Anna Coogan: The road to making ‘The Lonely Cry of Space & Time’

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Anna Coogan’s new album, The Lonely Cry of Space & Time is a departure for the artist best known as a singer/songwriter expressing herself on acoustic guitar. Joined by her longtime collaborator Willie B (Brian Wilson) on drums and Moog bass, Coogan combines elements of rock, pop, and classical music. It is, she admits, a far cry from what fans have come to expect, but it is also a labor of love, and one that she felt driven to write and record.

A trained opera singer who studied at the prestigious Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Austria, Coogan flexes her three-octave range across the album’s eleven songs. At the same time, she reaches into childhood influences — the protest songs of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs from her father’s record collection — in the social commentary that fills her lyrics.

The road to making The Lonely Cry of Space & Time has been a varied one for Coogan. She grew up in Boston, then Vermont, before moving to the Pacific Northwest to attend college. The rich musical environment that she discovered in Seattle fueled her creativity; she worked on her music while pursuing a biology degree and working in Alaskan fisheries. In 2011, she and her husband returned to the East Coast, settling in Ithaca, New York, where she has since pursued music full-time. In addition to her recordings and tours, she teaches voice and guitar, works with other artists, and collaborates on scores for silent films.

This album is a stylistic change for you. When did you begin delving into this genre of music?

I’ve been working on this record for quite a few years. Writing was one of the only things I was doing besides teaching, so it was a nice time to have some focus off the road and trying to get something out of the guitar. I started scoring films about two years ago, and that brought me to the intersection where classical chord changes and vocals can meet with a more rock and synthesizer approach, and that helped me solidify the concept. So half the songs were written before I started scoring films and half were written after. Then there was the challenge of bridging the gap between the two, which was mostly done with instrumentation, keeping it consistent throughout, and weeding out quite a few songs.

When you spend years working on an album, how do you keep it fresh and how do you know when it’s done?

I’m guilty of dragging my feet. I work mostly in a duo with my drummer, Willie B. With this one, he sat me down and said, “We need to do this now. No more thinking.” That was great. It’s nice to have an outside voice to get you out of your own head, and your own perfectionism, and make it happen. Keeping it fresh is hard. One thing is that in the last few years, I started playing as a sideman in a few bands, and that brought some new perspective and even some new chord changes. Another thing is electric guitar was new to me in the last five years, so there’s a lot of freshness on the instrument and all the pedals and sounds that can happen. That helped propel things. Now that this record is done, I have to do a recharge for whatever comes next.

How did you divide your time between writing, teaching, and working with other artists?

Willie B and I haven’t officially been on the road since we were in Europe in October 2015. So there was this lull for us where we could focus on recording. Because I do everything myself, the road is distracting. I do everything from making the posters to booking the shows and making the phone calls, so it takes me away from writing in a way that is difficult. Last year I went on the road with Johnny Dowd, who is a sort of anarchist country musician. It’s hard to describe what he does. I went to Europe with him and did some shows in the U.S. as well. That was great because I didn’t have to do any of the groundwork. I was gone for three weeks and that was that. It was a nice change, and I enjoyed getting the freedom and benefits of the road.

Were you concerned that your fan base might be left out in the cold with this album, wondering what you were doing and why?

Absolutely, and I think that will happen on some levels. But when I was starting to write this record, I realized I can’t do this for anyone else. I have to do what keeps me engaged and interested and excited, and for the time being, I wasn’t able to find anything new for myself in lighter acoustic songs. I think some people may not get it, but that’s OK, they don’t have to. They can come with or they can sit it out. Either one is fine.

How was the writing process for this album similar to and/or different from the way you approached previous albums and studio projects?

This one took a lot longer than almost everything else I’ve done. I have often put out records because it was the right thing to do for the timing of a tour, or because it had been a while and it was time. I write pretty well under pressure, so a lot of times that was helpful. I made a record with JD Foster in 2013 [The Birth Of The Stars], and we wrote and recorded it in just a few months. That was a neat process. It was fun and a lot of songs came out of it, but once that was done, I wanted to take the time and make sure that everything was right for this next one. I’m glad we did, because we almost went into the studio a year earlier with a different batch of songs that weren’t as good. In 2015, we went on the road with what would have been the record. We got a lot of feedback, especially from people in Holland and Belgium, who are very frank, and that was helpful for weeding out some of the songs that weren’t just quite good enough. All in all, I think it was cool to wait, and I’m going to try to hold my horses in the future as well.

People are very frank — what exactly did they say?

Oh my gosh, they’re so funny! We had this one song that both Willie and I could tell wasn’t quite there, but sometimes you think, Oh, what the heck. It’s close, so I’m going to play it. We played it at this gig in Belgium, and he had some friends there. A woman came up to me afterward and said, “Anna, I like your songs, but that first one was terrible!” It’s harsh, but it was also helpful, because I think we just needed to let that one go. On the other end of that, when the song is good and you see night after night that people are responding to it, that’s when I realize there’s something there. Not that other people’s opinions form the basis of the song, but I think it’s generally a good sign when people consistently like a piece.

You have quite a repertoire and discography. How did all of those past experiences come together to shape this record?

When I started releasing records, especially solo records, I was antsy for whatever the next step was. JD Foster took me aside and said, “The music career is a slow burn. You won’t even know it’s happening until it’s in retrospect and you see the path that you’ve walked.” I think each record lends itself to the next one, sometimes because of things you liked about it, and sometimes because of things you wish had been different and you don’t want to repeat. I put out a record in 2011 called The Wasted Ocean [released in the U.S. in early 2012], which was all original sea shanties that I wrote. That was something I did because I wanted a record on a tour, and it ended up being easy to write. I kept with me that if you get a theme in your mind, it can make things easier to write to. This record ended up being pretty heavily thematic, again only in retrospect, but because I had that theme in my mind for the last few years, I was able to build on it in a way that maybe I haven’t always been able to do with previous records.

You’ve lived in a number of places: Boston, Vermont, Austria, Washington, Alaska, and now New York. What did you take from all of those cultures and environments, and does it factor into your music?

A lot. I grew up in Boston until I was 11, and then we moved to Vermont. A lot of my love for maritime New England culture came out of that particular upbringing right by the Boston Harbor. Also, being a lonely teenager in a rural state, not being able to drive and sort of trapped at home, started a lot of the melancholy that often features itself in my songs. I had a guitar back then, although I wrote terrible songs on it, but I think some of that stayed with me. Whereas if I had been in a city, there would have been a lot more interesting, fun things to do, and I wouldn’t have had to follow that lonely road a little bit. I lived in Seattle for over a decade and that’s where I started playing music. That’s a vibrant city for music, the birthplace of many bands, and I spent a lot of time watching live music, which was so much fun in my early 20s, especially after the aforementioned lonely teenage years. I went to opera school in Austria. I had some great experiences there, and I learned German, which has been really helpful, especially because I tour in Germany a lot, but overall I realized that I want to live and be in America, which is powerful to learn, especially at that age. I never lived in Alaska, but I worked in the fisheries there, and my husband’s from Alaska. We moved to [Ithaca] New York about five years ago. It’s been a neat homecoming toward New England, and I’m no longer the loudest, pushiest person in the room. In Seattle, everyone could tell I was from the East Coast before I even opened my mouth!

You have a biology degree.

Yes, that was the Seattle years. I went to the University of Washington for seven years, and that degree freed me to have a day job and do music for fun, which was critical in those early years. It took my mind off of it. I worked in the outdoors with a lot of fish, and I drove a lot of different boats. It was a neat experience. When you’re alone with your guitar, you can get in your head for a long time and it’s hard to get out. I haven’t worked in a fishery since I moved to New York. I’ve been doing music full-time since then. My husband is from Anchorage, so we still go back there. He’s a biologist, but we met as freshmen at the University of Washington, and he also plays music, so we share both of those things.

How did you meet Willie B? What clicked to make you both start and build a working relationship? How has that relationship grown?

I met him through JD Foster. He put me in touch with local players and Willie was one of them. He had just gotten off tour with Jamie Lidell, so it was a good chance to meet him, try writing some songs, and see how it went. It’s ended up being a successful partnership. We’ve done quite a few films, working with a keyboard player named Michael Stark, and several tours. Willie and Michael have a band called Tzar, so we did our movies as Anna Coogan and Tzar. This is the second album Willie B and I worked on together, and the first comprised of songs that we worked together on as a duo. He’s an incredible drummer and very direct-hitting; every note that he hits counts so much. He’s also playing the bass pedals with his left foot, with a Moog Minitaur controlling the sound, and he’s doing it all at the same time. We started off trying a couple of shows and working with some of my back-material. It took a couple of years to get out of that mode and into more productive writing and creating these pieces together. It takes a while to build up that kind of trust. It’s an interesting and collaborative experience between us.

How long did it take to record this album?

We did this in three and a half days to get all of Willie’s parts, and another three and a half to get all of my parts. I was really sick when we got into the studio. We had planned to do it all at once, but I had laryngitis for most of the month, so we got the guitars, drums and bass, and I came back a month later and took another three days to lay down all those vocals. There were a lot of days of mixing. But we did make it all in one summer, because otherwise you get into that place where things start to drag, energy-wise, and you question yourself, go back, and make changes. I started to do that with this record, but luckily I had a deadline because I wanted to take a pre-release copy to Europe with me on the Johnny Dowd tour, so everything had to be done by September.

Which guitars did you use on the album?

My main instrument is a ’79 Stratocaster. That formed the bulk of the record, the bright, almost surf sounds, and I had a couple of guest guitars. I have a Holiday, which is a kitschy guitar with one pickup from the mid-’60s that I play primarily in the Johnny Dowd band, and I borrowed an Epiphone Les Paul that belongs to one of my students. I used it when I needed a different color. I only own the two electric guitars, the Stratocaster and the Holiday. I have a lot of acoustic guitars, but there aren’t any on this record.

How long have you had the Strat?

I bought the Strat in late 2012. It was the first electric guitar I’ve ever owned. Rumble Seat Music, which has since moved to Nashville, is a purveyor of high-end guitars. The fanciest guitar they had was $85,000. It’s more of a showroom, but they had one wall of guitars that were more in reach for the average human. I would go there every couple of months and play around with the guitars. I was timid, because I couldn’t really play the electric, so I would take them in the back room, turn down the volume, and try them out. The Strat spoke to me. I toured with an Italian artist for several years who played a blonde Strat, so I was introduced to the concept of the nice blonde wood. When I found this one, it felt right. I got the Holiday the same way. I kept my eye on what they had in the store. It came up for sale, it was a couple hundred bucks and sounded really nice, so I got it.

Do you always use a pick?

Yes. My go-to is a Dunlop .73mm, with a little bit of texture to hold on to, and Cool picks, which also have a little bit of texture. I like the flexibility around .7-.75; it’s firm, but not too firm. I occasionally fingerpick, but not that often. One of the things you have to learn when you transition from acoustic to electric is that you can’t play as hard. It doesn’t sound good. So using a harder pick that I used on acoustic didn’t work. I’ve always played with a pick. I like the assertive sound. I teach my guitar students how to hold a pick because I like to see guitar players asserting themselves, and something about the hand strum doesn’t get to me in the same way. I want my students to have the option of that strong sound.

What else is in your rig?

I play a ’76 Deluxe Reverb that I got with the Strat as a package deal at Rumble Seat, and that’s been my primary instrument. I’ve also got a Blues Junior that’s not on this record. Willie B has a Princeton Reverb, a gorgeous-sounding amp. As far as pedals, I’ve got an Open Road overdrive, which I really like, an EarthQuaker Device Hoof fuzz that I got from Johnny, which is a warm, creamy fuzz, a TC Electronic Flashback delay, an Electro Harmonix Linear Power Booster 1, I’m a big fan of the Electro Harmonix POG, which is an amazing octave pedal, a Death By Audio fuzz, an orange overdrive that a friend of a friend of a friend built, a Rocktron Black Cat Moan pedal with distortion, and on the first song [the title track] we used an Electro Harmonix Voice Box.

Are there certain recording techniques that you swear by? 

Generally, the voice has a certain number of mid-frequencies that are a little bit harsh, so we always want to use mics that can capture some of the bass richness. On this record we had two sets of mics. One was a normal club mic for the rock singing, and another two or three set up about four feet away from me to capture all the opera. I would do the song and turn my head to project toward that microphone. It is hard to sing opera with headphones and blaring music, because you’re used to going by the vibrations in your skull and they change a lot with headphones. It’s also challenging to keep up pitch-perfect vibrato when you’re not feeling it the same way you’re used to. It’s going to be more raw on the road. 

Note: The album was engineered by Matthew Saccuccimorano, who provided the following information: “To record the guitars, we used two Fender Deluxes: one Coles 4038 and one Neumann U87 per amp. Middle stunt amp, usually a Supro. Sometimes a Princeton or super-secret repurposed tube thing (NOT a film projector): Royer 122. Vocals were a Flea 47 up close and a Klaus Heine-modified U87 at a distance, in omni, for the opera stuff. A pair of Earthworks QTC 40s captured the room, when I remembered to use them. Flea came in through a 1073 clone and one side of an 1178. The U87 would be through an Avalon 2022 and a Cranesong Trakker.”

How do you take care of your voice on the road?

It’s hard, in a low-budget rock and roll tour, to maintain the health of your voice, and health is so necessary for opera singing. I am a voice teacher by trade. I lecture my students day in and day out, and then I struggle to follow my own advice! In a perfect world, I know hours and hours worth of exercises that can keep your health up and keep those high notes accessible. When you’re not in great shape and you go for the high notes, little tears can develop in your voice because you’re forcing them. On the Johnny Dowd tour, where I was singing quite a bit of opera, I noticed several times that I was pushing. We’re talking two octaves above middle C, which is not an easy place to be anyway, but especially when you’re exhausted and drinking too much coffee. A good vocal exercise regimen is important.

Your bio states, “An anxious darkness that has followed Coogan throughout her life is reflected in her powerful guitar playing.” What does that mean and how does it manifest itself in your work?

I think the answer is probably some form of anxiety! I have struggled with managing anxiety for a long time. Ever since I was a kid, I followed the news obsessively. Nowadays there’s a lot of news, and I’ve been working through my addiction to it and my need to free myself from it a little bit. I don’t write a lot of love songs. I write songs about feeling anxious or lonely, about breakups. Of course, this is not original in songwriting. That was why The Wasted Ocean was fun — because it was all about the ocean. As far as this record is concerned, it’s all in there. In the guitar playing, I tend to favor minor chords and melodic minor runs, so I think it’s reflected in the instrumentation, too, particularly when I was scoring horror films. That’s where it had a place to live in a way that really made sense.

What are your tour plans for this year?

I’ve got the first set of dates coming up in spring, and I’ll go overseas with Willie B in fall. Then I’ll see what happens. I’m completely DIY, so there’s a limit to how much I can do. I book what I can, and then I wait and see what comes out of it. This will be an interesting one to tour in Europe because I was embedded in the singer/songwriter community and this album is so different. But I had to do what the heart wanted, and if that means I only do it in my basement, that’s fine.

What do you hope listeners take from this album?

I’m proud of the integration of the country noir with the classical vocals, and of all the drum and synthesizer parts that Willie B played and wrote and that we worked up over these last few years. I’d like people who listen to it to get carried away in the collaboration and experimentation that we’re pushing with this record. Sometimes we’re very in the pocket, sometimes we’re playing Americana, and some of the songs are operatic vocals over dark synthesizer, so approach it with an open mind. Thematically, I’d like people to listen to the lyrics and have a bit of a think about what’s going on, what is our role, and how can we make it better.

The Lonely Cry Of Space & Time Track Listing:
1 – The Lonely Cry of Space and Time
2 – Collateral
3 – Burn For You
4 – Last Exit
5 – Sylvia
6 – Meteor
7 – Follow Me
8 – If You Were the Sun
9 – Wedding Vow
10 – Wishing Well
11 – By Morning

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