You could peg Gabriella Cohen as a singer-songwriter but just as easily you could cast her as a frontperson in a rock ‘n’ roll band. If you asked her she’d probably tell you she wasn’t sure. She’s spontaneous.
Gabriella makes records. Two so far. Both not enough people have heard. Pink Is The Colour Of Unconditional Love is the latest.
Originally from Brisbane, she’s spent the last two years taking her music abroad. She’s toured the US, with Foxygen. Jonathon Rado praises her as, “one of the great Cohens of our time.”
It’s true. She’s part of that Cohen lineage as like Leonard before her, this artist knows how to interrogate miserable moments. Some of the best songs of Pink are the ones on which she’s most overpoweringly heartsick.
You might also say she’s itinerant. In keeping with this idea, she confesses that she’ll soon be leaving. Once again to the US, but this time more permanently…
We spoke with Gabriella Cohen up at BIGSOUND about Neil Young guitar solos, hanging with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and her impending move to America.
HAPPY: Last time we chatted was here at BIGSOUND two years ago! Can you fill me in on what’s been happening since?
GABRIELLA: I’ve stopped smoking cigarettes, started doing exercise in the morning…
HAPPY: Clean living!
GABRIELLA: Clean living! I’m really happy about that. And, I recorded a new album!
HAPPY: I was talking to Steve Kilbey from The Church the other day about this idea of being a classicist, someone who sees themselves carrying on more in the tradition of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones than any kind of modern zeitgeist. I could see your work being thought of in that way too. Do you see yourself as a classicist?
GABRIELLA: Um well yeah that’s very desirable isn’t it? It’s much more desirable for me personally than being ‘in trend’. There’s lots of amazing bands around but I reckon they’ve got pretty short lifespans.
HAPPY: Do you feel some imperative to go against that? Or is that simply the way that you are? Sorry if I’m grilling you on this…
GABRIELLA: Oh no, it’s a really interesting topic. But the thing is, at the end of the day, it’s going to be up to the people how they perceive what you do and if they think you’ve got any credibility to last.
HAPPY: It’s weird what lasts. Have you seen that Toto are going to play Falls Festival?
GABRIELLA: Oh yeah! Isn’t that one-hit wonder? Africa? I hate that song!
HAPPY: But the song stayed around so long it’s taken on a life of its own. It became a meme! Who could have seen that coming in 1982?
HAPPY: Do you think anything you could write would kick around for another 20 or 30 years?
GABRIELLA: Yeah for sure! I’m still yet to sell songs and be a ghostwriter to people, I’d love to do that.
HAPPY: It should happen – you’re a fantastic songwriter! I mean you’ve got this new album, Pink Is The Colour Of Unconditional Love…
GABRIELLA: It’s a mouthful isn’t it?
HAPPY: There’s these lyrics, “I’m lost and confused/I feel overused.” Misery seems to be an emotion you that really interrogate in your songs. Is that something you would agree with?
GABRIELLA: I’m still in my infancy when it comes to songwriting so it’s not a topic that I’m consciously delving into. I’d say that it’s still immature love that I’m writing about – I can’t wait to expand but right now it’s where I’m at.
HAPPY: Also, you have these tracks like Hi Fidelity, which are sort of upbeat. I guess what I’m saying is that Pink has a lot of emotional contours. Do you think it has a cohesive theme or narrative?
GABRIELLA: I don’t know, I hope so! Do you reckon it does? I have no idea! I just stuck the colourful songs that I wanted to see together and put them on a record. You know who does do the whole conceptual storyline narrative? [Bandmate and Full Flower Moon’s] Kate [‘Babyshakes’ Dillon]! Have you listened to her new record Chinatown?
HAPPY: I have.
GABRIELLA: That is a piece of art. My stuff is more… spontaneous! Boom boom, get it over with!
HAPPY: The focus so far has tended to be on you, but you do have this great band backing you up too. Kate and two other gentlemen whose names I don’t know of the top of my head…
GABRIELLA: Arun [Roberts] and Danny [Ogilive]!
HAPPY: Well how does that all hang together? Are they your backing band or is there a lot of collaboration to what you do?
GABRIELLA: I write all the music and they play everything. Hi Fidelity is the only song we’ve collaborated on. We wrote that together. But the thing is I have so much backlog that I just need an amazing band that I can go to [clicks fingers].
HAPPY: So you’re a fairly prolific songwriter?
HAPPY: What sparks you off? Are there moments in your life where you’re like, “I’ve just got to write this down right now”?
GABRIELLA: It’s usually when I’m walking at a pedestrian crossing, without my phone to voice memo.
HAPPY: So it’s a spontaneous sort of creativity?
HAPPY: This is why I think there is a kind of narrative to Pink. There’s a lot of references to the USA!
GABRIELLA: Yeah, right? There is!
HAPPY: You were touring there for quite a while. To me, it feels like some of that experience was feeding the writing that went into the album.
GABRIELLA: Well yeah. We’ve been there like four times now, which is such a privilege. We’ve toured more in America than we have Australia! Which is kind of ridiculous but my partner (at the time) was American. So that was fuelling the whole thing, the [heightens voice dramatically] young love! “I’m on the top side of the world!”
HAPPY: Well it must seem larger than life especially coming from a place like Brisbane!
GABRIELLA: It is larger than life, that’s a good way to put it!
HAPPY: Coming from here you hear about these artists and bands, then you go someplace else, to the big cities, and they’re just really like any other people you see at concerts or on the street…
GABRIELLA: They’re just people!
HAPPY: But I think anywhere that’s more remote, not one of these big cultural hubs, there’s almost this bigger element of myth. People have larger imaginations! I mean what was that experience like for you?
GABRIELLA: It was just like the movies. I was just like, “Wow!” and then like, “Wow!”. Everything was like that, it still is, but now I guess I don’t freak out as much when I see like a hero sitting next to me in a café because they’re just people and they just happen to live there. It’s just more concentrated, the heroes are all in the one place.
HAPPY: There’s also a song on the record called Neil Young Goes Crazy. Your favourite Neil Young album or song and maybe some insight into the choice of title?
GABRIELLA: Tonight’s the Night. Kate and I listened to that the whole time we were recording Pink Is The Colour. You know that “Tonight’s the niggghht!” That record and On The Beach. Both of them are like… I have a great affinity for those two records.
HAPPY: So your own song’s title…
GABRIELLA: It was just such a direct rip-off! When I’m saving things as demos I just type whatever. I just typed Neil Young Goes Crazy because the original solo was just really [imitates grinding Neil Young-type guitar].
HAPPY: He’s an expressive guitar player!
GABRIELLA: Isn’t he? The way he solos on his guitars, he’s talking! His guitar is talking. You can sing each note. Like you know the solo in Down By The River? [Imitates solo].
HAPPY: That’s what your song sort of reminded me of! Epic 20-minute Neil Young. You know it’s funny how his rockier albums are probably the ones that are really well known today but they never sold anywhere near as well as his big country albums, so he always had this kind of weird dichotomy going on. Is that something you think about? How people perceive your ‘style’?
GABRIELLA: I don’t know how people perceive what it is. I don’t know what they get!
HAPPY: So it’s not about doctoring or cultivating an image for you? Sorry, that’s probably a terrible way to put it…
GABRIELLA: No, I’d love to! But I feel like I lost my chance. I feel like I should have cultivated my image ages ago and now I’m just going on… I don’t know what people think! I guess it’s a good thing.
HAPPY: What do you think people respond to most in what you’re doing?
GABRIELLA: Live performances.
HAPPY: But you know I think you make really great albums, to be honest! Not to dismiss your live performance…
GABRIELLA: Oh no it’s fine! I’m just confused to what… It’s better not to internalise it at the moment you know what I mean? It’s better just to do it. You know what it’s like!
HAPPY: I love over-internalising stuff, but I understand that if you’re a performer or entertainer alongside being an artist as well you can really start second guessing yourself…
GABRIELLA: 100 percent!
HAPPY: So you’ve toured a bit with Foxygen…
GABRIELLA: They’re the best!
HAPPY: I’ve just been listening to some new albums that Jonathan Rado produced…
GABRIELLA: He’s amazing!
HAPPY: He seems like a difficult person to get to work with but. Would you ever consider recording with him as a producer?
GABRIELLA: Yeah! 100 percent. Difficult because you mean he’s booked up?
HAPPY: That’s right.
GABRIELLA: I guess he just gets all his friends, the wider community of musicians. But he’s one of the most loveliest guys I have met, definitely a really stand-up guy! [Affecting a New Jersey accent] A pretty stand up guy!
HAPPY: I think he puts the stamp on a record, even if you don’t know it’s him you can hear it.
GABRIELLA: All analogue as well. We had the pleasure, surprisingly, of going into his studio in LA. Me and Kate were trying to borrow a guitar when we first moved there. It was like going into this glorious, underground – it was like in containers! There were bells everywhere, material draping for the ceiling. It was just really magical, and they were recording a Foxygen record. There was a really schmick producer there, we Googled him later and we were like, “Holy shit! He’s done like all of these people!” So, uh, that was cool. And Sam France was in there and he was like, “Oh yeah, we’re just like recording the new Foxygen record.” It was really surreal!
HAPPY: You’re heading back to the States very soon, New York! What else is coming next?
GABRIELLA: We’re going and then we’re coming back to play Mullum Music Fest, Jungle Love and End of the Line Festival which is in Brisbane. It’s going to be good. And then! I’m moving to America! I just got the visa for three years!
HAPPY: They’re not easy to get, how did you manage that?
GABRIELLA: It’s hard. But I want to do it so that’s going to happen in February.
Pink Is The Colour of Unconditional Love is out now via Dot Dash/Remote Control.
You can catch Gabriella on tour in the States right now, check out her website for tour dates.