A few days before kicking off a North American tour in support of their fifth album Tales of a Grass Widow with a sold-out show at New York City’s Webster Hall, I sat down with CocoRosie’s Bianca Casady. Ethereal, whimsical, haunting, and sometimes uncomfortable, there is no end to the adjectives used to describe the band’s particular brand of music. Sometimes classified as freak-folk, sisters Sierra and Bianca incorporate everything from harps to hip hop beats underneath Bianca’s trademark youthful timbre and Sierra’s floating soprano.
“I’m pretty shy, and I was really, really shy when we first started performing,” Bianca tells me over tea at a vegan café in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I’m caught by surprise; CocoRosie has been touring and making waves in the music world for years, as well as turning heads with their eccentric style.
Bianca is a visual artist—she had an exhibit at NYC’s Cheim and Read in 2012—and has ventured into print with Girls Against God, a feminist magazine launched earlier this year with creative partner Anne Sherwood Pundyk. She’s also a part of the "Future Feminists," a group comprised of comprised of herself, sister and bandmate Sierra Casady, Antony Hegarty, Kembra Pfahler, and Johanna Constantine. These performance-based artists are currently working on an exhibit to be unveiled in New York this winter. “Shy” is not an adjective I expected to hear from Bianca Casady.
“Ironically, it’s not hard to share the really personal stuff,” Bianca said, when asked how that incorporates itself into her performance. “I think I find power there, in the most personal part of the writing. Maybe because I’m harnessing an authentic emotion and I don’t have to wonder what to do, or make anything up, I’m just actually feeling something. And I’ve always let that be a part of the performance, too. I’m kind of against the song and dance, clown entertainer thing. And my sister and I, Sierra and I, have a really different dynamic, different personality. I’m much more moody and true to my moods (laughs) and everybody’s kind of used to it now.”
Indeed, at Webster Hall on Saturday night, a broad, beaming smile rarely left Sierra’s face as she switched seamlessly between harp, soaring soprano vocals—a trained opera singer, she hits notes with a skill and precision one encounters very rarely in live performance—and spontaneous dance moves. Bianca, however, never tried to hide how she felt; she embraced every emotion ranging from excitement to discomfort, sometimes standing at the microphone looking bored, sometimes shaking her hands aggressively, sometimes glowing with joy as she danced to the music, all the while playing horns, flutes, keys, making costume changes, and alternating between rapping and singing in her signature lilt.
The juxtaposition of the two sisters was made all the more charming by their interactions. It was clear that though their performance styles are different, their love for the music and the fans is the same. Accompanied by haze, flashing lights, video feed, multi-instrumentalist Tak, and live beat boxer Tez, the Casady sisters were enchanting onstage, and the sold-out audience agreed, bringing the band back for multiple encores, and cheering long after the lights had come back up.
CocoRosie at Webster Hall, October 14, 2013
“Actually performing, I have a lot of different experiences. I find myself daydreaming a lot and visiting forgotten memories, which is a new thing that I’m enjoying. It’s unique to performance and it’s unique to being extremely present, which most other activities don’t really require of you. It’s strange to go through that in front of a group of people, but my relationship to it changes all the time. It is different every night, every time we step onstage it's like stepping into a mystery.”
An appropriate term, as mystery surrounds CocoRosie, especially within their music. Their lyrics have been the subject of much debate, and sometimes criticism.
“There’s a real open-endedness or sort of cryptic style of lyric writing. We like that the interpretations are open, or even contradictory, or switching perspectives within the writing. I think those qualities have kept people from overtly labeling our music as political or feminist, for example.”
However, looking back, songs like “Jesus Loves Me,” from the sisters’ first record, and “Armageddon” from their second, are proof that the band has been sounding off on racism, homophobia, and politics from the very beginning. Even releasing a song with the title “God Has a Voice, She Speaks Through Me,” didn’t get the reaction from critics and the press the sisters expected. It took very specific language and references to the patriarchy and feminism before critics and journalists took the bait.
“I feel a huge shift in who’s being receptive and who’s interested to talk to us since we’ve started using clearer language about our work. Journalists are talking to us as if we just started becoming political, and it’s very obvious that it’s because we started saying that we were, as opposed to just what we were already doing. I mean, the queer community was recognizing us as doing queer things or gender rending which is almost an easier subject than feminism, interestingly enough. I feel like it’s more popular in terms of the popular and unpopular situations.”
Bianca played with gender roles for many years, often penciling a black mustache on her upper lip, and taking on a drag persona she called Rupert. Lately, however, her focus has shifted from ambiguous gender to women and femininity.
“Before, I think I was searching for my own sense of freedom, not identifying as female, and now I’m in the process of wanting to really own my femininity. I was playing with [the invisible female], finding identity through masculine personas. I’m still trying to figure it out; it was certainly an act of feminism to reject any kind of traditional feminine archetypes, but now, I’m searching for them and embracing them.”
That search is clearly reflected in the work she has been doing lately. Tales of a Grass Widow has a song called “Child Bride” (whose accompanying music video by Emma Freeman left me with goosebumps), which addresses arranged marriages between underage girls and men many times their seniors. The track “Tears for Animals” (on which Future Feminist member Antony Hegarty makes an appearance) has lyrics like: “stop the slaughter of our daughters/poisoning the water.” The first issue of Girls Against God focuses heavily on the patriarchal religions that silence and suppress women. But until recently, Casady would have been hard pressed to label herself a feminist.
“It was a dirty word for me until about two years ago. And I’ve had to consciously work through all the weird, gross feelings around it. There’s stuff that I’m discovering now that I was introduced to very young, but was never interested in. Like, I started reading Women Who Run With the Wolves. I knew about that book since I was a young teenager, but it had this, new age-y kind of feminist twist that was not attractive to me at the time, and it’s the kind of stuff that I’m seeking out now. So it kind of just proves that it’s been about unconditioning.”
Her work with the Future Feminists has helped her warm to the term, as well. “There were other artists who wanted to get involved [with Future Feminists], but they didn’t want to be associated with the term “feminism.” And that actually was the catalyst for me to really embrace it. It was shocking when I heard it said that way, that someone would actually want us to water it down. It felt very defeatist. Are we supposed to soften everything so that it’s more edible? That’s when I started taking [feminism] on in a very conscious way, when I started to realize that there are actually artists out there that claim not to be. I don’t understand any woman that rejects feminism, especially women that are embracing power.”
Bianca Casady at Webster Hall, October 14, 2013
The first issue of Girls Against God (the publication’s title came from a spontaneous phrase Sierra came up with one day while the sisters were rollerblading, and although they didn’t immediately know what it meant, Bianca said she knew it would be important) touches on that need for women to embrace power.
“I’m not tolerant of religion at all, it’s one of the more extreme angles of the magazine although I’ll still put anybody’s point of view in there. But I’m not down for any religion that suppresses women, period; for any book that says women should be treated this way or that way because of religion. I think that’s how we’ve all been duped the most. That’s why I dedicated the whole issue to that overarching theme: “girls against god.” God for me, in that context, is just patriarchy. It’s just this overarching dominating male image, it’s not really about God or anyone’s spiritual beliefs. And girls are the most voiceless, really, the most screwed, so it’s [about] empowering girls against that patriarchy. “
It isn’t just the patriarchy in religion that Bianca is talking about. As a woman she feels stifled in the visual art world as well. Her exhibit in New York last year, “Daisy Chain,” was comprised mostly of figurative drawings and collages. Of the nearly seventy pieces included in her collection, Bianca realized she hadn’t represented the female figure in a single one.
“I feel like it has something to do with the art world being not just predominantly male but also gay male driven and some part of me was adhering to that world by dealing with homoerotic male figures. I couldn’t figure out how the female figure factored into the whole equation. It’s almost like women have been treated like such a minority and if they do work which reflects the feminine, it’s marginalized, which is crazy. Somehow we’ve remained in this illusion of being a minority.”
The only way to escape that classification is to bring feminism to the forefront of the discussion, to engage men in the concept, which can be very difficult.
“I’ve found that men are very, very, very threatened by the concept of feminism and I’ve been trying to understand why. I think it’s the fear of rejection of women, actually. I think it really comes down to fear. And then also another thing I’ve been thinking is, as children they’ve been told that they really can’t have feelings, and in a way they’ve had to start resenting the feminine aspects of themselves in order to become men. It’s misogyny at work against men as well.”
Of course, there are also many women hesitant to adopt the feminist moniker, and Bianca is well aware that making a lasting change comes from appealing to all genders and individuals. Just focusing on recruiting women and leaving men behind (or vice versa) does nothing to permanently advance the movement. Instead, Bianca says, it’s an ongoing process.
“I can use myself as an example as someone who was uncomfortable with the term [feminism] just a couple of years ago, as understanding why right off, it takes a lengthy dialogue to help somebody start thawing out a little bit around the subject. But it usually works, with almost anybody. You just have to…it takes a little bit of patience.”
Thanks to Bianca Casady