Interview with Bianca Cassidy of CocoRosie
Originally published in GCN magazine, issue 288, Dec 2013
If you haven’t heard of CocoRosie, don’t let the hipsters stare through their big black rims at you incredulously [or was that last year?]- I too was only introduced to them this past year. However, their intriguing and haunting sound rapidly made them one of my favourites, so when I heard they were playing Dublin I jumped at the chance to meet and beg a few questions from this eccentric band.
To help all the other latecomers like myself catch up, CocoRosie is essentially two American sisters, Sierra and Bianca, whose first album was an enchanting, if lo-fi recording in a bathroom with children’s toys (it was never intended to be released commercially). Since then they have likely become known for both using a beat-boxer instead of a drummer (amazing), and their penchant for wearing mustaches and other drag/gender-bending activities. The latter of these is due largely to the influence of sister Bianca, so it was with her that I sat down before their show in the Button Factory back in October to pick her brain about various gender-y things.
Peaking my head inside the venue, I saw their crew installing a what promised to be a more theatrical stage setting than your typical gig- a dressing table and mirror, massive harp, clotheslines and changes of costume hanging from it. I was pointed in the direction of an appropriately androgynous Bianca, dressed-down in overalls and a red flannel shirt. Thinking she might not have seen the outside of a venue or bus for the last several weeks, I suggested we step outside to catch the brief sliver of sunshine Dublin was providing at that moment… which of course turned to rain as soon as we stepped foot outside. We legged it over to Hippety Café and sat out under the awning, beginning with compulsory questions about the tour as we waited for her green tea.
Their October 2nd date in Dublin, on that misty Wednesday, was their final show of a five-month, nonstop tour- “We played a gig in the UK last night, literally got on the tour bus, got on the ferry, got to Dublin and started setting up this morning.”
The European tour, and now the North American tour which they started just ten days after getting home to New York, is in support of the recent release of their fifth full-length album, Tales of a Grass Widow, which features more world instruments than children’s, and a more mature, produced sound.
“It’s been a natural progression from the children’s instruments as we’ve gone on, it’s an evolution from Grey Oceans [released 2010]. I really didn’t think we’d be doing this for ten years.”
Besides some gorgeously-shot videos on YouTube of a 2012 recording session in a German studio, they have also released several videos to go along with the new album, one of which Bianca herself directed, “Gravedigress.”
“The video was shot during several seasons in the same place, so you get this sense of time… it was pretty cold shooting in the winter, I almost got frostbite on my fingers. I think Sierra was a little pissed at me for putting our mother through that, she played the main character.”
Both sisters are incredibly active in other creative pursuits outside the band- Sierra (a trained opera singer) set up another music project, Metallic Falcons; Bianca set up a record label to produce it. They have produced music for films, fashion walks and theatre productions; Bianca also exhibits visual art and has recently taken on publishing an arts journal, Girls Against God.
“There’s a benefit to being able to let one area of creativity take a back seat, of having seasons of growth or quietness while you work on something in a different field…it helps to keep from getting burned out.”
Throughout all of their pursuits, especially Bianca’s, runs a passionate focus on gender, which is what I really wanted to get down to talking about. She used to identify as gay, but yet now has an indefinitely-permanent male fiancée.
“I thought I was gay for most of my teens. I lived the, at times, very difficult experience of a Gay Youth who is rejected and ostracized by their family. This isolation and lack of acceptance perhaps drove me deeper into identifying as gay as I was looking for community, one which accepted me. Maybe if my family was more open-minded I wouldn’t have looked at my sexuality as so Black-and-White. The older I got, the farther away I got from the oppression of “Christian Sin” and I started to see my Self and my sexuality as something more fluid and always changing.”
Now, however, she is more comfortable calling herself queer- “Gay wasn’t as accurate a label as is possible now. I don’t feel the need to fix my sexuality, I think it can be something that’s constantly in flux.”
Her opinion of gender exhibits the same sort of fluidity of thought. CocoRosie and the rest of her pursuits have all embraced trans musicians and performers (Anthony and the Johnsons, most notably), and although she considers herself trans in a certain way, sitting across from me, her transgender interviewer, she admits it means something totally different for her. “The transition aspect of trans [identities] is the part which appeals to me, not a particular linear destination like for some trans people. [I’m] meditating rather on the state-of-transition-ing, always becoming and unbecoming.”
She has taken this transition-meditation, this transcendence of binary genders, to such an extent that she considered the rather extreme measure of having a double mastectomy, to make her body a blank slate that she could then write on in one direction or another, or both.
“One persona I developed was a gay male that then dressed in drag, so there was this constant crossing and re-crossing of the gender line.” All of this, in large part, is not just expression of her own gender fluidity, but a challenge to what she sees as the invisibility of female identities in the music industry- the mustaches, the androgynous body, the male personas- “it was like challenging, occupying that foreign territory of visibility.”
That night, CocoRosie went on to perform what can only be described as a flawless performance, all the more amazing as it was the last thing standing between them and a home they hadn’t seen during five months of living on a bus. Any audience members familiar with their gender-bending stage performances might have been a bit surprised by the lack of ‘tache, and the sheer… feminine sexiness of the show. I waited a few days for what must have been a mountain of jetlag and exhaustion to be slept off, and then got in touch to both congratulate and make a final inquiry about that.
“Lately I have been trying to embrace the feminine in all her voluptuous glory. I still have a lot of female shame to work through. I’m done with being a boy for now; I feel as a feminist it’s time for me to embrace my womanhood. At least for time being. What creative personas are on the rise, there is no telling. I openly receive whoever may drop into my life. Whatever gender or race combination or even whichever era they might invoke.”