-garde music is a good indication of its creators’ offbeat sensibilities: Frequently compared to the work of Björk and Joanna Newsom, it makes use of everything from children’s toys to coffee grinders. Then there’s the band’s visual presentation: CocoRosie’s two key members—vocalist Bianca (“Coco”) Casady and her sister Sierra (“Rosie”), who also plays guitar, piano and harp—regularly perform in gender-bending attire, and the sleeve art for their 2005 album, Noah’s Ark, was provocative enough to be named one of the worst album covers in history by both Pitchfork Media and The Guardian. (It involves unicorns, experimental sex and puking—let’s leave it at that.)

While CocoRosie’s recently released fourth album, Grey Oceans, has a more mystical bent than the group’s past recordings, tracks like “Gallows” and “Undertaker” find the sisters exploring a familiar subject: death. In explanation of the predominance of this theme on the album, Bianca, the group’s chief lyricist, explains, “I just got kind of locked up in the romance of graveyards. I don’t imagine myself being buried in a graveyard—it’s kind of strange—but I like to wander around in graveyards.”

Casady says she’s attracted to the decorative markings and elegant fonts of tombstones. Along with drawing and photographing headstones, she writes a good deal of her lyrics and poetry in the cemetery. “I like old churches for the same reason: There’s kind of a forced introspective atmosphere that’s really good for writing,” she notes.

CocoRosie’s lyrics are nothing if not introspective. One gets the feeling that Casady uses writing as a form of depth psychology. “I’m a big advocate of writing as a way of understanding the self and understanding the past,” she states, adding that Grey Oceans was created almost entirely via automatic writing and improvisation. “Anytime you’re present enough to improvise, there’s a lot of release happening in that process,” she muses.

One new song helping Casady come to terms with her past is “Lemonade,” which recounts the sisters’ childhood days in the small town of Joseph City, Ariz. (While growing up, Bianca and Sierra also lived in Hawaii, California and New Mexico. As young adults, they briefly lost contact with one another before reuniting and forming CocoRosie in Paris, France in 2003.) “Lemonade” opens with the disconcerting lines, “It was Cinco de Mayo/Pillowcase on his head/No more breathing time/An ambulance sped/It sped ‘round every corner/Calling out his name.” Bianca explains that these lines refer to the death of her and Sierra’s brother when they were children.

Casady points out that another of Grey Oceans’ recurring themes is that of technology breaking down. She cites the song “Fairy Paradise” as an example: “It’s about the elemental beings taking back the earth after all the humans are gone, and it’s about the earth processing all of our synthetic debris and everything being reduced back to organic nature.” Describing the song as “fairy rave music,” she adds, “We’ve used sort of techno, rave-inspired rhythms in that song, but they’re all really imperfect the way we’ve put them together. The math is all messed up, and that’s sort of our idea of exploring nature breaking down technology.”

Another intriguing component of the music on Grey Oceans is the playing of the band’s newest member, pianist Gael Rakotondrabe. Casady feels that the group’s musical arrangements have gotten more lush and complex as a result of Rakotondrabe’s presence. “I think there’s less of a literal soundscape on this record than in the past: A lot of the narrative is implied within the music, and the piano especially,” she says.

So, we can’t help noticing that some of CocoRosie’s music is pretty freaky. Does drug use play a part in its creation? “No, I wouldn’t say so,” Casady says somewhat tentatively. “We’re not really opposed to anything, but I think writing poetry in itself is a pretty psychedelic thing on its own. We’re more of, like, heavy tea addicts!”

 


CocoRosie plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 30, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15 in advance or $18 at the door. For more information, call 423-8209.
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