Artist Spotlight: Jackie Cohen

    Los Angeles singer-songwriter Jackie Cohen has been making records for half a decade, releasing her first solo EP, Tacoma Night Terror, Pt. 1: I’ve Got the Blues, in 2018. A native of the San Fernando Valley, Cohen moved to New York to study literature and creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College, using the poetry she had been writing in classes to experiment with songwriting. Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and the Lemon Twigs’ Brian and Michael D’Addario co-produced her debut EP, which was then paired with the Tacoma Night Terror Part 2: Self​-​Fulfilling Elegy EP a few months later. Another full-length, the playful and vibrant Zagg, arrived the following year on Spacebomb Records.

    After completing her tour in support of Zagg, like many of us at the start of the pandemic, Cohen found herself in a precarious situation. She was going through what she describes as a “horrible personal crisis,” and with no way to fight the pain, saw no choice but to disguise and crawl into it. Without the backing of a label, she started working on a batch of songs with no expectation that they would ever see the light of day. She ended up recording her third record, titled Pratfall and released today via Earth Libraries, with just two collaborators, her husband Rado and engineer Rias Reed, between October 2020 and January 2021 at Sonora Recorders. The result is an album at once haunted and bewitching, full of lush instrumentation and violent imagery that Cohen dives right into, allowing herself to be spiteful and irreverent and longing and hurt. “If I use my eyes/ I might recognize a bridge that’s been burnt,” she sings on ‘Some Days’, but in that moment, all she can do is stare at the flames.

    We caught up with Jackie Cohen for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about growing up in the San Fernando Valley, the process of making Pratfall, the title of the album, and more.

    How are you feeling with the release of the album coming up?

    I’m really nervous, honestly. I’m nervous in a different way than I’ve ever been before, putting music out. It’s been three years, and it feels really strange coming back. I think a lot of people have been feeling that way, like there’s this huge gap, and you don’t really know what happened. Before the pandemic started, I was sort of in high gear, things had just started rolling for me. And I was kind of deciding, “What’s next? I’ve been touring my ass off for a year and a half, where do we go from here?” And then everything just stopped. And trying to pick back up a couple years later, and way more mentally ill [laughs], feels really weird and I don’t really know what to expect or how to feel about it. But I am excited to finally be getting this record out, because when I was making it, I was like, “Hell yeah, this is the best record I’ve made.” And so it’s this really weird feeling of, I’m very excited to share these songs, but I’m also really scared of putting it out.

    The studio where you recorded Pratfall was just a 30-minute drive from the San Fernando Valley, where you grew up. Around the time you were making the album, and especially when you wrote ‘The Valley’, had you already been reflecting on your upbringing?

    I think the reason why I felt compelled to write that song at that time was because I was suddenly stuck at home for the first time in many years. I grew up in the Valley, I went to school right away in New York, and before I was done graduating, I’d already started touring. When I left New York, I did technically move back to the Valley, but it was more of a crash pad than a home experience. I was touring so much for so many years, and there were always like nine dudes sleeping on the floor, and there was a studio in the backyard. And so we’d go for a couple months and then come back for a month, maybe I would get a holiday job or something, and then we’d be gone again. And it wasn’t really until the pandemic started that I had to sit around and be at home, in my hometown, for an extended period of time, and consider the possibility that I may be there for a while.

    Right before it had started, I took a job at a bakery right around the corner from where my parents live, and I worked there for a couple of months. And I was trying to figure out what my next moves were. I had these delusions of becoming a baker, I thought I was going to go learn to be a baker at this bakery. But really, all they let me do was make coffee and work the cash register. My parents would show up and pretend to be anonymous customers, just when they were bored. [laughs] So I went from never stopping, being in constant motion all the time, we were back and forth internationally so many times in just a couple of years, and then suddenly I had to stop and be very still for a long time. It was sort of the first time I stopped and thought about where I came from.

    You use the phrase “home experience.” Would you say you’re closer to understanding what that means for you?

    I definitely understand a lot more about myself than I think I thought I did. Not everyone feels this way, probably, but I think a lot of people think that they did a good job of, like, not turning into their parents, or somehow you escaped the generational curse or whatever, the culture that you’re trying to get away from when you’re really young. A bunch of things happened over the past couple of years in my life, and I started therapy, like many have. And you find out that you’re like 99% made up of all the things you thought you’d avoided. You didn’t escape it, you didn’t avoid it. You’ve made all of your decisions throughout your entire life from a mindset that developed in your childhood home. So this year has been a really big year for me coming to terms with the fact that all of my decisions did not come from where I thought they were coming from. [laughs] I did not outsmart my genes. I did not outsmart my childhood.

    Given the fictional nature of a lot of your lyrics, was it daunting to speak so directly from your experience on ‘The Valley’?

    All of my songs are a little bit fictional and a little bit nonfictional. Not everything that I write is completely confessional, but it’s all based in real feelings and real experiences, often an amalgamated experience of many things that sort of add up to an emotion that is true. For this song, it’s not veiled at all, and I was legitimately scared to write some of it. I sort of asked my sister permission to use some of the verbiage that I used, because some of it’s direct quotes. And I felt really scared of putting it out or showing my parents – my parents always have something to say about whatever it is I’m doing, they always offer me their opinion. And I was really afraid of offending the family, even though it’s a tender song. I don’t think that I’m being mean, but I still felt weird about directly addressing my sister and my parents. But everyone really liked it. My sister thought it was really funny to talk about, you know, the family nose job culture. And my dad sent me a long text after the song came out – my dad’s really funny, he texts in long paragraphs, and he wrote this nice message about how he thought it was nice poetry or something. And I was like, “Okay, phew. I’m not exiled. Everything is gonna be fine.” [laughs]

    The line that I feel like sums up all of it is, “The whole thing makes me dizzy.” At that point, it feels like you’re not sure if that whole thing is the past coming back to haunt you or the uncertainty of the future, or if it’s the present.

    It’s really shocking sometimes when you realize how you’ve got a body part in so many different points in time in your life. People are always talking about being present, it’s like you find your peace by centering and becoming present in the present moment. But I don’t know, I feel like I’ve got my foot stuck in an elevator in the past, and then I’m also just attached to a couple years ago. That’s how people feel things and think about things. It’s not linear. And it can be really stressful, to feel your entire life all at once. But it’s also kind of important to do it at some point.

    It’s not surprising to me that that’s one of the more collaborative songs on the album. All the different artists that you brought in – Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood, Shaun Fleming, and Marly Ludwig, who directed the video – are also from the Valley. I’m curious if you spent any time talking about your experience together.

    The thing about people from the Valley is that we never shut up about the Valley. [laughs] We’re all completely obsessed with talking about the Valley and being from the Valley. It’s such a weird little town, it’s a strange area. And it’s right below Los Angeles, so we’re also really defensive of the Valley, because kids who are from LA proper hate the valley, like the Valley’s uncool or whatever. Valley kids are like, “Absolutely not, LA is horrible. We love the Valley.” And we spend all of our time talking about, like, little restaurants and frozen yoghurt shops that we’re not sure if they existed or not, but like, “No, we both remember that, that was real.” And, “There is a little restaurant that also had open mics, did you ever go?” “Yeah, absolutely, I remember going on the weekends after soccer practice” or whatever. We love our landmarks. We love the experience of growing up in that weird little bubble. It seems almost out of date. Everything in the Valley feels pretty unchanged. And so, getting all of those Valley kids in a room together to just talk about, like, a park that we all went to and probably bumped into each other at some point before we knew each other. It’s really nice to know some people who remember those things.

    I think that the only reason why I’m even in music to begin with is because I like having community around me. I’ve been told a few times, like, “Maybe you should just work at a summer camp if that’s really all you’re after, you just want to be surrounded by your friends.” [laughs] But I think that because everything has sort of been like a summer camp experience for me, I think it’s made my records really fun.

    Speaking of collaboration, I love that Peanut is credited with “rhythmic bark barks” on the title track.

    [laughs] It’s so cute. We were at this studio – Peanut’s actually right here – and she was just a puppy, just a little baby girl. She was so small when we got her, I could carry her around in a tote bag. And she came to the studio every day. She’s in the background of so many indie rock records that came out of that studio, it’s crazy. And there was this big parking lot outside, gated off, and it was right off of a major Boulevard in Los Feliz, so there’s always people walking by and cars and a lot of commotion. And she’d go out there and bark, she’d just be losing her mind. And we couldn’t catch her, she was going through her rebellious puppy phase. We spent hours and hours over the course of this record just the three of us triangulating her in the parking lot, trying to catch her because she would just be out there barking her head off. And I think it’s so funny that on that song, we did not have to manipulate the barking at all. She was barking perfectly in time. And I feel like like when I tell people that, there’s a little bit of eyebrow-raising, like, “Really, you didn’t shift it at all?” No, she was singing along. [laughs] She’s gifted.

    I mean, she’s been in the background of so many indie rock records.

    I know. She would stand on the board and ride the faders, you know? She’s an indie rock dog.

    I believe you, I’m not going to question that further. What got you thinking about the title of the album, Pratfall?

    I think I decided on the title after I wrote the song ‘Pratfall’. I use that term in a lyric. And when I wrote that song, I kind of realized that that had been the theme of my life during that time, was just trying to learn how to fall down gracefully, or in a way that would not completely break my body. I went through a couple of years where I did take a pretty gnarly fall in my life, and I didn’t really want anyone to know. I didn’t want to be perceived as being injured or messed up or of having made a mistake. Pratfall means a lot of different things, but for me, at that moment, it kind of just meant trying to make a bad fall look intentional, so that people don’t panic. Because people get really upset and nervous when they see someone get hurt. And it’s always sort of been my role in my life, to be a person that keeps it together for everybody. And when I couldn’t do that anymore, I spent a lot of time just sort of limping around, trying to act like nothing had happened.

    I also wanted to make something good out of it. I was trying to work through it by making the record. And so, I had this idea of like, “Yeah, I fell down on my ass really hard, but I’m gonna make it look good.” And that was sort of the thesis of the record, like, “Ow, but ta-dah!” So it worked in some ways, and in other ways it didn’t work. In other ways, I just didn’t tend to a really big boo-boo for a while. [laughs]

    There’s a comedic aspect to the pratfall, and in the context of this metaphor, it makes me think about how a lot of times, when when you’re going through that fall, there’s an urge to kind of laugh it off. To make it seem like a joke, which isn’t healthy. But the relief from the actual rise can also feel funny in a good, cathartic way.

    Yeah, sometimes something is just so messed up that it becomes hilarious. There’s often comedy and tragedy. I’ve always done my best to be silly or funny about the things that are stressful in my my life. I always try to laugh it off. And it is funny because the pratfall is like a slapstick term, and what was going on in my life, it did feel like slapstick. [laughs] It felt ridiculous. It’s like the entire world had just turned into a farce. And I think that these are also my least funny lyrics. For a long time, in my other records, I feel like I’ve always been sort of jokey, silly about it, and I think that I did hide behind humour a lot of the time. And it’s funny because in this one, I was just laughing at the ridiculousness of it the entire time, but the lyrics aren’t very funny. There’s, like, one funny lyric.

    But there is something about the way you kind of deliver the lyrics vocally that often brings a kind of playfulness, almost a wickedness to it. Because you’ve said that a lot of your songwriting is lyric-focused in terms of the process, I’m curious how you went about mapping out some of the more animated vocal performances on the album, especially on a song like ‘Two Days’.

    ‘Two Days’ specifically is a funny example, because that’s a scratch vocal. It’s the only scratch vocal on the record, and it’s the first song that we recorded. I had spent the most time plunking that one out on piano, and I played it the most amount of times, because I had written it pretty early on in the process. That one specifically has an interesting energy, because I wasn’t expecting it to be a final vocal. I was just laying down a layer so that we could build around it. I remember I was sitting on the couch, and Peanut had just had just been spayed. She’s a sensitive little puppy and she was sore, and I was sitting on the couch and kind of icing her tummy. Rado came and set up a mic so I could sit down on the couch and hold her and be icing her, and we just laid it down really quick. I think because I wasn’t really thinking about it all that much, I was just singing the song, we never got a better take of it. We tried a couple of times, and when I started thinking about it too much, I couldn’t deliver it again.

    What I was trying to do for most of the record was sing the songs true to heart, how I imagined saying them. So I think that they’re animated in sort of the same way that I talk, and the way that I talk is like, I talk with my hands and I talk with a lot of affect. When I would go into the studio, I would warm up in my car on the drive there, and I usually had like a 15 or 20-minute drive. And I would listen to Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand and sing along. I love Funny Girl. I think that Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl probably has the most musical influence on me of anything. [laughs] She’s so silly and goofy, and I like that word you used, wicked. And I was also listening to a lot of Kate Bush and Tori Amos.

    I think that all the songs in this record, I’m very much talking to someone. And so my vocal performances aren’t super vibey, it’s not vibey music. In a way it’s very conversational, and it’s also a little bit – I don’t like the word theatrical, but I like singers who are trying to communicate a feeling and a story through the performance. I had a lot of feelings going on when I was making this sucker, and I was angry. There’s a lot of anger in this record, and the anger comes paired with a little bit of comedy.

    It feels conversational, but it’s also confrontational at times.

    It’s a highly confrontational record. [laughs]

    ‘Ghost Story’ comes to mind, specifically the line, “He tells me I’m a teacher, I tell him he’s a fraud.” Can you talk about how that song came about?

    [dog barks] Hey, Peach, no barking. That’s my other dog – she’s confrontational. So, ‘Ghost Story’ is the first song I wrote for the record. I wrote it in December of 2019, and I wasn’t even really writing for a record yet. The record is all about this time period that began in 2019, where my life started breaking down a little bit – well, not a little bit, a lot, in a lot of different ways. And I almost feel like I wrote that song kind of subconsciously, because it makes a lot more sense to me now than it did when I wrote it. I was going through something where I kind of knew that I was in a bad situation, but wasn’t really ready to admit it. But it’s a weird moment where something bad happens, I know that that happened, but I’m still in shock and disbelief and I’m just going to write that off as as a mistake. It doesn’t fit the rest of the story, so I’m just going to set it aside.

    Over time, it’s become really clear to me that I understood more about what was going on in my life than I was ready to admit when I was writing the songs. Some of those lyrics, it almost feels like me screaming at me to listen to the content of those lyrics, and to take note and react. Because I was writing these songs that are deeply confrontational, and there’s a lot of grief and sorrow and shock and hurt. The record is essentially a record about betrayal and grief and mourning, and I didn’t really know that until way after the record was done.

    Was there a specific moment where you felt that, the weight of the fall and all those emotions?

    I think that it felt the heaviest when it was finished, and I didn’t feel better. There’s also a lot of pleading or bargaining going on in the record. I feel like a lot of the lyrics, I’m trying to make someone understand. And I think that I had all these high hopes for this record, like, This is how I become understood. And once I’ve explained myself, once I’ve said what I need to say, and I’m gonna say it beautifully, and in an interesting way, and with the most interesting arrangements I’ve ever made – like, look, I’m going to grow as an artist, and I’m going to grow as a person, and it’s going to be such a powerful statement, everything is going to feel better and everything will be healed and back on track, and it’s gonna right the ship.

    And it didn’t. I made this record to fix my life in a lot of ways, and it didn’t fix my life. I like it. [laughs] I think it’s a good record. But I finished it in January of 2021, everything was said and done, and I was happy with it. I listened to it a million times, I shared it with a lot of people and everybody liked it. And my life didn’t – nothing happened. And that’s when it felt the heaviest. I had been riding on this idea that finishing this record was going to put everything back in place. And I realized it was going to take a lot more work and introspection than that to get there.

    Music can’t do that, no matter how passionate you are about it.

    Well, I think my intentions were just kind of deluded. You can definitely do a lot of healing in yourself through music. It’s one of the best healing tools we have, making music and expressing yourself. But you can’t change things that happened. You can’t change the past. You can’t make someone else understand you. If you’re gonna heal, it has to be between you and you. You can’t count on somebody understanding what you are saying and that’s going to fix everything. And I think that I really didn’t understand that. So, now all I do all day is get square with me. It’s so much better than trying to get square with the universe.

    Looking back on the process of making the album, what are you most proud of yourself for?

    I’m really proud of making this record even though I was fairly convinced I was never going to release music again. After I finished all that touring, my campaign for my last record was definitely wrapped up. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. My life was sort of falling apart in a weird way and it was really confusing. And I was working at that bakery and my parents were coming in to say, “Hello, miss!” [laughs] And I had to make a lot of decisions about my life really quickly. And then the pandemic started, I’d made all these decisions and suddenly the world froze. And then a couple of months later, I got dropped my by my label. There’s like a whole other record of demos that I made early pandemic that I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with them – I don’t even know if they’re any good. I had made all of these decisions that were pretty hard to sit with in frozen time.

    I was dropped by label, no one was going to ask me to make music again. I thought that my career was over, but I kept writing all the songs because I didn’t know what else to do. I was trapped in my house with my piano and nothing else. I spent a lot of the pandemic completely alone, and I wrote all these songs by fall 2020, when I decided, “Hey, I think I want to make this record.” And Rado said, “Yeah, let’s record it.” I think that the reason why I liked this record so much is because I made it for nobody. I didn’t think it was going to come out. I didn’t think anybody was going to hear it. I made it completely to taste. I like this record because I made it without the pressure of wanting someone else to like it. And I am really glad that I did that, because it’s the first time I’ve ever felt like this is exactly how I wanted it to sound.

    Rado plays almost every instrument on the record, but a lot of the arrangements, I would sit on the floor by his feet with headphones on and he’d have headphones and we’d talk through it. And I’d tell him, like, “Remember this reference? Can we play it again, but with that in mind?” And we would just work out every little piece of it until it made me like laugh or smile. Every single part of the record is something that I like. So, I think I’m proud of myself for pouring so much love into something that I didn’t think was ever going to come out. It was just to make it.

    Can you share one thing that inspires you about Rado, and also something that you think he finds inspiring about you?

    I’ve been working with Rado and also watching him make records for other people for a million years now, and I think that he legitimately works from a place of wanting to make people’s dreams come true. There are a lot of producers out there who people go to because they do a certain thing, they have a certain sound, they have certain equipment or tricks that they do, and you go there because you want them to do that thing to your music. Rado is one of the only producers that I know who wants to see your idea all the way through. Which is really special for someone like me, who came in completely untrained, almost no experience. I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 20. But I liked writing, I was an English major and I’ve been a poetry major. And Rado is the only person I’ve ever worked with who didn’t have this energy of like, “You don’t know what you’re doing, but I do. So I’m going to come up with all these ideas and I’m going to turn your lyrics into music.” He’s always had this way of respecting and carving out the vision with me, instead of imposing his own vision upon it. And also, I love his visions. I think he’s one of the most playful musicians and writers that I’ve ever met.

    I think that what he likes about working with me is that I’m not primarily a musician. And so, everything is kind of new and exciting and fun for me. And. I don’t know what I’m doing. [laughs] I mean, I say that now, I’ve been saying that for like five years, and I’ve been making my own records for five years. So, yeah, I know a little bit more about what I’m doing now. But, like, I didn’t go to music school. And I think it’s fun for him to work with someone who has ideas that don’t necessarily conform to songwriting form all the time. I think that when we collaborate, it does have a unique thing.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Jackie Cohen’s Pratfall is out now via Earth Libraries.

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