Indievotion begins today a first series of interviews with musicians/bands it deeply cherishes hoping to reach them all though taking into account that they are quite many and that they probably prefer to get Pitchfork(ed), Rolling Ston(ed) or pop in a NME chit chat...
One fact that is really stunning is the undeniable disproportion that exists between female musician's talent and the attention given to them whether in the press or headlining the myriad of festivals around the globe. Sexism in the music industry? It seems pretty undeniable. The criteria for this initial series of interviews is - apart some highly talented exceptions - to try to bring to the spotlight mostly songstresses or female fronted acts not for political correctness but due to the simple fact that grrrls really rock a whole lot!
Considering the reasons stated above, our very first interviewee could only be someone who holds an aura of immense talent and mysticism venturing through the defying roads of self perfection crafting emotionally visceral lyrics and weaving sonic textures with such prolific exquisiteness which enables her to front and be part of crucial musical projects that redefine, renew and re-dimension the whole "soundscape aesthetics" legacy of Post Punk.
Many thanks to songstress Robyn Bright for such a wonderful interview!
Indievotion: Can you describe your musical and cultural background before Cockatoo was formed?
Robyn Bright: My mum was a classical pianist, and my Dad loved music, so I grew up with music. As they were so young (just teens) when I was born I was subject to things like The Clash, The Specials, early U2, Boomtown Rats, Bob Marley and Eastern European classical - folk music such as Bela Bartok. As long as I can remember I always sang to myself. In grade 10 I bought a Fender guitar from a boy named Tom for 40$ - a lot of money to a 15 year old. I always wanted to write music but thought I could not. I learned Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega songs, as well at Neil Young’s Harvest, and The Beatles due to my Mum having piano music with guitar chords in them. At 17 I started to gig after the support of my teachers, I had already left home and was living in The Annex in Toronto. I had a 12 string Takamine guitar - the first time I played live I thought I should restring it right before I played at a cafe called Free Times Cafe: I put all the strings on wound backwards and a nice older gentleman quickly restrung it for me. I suffered huge stage fright and once left stage in the middle of the song as I felt so naked and exposed on stage. As a teen I wanted to be loved musically, but I knew I had something that others felt when I brought a man to tears through singing and he thanked me. I wanted to be cool and rock n roll and happy scrappy music, but I knew that my music was sad - and anyway I tried to overcome that ended up in failure.
I: What are your main influences in terms of musical genres and what bands and/or artists influenced you most and why?
RB: I would say Neil Young Harvest, U2 Boy and October, The Clash (all of it) really made me want to play as a young girl. That hasn’t really changed. I loved Sonic Youth and avoided Siouxsie because I loved it too much and was afraid of being unduly influenced by it. I guess I have always been guided by a moral code made up by myself that music had to be original - to be uniquely the voice of the artist or it wasn’t true. So I was aware of not trying to sound like anyone and instead would add in influences like cooking, never adding too much of one thing for fear of it overtaking the sound. Later, when I discovered “Goth” music I felt like my soul split open and the heavens were revealed. When I first heard Bauhaus I was 17 and working in a nigh club as a shooter girl (that night selling peach Schnapps) I had never had Peach Schnapps before - the patrons would buy a shot and then buy me one. This night club was a warehouse with huge sheets of industrial plastics making little “rooms” or dance pockets. I was a bit tipsy after 3 shots (I did not drink ever at that age) and alone in a little space and Bauhaus Bela Lugosi’s Dead came on - my heart cracked open. After that in high school in Toronto I would sneak into a bar that was just about to close called Sanctuary Vampire Sex Bar - to dance. It was filled with snobby goth and I wore pink and white and danced my heart out even though I was terrified the music drew me in. The Cure, all the good bands. It had 2 or three floors so you could dance to different things. It was splendid. I always wanted to sound like that but never knew how to achieve the atmosphere in the music I craved. This was because I was poor and only owned an acoustic 12 string guitar and played pretty solitary, not thinking I was good enough to have a proper band. Later I started a band called Aural Sects and then I started to achieve what I craved, working with talented “alternative” musicians helped and I was buoyed by the support in the press and music scene which kept me going when I always felt like I was not good enough but knew I could be if I kept at it.
I: You spent several years on the Toronto scene before moving to Edmonton playing alongside other well known musicians. From a personal point of view what are the main musical differences between the two cities and how does that former experience relates to your maturity as a musician?
RB: Good God Edmonton has been hellish for me as a musician. That is also it’s blessing. I felt pretty alone here, but of course there are like minded musicians too, and the genre is a somewhat lonely locally and lovely globally kind of scene. In Toronto I played shows with Leslie Feist who was from Calgary and we were friends, as well as with Peaches who I had known as the awesome girl in a band called The Shit, alongside Jason Beck (Uber Gonzalez). But I never quite fit with them. I felt like an outsider even though they were super supportive I was still afraid of not being good enough I guess, and struggling to find “goth” musicians” because I did not realize “goth, or post-punk” was what I loved yet. Toronto is amazing because my coworkers were all musicians or creative people and there was always a show to go to or play, a new little club to attend, it was very wonderfully alive with people experimenting. Do Make Say Think rented out the Bloor Cinema, for instance, and played under find projections, they also played a tiny club we would frequent called The Lion, an art kids haven. People were unafraid to experiment. The only thing they feared was being mediocre and boring. In Edmonton I find that people like a certain sound and they seem to want to re-create that feel by staying fairly true to it and that does not inspire me personally. It wasn’t until I moved back here to Edmonton (for Family reasons) that I bought my Burns guitar - a brilliant musician named Robin Hunter said “This is your Guitar” and I thought it was so ugly and huge but he insisted I give it a chance. Of course I fell in love. I had a vintage Vox Phantom 12 string at the time but it was too bright I didn’t know how to handle the sound yet. All electronics were foreign to me and I was too afraid of sounding stupid to ask. This stems from being treated as stupid at guitar shops prior - not being taken seriously because we (my band mate and best friend Jordan) were young girls. This has not changed all that much - at the last guitar shop I worked in I was the first female in over a decade for example. And often I was confused as being hired just a cashier/clerk not that I played guitar too. I think never really fitting in but also finding good souls who supported me in both cities I’ve learned to just write from my heart and not with other people in mind. I now know emotions are universal but sound is not and I don’t take it personally if my music does not resonate with a person, because we all are awakened by different sounds and feels. But intrinsically the core of being human is the same no matter what you like or who you are.
I: Is there any particular symbolism connected to the name you’ve chosen for the band because it sounds hardly accidental?
RB: It was 3 or 4 fold. It was one of my favourite Cure songs - “Like Cockatoos”, also there is a mythology that dark cockatoos ferried the souls of the dead to the underworld (I love that). Aesthetically I liked the pluckiness of the crest (like a punk which I am a bit of at heart - in my nature) and I am named after a bird so I relate to that imagery.
I: You formed Cockatoo back in 2005. How would you detail this first decade in all its circumstances?
RB: We made spinal tap look good. Hahaha. A bazillion drummers. Alan Levesque who I had basically co-founded the band (although i had an earlier incarnation that fell apart) as it is. He left and it was so hard to replace him. His sound was so inspiring to me. We had many amazing drummers however, because I have been very particular about that part being big and powerful and consistent - to ground my sound. Rod Wolfe was amazing because he already knew the music I loved and had been playing this for a long time so I thought if he and Alan would join me then I would know I had “it” - the chops or the potential - if not I thought I would give up on music completely. So those two really taught me so much and helped me grow musically without judging me for what I didn't know. But it has also been a tough time as I am the main song writer, and was the main booker etc and having so many line up changes with all the drama it ensued inevitably drained me. I have had to walk away from the band and that was my lowest point but also the point that I realized I am truly strong and independent now.
I: Cockatoo was featured on BBC Radio 6 and in the Cherry Red UK Records book Music To Die For as well respected musicians and music journalists like Tom Robinson, Matthew Halliday and Mick Mercer publicly showed a high approval to the band. How did it feel like to receive recognition for your work from people so intrinsically identified with the Old Continent post punk scene?
RB: Grateful, humbled, honoured and also I knew inside that I belonged. As a kid I always thought I was like Bono or Deborah Harry or Joe Strummer, I thought of them as people not super stars, and that I was that kind of person - I never idolized them - so yes it was amazing to know that my inner instincts were right.
I: The excellent The Basement Tapes released in 2007 was Cockatoo’s first official recording eight years after formation. How do you explain it and is this anyhow related to a more stable and mature band line up?
RB: We recorded it for 400 $ in a basement - (hence the name) and Alan took a lot of time producing it - crafting it into the sound it is now.
I: By the end of 2013 Cockatoo released its debut full length, the superb Present. This album most stunning feature is that it takes us by the hand, leading to all those palaces of past aural memories where happily resounds the sonic specters of an era that keeps seductively calling some never ending but also never reached nostalgia. How did you manage to capture and craft with such emotional intensity the ambience of the post punk atmosphere of the late 70’s early 80’s and still create an undefinable sound that can only sound to Cockatoo without copying the masters of an era?
RB: Geez, Present was after I had left Cockatoo. I had received a grant to my surprise to make the album, and once we got the money it all fell apart. I wanted to be fresh so I wanted to combine different personalities and aesthetics into the album, to open up the songwriting [I had always written the songs and brought them - a couple written them with Alan as he drummed or with Rod playing bass in the same manner and I would play but mostly (99%) I wrote them at home and brought them in] so I invited everyone to take part. What ensued was a disaster. I got painted out of the picture - all of what made my music me, was being erased. The band wanted to escape the goth tag as did I, feeling it would be too constricting and too exclusive of all other music I love - so I was to not dress in black, to be “sponsored” by a local designer label fashion shop - to manufacture a new image and sound, was the intent- and this was something I was curious about and embraced. What I didn't understand about my basic nature is that I have a basic nature that my music comes from and to feel like all of it was wrong (I sometimes think of it in analogy of someone being gay and being told who you love is wrong - I felt wrong for everything I was) I hated the way the album was sounding and ended up feeling so ugly and stupid and wrong I just left. I had been given a 10k dollar grant unexpectedly and half the budget was gone, half the time gone, and I called the grant people to let them know I had left and they told me they considered me the main songwriter and the grant would then be withdrawn if I didn’t complete it. At the time the band was talking to a couple of local singers about having them come in and sing my songs on the album. All of this made me arrive at myself. Also I had been contacted by Rich to do a side project and that helped me a lot, as I had been a fan of his band The Wake, and was a little shocked he had found me based on a 400$ recording made in Edmonton. Once I had to take Cockatoo back under my reigns I gave up apologizing for what I love, and enlisted the amazingly talented Robert Bukowski on drums and asked Rich to play additional guitars because for years I had been looking for someone with Rich’s sound - I had auditioned so many guitarists to no avail and here one landed in my lap. (Serendipity!) I wrote a bunch of songs after leaving the band and those ended up being the songs I used. Present was chosen to not be mired in anger or confusion about the past - to keep one’s head high and attend to the tasks at hand. To be present - that is how the past fades. So that experience released me from all pressure - Present (although the album was super rushed production wise and I wish we’d had more time to complete it truthfully especially some of the vocals) was finally and unabashedly “me”. And the bandmates gave me the support to go in the direction I naturally wanted to go, as they all loved that music too. It was the first time I stopped trying to add “disparate” sounds in to “try” to create a new sound. I was able to just unabashedly enjoy the sounds I love and they loved too. (Bauhaus, Love and Rockets when they aren’t being cheesy - The Wake, Sisters of Mercy - The Cure - I embraced it all with new found freedom).
I: Cockatoo already has opened for The Raveonettes, Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Romantics & The Mission. Up to which point opening for bands like these helps in your creative process and evolution as a musician?
RB: Well I was slated to open for one of my all time favourite bands New Model Army not once but TWICE!!! I am even on the posters. But they ended up not making it into the country. The other time we had to choose between The Romantics and NMA and Rod and I wanted to be fair to Alan as he had been playing some shitty gigs with us and was a bit unhappy and he chose The Romantics. Anton was amazing - he was in my face grabbing my shirt (after we played) saying I want you to fucking know - I’m your advocate! and I was like “um thank you” and he yelled at me “I mean it! Don't you fucking forget that” and I never did. He had the Vox Phantom 12 string guitar like I used to have. They used my gear (as have Pussy Galore and New Model Army haha I should have had it signed). I would say The Mission was special as it was post breakdown of Cockatoo - and when I had founded it years ago at the beginning of this journey I thought my goal was to one day open for a band like The Mission. So when that came around it felt like a sign - it was amazing we sold almost all of our albums we had picked up the day before (pre release) and I had to sign so many autographs. It felt like a homecoming. It felt right.
I: Although you are involved in a fantastic side project called Hamsas xiii with Rich Witherspoon from The Wake are there any plans for a Present’s follow up soon?
RB: I am not sure. I have an idea for a project called Peony. Which of course, will have Cockatoo’s sound as that is me, but I feel like Cockatoo came full chapter with The Mission gig and it doesn’t feel right to keep it going. Also I will be relocating to Toronto next year - so a new band seems fitting for this next leg of my adventures. I would like to work with many different musicians. And open for The Cure or Peter Murphy.
I: Are there any plans concerning a tour around Europe this year or in a near future?
RB: I suspect with Peony or Hamsas xiii that will be a reality but not yet as I have to relocate still to Toronto which will then make travel much easier and more affordable for the band.
I: I couldn’t help noticing that you are a tremendously productive songwriter. How would you describe your songwriting/composing process?
RB: I feel, I need to express, I burst out. I find joy in dark sounds, it releases me from routine ways of being which I have a love hate relationship with - it awakens my senses and makes me a happier person. I think all the time. I notice all the time and I am alone a lot of the time. I am very sensitive but strong and I have a sense of “play”- in that way I do not hit many musical writing blocks. (as opposed to when I was “trying” to “create” a sound I just “am” sound). I also know it comes in cycles and I let that happen. So when my self bursts through that is how it does it.
I: Can you detach your personal life experiences from lyrics or are they the main subject of what you write? Do lyrics come quickly or do you revise them over a period of time?
RB: I am a book worm and I love love love old poetry so I think often I read a lot of “good stuff” to fill up my well before I write lyrics. It allows me to think visually. I write and write what ever I want to - and then I condense them down into lyrics. I don’t try to write but I feel lyrics are very important. They are one of the first things I pay attention to. With lyrics you can say what you are repressing, but also there is a fear of hurting those close to you - that has always been a concern of mine that inhibits me. But they also can reveal secret you are hiding from yourself, such as the break down of a relationship I have undergone - it emerged lyrically first. I saw and understood what I had been repressing only after I wrote the songs. So I guess I write a lot intuitively and then carve it out from there.
I: Have you ever considered going solo one of these days?
RB: Well Cockatoo pretty much is “me” as I write all the songs. I didn't want to use my own name because it’s boring hahah. Although I guess my real name is not boring Peony will start where Cockatoo left off, I chose that name as it is unabashedly lush and full and fragrant and of the senses. I feel like a peony who was trying to be a daisy for too long and feeling awkward and stupid. Now I know who I am musically. Working in the guitar shops has helped with that too. I have had to earn respect. But firstly I have come to respect myself musically, and am curious to learn more and more!!! For instance A Place to Bury Strangers is a huge inspiration to me as I want to learn how to craft sound with my guitar outside of the usual playing. I want to craft feedback. Rich has also been a muse that way he can make a guitar sound I am so jealous of musically! High and piercing but rich and not jarring. So - lots to aspire to ahead of me yet!