Debuting During a Pandemic: A Conversation with Coco Reilly




FOR SOME SONGWRITERS, the pandemic was an opportunity to look back on past work through a new lens. For others, it put everything on hold: without the possibility of touring, the thinking went, there was no reason to release an album-in-progress or even come up with new material. But for Coco Reilly, the inability to tour made the pandemic the ideal time to release a debut album that she had been sitting on for two years. 

Although her self-titled album came out fairly recently (in December 2020), Reilly is hardly new to the music world. Growing up in Buffalo, she was something of a child prodigy, performing as a flutist in New York’s all-state orchestra (her first love, as she describes it). Then as a teenager she picked up an electric guitar, and the rest is history. Kind of. Despite signing a record deal in high school, she made the difficult decision to quit music at 18. “I went in thinking people would be excited that you spent time on your craft, playing your own instruments,” she tells me. “And we were quickly told to ‘lose our baby fat and wear more makeup.’ I just decided it wasn’t a place I wanted to be.” 

She ultimately made her return to the profession at 27 and has kept busy ever since. Aside from developing her own catalog as a solo artist, she lends her vocal talents to a number of artists — from “Weird Al” Yankovic to Sharon Van Etten to Yola (whose 2020 Grammy performance marked Reilly’s television debut) — and she composes film scores for friend Bridey Elliott’s work.

In November 2020, Reilly came center stage when Rolling Stone magazine included her single “Oh Oh My My” in its “Songs You Need to Know” section. I would take this acclaim a step further, though, to say that the whole album is one you need to know. There’s something beautifully deceptive about Reilly’s songwriting, as if something is moving beneath the surface. While always inviting, the songs have a gentle way of shaking up the listener’s expectations. Just when you get used to the psychedelic verses, for instance, the choruses come in to catch you off guard. In other words, Reilly is in control. The lyrics are uncommonly sparse but in a way that gives the songs atmosphere. Throughout the album, her singing and the music often do more of the heavy lifting, especially in “Mirror” (featuring Erin Rae) where Reilly sings, “I want to learn / Want to see what I’m shown / But either way it’s all the same.” Halfway through the song, a distorted guitar takes over and keeps repeating the melody. For Reilly, the words are only one piece of a much larger soundscape. 

Perhaps the most endearing quality of Reilly’s work is how she sees songwriting as a personal duty, which explains why she came back to music after a nearly decade-long hiatus. Songwriting isn’t just a passion for Reilly but a contribution to the world. “Some of my biggest influences are just artists who have a philosophy that I align with and offer a way to view the world in a more positive light,” Reilly explains. She has been called a perfectionist, but I think it might be more accurate to describe Reilly as exceptionally reflective in her work. 

In many ways, Reilly’s story is the perfect ending to my conversations with songwriters in quarantine. One might go so far as to say that we have the pandemic (along with a mushroom trip) to thank for Reilly’s brilliant debut. Whatever the case, it is only the beginning for her.

Author photo by Marcus Maddox.

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JUSTIN GAUTREAU: First question, as always: How did you spend your quarantine?

COCO REILLY: Between March 2020 and May 2021, I split my time between L.A. and Iceland. I threaded some cosmic needle by making it to Reykjavík before the travel ban went back into effect in June. I hesitate to share the details since my experience was so starkly different from most, but the short of it is that I did a lot of reading, writing, and exploring. It’s not lost on me how different my experience would have been had I stayed in America. I’m very grateful I was able to land there and share time with so many wonderful people. I was very profoundly inspired by the people, places, and landscape.

Since your debut album was released (at least in its digital form) in early December 2020, did you have any plans to promote the album that you had to cancel?

I actually made the rash decision to release the album during lockdown so that I could avoid the stress of the press circuit. I get intense anxiety around performing and was relieved to be able to just put the music into the world and do written or video interviews from home. I had some of the best conversations that way and really enjoyed the whole process without the travel and stress of performing live. That being said, I’d still love to do a proper release show for the album this year. That would be the only thing I was sad to postpone. I love performing and sharing the music live when I am able to have my band and a lovely venue.

What was the original album release plan before the pandemic? Was there a tour? 

There was no plan.

If I’m being completely honest, it took a mushroom trip (my first mushroom trip ever) in the Icelandic countryside and the support of some good friends to convince me to get out of my own way and release it. I didn’t decide to release the album until August 2020. From August, I just stumbled my way through the logistics until the messaging and visuals started coming together. I had a great team of people helping me, and through their help and some good luck, we were able to get it out before the end of the year. It was chaotic but fun.

I had no plans to tour because we were already in lockdown — which, I’ll confess, was a relief for me. I didn’t have a team in place to support me through booking or financially backing a tour so that seemed really overwhelming and was one of the reasons I procrastinated releasing the album for so long in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing live, but I still have a lot of anxiety around it as well. It’s always been a love/hate relationship.

What about performing live gives you anxiety?

I’ve never really talked about this in detail, but through therapy I’m aware that it stems from a perfectionist complex. It’s the idea that I would rather quit than fail, not that I do everything perfectly. In fact, it’s more like a severe avoidance of putting myself in the position to fall short. You can’t fail if you never finish! A genius and limiting life plan.

In the past, before every live show, I would get so anxious that my whole body would shake for hours before I played — which then spiraled into “my hands won’t work, my voice won’t work, my teeth are chattering — this is going to be bad.” Not a great mindset to step on stage with. Usually by the third or fourth song I can center myself and connect and be present. But it does take a lot out of me. This feeling also takes a lot of the appeal out of touring. It takes a huge toll on my mind and body and so much energy to balance everything.

I’d like to think it would be different now that I have perspective on it. I’m interested to see how my next live show goes. I’ve done a lot of work around that part of myself, and I think it’s relaxing a bit and I’ve learned to soothe the inner critic.

Another part of the anxiety is that I like things to feel a certain way. If the whole experience doesn’t feel “locked in” (the right setting, the right band members, etc.), it creates a nails-on-chalkboard feeling. For me, it’s really important that the internal feeling matches what I’m putting out. I believe that as musicians we are scientifically creating energy waves in the room and sharing them with people. I know every show won’t be perfect, but I want to create an experience that is the most conducive for myself, and the audience, to get lost in and have the best experience possible. I wish I was more carefree with it sometimes, but since I was young, I’ve always felt some strange moral responsibility to deliver the best energy I can to people because I think sound really affects us on a molecular level and when artists can do it right, that’s when we can feel more deeply and transcend our surroundings to lose ourselves in the beauty of art.

Aside from writing songs, you also compose films in collaboration with Bridey Elliott. How did the pandemic impact your writing (in any form)? 

Interestingly enough, I didn’t write much while the pandemic was happening. I think I was in the gathering phase — absorbing and observing a lot. As we know, there was quite a bit to take in. I usually need to sit with things for a while before I can have clarity on the idea. In Iceland, I was surrounded by incredible musicians and composers and was really inspired by them. This definitely pushed me to brush up on my skills and dig deeper into composing. I started taking piano lessons and relearning basic theory — which has now led to me taking one-on-one lessons to learn how to finally use the software so I can move with more confidence in my compositions and really sink into the workflow without hitting a ton of technical roadblocks. I had been using GarageBand until 2020, so it was time for an upgrade. It’s incredible how much faster you can write when you know what you’re doing!

As for composing for Bridey, she and I are working on a project together now that has led me down the long, winding road of modular synth. That’s been an awesome learning curve and has inspired me in so many ways. The writing didn’t really come until September 2021 when I moved, so it’s all pouring out now. For Bridey and for my own albums.

You’ve called quite a few different places home, including New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, Iceland, and now Hawaii. How has landscape influenced your songwriting?

Yes, I moved to Hawaii in September 2021, and it was one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. I came here with Bridey in July to swim with dolphins as some field research for the film we’re working on. I fell in love and moved here two months later.

The landscape (or more so the ocean-scape?) has influenced me in so many ways I don’t even know where to begin. Hawaii just already has an incredible, soothing vibe that seeps its way into you right away. I’ve found that the time I spent in the water inspires a lot of the sounds I try to find while working with the modular synth sounds. The crackling of the coral with muted whooshing of the waves above — it all has found its way into the soundscapes. If anything, more than the landscape — it’s just the clarity I’ve gained from the space I feel here — I have room to write, think, and explore in new ways.

According to your website, your reading list for 2021 covers a range of topics, from human consciousness to environmentalism (and dolphins!). Is there a relationship between your reading list and your songwriting?

Absolutely. My reading inspires my writing more than anything. I went through a strange disconnect over the past few years where I decided I wasn’t getting much from writing about my own emotions anymore. I didn’t feel I was offering the world anything that hasn’t already been said. Sure, I could put my own spin on a breakup, or heartache — but it wasn’t doing it for me. It felt repetitive. It feels more natural to me to pull from bigger ideas that I’m learning about and try to say something positive, or paint a picture of an inspiring feeling that I want to hold onto.

Now that the album has been out in the world for about a year and a half, I’m curious to know (especially given that it was your debut) what the reception has been and whether your relationship to it has changed at all. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about how you released it? 

The reception has been so warm and lovely. People still message me and tell me when they discover it and how it makes them feel. I’ve never had that with another piece of work. The album is just out there doing its thing and that feels great. I haven’t put any money behind it or promoted anything since the release, so to know it’s just floating around organically reaching people is really nice. I wouldn’t do anything differently. I think the album went out at exactly the right moment. My relationship to it hasn’t changed much besides having some healthy distance from it and just being able to feel proud instead of critical. I’m grateful for the foundation it has given me as a solo artist. I feel it’s been a great, honest, first handshake from me to the world.

You’re currently working on a new batch of songs for your next album. I recognize it’s a work in progress, but what might we expect for album number two? 

The full concept of the album just became clear to me last week! This is the moment I really start getting excited about it. I can see the beginning, middle, and end, so the pieces are all snapping together. Most of the songs are written and entering the refining stages. I haven’t started recording beyond demos yet — but I would say to expect the sound of the album to feel a lot more romantic, lush, and emotional. Less noise, more heart. I won’t touch on the theme yet, but it has been very cathartic for me to write.

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Coco Reilly’s debut album is out now on Golden Wheel Records and is available for purchase at cocoreilly.bandcamp.com.

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Justin Gautreau is lecturer for the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced, where he also teaches classes in film. His book The Last Word: The Hollywood Novel and the Studio System was published by Oxford University Press in 2020, and his work has also appeared in GenreAdaptation, and Pacific Coast Philology.

 

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