Ora Cogan on Why She’s the Luckiest Weirdo in the World

Welcome back to Soundfly’s weekly interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

Often compared to the mystical Karen Dalton, Montreal’s Ora Cogan makes experimental folk music that draws from a wide range of influences, gesturing towards psych, rock, and chamber pop. Her writing certainly has a flurried immediacy and darkness to it that brings to mind some of Dalton’s best work — but Cogan also has the benefit of making music now and not in the 1970s. To this end, I think the thing that really makes her work feel so interesting and unusual is the way she pits her Dalton-esque cosmic folk-music idiosyncrasy against these masterful synth and percussion arrangements that bend pitch and sway the felt time away from traditional folk rhythms.

Her latest release, 2017’s Crickets, features drummer Dani Markham (Tune-Yards, Childish Gambino), violinist Russel Kotcher (Chamber Orchestra of New York), vocalist Maia Friedman (Uni Ika Ai, Dirty Projectors), and multi-instrumentalist Tom Deis (Uni Ika Ai). It’s a wild, sprawling collection that has the urgency of a seasoned artist reaching for new and brighter forms of clarity in her work, however complex and intricate that work might be.

“In the past, I was so subtle about what I was doing that it was just lost on people. I’d have these ideas but just didn’t follow my intuition as well or trust myself,” says Cogan. “I’m much more clear-minded now and I’ve gone a bit deeper into my own world.”

Ora Cogan’s most recent LP, Crickets, is out now via Hand Drawn Dracula.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Dre DiMura

You clearly have a wide array of influences. Is it difficult for you to describe your music to others?

Yes, it is! I never seem to get it right when people ask. I am a hodgepodge. That is probably what I should say when people ask — hodgepodge. I’m into all kinds of music, and for better or worse, have never been devoted to any one scene or style. I work with artists from all ilks and find a lot of joy in that.

I love the combination of electronic synthesizers and acoustic elements on Crickets. How much of that sonic exploration do you demo before entering the studio? Is that something that evolves with your collaborators? Or are you taking the lead?

It was both for sure. I was messing around with different elements during the writing process — time signatures, scales, arpeggiated lines. Through the whole process, I was really careful to stay true to my intuition.

I’d been working with a borrowed Prophet 6 and MIDI for about a year on my own, but when I brought the songs to Philadelphia, a lot of possibilities opened up in working with Tom Deis. Tom has a fantastic wealth of knowledge when it comes to music and production, and I’m so grateful I got to work with him for this. Maia Friedman, Dani Markham, and Russell Kotcher, who all played on the record, were fantastic to work with — not to mention Justin Devries and Elliot Langford, Blair Cote, and others who are touring these songs with me and have taken on the challenge of creating live versions of all this.

All involved have brought their own ideas, energy, skill, and talent to this album. I’m the luckiest weirdo in the world to work with so many fantastic people on this project.

Is there a specific piece of equipment you used on the record that you feel opened up a new creative channel?

Writing songs on a synth for the first time really set the course for this album. I knew it should sound pretty rich and intense, and I didn’t even really want guitars on the album at first. Tom talked me into bringing the guitars back, and I’m glad he did, but the synth was my main spaceship throughout the writing process.

“I’m the luckiest weirdo in the world…”

The song titles evoke a lot of natural imagery. It may have helped that I listened for the first time during a hike here in L.A., but I think the environment can have a serious impact on creativity. (Look at the music that came from Muscle Shoals, or the way that the Pacific Northwest impacted what became known as grunge.) Is there a particular space that you feel informed the style of the record?

I completely agree. I was out on the west coast of Vancouver Island last winter, in the rainforest, and there were these big waves that would come in. It is crushingly beautiful out there. I wrote Crickets during some troubled times, and while I was writing, I felt like I was casting a spell of protection or vindication. To me, a lot of them are protest songs in their own way. They’re supposed to take on the feeling of these powerful places and connect you to them.

“Moonbeam” is one of my favorite tracks on the record. The modal ideas that develop throughout the piece transported me back to hazy basements and the B-sides of ’70s rock giants like Led Zeppelin, exploring Carnatic patterns and microtonality. Can you tell me a little more about the development of that tune?

Thank you! The process is a bit of a blur. When I wrote the song, I had a feeling about the kind of space I wanted to create, then when we were in the studio, I had that part where the guitar rings out. I sang the violin melody to Russell… I asked Tom to do a melodic bass line… I think I sang a bit to him too… and he went ahead and did one of my favorite things on the album. He said he “wanted to highlight the lydian side of that song.”

“In the past, I was so subtle about what I was doing that it was just lost on people. I’d have these ideas but just didn’t follow my intuition as well or trust myself. I’m much more clear-minded now and I’ve gone a bit deeper into my own world.”

Were there any moments during the recording process, or upon listening to the album in the mixing stage, where you surprised yourself?

I was surprised by everything. I’d played with Tom before and knew he was a kind person and a really, really good musician, but didn’t fully understand how fantastic he is at recording until we were in the studio together. I feel like I’ve won the lottery by working with him, and we were shocked it came together so, so fast. We were only in the studio for about eight days!

At Soundfly, we use the term “incorrect music” to describe the things an artist does that might go against people’s assumptions, or even their own instincts, but which yield exciting and unique results. What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

In the past, I was so subtle about what I was doing that it was just lost on people. I’d have these ideas but just didn’t follow my intuition as well or trust myself. I’m much more clear-minded now and I’ve gone a bit deeper into my own world.

I could see how songs like “Sea People” or “The Light” could be a shock if you hadn’t heard those threads in the music before. If anything, Crickets feels more in line with my intuition than anything I’ve done before, and I’m excited to keep working this way.

The level of musicianship on “Witch” is astounding. Did you have any classical training as a young musician? How did you communicate all of those ideas in the studio? Is that something you wrote down or did you let the other players compose their own parts?

I dropped out of school when I was 15 and barely know what chords I’m playing or what the scales are called. I’ve always heard complicated music in my head, and I’m finding new ways to communicate by dancing or singing or drawing. This was the first time I really got into some more complicated ideas.

Also, Tom — he is brilliant and studied at Berklee. He put in an amazing amount of work, and came up with lots of parts. All the musicians we brought in are incredibly skilled and talented. Everyone contributed ideas to this album.

“Wind in the Waves” is kind of all over the place. I feel like I’m listening to Black Sabbath fronted by Nico. A lot of living goes into songs like that. Can you tell me a bit about your songwriting process? Have you actually been inspired by heavier bands?

Thank you! I love heavy music of all kinds. I got to work with Robin Faye from Big | Brave recently in a collaborative project called Les Yeux. They’re great. Shearing Pinx rule, too. They’re family — I was a part of “Fake Jazz Wednesdays” in Vancouver where there was much noise, punk, and heaviness. I got to make a lot of noise and have spent some time screaming into a microphone — and it feels right.

I wrote this song about corporate greed. I wrote it about all these pipeline projects they’re trying to push through at home in B.C. It came out of pure rage, heartbreak, despair, disgust.

“…being a secret raver has come through the music, but I’m not ashamed.”

Can you identify an artist that has had an “accidental” impact on your sound? Perhaps an influence that you weren’t always aware of, or tried to suppress?

I can’t think of anything specifically, but there are so many artists of all kinds who I admire, and I’m sure they’ve all had an effect on me in different ways. I would say just being a secret raver has come through the music, but I’m not ashamed.

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