April 28th sees the release of ‘The Lonely Cry of Space and Time‘, the latest offering from that musical shape-shifter Anna Coogan. As hinted at in the album’s press release, this is not intended to be an easy listen…it is for those who are unafraid to contemplate their place in the universe. From rising oceans to seeking other worlds, her songs are thought-provoking and challenging. The more I read about Anna the more I wanted to talk to her. I knew she was busy, but luckily for us at least, there was two feet of snow on the ground and the city was shut down so she picked up her pen to answer my questions.
Anna Coogan Interview
Hi Anna, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Thank you so much!
Before talking about the themes in your new album ‘The Lonely Cry of Space and Time,’ can we start by talking about how the idea for this album came about? I guess, from reading some of the things you’ve said, that this has been a very deep and personal journey?
It’s been a long journey to get this to press- the longest time I’ve taken to create a record. A few years ago, I reached a dead end with what I was doing musically. For many artists, those dead ends can be the end of the road, or a total rebirth. I wavered on that edge for a good long while. My self-worth got a little too wrapped up in digital metrics and career stuff, and it took a long time to unwind those two. It’s an ongoing struggle, I’ll admit.
At the same time, all these interesting projects started popping up. I started teaching voice (see below), and playing as a sideman in local bands (Johnny Dowd and Mary Lorson). I got hired to score a silent film even though I didn’t have a clue how to do it. (I didn’t tell the booker that.) Through these projects, “The Lonely Cry of Space and Time” started taking shape in my mind and hands. Around the same time, Willie B and I began to work as a duo after touring with JD Foster on bass. We set a recording date for the summer of 2016, and stuck with it.
Am I right in thinking you also work as a vocal coach? You’ve referred to the album as operatic rock and it’s clearly a big change from the acoustic Americana you’re maybe best known for but it’s also allowed you to use your classical voice training. That must have been a powerful experience?
Yes, my day job is as a vocal coach/voice teacher. I’ve been teaching voice for about 5 years now, and it’s changed my relationship with music. For one thing, I’m sitting in front of a piano all day, listening and teaching everything from Mozart and Brahms to “Frozen” (soooo much “Frozen.”) My young kids bring me all sorts of pop music I would have never heard otherwise- and, with a few exceptions, it’s great stuff, totally inspirational for a songwriter. (Who’d have thought I’d enjoy Justin Bieber so much? Ditto Italian art songs?) Until teaching, I had never realized that I could combine both of my musical histories- the songwriter and the opera singer- in a way that made any sense. The first time I ever performed the classical-rock combo—for my live film score for The Fall of the House of Usher — it felt so freeing and emotional, and the groundwork for this new chapter was laid.
The album was made in the run up to the 2016 US election and some of the songs are very affected by those events. We’ll touch on the environment in a moment, but did you find that the making of the album became a cathartic experience?
I have struggled for years to put any sort of social commentary or activism into lyrics that weren’t totally on-the-nose and cheesy. My favorite song of all time, The Crucifixion by Phil Ochs, is a protest song, and it’s also a stunning piece of poetry, so it can be done. The social commentary in this record took shape slowly, over the course of a few years. As the rhetoric in the outside world started to heat up, so did the songs. I’m not sure how cathartic it was- I’m still awfully anxious about the state of things—but at least I’ve got some of my thoughts out there.
Now can we talk science for a bit…something which seems to feature quite strongly in your album? Gravitational Waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 but we have only recently been able to observe them. They became the inspiration for your album’s title track, can you tell me why they became such a focus and possible hope for you?
My husband has a family member who was deeply involved in the LIGO project (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, the group who discovered the gravitational waves.) It was such a positive story- this group of people around the world joining together to discover more about the origins of the Universe. The imagery they use- even in the normally-dry press releases- is so beautiful and poetic. I love the concept of “listening” to the Universe. This story arrived in a sea of news stories about mass shootings, the election, and Syria. I was also scoring a film at that time called Aelita, Queen of Mars, which is an early Soviet silent film from around 1916. The Martian Queen spoke often of “other worlds”, which formed the basis of the chorus, along with “we’re listening”, straight from the LIGO press conference. This song was first performed as part of that film score.
After studying opera at the Mozarteum University of Salzburg in Austria, you moved to Seattle where you became a Limnologist. The health of such Ecosystems are often used to measure climatic impact such as the effects of ultraviolet light on crustaceans etc. Were you directly involved in predicting climatic changes?
Yes, my official work dealt mostly with freshwater (“inland aquatic systems.”) I worked directly on climate-change research most of the time. Basically, any sort of ecology at this point touches on climate change in one way or another. One of my main projects was a long-term monitoring project of Lake Washington (a large urban lake in Seattle.) We’d go out on the lake every two weeks in every season and take temperature, measure chlorophyll values (a good measure of productivity in the lake), and sample the zooplankton community, all of which was shifting in response to warmer temperatures. I also aged the otolith bones of many thousands of salmon (you can read their ages in rings, much like a tree.) The data from this was used to help predict the runs of future salmon, and determine catch quotas for the Bristol Bay Fisheries.
What are your thoughts on Trump gaging the Environmental Protection Agency which includes banning press releases, blog updates and social media?
The rising tides don’t give a sh*t what your press release says. They are just going to rise. We can pretend it’s not happening, but that’s not going to change reality. But the good news, if there is any, is that this sort of behavior of muzzling scientists is so extreme that it may well cause more people to pay attention than a business-as-usual approach. More generally, I feel that any government that actively feels the need to silence and censor its own employees is not in a healthy state. (By the time this goes to press, there may not be any government scientists, from what I’ve seen today in the new budget.)
Would you consider ‘The Lonely Cry of Space and Time’ a protest album in part and do you hope to influence change through it?
This record is not an easy listen. It’s heavy and it’s dark, which may or may not be what the doctor ordered in these times. It’s more of a protest against apathy than of any particular politician. (There are so many to pick from these days!) I’d like it to make people think- about the rising oceans, about children washing up on beaches, and how that relates to us as individuals, living our normal lives. I know from personal experience how desperately I would like to stick my head in the sand and ride this out in a sea of Netflix and snacks. But I’m not sure we have that option any more. (Take note, my Netflix and snacks consumption is definitely up right now.)
Moving on to your band members – JD Foster and Willie B. I read that you said “These guys blow my mind every time we play.” It sounds like they really helped to shape the album and maybe push you to depths you may not have otherwise gone to?
Willie B and I spent many, many hours over the last 4 years writing together in his sun-porch studio. He’s a good firewall for my songs. There’s a certain look he’ll get on his face if it’s not working, and then it’s back to work for me. If he does like a song, then we’d dive deep into it, dragging out all his old keyboards and synths and piecing strange chords together. We wrote and toured most of an entire album that did not make it onto this record, because in the end, it just wasn’t good enough. When we started scoring the films (joined by Michael Stark on keyboards), that’s when the concept started to click into place for both of us, this sort of film-score meets opera-singer- songwriter meets rock drummer in a dark alley.
I wrote and toured a record with JD Foster in 2014, and we had him join us for one song on this new record. He is probably the most inspiring musician I know- he’s had an incredible career, but is still so down to earth, kind, and willing to take risks. (Like touring with me, for example.)
It must be a relief to finish the album but I guess you’re going to miss these guys as well? Will they be touring with you?
It’s a relief to release the record, which is the business side of things that I have been focused on for the last 6 months, and involves too much time alone at a computer. Writing and recording it was a joy. I’m lucky to live down the street from Willie, and we continue to write, tour, and perform. The engineer and mixer on the record, Matt Saccuccimorano, who was a driving force in making this happen, also lives down the street, so the conversation continues. I haven’t seen JD for some time. It’s probably time for a trip to Long Island (where he lives).
Reading through some of your blog posts and your Kickstarter Campaign, I was very struck by how positive you were despite spotlighting some of the big injustices we all have to read about on a daily basis. From politics to surviving as a musician. You’re incredibly independent with your music, so making an album where the odds are always economically stacked against you (such as digital streaming royalties) cannot have been easy. How did you manage and have you a message for any artists out there wanting to follow a more independent route in music.
February is always a tough go for me, and this year it was particularly difficult. That made it a great time to have such a positive experience (the Kickstarter.) The money part is excellent, but it’s even better to know that there are a good number of people out there who care about you and your work, and are even willing to help you finance it.
Without sounding defeatist, I’ve spent the last few years trying to move away from any expectation of making money from selling records. In this frame of mind, every last .00001 cent download is positive, because someone has heard the music. When my BMI check is enough for a few margaritas, great, I’ll have a few margaritas. When it’s bigger, it’s in the bank for the next record. I think it would be great to make all my income from record sales and touring, but in the meantime, that’s why I teach.
As for advice, I do believe that persistence is of the utmost importance. Talent is good, and practicing is critical, but mostly for me it’s about strapping yourself in for a good, long ride, and continuing to record and perform against all the many odds and naysayers. Take time off when you need to, and for the love of everything good, DO NOT judge yourself by the Metrics. I would direct anyone in the industry to check out Danny Barnes’s thoughts on being a musician. It’s basically a bulleted guide to how to remove your own ego from your playing, which is, of course, an ongoing endeavor, and it’s brilliant.
i hear so much complaining about this subject, i just wanted to lay my practical experience on you. free.
first, three pre-conditions:
1. if you are a very materialistic person, skip this article, i don’t think you are going to like what it says.
Read the full article: https://dannybarnes.com/blog/how-make-living-playing-music
Despite the ups and downs you do seem to derive a lot of energy from the process of making music. Has this album lifted you more than any other and if so why do you think that is?
This album is a completely different direction for me, and that is an exhilarating place to be. Willie is one of the most energetic people I know, so playing with him always makes me play and practice harder. And in general, putting out a record is fun, if ephemeral.
I read that you’re not a fan of flying, but I can already see one date for the UK, are there likely to be more?
Yes! I’ll be announcing my UK/European tour in a few weeks. Because I do my own booking, I’m always trying to keep up with things like tour announcements and filling those pesky tour holes.
Re: flying: As it turns out, Xanax is a girl’s best friend when it comes to Aviatophobia. (And yes, I just looked that word up.)
Many thanks for talking to me and for bringing your music to us.
Thanks so much Alex. We’ve got 2 feet of snow outside, the city is shutdown, and this was the perfect thing to do.
Pre-order The Lonely Cry of Space and Time via annacoogan.bandcamp.com/album/the-lonely-cry-of-space-and-time
Anna performing the title track during part of the Johnny Dowd set @ De Peppel, Zeist (the Netherlands). Recording by Jos Goverde.
Main image: Press image via Prescription PR
bottom Image: Melina Coogan