On her self-titled debut album, released last week via Golden Wheel Records, singer-songwriter and composer Coco Reilly attempts to wring truth from a perpetual cycle of uncertainty and confusion. “You can see the world any way you want/ Just be real say what you’re really thinking,” she sings on opener ‘The Truth Will Always Find a Way’, her semi-distorted voice swirling around a psychedelic haze of dreamy, pensive guitars and steady percussion. Though sometimes shielded by a veneer of mystery and gauzy layers of retro-sounding instrumentals, her songwriting is marked by a keen sense of self-awareness and a deep desire to understand her own self. On the ethereal ‘Oh Oh My My’, she confronts her tendency to overcompartmentalize and second-guess her impulses and emotions, something that’s also partly reflected in her perfectionist approach to making the long-in-the-works LP. Elsewhere, the mesmerizing ‘After All’ sees her trying “to quiet the noise within me,” and the relaxed, earthy atmosphere of the track feels like a release in itself. In reckoning with themes of identity, love, and vulnerability, Reilly has not only opened herself up to a world of possibilities, but also crafted an album that feels authentic even when its sonic palette conjures a distinct air of nostalgia.
We caught up with Coco Reilly for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series, where we showcase up-and-coming artists and talk to them about their music.
When did you start working on your debut album? I know you recorded it several times before you felt like you had achieved your vision.
I started working on the album six years ago, I would say, officially. I was living in New York City and I decided to go back to music and leave my corporate job. And so, to lower my overhead, I decided to move to Nashville, because I thought “If I’m gonna be a broke musician again, I’m gonna need to lower my rent.” So I moved to Nashville, made some friends and started messing around with some different arrangements but I wasn’t really taking it seriously. I was trying to figure out what I even sounded like, because I hadn’t played music since – I mean, I had always been writing music but I hadn’t really played professionally since I was a teenager. So it was a long process of chipping away at things – I wrote an EP and it was more acoustic or songwriter-y, and that didn’t feel right. I wanted something bigger, but I didn’t necessarily want to have a rock n’ roll record. So as you can probably hear on the record, there’s a fusion of a lot of different things going on. And it took a lot of time just to try and make all of those ideas feel cohesive in any way.
I recorded the first few songs in Indianapolis with some friends and that didn’t really feel right, and then I did the second batch of songs in my friend Ron Gallo’s living room and his band was kind enough to be my band. They helped wake up my childlike self because their music is extremely energetic and fun and they’re not pretentious in any way, so it was a really easy space for me to feel comfortable to just experiment and play around.
Do you feel like it was a very collaborative process in the end?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I demoed out a lot of the early ideas at Ron’s house with his bass player and then from there I met Jerry Bernhardt [guitar and keys] and Dom Billett [drums] through my friend Erin Rae – actually no, I met Dom first. But yeah, I fell into that group of people, and then Jerry Bernhardt, my guitar player who is really like the guitar painter of the record – he and my friend Ian Ferguson – are like the other half of my musical brain, the technical parts I wish I had. Jerry can hear all of the sounds I’m thinking of and he’s an amazing walking catalog of music, so you can give him any reference and he knows how to use any pedal or instrument to make that happen. I get really nervous in the recording studio, so I relinquish control and I’m so happy to have people play parts for me or just be more of a director than actually playing all the parts. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the band and also my friend Will Brown, who played keys on it.
One of my favourite songs on the record is ‘Mirror’, which I feel is very expansive, very ambitious in its production. Could you talk more about the story behind the track lyrically and also in terms of the recording process?
That song started as a joke between my friend Erin Rae and I – we were just hanging out with Dom and Jerry and some of our friends. Erin was playing the drums and she said, “You’re like a mirror with a mirror in front of it.” And I said, “That’s kinda cool.” And then I started strumming these chords and then we switched back and forth a couple of times, and that night we only walked away with the verse and melody. So I tried to finish the song and every time I tried to write a verse or put it into a normal song structure, it just didn’t work. So I thought, maybe I just need to listen to the actual lyrics and do AB repeating parts and just let the music spiral out of control, kind of like when you’re in that art installation where it’s just an infinity mirror.
So we recorded it a few times and then once we got into the second phase of it I just – I think Jerry was being timid because he wasn’t sure if I wanted the record to still stay kind of… pretty? So I told him, “I assure you that I don’t care if this album sounds pretty. I want this song to get really fucked up and really weird and really fun.” So he stayed up all night and I reminded him, “You’re here because I completely trust your creativity. So you just take a day and lay down any guitar parts that you hear and just go for it.” I walked in the next morning and it was amazing. I think, you know, when the artist is just standing over your shoulder it can be a little nerve-wracking. It’s good to give the band space.
There’s also this part on ‘Oh Oh My My’ where you sing, “Do you think that you can really step outside of your mind/ Long enough to step into your heart?” I was wondering what that line means to you.
I’m an overthinker – well, I shouldn’t say overthinker, that sounds negative. I was born with a brain that likes to analyze things. Sometimes it can be easier for me to break something down scientifically or psychologically instead of actually feeling the emotion that’s happening. It’s safer at times to stay in logic than it is to actually go into the more painful, sensitive parts of needing to feel things that hurt or that are exciting or love or, you know – because as soon as you start feeling real emotions suddenly you are actually vulnerable. So for me, my brain goes into protection mode, where it’s like, “Okay, I reacted this way because of this and I know in psychology that maybe this pattern made me do this and this and this.” But I’ve learned through years of therapy that’s not actually feeling your emotions. That’s just organizing your emotions. So it was a question to myself – have I ever really done that? Or have I always been so much in the logical science brain trying to make sense of things that I have lived less in my heart and my real emotions because I was too scared to get hurt?
Throughout the album, there’s also this idea of being true to yourself. Is that something you feel relates to that – that’s kind of the first part of the question – and what are some things you learned about yourself while making the album?
Oh, you’re gonna need a lot more time for that answer. [laughs] Got a whole journal full of revelations.
I’ll start with the “be true” message, which was kind of accidental; I didn’t realize until later that there was that common thread through the album. I think it’s always really important to note that it came from frustration in my life of other people not being honest with me, but then I realized that I had to turn it back on myself. You’re never gonna get very far pointing the finger at someone because you can’t force someone to be honest with you. The more that you learn to work on yourself and how complicated you are and how many wounds you might have or fears you might have – those are the things that really prevent people from being honest because they’re afraid of looking weak or vulnerable or getting hurt. So I wanted to be really careful not to ever have a song that was just pointing at someone and saying “You hurt me” without taking any responsibility for myself. Because then you put yourself on a pedestal without looking back at yourself and saying, “Okay, well maybe I triggered something in that person that made them feel defensive or feel hurt.”
I think it’s more just about starting with the truth with yourself and in turn, you’re inviting other people around you to also join the club. You have to start with doing research on yourself first and living the most truthful version of yourself and then you just hope that that ripples through the world. But you can’t – like, who are we to walk around the world demanding truth from other people if we can’t even do it with ourselves? And starting with yourself is the hardest part. If we just focus on that, that’s a lifetime of work and it saves you a lot of grief instead of having these really high expectations of everyone to always be perfectly clear and honest with you. I think that sums up the biggest take away with the album for me.
How do you feel about releasing these songs now?
I feel as good as you could feel and I also feel nervous. Attention makes me a bit uncomfortable, so I’m going through my own anxiety of feeling really grateful that people want to talk to me when they hear the music and also feeling anxious that I don’t ever want to come across as if I’m on a high horse or that I’m talking down to people or that I’m super wise and that it’s more just – I only get nervous because I want my words to come across as neutral and not demanding and so, you know, in the world of press, you don’t always control how that happens. So it’s just an interesting process, because artists are really sensitive people and you try to act like you’re tough and cool and that everything is under control. But it really is a delicate dance of being really grateful to have a career and opening up in such a vulnerable way.
And also, the album is about some of the most vulnerable years of my life, probably, so I think just from a human perspective it’s a little nerve-wracking because you think, “What if I look back on this in a few years and I just sound like a pompous idiot?” But you learn to let go of those things and remind yourself, “This is where I’m at, and I’m doing the best I can today with the information that I have and I hope that it resonates with people.” And ultimately, I hope it just puts a good message into people’s minds and actually inspires something good. That would be the best-case scenario for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Coco Reilly’s self-titled debut album is out now.