On April 28th, Anna Coogan releases her operatic rock album The Lonely Cry of Space & Time. Addressing many big political points in a beautiful – and instrumentally colossal – way, we’ve been infatuated with the eleven track stunner since we first pressed “play” on it. We are hosting the exclusive full album stream leading up to its release, along with a fun – and super eye-opening – interview with the talented Coogan herself.
What was the first song or album you remember listening to, and who introduced it to you?
One of the first pieces I remember listening to and loving was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the orchestral version, which opens with this killer French horn solo. There is something about the themes of that piece, how they weave in and out of the greater whole, disappearing and re-appearing, culminating in that fantastic and incredibly dramatic finale, that grabbed me as a young child and has stayed with me until this day. I think my parents, probably my dad, introduced me to this, in the North End of Boston in the mid-1980’s. I think the first CD my dad ever bought was West Side Story, and that burned a hole in my musical heart that will never fade.
Does that song or album have any bearing on your sound now?
It really does. With this new record, I let the themes; lyrical, musical, and textural, weave the seemingly un-related songs together, just as Mussorgsky wrote about the different paintings. Willie and I have been writing together for several years, and never really stuck to just one style, so it took a while for the record to take shape thematically. Once we started scoring films (with Ithacan Michael Stark on keyboards), things started to come into focus for us on what our sound is, and how we wanted to present that sound, both live and on the record.
Was there a defining moment when you realized you wanted to pursue music in your life?
I think I always figured I would eventually move away from pursuing music, do something more useful with my life, as I’ve always been a practical person. I left opera school to study biology, because it seemed more practical and I couldn’t envision a life of auditions. I worked as a biologist for quite a few years, which allowed me to save money to take on the risk of becoming a full-time musician. At this point though, most of my career skills are in music. I teach, I perform, I score, and I just get up each day and do it again. I don’t know if there was ever one point where I realized this was what I wanted to do, as I’ve always wanted to be a performer since I was a young kid. It’s more like when I realized this is what I was doing. I’m much pretty much a lifer at this point.
You guys have a very unique, futuristic sound. Is this something you went into the project intending to create, or is it something that just kind of happened naturally?
I think Willie B is really a driving force in the futuristic sound, with his use of Moog synthesizers. When we toured with a bass player (JD Foster), the songs took on a more traditional Americana vibe. But once you introduce these strange frequencies, overtones, and filter sweeps to the bass, what might otherwise have been a normal chord progression starts to sound pretty far-out. I spent a lot of time with my mentor Johnny Dowd, playing with pedal sounds and over drive and delays, so I love creating that sort of spacy texture. I’m touring with a very simple pedal board right now- fuzz, overdrive, delay, boost and a tuner- but have spent a lot of time in the world of flangers, phasers, octaves, what have you.
Do you think being from New York state has influenced your sound or your musical persona at all?
Living in Ithaca has brought a lot of peace to my life and writing, and given me a good mental space to create. It’s a small town, you can walk everywhere, and I’ve been lucky enough to develop a wonderful group of creative collaborators. Everybody I know is creating some kind of art- and no one is really making any money off of it, so the stakes are lower than in the bigger cities. I spend most of my time teaching music, with my two corgis at my side, surrounded by water in pretty much every direction. I think Upstate New York is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I count myself deeply lucky to get to live there. Also, it’s only a five hour bus to the city (NYC), so there is always an escape when the small town gets too small, which it can, especially in the depth of winter.
The Lonely Cry of Space and Time is out on April 28th. So soon. What are you most excited about with this release?
This release has been in the works for a long time, and I am excited to finally get it out into the world. It’s so easy to get lost in the business side of things, the long hours emailing and sending posters and promoting shows and arranging tour logistics. My mind gets blown by making so many decisions, usually at about 6 AM. By the time, I get to the actual tour, it’s just such a sheer joy to play, and I remember why the hell I made the record in the first place. Willie and I are on the West Coast right now, preparing for a series of shows in the next few months, getting the gear sorted out and hitting the road to Portland, OR tomorrowmorning. It’s worth the long slog of tour prep to finally hit those first notes.
We know this album has some very interesting social commentary in it. What do you think is the most important issue addressed?
I think that changes by the day, in this rough and tumble news cycle. If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have probably said the most important themes were about global warming, the middle east, and our role in the world as individuals. Now, I think the most important theme is hope. It’s the scientists in The Lonely Cry of Space and Time searching for a signal from the dawn of time. It’s swimming until you find the shore. It’s that no matter how dark it may seem right now, we must cling to the light and keep fighting, resisting, and believing in a better future, and God willing letting some cool heads prevail. It’s also reminder how great art comes out of turbulent times, and how all of us artists should be doubling down on creating right now.
Is there anything you’d like to address that you weren’t able to in The Lonely Cry of Space and Time? (Here’s your platform!)
I feel that the best way for me to express anything has always been musically and lyrically. I struggle to articulate outside of that medium, as anyone who has phone interviewed me could attest. But I think this world, despite all the trauma and fear and warming, is worth saving, and humanity, even though we can be real shits, is worth fighting for. I personally would like to put aside some of my fear and anxiety and create for as long as I am able.
Your sound is very ethereal… we feel as though we’re floating in space listening to it. Do you find that playing with dissonance in some of these tracks was something you were going for, or did it just kind of happen organically?
I think it was a combination. I did try to change up my approach to chord progressions on this one (how many times can an Eb chord be used on a record? A lot, it turns out.) Willie’s great at putting together unusual melodies (he wrote several prominent lead lines on the record, and co-wrote several of the songs), and we kind of pushed each other to dig deeper into the progressions and tone and vibe. Some of the songs just presented themselves that way- for example, “If You Were the Sun” originally appeared as a jazz-standard style piece in The Fall of the House of Usher. We revisited the track at the end of the movie, with only vocals and synthesizers, and I fell in love with that version- operatic, melodic vocals over these deeply atonal sounds. But I try to let the songs dictate- it’s easy to become trapped in the “is this weird enough?” trap. Willie is good at pulling us back when it becomes clear we are trying too hard. Those songs don’t make it far.
Any fun anecdotes from the production process?
This was one of the most focused studio sessions I have ever witnessed. Matthew Saccuccimorano, our engineer, knew exactly how he wanted to capture the sound, and Willie B knew exactly what he wanted to play, and there was surprisingly little banter. We probably don’t even have a great set of outtakes for this one, the “swear tracks”, because Willie kept nailing his takes. (I’m sure I had a few bouts of foul language.) We had a lot of fun choosing different amps for the guitars (we had a Fender Reverb Deluxe on each side, and stuck a “for fun” amp in the middle for each song.) It was truly a wall of sound in there. I’ve never recorded electric guitar before on an album, and it was glorious. I am very hungry for more.
Do you have a favorite track off the album?
I think my favorite song is the title track. I wrote this piece for the finale of the film Aelita, Queen of Mars, and it is one of the few songs that truly was written about joy, hope, and science. I love the synthesizer bass swells and the drum machine that filters in and out. This was one of those rare songs that came more- or- less in one piece, sort of a cosmic gift. I get one of those once every few years and they seem so precious. A lot of other songs took a fair amount of trial and error and banging out, and sometimes I can feel that in the performance.
Who is your favorite super villain, and why?
Mama Rose, in Gypsy. She’s so passionate and wants so much out of life, but she can’t seem to get to it without ripping her family apart and driving everyone crazy. It’s a feeling I’m familiar with, minus the vaudeville children. My own passion, anxiety, and drive can sometimes drive myself and those I love crazy.
Who would you collaborate with if you could – any medium – and what would you create together?
I know nothing about the world of dance, and I am a tragically bad dancer, but I think having my pieces choreographed is about the height of creative success for me. I had a group at Mercy Hurst College in PA dance to one of my tunes, which was incredible. I’ve got a friend in Holland, Mark Lotterman, who has teamed with artists around the world to create this insane and ongoing multi-media collection, which I think is brilliant. His songs are inspiring industrial design, visual design, dance, you name it. I think I may try something like this in the future. The internet opens up the world of possibility to this sort of thing.
What would be on your ultimate rider list?
All my years of touring have ground down the list. A nice place to sleep, decent food, and some drinks and my band is good to go. And a juice bar would be nice, a la Keith Jarrett.
What’s down the funnel for you in 2017?
I just signed with a booking agency (Mile One Touring) and for the first time in many years will not be in charge of my own booking. I’m hoping to get out on the road a lot more often than in past (booking has always slowed me down.) I’ve got a vinyl release this fall, and a tour of Europe and the UK in October, a movie to score for November, and a whole bunch of teaching to do to help pay for the record expenses. There is an incredible freedom in DIY, but that means I’m the one who has to pay the piper.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Massive thanks to Willie B and Matthew Saccuccimorano, without whom none of this would have happened. Johnny Dowd, Mary Lorson, Beverly Stokes, JD Foster, and my husband Brooks Miner have also provided me with incredible inspiration, assistance, and sometimes just the will to keep going and not throw the towel into the toilet. Or whatever the metaphor would be. And thanks for these thoughtful questions!
Anna Coogan Tour Dates:
April 27 – Brooklyn, NY – Barbes
April 29 – Syracuse, NY – Funk N Waffles
May 05 – Ithaca, NY – The Haunt
May 13 – Buffalo, NY – The Tudor Lounge
June 03 – New York, NY – Rockwood Music Hall
June 24 – Santa Cruz, CA – The Crepe Place
June 25 – Roseville, CA – The Acoustic Den Cafe