Jackie Cohen

The US songstress creating dreamy soundscapes for over-feelers
By Clementine Zawadzki | Music | 4 July 2018

Photography by Anise Lew

Top image: Photography by Anise Lew

Swapping California’s San Fernando Valley for the New York City’s concrete jungle to study literature, musician Jackie Cohen found the experience to be everything a twenty-something searches for and embraces when looking for a philosophy of their own. Penning her own poetry and spoken word pieces, soon Cohen found herself experimenting with other mediums, performing her pieces and morphing them into the sort of anti-folk gems that feature on the LA-native’s debut EP, Tacoma Night Terror Part 1: I’ve Got the Blues.

The eagle-eyed may have spotted her singing and dancing up a storm with Foxygen over the years, a chapter instrumental in Cohen embracing her love of performing and taking the stage solo. Produced by Jonathan Rado, with The Lemon Twigs in tow lending their talents, Cohen’s debut offering is a capsule of this period. Between heartfelt moments, a wild imagination, and a bit of eye rolling, Cohen’s own brand of pop turns what she endearingly calls ‘journal entries’ into stardust, echoing the sentiments of many young women who have just cut their hair super short, spent too long on Tinder, or started an 80s Jane Fonda phase.

Clementine Zawadzki: Hi Jackie, how’s your afternoon going?
Jackie Cohen: I’ve just been hanging out. I’ve been catching up on my Harry Potter. I’ve been re-reading the whole series, and today I started the seventh and final book. It’s a lot of fun as an adult to go back to something I liked as a kid, because it’s a lot different now. Harry Potter was kind of a brat in 5th and 6th year of school, and I didn’t notice before because I was also a brat.

CZ: The same with Ferris Bueller, he actually wasn’t that much of a cool guy when you really look at it
JC: For sure, he like really peer-pressured his friend!

CZ: Now, you’re in LA. Did you also grow up there?
JC: Yeah, I grew up in Agoura Hills, California, which is like 40 mins north of Hollywood. That’s where I met Sam and Rado; we all went to the same high school there. Once I graduated I had to go to school in New York because, you know, that’s where you went if you wanted to be a writer or a poet or an intellectual or something like that, and I was really ambitious coming out of high school… I guess for a lot of people, it’s the first time you have any real freedom. You get out of high school and you’re not under your parents watch so much anymore, and everyone’s been telling you your whole life how you have to become ‘the’ person you’re going to become now.

CZ: Was New York a positive experience for you?
JC: I feel like its sort of cliché to say this, but I have a very love/hate relationship with New York. It’s like my favourite city in the world and I loved living there, but as I continued in college I started feeling more and more grateful for my breaks when I’d come home to my parents’ house, sitting by the pool in the middle of winter and eating ice-cream. I started to really miss California, and having space, I was feeling very cluttered over there. I just really need to have time to decompress…

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that getting into something like music – where it’s a stressful, changeable lifestyle – wouldn’t be a good idea for me, because I’m always the most sensitive person in the room.”

Photography by Anise Lew

CZ: Did studying literature feed into the music you began to make at the time?
JC: Definitely! I was consuming a lot of books and poetry and was developing a deeper interest in music. I started watching a lot of people go down the road of music, wondering if I had an interest in it or not, playing around with singing some of my poems and experimenting with other mediums, so I think everything has a lot to do with everything else.

CZ: What does being an ‘over-feeler’ mean to you?
JC: Well, I’m a Cancer [laughs] and I’ve had a lot of people tell me that getting into something like music – where it’s a stressful, changeable lifestyle – wouldn’t be a good idea for me, because I’m always the most sensitive person in the room. I have a hard time in situations that aren’t just stressful for me, but for anybody else too. It’s hard for me to not get completely absorbed in other people’s feelings, so as much time as I spend worrying about my own life – which is a lot, because I’m sort of a wound-up person – I spend the same amount of time and energy worrying about everyone else’s lives too, just trying to protect everybody and mother everybody, and I’m always all up in everybody’s business [laughs].

CZ: Surely those qualities only aid your songwriting and the way people can relate to it?
JC: It’s kind of surprising for me sometimes when people like the songs, because to me, they still sort of just sound silly in a way, like journal entries or something, and it’s funny to me when someone hears that and they’re like, “Cool song!” it doesn’t really sound like music to me.

CZ: Is this the very first time you’ve done anything as a soloist?
JC: Yeah, and I’m glad it’s happening now, because if I put this record out a couple of years ago when I first made it, I don’t think I would’ve been emotionally ready to start promoting my own stuff. But I’m 25 – going to be 26 soon – and I’m just starting to figure out how to talk about myself in a positive way and with confidence to a degree, which is really important. You have to be able to say, “I like the thing that I did.”

CZ: What’s it been like to have this collection of songs waiting in the wings?
JC: For about six months or more after it was done, I kept wanting to make changes and edit it to death… I can be a really obsessive editor, and after a while of sitting on it and tweaking it and worrying if certain things weren’t perfect or not how I intended, I talked to Rado about it and he was just like, “You’ve got to stop touching it.” So I just put it on Bandcamp, which was sort of a relief for Michael and Brian [D’Addario, The Lemon Twigs] too, because Brian was like a little sad for a long time when we finished the record and we didn’t do anything with it, because everyone really liked it and I was the only one who was stressing about it.

CZ: Has music and what it entails helped you deal with your anxiety?
JC: It can be a bit of both. It definitely feels good to finish a song… I think the most stressful thing about it for me is the gaps between songs, when I feel like I’m not writing something. I love performing, I was always involved in theatre and I always wanted to be on stage. I’ve been doing it for a lot of years now – like in Foxygen – and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to put my stuff out, so I could start playing solos. As our last tour was wrapping up, I had to make a decision about what I was going to do next… if I was going to find another job or find another band to be in. I just had to work out if I was a ‘music person’ now, or off-tour and onto the next thing. It’s a different animal when it’s my stuff; I felt very comfortable when I was a back-up singer and now it’s like, “Ahhh,” the focus is on me and I’m not used to that.

CZ: On one hand your songs really feed into feelings, but the other side has that performance aspect. Tell me about the video for Darlin’… it seems both blend really well here…
JC: I’m really happy with the way that video turned out, because it’s the first video I’ve ever done. It was sort of thrown together really quickly and I’m really lucky I have friends that know what they’re doing. I had an idea of the way I wanted things to look and what I wanted the themes or motifs to be, and I presented that to my friend Anise [Mariko], who is a really good visual artist, and she’s also a great model – which is an asset for me because she can tell me, “Tilt your chin up a little, you look weird.” I don’t have a ton of consciousness in that way; I don’t know how to make myself look good, but Anise knows. I set up a room in my house to look a little interesting (or something) and my Dad helped me rig this giant green screen that we put in our back bedroom, and Anise and I just messed around and collected footage, which I then sent to my friend, Danny Lacy, who does really cool analogue video editing. He uses machinery to edit in that distorted VHS style. It was really fun for me because they’d never worked together before and I was really curious to see how their styles would mesh. I felt like a good tastemaker or something [laughs].

CZ: Do the four tracks on the EP relate to each other in any way? Is there a concept or are they their own little pocket stories?
JC: When I originally recorded it, it was just as a whole, and it had eight songs. Now we’re putting it out in two parts, and each part has a little subtitle, so the one coming out on 29 June is called I’ve Got The Blues. I guess these first four songs – to me – had a little bit more of a melancholy feel to them, whereas the second-half is a little more… I don’t want to say manic necessarily, but it has a different energy to it. In my mind, the first-half was blue and the second-half was a little green, so that’s how they’re grouped together.

CZ: What influenced these tracks?
JC: I’d just gotten out of school, so I didn’t really want to read anything new, I was sort of stewing in the last year of college which was a lot of Roland Barthes, who’s this semiotician, and I’d worked with his book A Lover’s Discourse a lot, and I was re-reading that and I think I was probably listening to a lot of music Rado was listening to [laughs]. I was spending a lot of time sitting at a piano for ten hours trying to learn a couple of new chords, and I think that’s something that’s really interesting about the EP; it’s sort of unmusical or uneducated musically, in a way, because I wrote most of the songs while I was learning how to play. If I learned three chords that day, those were the three chords that are in the song and I wrote the song that day too. I think that I’m the least jaded person in the music industry that I know, everything is still super new to me and everything is exciting and shiny, even though I’ve seen the exhausting parts of being in the music world, but to me, I just want to be here.

CZ: Your music is like Nancy Sinatra meets Jane Fonda if they were a part of the millennial era.
JC: Oh hell yeah! That’s my vibe 100 percent.

CZ: And you’re going on tour with Alex Cameron soon…
JC: Yeah, I’m really excited! The last time I was on tour with Alex was when he was opening up for Foxygen, and so now it feels poetic or something, that now I’m going out for the first time supporting him.

Follow Jackie Cohen on Facebook and Instagram.
Tacoma Night Terror Part 1: I’ve Got the Blues is out now. 

Read Next