Rediscovering Poetry: Cocorosie Takes Refuge in Heartache City

Nina Mashurova

Cocorosie Heartache City

Beneath the Williamsburg Bridge during a recent interview, Bianca Casady seems tired. Not of music—she talks easily about Heartache City, a minimal and inscrutable album that foregrounds Bianca’s deft wordplay and the eerily beautiful singing voice of her sister, Sierra Casady—but of the media. She doesn’t want to talk about politics. She doesn’t want to talk about her childhood.

Bianca’s guard is justifiably up. Cocorosie, a group formed by the siblings in 2003, has endured the media spin cycle a dozen times over. Their first record, La maison de mon reve drew a special kind of adulation from fans. A twisted femme fairytale, it was impure and fragile, precious and hardened, queer and dark as childhood, laced with deep longing and darksided sexuality. It struck the same chord as that part of Virgin Suicides where the doctor asks Cecilia why she would jump out of her window and she responds, “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” At the same time, it drew virulent loathing from critics. The Pitchfork review accused the sisters of “lazy romanticism,” of being “transparent and derivative,” and ended with the line, “was a woman who thought she was well-dressed ever cold?” In short, the kinds of condescending accusations self-serious men hurl at women they believe are making unserious art.

Over the course of the past decade, Cocorosie has developed and fleshed out their craft, making bigger and more ambitious albums. 2005’s Noah’s Arc felt minimal but less precious. From 2007’s Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn through 2010’s Grey Oceans and 2013’s Tales of A Grass Widow, the sisters’ sense of psychedelia expanded to incorporate complex beats and nature samples, which complemented and textured their capacity for beguiling stories.

Still, Cocorosie’s past dogged the artists. Their reception centered on the weird sister aesthetic, zany stage presentation, and nomadic southwestern childhood. “We were pushed by this thing being rolled behind us,” Bianca says. “People want a story. This picture of us in a bathtub—how is that enough to be a story with substance? Plus the way that it gets mythologized, I’m finally like, I’m not going to support this. When do we get to grow up?”

Last fall, they tried for something different, joining forces with Antony Hegarty, Kembra Pfahler and Johanna Constantine to host the exhibition Future Feminism at The Hole, a downtown gallery. The exhibition combined visual art with a performance and lecture series featuring Laurie Anderson, Anne Carson, and Juliana Huxtable, among others, who explored ecofeminism, deconstruction of gender roles and gendered language, and the central idea that “the future is female.”

The reception was mixed. “It was really intense—doing such overtly political work kind of invites the critics to really go for it,” Bianca says. “Usually they’re a little more confused. All of us as artists are kind of political artists but it’s all much more encrypted in the music.“ She’s vague about the nature of the criticism, but I suspect it has something to do with their arriving new to the conversation, coming from embodied experience rather than from a historically situated theoretical context.

On their latest, Heartbreak City, Cocorosie has pulled back in every way possible. The album, self-released this September, was recorded with acoustic instruments on a 4-track in their farmhouse in the south of France and mixed by a friend in Buenos Aires. It’s deliberately pared down, recorded without effects for the first time since La Maison.

It’s like rediscovering poetry—feeling all this conviction and intention behind words

“It felt like it was going to be a challenge for us to do that,” says Bianca. “We had been having so much fun in the studios doing this sort of infinite treasure hunt tracking, like, ‘What’s gonna happen next? Let’s reverse it!’ getting really kind of wild with the digital production. It was great. But I think we were like, ‘What would happen if we just cut that all out? It was difficult at first. We wanted to use all these tricks that we got familiar with. It was kind of a weird exercise for us, breaking that addiction. And now I feel like we really did it, we stopped using loops and there’s no synths and the vocal effects are just to make our voices sound more fucked up. There’s no delay. Suddenly it’s a new effect in itself. It’s like not wearing makeup.”

To fill up the space available in the newly minimal tracks, Bianca pursued trickier rhythms, crafting tongue twisters, nursery rhymes, and associative dream verse. “It’s been very fun performing it already,” she smiles, “It’s like rediscovering poetry—feeling all this conviction and intention behind words.”

Most of the content was assembled through automatic writing—going on walks, collecting sensory detail, linguistic idiosyncrasies and nonsense words that fell into place almost of their own volition. After the clarity of the Future Feminism project seemed to have missed its mark, Heartache City is a return to ambiguity. The duo describes it as nostalgic, youthful, and romantic. Once again, the sisters find a home in the contradictory territory of emotional rather than intellectual knowledge.

That’s not to say that the album lacks concrete ideas. Moments of truth shine through, most notably on “Lost Girls”, a protective plea for “witches confused by their own magic, witches displeased by their own perfume, shame-locked women, shaman women, fuming with shame.” The song intertwines desire and danger, power and vulnerability. It delves in magic but its central concern is deeply material. “I don’t want to exclude guys because plenty of them have had their own hard times but it’s sort of [about] the female experience: having to–no matter where you come from–grow up really watching our backs. I feel like a lot of people take that for granted, like, ‘Yeah, men were trying to get me in their car.’ It forces you to grow up really young and become aware of all this stuff. We have this image of running away and this constant kind of danger living in the female body.”

Speaking candidly about feminism didn’t come intuitively to the Casadys. The sisters did not grow up with riot grrrl. They spent their youth wary of anything that bore feminism as a label, demonized as it was in the world around them. “There were all these forces, all of this culture that told me that all this stuff was lame. It took me until my thirties to start to own that language, even though my mom was a really powerful woman and I feel like everything I’ve always done has been really feminist.”

Instead, their feminism grew from connecting with other female artists, many of whom shared the unconscious resistance to owning feminism. Together they strove to seek out and challenge the internalized attitude’s root. “Maybe it means something else for them to say that they’re not [feminists]. Maybe it’s their way of not being marginalized,” Bianca muses. “But I started thinking, it’s not a small margin, we’re talking about half the population. It shouldn’t be this little special studies program, it’s big!”

The other noticeably political track is “Big and Black”, a song about someone who was shot down for appearing as such. “It must be hard being big and black,” the song demures, “giving everyone a heart attack.” “I notice that people put the words ‘big and black’ together a lot,” explains Bianca. “People don’t say ‘big white guy’ a lot, it’s usually ‘big black guy.’ So that song is about the monsterization of the big black man.”

It’s an interesting inclusion, considering their famously dodgy history with addressing race. La Maison’s “Jesus Loves Me” contained a casually thrown in racial slur. In transgressing the boundaries of acceptable pop womanhood, Bianca’s drag veered more and more into appropriations of black masculinity, a fascination she pursued not only in performance but in visual art, as with the Daisy Chain exhibition. This tendency was contemplated seriously by Nitsuh Abebe, discussed and dismissed by a panel of (white) contemporaries, and blasted on forums. Their feminism, detractors argued, lacked intersectional analysis.

When I bring it up, Bianca dismisses their critics, saying “That’s what art is supposed to do—hold space to talk about this shit and work it out.” Later though, she sounds more regretful. “Now I’m almost looking at the work and going ‘what the hell have I been doing? Do I think I’m black?’ I’m coming around the other side and seeing what it looks like.”

Perhaps as a nod to that, “Big and Black” is written in the third person, situating the narrator as witness. The observation feels especially poignant in light of this past year, specifically as it relates to Darren Wilson’s characterizations of Michael Brown as a literal hulking demon. But when I mention the similarity to Bianca, she seems to be only faintly aware of it.

The thing is, the Casady sisters do not keep up with news. They are not on Twitter, barely on Facebook. They steer clear of the internet. At a time when artists are viewed against a deeply political backdrop which develops chiefly in digital spaces, it seems irresponsible. And yet, thinking of the untethered quality that first lured me to the Cocorosie dreamworld, I wonder whether someone steeped in the thinkpiece industrial complex could have ever written a song like “Beautiful Boyz” or “By Your Side”, and what my teen music landscape would have looked like then.

The title track of Heartache City is anchored in handclaps and Sierra’s ethereal crooning. The heartache city is a town in Arizona from the Casady childhood. It’s a motel with a neon sign, a place in the collective unconscious. It’ also a nowhere place. “They circle me with genders and colors flickering,” murmurs Bianca on “Forget Me Not”, a song imagining infinite possibilities. The narrator aches to remember her way to a place where she feels less trapped.

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