A major leap of faith involves having a basic belief in yourself and a fundamental trust in the vision of who, what and where you want to be in the future. It’s a concept more easily described than achieved. Many people never find the courage to even fathom taking a significant life-altering risk, but for the aspiring artist, this moment is often inevitable. Just as these circumstances can seem serious and risky, a leap of faith is equally capable of sparking something amazing.
Such has been the case for Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Jackie Cohen, to the point it partially inspired the title for her debut LP, the vibrant Zagg, which was released last month via burgeoning indie label Spacebomb Records. On top of being an impressive freshman effort, Zagg represents a major gear switch for the 26-year old San Fernando Valley native, who until last year remained unsure how much sense pursuing an artistic career made for her, if any at all.
Upon releasing her first EP last June, Cohen’s songwriting was laden with insecurity, poetic in its ability to express different emotional states but self-admittedly unsure of its own skill. That particular project, Tacoma Night Terror, placed her center stage, presenting her diaristic confessions to an audience for the first time. 12 months later, she’s gigged with the likes of Alex Cameron, Mac DeMarco and Weyes Blood, both with a full band and as an acoustic duo with Rubber Band Gun mastermind Kevin Basko.
Indeed, a full year of touring, writing and practicing has paid its dividends. Just two EPs and one full record in, Cohen has developed a cartoonish brand of pop, rock and country that is both infectious and humbly unique, something she credits to staying the course and simply playing the music she loves. “I think that individuality comes out of reaching for something that you can’t quite get to,” she says when asked about the development of her sound. “I don’t think about it too hard, I just like a lot of music.”
Zagg is goofy and rough around the edges, but all the more eccentric because of it. It’s playful nature works to its advantage in more ways than one. It’s both raw and reflective, cute and clunky. Cohen’s stories are delivered with old fashioned flavor and modern embellishments, sometimes vise versa. Take the enchanting atmosphere of “Take Care of Your Skin” against the cheerful singalong “Yesterday’s Baby” or the industrial goth-pop of “Get Out” and you’ll find contrasting styles that are all equally charming.
The album’s genre-melding tendencies allow each song to flourish as its own individual creation, no one element trying to outshine another. Country-tinged ballads (“It Hurts”) dance easily with the quirky pop anthems (“Caught In A Feeling”) that are Zagg’s bread and butter. From the tunes at the core of each track to the band’s tamed yet relentless energy, the overall presentation of the music is heartwarming and undeniably fun. It’s both off-the-wall and filled with sunshine, strung tightly together by Cohen’s perfectly penned narrations on love, fear, anxiety and detaching from things you can’t control.
The 11 tracks on Zagg are full of promise and showcase Cohen writing and singing with a newfound confidence. Her words seep of sturdiness; even the bleakest songs ooze of intent. Regardless of where the next “zag” in Cohen’s life takes her, she is an exceptionally gifted songwriter who conveys emotions with ease. Here is to hoping she has more to say sooner than later.
Riffs & Rhymes Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Jackie Cohen ahead of her show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood earlier this month. They talked everything from the making of Zagg to touring with your heroes to Avengers: Endgame and more. Check out their conversation below.
You‘re wrapping up another solid run of shows, this time as a duo with yourself and Kevin Basko in support of Weyes Blood. How’s the tour been?
Jackie: I mean, it’s been crazy. We did the whole U.S. in a giant loop in one month. But it was honestly one of the easiest tours I’ve ever done. It’s a lot easier just being two people instead of four or five or nine. So yeah, we had a great time.
Your debut LP, Zagg, was released this May. What’s it been like absorbing the reception to it and what are you most proud of now that you’ve put these songs out into the world?
Jackie: I don’t think that many people have heard it, but a lot of my friends and other artists have reached out to tell me they like the record. I’m going on tour with Adam Green, who’s been my favorite artist since I was 15 years old. It’s really one of the most unexpected and incredible things that’s ever happened to me – making friends and getting positive feedback on something I made from people that used to just be characters to me, like these icons. It’s weird to see someone on a pedestal and for them to look down at you and say ‘Hey, you’re pretty cool.’
Last year, you made the decision to pursue your music full steam. What have been some of the biggest challenges and also rewards in taking that leap of faith and going from being someone who writes some songs to now trying to build your career as an artist?
Jackie: This whole past year has really just been about working up my confidence. I had a little bit of a self-esteem issue and I think that playing shows and being up in front of people, being forced to get better and take myself seriously, and start talking about myself in a more positive, authoritative way has actually affected my self-esteem. You know, fake it ‘til you make it style. So, I faked it and now I’m starting to feel it.
For this record, you had the opportunity to record with the Spacebomb House Band, which in my imagination, is this group of amazing musicians who literally never leave the Spacebomb compound.
Jackie: They don’t. (laughs)
It seems like they have a really great set up over there. Could you sum up what your relationship with them is like?
Jackie: I’ve known the Spacebomb crew for a while. I toured with Trey, Pinson and Cameron, who are a big chunk of the house band. Working on the record with them was crazy because I knew how good they were. Again, it’s one of those things where someone you really admire treats your work with care and respect. It’s just a very rewarding feeling. They are really holding it down as one of these cool, modern, Motown groups. It’s awesome.
Your music has been compared to the likes of Nancy Sinatra, Dolly Parton and Fleetwood Mac. Stylistically, there’s definitely a tasteful resemblance to those types of retro, song-based acts, but to this point, your sound has developed an aesthetic and feel to it that is pretty cool right now. What’s been the biggest key in finding your own style as a young songwriter?
Jackie: I don’t know. I think that individuality comes out of reaching for something that you can’t quite get to. I think that if you’re trying too hard to create a specific sound or vibe, a lot of time that’s when you don’t end up doing it. I don’t think about it too hard, I just like a lot of music.
You just released a music video for “Yesterday’s Baby” – which is a really fun and vibrant pop song. You’ve mentioned that was sort of the direction you were aiming with this record. At what point did it become clear that was the path you wanted to take for Zagg?
Jackie: We finished the Tacoma Night Terror record and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it. I really liked it and was proud of it, but I had written all those songs like there was a sense of shame in doing it. Like, ‘I don’t know guys, maybe I can write songs?’. When I started writing the next album, I was feeling a little bit more sturdy, like I understand how to do this. I wanted to go forward a little less apologetically. I think that’s what I mean when I said I really wanted to write some good pop songs. Rather than doing something quietly and hoping someone looked over and said I was doing a good job, I was feeling like ‘Hey, I can do a good job.’
Another great song off Zagg is “My Size.” It stands out for a couple reasons. One, the song is well written and has a nice sentiment – that being about love and marriage. Two, the music is all over the place. It turns from a cute little pop ditty to this playful yet eerie bridge in the middle. Could you tell me more about making that track and where those types of experiments in song structure come from?
Jackie: For that song, I was listening to a lot of Yoko Ono at the time and so I really liked a lot of whimsical, off-kilter songwriting styles. Sometimes when there’s a structural change or vibe switch in the middle of a song, it’s usually because I’ve written three verses and then, when I sit down with Rado to demo it, I’m like ‘Oh, I need to have a bridge,’ so I just write something there. A lot of cool things in my songs are accidents.
Something that’s always caught my attention in your music are the subtle vocal inflections you use to navigate whatever story you’re telling. Are there any artists in particular that have significantly influenced your approach to singing from a vocal and phrasing standpoint?
Jackie: I think I obviously started with Stevie Nicks, as many do. When I was making Zagg I was listening to The Pretenders a lot and I had also just discovered Patti Smith, so I was feeling more confident about being a little rough around the edges. At that point, I decided that I wanted to have a cool voice instead of a perfect voice.
Another intriguing thing about Zagg and the Tacoma EPs are the country elements on tracks like “It Hurts” and “Bold.” Where do those country influences come from? Is it your own taste and curiosity or maybe a product of those whom you’ve collaborated with and their particular styles?
Jackie: When I was starting to learn how to play guitar, I was playing a lot of folk music. You know, Joan Baez songs, Dolly Parton songs, Fleetwood Mac songs. Those are the types of songs that got really ingrained in me as I was learning to play and then write. I don’t think I’m even necessarily aware when it’s going a little country-twangy. That’s how I learned.
Lastly, you guys (Jackie, Rado and friends) are big Marvel fans. Now that the dust has settled, what is your final take on Endgame?
Jackie: We think it’s a beautiful narrative. We’re heartbroken in ways and we also understand the poetry of the arc. We think that it’s completely unique in its breadth. It’s an enormous universe and no one’s ever done anything like it, so we’re waiting to see if the Marvel franchise just collapses at this point now that the saga is over or if they can top it. It’s been a wild ride.