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Interview: Jackie Cohen, the teacher turned dark indie-pop wonder

Jackie Cohen, readying to release her debut record Zagg this May, is riding the wave of excitement, adrenaline and perhaps, a little trepidation as she releases her artistry into the unknown.

While confident in her own ability, Cohen’s journey could have easily taken on a completely different path of its own. The talented songstress who, following graduation, moved back home and started a career as a marketing assistant and toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher for a brief period of time. That was, of course, before picking up the guitar and pen and spilling her thoughts into music. The rest, you might say, is history.

Cohen’s office years are well behind her now and she has finally discovered what she was born to do. With her blend of dark lyrics and spell-binding vocals, Cohen’s music makes for an immersive listening experience and as she openly admits. When I picked up the phone to call Cohen for our interview, we discussed her path to this moment and she was the first to admit her career change was a convoluted one. “I’m not really cut out for working in an office,” she told me almost with a sigh of relief. “I’m definitely not cut out for teaching – at least not yet, the kids are tall and mean and I’m not mature enough to handle it,” she added with a mixture of honesty and humour which sets up the tone of our conversation.

“My stint handing out sausage samples at a mall concourse kiosk made for good content but dark times. I had to find a creative lifestyle or I was going to die. Toiling and touring and being broke isn’t a picnic, but I get to do it with my best friends and experience new things all the time, so I’m enjoying myself,” she said brimming with pride as if the shackles had somewhat been released.

Creating her own art was something Cohen explored relatively late in comparison to most in the industry, but there’s no regrets on her side for not discovering her talents earlier, as she clarifies: “I took a psychology class my first year of college and something I read about the ‘pruning’ process your brain undergoes really stuck with me and freaked me out. Something like… after a certain age, your brain starts shutting down synapses that aren’t being used. If you don’t speak multiple languages for example, it chops off the language learning synapses. I’ve always been terrified of finding it’s ‘too late’ to learn or try something new, and I think being a latecomer to music taught me that the ‘too late’ stuff is bullshit.”

Zagg is the product of that decision to pick up a guitar, that one moment of ‘fuck it, I’m doing it’ has changed the course of her life for the better. The record, her debut full length, was made with her partner, Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, along with Matthew E White. The recording process of creating an album is one that seems implausible to those who don’t make music. The idea that a group of creative minds are able to enter a small room for hours on and end with the task of putting ideas onto record is a tricky one. For me, knowing that Cohen has come seemingly late to the party, I wanted to know if the process of making the album was a daunting one, whether or not a relative novice could impart her clear vision in what is a particularly cut throat industry. “I started working on the demos for Zagg pretty much immediately after recording the Tacoma Night Terror EPs,” she explained with a clear authority. “Some of them were done on two-inch tape, some on one-inch, most of them were four-track recordings I made with Rado in our garage. I originally called them the ‘Love Hoarder’ demos.”

She joyfully added: “Demoing with Rado is my favourite work flow because we have a really funny, combative collaborative energy. We try to come up with a hook or make a strong choice for every part and every instrument, something that makes us smile or laugh, especially when we’re working with limited tracks. We want every move to count. The demos were really colourful. Matt White and Rado together have a sort of genius way of understanding the laughter and colours you bring them and making them as clear and bright as they can be.”

Foxygen have been incredibly important in shaping Cohen’s musical taste and influences as she happily admits: “I might never have gotten into anything cool or developed taste if they hadn’t let me into their magic world. I owe them a lot, not just experientially but emotionally and artistically. The (Lemon) Twigs are an endless source of inspiration. I don’t know how I got lucky,” she said before going slightly off tangent: “Born on 7/11, weighed 7 pounds 11 ounces, maybe that’s why. My dad bought a lot of lottery tickets when I was born. Didn’t win a dime, so maybe not.”

Cohen isn’t making music to be comfortable. Her sound has not been designed as a ‘nice and easy to listen’, it’s not something to enjoy in the background. Cohen is making the kind of material that’s shovelled down our throats in this online streaming dominated world, she wants the listener to be emotionally invested and to feel: “I hope people feel happy. Some of the songs are joyful, some are sad or remorseful, all of them are silly in their own way. Music is cathartic for both the musician and the listener, so I really just hope my songs can be a way for us to all be together and feel a little better.”

A challenge for Cohen has been converting that feeling from her mind, to a record, to the live shows. Making that transition as seamless as possible and rounding off her artistry in a concise project that feels true to herself. The time spent time on the road across Europe last year opening up for Far Out favourite Mac DeMarco came as a valuable experience, a chance to explore the dreamy tour life that DeMarco has honed in recent years: “Mac’s a gentle darling and touring overseas with him and his crew of bandits in giant auditoriums for thousands of blood-thirsty, bulging-heart-eyed Mac fans was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said with genuine sincerity.

Cohen is taking on the music industry in her own way, she’s projecting her skills in a specific timeline and she’s doing it with close friends and collaborators that share the same beliefs. Take, for example, her relationship with Adam Green who she delightedly says during her high-school years ‘was my Elvis’. Green created the artwork for Zagg, a portrait of Cohen: “He is my biggest inspiration. In music, art, and life. He was the first concert I went to in high school where I just completely lost my mind. He was my Elvis. I always think about something he said in an interview – I’m paraphrasing but he basically said: ‘I started playing guitar because I heard you could write songs on it.’ He’s the reason I first considered writing songs.”

She lovingly added: “I love his outlook on art and creating. I asked him to paint a portrait of me because seeing myself portrayed in his style is a dream. He really nailed it, too. That portrait looks more like me than I look like me.”

While I had this opportunity to speak to Jackie Cohen I felt it my duty to bring up perhaps our favourite story. One listener, a fan of Cohen’s work who feels compelled to share his love via his Twitter is the one and only Russell Crowe. This unusual—albeit wonderful melting of minds—felt the perfect way to end our conversation. Although their paths still haven’t crossed just yet, Crowe’s endorsement wasn’t expected to say the least: “I was definitely surprised and flattered. We haven’t been in touch. Thanks for the bump, Russ.” C’mon Russ son, time to get yourself down to a show.

Zagg is proof it’s never too late to give something new a try, drastically change up your life and that you shouldn’t be scared to follow your heart. The record is available on all streaming platforms from May 10th.