We talked to Sierra Casady—the “Rosie” to her sister Bianca’s “Coco”—about filming a music video in the streets of Buenos Aires and starting a record label.
Broken instruments and afro wigs play as important a role in CocoRosie’s Heartbreak City as intimate lyrics and sung poetry. Set to release online this Friday, the record is the sixth from Sierra and Bianca Casady, the sister-songwriter duo behind the band, and like so much of their other work, began with experimentation and play. One day, frolicking around the barn in the south of France that has long served as their studio, the sisters came across a treasure-trove of material just waiting to be discovered: a collection of Bianca’s old poems and several out-of-tune, out-of-commission instruments. “A couple poems that were turned over we just grabbed and I started to make music to them,” Sierra told me over the phone from California, where she had spent the morning tinkering on a stubborn RV, the official CocoRosie tour vehicle. “I guess we weren’t planning on making a record but as we started to play the broken organs and the broken pianos and translate the poems in that environment, a sound was created.”
Fate continued to intervene, finally taking the sisters to Buenos Aires to reunite with their long-time collaborator Nicolas Kalwill. This is where the found sounds of Heartbreak City were deftly strung together, day by day, song by song. The album is one best enjoyed, says Sierra—the “Rosie” to Bianca’s “Coco”—“at an old-school, disco-lit roller skating rink." A rink that stretches the range of the sisters’ signaturely tenebrous sound, from the muted swing of the record’s eponymous track to the superimposed refrains of the confessedly biographical “Tim And Tina.”
In anticipation of the new album, which you can stream in full today (below), The Creators Project talked to CocoRosie's Sierra Casady about skating rinks, South America, and getting to the other side of Heartbreak City:
The Creators Project: Hi Sierra! What’s up? What did you do today?
Sierra Casady: I’ve been tooling around in this RV. I’m tuning it up for tour.
Very hands-on. Getting excited about the release of Heartache City?
Yeah, definitely. We are super excited to get on the road and try the songs live and see what that’s like—which is always an interesting process especially with such an intimate body of work where the music came out of a very dense mythology of characters that was more of an experience for us than a focus on a product. Then, presenting that live as the performance is a challenge. To try to bring that intimacy onto the stage is exciting, but not easy.
Describe the vibe of this album, as it is so different from your last two?
There was definitely a lot of vibes happening in the process of making the record. I’ll start by describing what happened.
I was on the farm with Bianca in the South of France and we were playing around in our old studio, where we’ve written so much music in the last 12 years, especially in the early times of CocoRosie. We opened up a few old suitcases—one, that was filled with Bianca’s old poetry and out spilled like a million poems.
The thing about this studio for us, which is a very creative space, is nothing really works. Everything is broken [...] We weren’t expecting it but after about seven or eight songs, we realized, “Oh, this is a record. This is the sound and let’s just leave it like this; lets avoid computers; lets scratch digital effects; and lets bring this old, kind of retro, funky whatever-it-is... let’s just bring this.”
What were the challenges of working devoid of digital/augmented effects?
Actually it was easier and maybe more natural for us than maybe anything else is. When I think back and ask myself how these stories really came together, who did what, where did this poetry come from, who plays what instrument, I almost can’t remember because in that setting we were so consumed with the feeling of the space and all the make-up and all the wigs we were wearing in that moment. With all the experimentation in that type of environment where we were so consumed with the fantasy of what was happening. I don’t know what it is about instruments that are out of tune and that are so unconventional... They almost sound like they play themselves when you touch them. They came alive. I guess I’m describing a process that is, for us, very intuitive and didn’t take a lot of pre-production or preparation or thought. This is fun. This is easier than anything else, I think.
Are the costumes, the wigs, and the broken instruments all coming to the stage with you on tour?
You’ll definitely be seeing a lot of afros. I recorded almost all my vocals on roller skates. And, I think I’m going to be bring a whole bunch of roller skates with me and I think it’s going to be a messier stage than we’ve had in a long time.
“Tim and Tina” has been in my head all day: Can you unpack these lyrics and backstory for me?
That is, for me, one of the most moody songs on the record: just dense with mood. It’s about our parents. Creating the song for Bianca and I was something that we didn’t have to discuss. It’s about our childhood and about the time our parents met. I guess, it’s a journey into experiencing that and embodying that moment. I think it’s an essential point on the record. It’s a very dark song about scary things, but there’s a lighter side to what is there as well.
If “Tim and Tina” is the “dark end” of the spectrum for the album, what do you think is the lightest end?
I think there’s sunshine all over the record. I think this is the most yellowy record we’ve ever done. I don’t know how it sounds to other people but I think it’s us embodying a lot of darkness and making that transform through feeling and improvisation.
[For "Tim and Tina"] we also decided to create a film to continue this experience in a visual sense. We did a very homemade, homestyle video for “Tim and Tina” down on the farm in the studio I’ve been describing. A very authentic, real experience of what Bianca and I do, just hanging out [...] This is absolutely a very raw view into what it’s like for Bianca and I in our creative process. It’s a very authentic depiction.
Are you at all nervous about revealing such an intimate glimpse into the inner workings of CocoRosie?
No not really. It’s actually revealing. It feels nice to shed, like a snake in the summer.
You started your recording process in France and then ended up in Argentina. How?
That’s a good question—I don’t really know how we ended up there. Once we realized we were making a record and not just fooling around in the barn, we grabbed all the songs and we spontaneously flew to Buenos Aires and met up with our long-time friend that we’ve been working with and decided to order the songs and kick off a little bit of that dust, all the grime we collected on the farm. With this engineer—his name is Nico Kalwill—by our side we were able to shine up the songs and touch up some of some of the vocals in a matter of days. What happened was, we were in France and created something very intimate. That had been brought into the world by the time we got to Argentina and we tried to retain the intimacy. There is no better place to do that, and to make film, and to do video, than in South America where people are just so ready and so available and so personable. So that’s where we mixed the record.
How else do you think your time in Buenos Aires refined or effected the album?
I don’t think it refined the songs. Our goal was to leave them as unrefined as possible, actually. I think that’s partly why we chose to go to South America. What we’ve experience done there are feelings of exultance and freedom and late-nights and open-minded people and incredibly warm energy. So for us, it was an intimate body of work that we wanted to remain remain intimate and tender and acoustic and very untouched. Being down there felt very natural for us to do that and to continue the work and to finish it.
Tell me about your filming of “Lost Girls.”
The video “Lost Girls” is somewhat of a story or stories that I think every girl can relate to. It’s not a huge focus on our fantasy world as far as visuals go [...] We got together with a director and we did a casting for all the Chicas Perdidas in Buenos Aires, all the “Lost Girls.” Within hours, hundreds of girls showed up and we spontaneously shot a music video in the park of all these incredible, beautiful young ladies running.
Are there any moments in particular from this experience that stuck with you?
I think that the casting process was really unforgettable. It’s something I had never done before and I didn’t know what to do. We asked everybody to cry. We wanted the main actresses that would be starring in the video to be very open and vulnerable as actresses. And again, these weren’t actual actresses; they were just people. Seeing hundreds of young girls cry. It was extremely emotional. I felt drained by the end of the day.
The next morning is when we shot the video and we all met in the park and all ran through the streets together.
What will the next few months be like for you guys?
We are really excited for the record release. We are going to be trying to bring some of this intimate sound to the live stage—collect all the broken instruments we can. We’re going to do new shows in the U.S. and new shows in South America and go to places we’ve never been like Colombia and Peru. We are also releasing this record completely ourselves. Staying outside of the industry as much as possible is a big goal for the record. [We’re] trying to create our own hub, which is “Lost Girls Records.”
Yeah! We’re doing as much as we can but being completely on our own is “the goal.” I hope, maybe on the road, we’ll make a new music video. I actually wanted to ask you: Have you gotten a chance to listen to the record?
As I’m trying to decide what the third song that we’ll make a video for will be, I wanted to ask you what you thought would be a good song to do that with.
I love “Un Beso” and I think that would be a beautiful one if you were shooting this on the road in South America. And, besides “Tim and Tina,” “Forget Me Not” is my other favorite!
Awesome. Thanks for that! Maybe I’ll consider “Un Beso” or “Forget Me Not.”
Below, stream the pre-album stream of Heartbreak City.