Sunday, April 22, 2012

Career Explosions: An Interview with Nicole Morier

Nicole Morier is one of my favorite pop songwriters working today. You've probably heard her songs if you listen to any Britney Spears albums of the recent era: her cuts include “Heaven on Earth” (with Freescha, from 2007's Blackout), “Rock Me In” and “Mmm Papi” (from 2009's Circus), “Trip to Your Heart” and “How I Roll” (from Femme Fatale, the latter of which was chosen by Rolling Stone as one of the best pop songs of 2011), as well as songs by Wynter Gordon, Selena Gomez and the Scene, Tom Jones, and Sky Ferreira. She was a member of the indie pop group Electrocute, and now records as the solo act coco morier (see Vertigo Shtick's review of the coco morier ep, which came in at #3 on the Top 10 Pop EPs of 2011 list).

We spoke in January about lyrical conundrums, writing for a solo project versus writing for other artists, and the hilarity that can ensue when critics and fans (and bloggers) get it wrong. Morier is a great conversationalist, and I didn't want to diminish her distinctive voice, so I've done my best to keep the transcription true to life.

You wrote the song “Whiplash,” which is on Selena Gomez's album, with Britney Spears; can you explain the pre-chorus about the girl and the bear?
[Laughs] I don't think there's any line about a bear...

OK good, then I really do need an explanation!
Britney actually wrote that pre-chorus. She wrote it with Greg [Kurstin] and she just kind of freestyled it, like wrote it in just as fast as you can even say it. And we were astonished because I thought it was so cool, and it just kind of came out of her. The flow was really cool, in kind of a weird, twisted way and yeah, we decided to leave it, even though it didn't make a lot of sense – it just sounded so cool. I think she says “a girl in a bit.”

How is writing songs for the coco project different from writing for other artists?
It's not at all, really, because some of those songs I actually just wrote without knowing that they'd end up to be mine or not. I kind of just write what I feel like that day, without thinking about it as much. But part of the reason I started the coco project, you know, a solo project, is that I had an avenue for some of these songs that didn't get cut from other artists, [but] that I love and just want to see out in the world. The labels seem to be somewhat scared to just put stuff out without a big buildup to it, so I just took the opportunity that you can just put stuff up in the world and see what happens. It's [had] good results, so I'm glad I did it.

In my review of the EP, I noticed your songs use a lot of celestial imagery, and then I went back and that's as much to do with the lyrics as the general sound. Where do you think that comes from, or am I way off on that?
No, youre spot on, and all your reviews have been, I love them. I don't know I guess I haven't really thought about it too much. Maybe when I'm writing I'm thinking of... just another world or something, like creating this other space to live in, something a little beyond what's in the tangible reality, and you can kind of create that in the song. But I'm not really sure why.

What do you look for in a collaborator?
Just that they can bring stuff out of you that you didn't know was there, and vice versa. Like maybe with just a simple word or melody, they'll vibe off of it and then go into something new that maybe even surprises them and so you can bounce these things off of each other. I feel like a lot of the best songs were written – I mean there's great songs written by individuals as well – but I just think there's something really interesting about the collaborative effort. The songs I write on my own are very different and they're somewhat... they can be great too, but they're more personal. I kind of love this power behind working together. I love to collaborate with other women, too. You can just bounce off each other and [it] kind of takes you to new places, I guess – it challenges you in different ways.

Who handled the production on the EP, and how does it translate in your live performances?
I ran the production on the EP and chose the songs I thought were suited and the people I like to work with, like Freescha, and Magnus [Lidehall], who I did some of the last Britney stuff with - he's really great. As far as translating it live, we've done a couple different shows. One we did all live instrumentation, with a drummer, and then the last show we did we had some back track and we played to that. [We're] kind of experimenting right now, but I think there'll probably be a little bit of both. I love the electronic sound, so I want to have some live drum loops set up, but as it develops I'd like to be really performing everything live, because I feel like even if we want to have some of that electronic sound we don't want it to be too much like a pop act with just back tracks, you know? We still want to have a kind of live band feel.

You've worked a lot with one of my favorite teams, Bloodshy & Avant [now two-thirds of Miike Snow] what's the artistic connection that you have there that makes your work together so effective?
I guess a similar taste. We came from a different world in terms of, like we didn't really grow up with pop music per se. I know that Bloodshy started off as a hip hop artist and [he] loves like punk rock and kind of all this mix, which is the same background as I have. When I started writing pop music I had heard their stuff and I just loved it, I thought “Oh this is, like, really cool!” And I think they come from a kind of rebellious side, so we just connect in that way. We listen to a lot of different stuff and don't really care about sounding like everything else on the radio, so I immediately connected with that. So we just have fun. I feel very free.

I was really scared the first time I worked with them because they're kind of my heroes as producers and I thought like “Oh no, how am I gonna do this?” And I got in the room and it's as if we were friends [for] 20 years, like I feel like I knew them my whole life. So it was really easy and comfortable. As soon as I hung out [with them] I realized these guys are cool and they get me and I don't have to try hard when I'm with them, I don't have to be someone I'm not. So I'm really free to write a song like “How I Roll.” They just gave me the beat and I went into another room and I wrote the verses and threw it back to them, just like “Hey check this out! There's no chorus on this song at all!” and it just had these weird lyrics, and they're like “That shit's dope!” And we started putting bass lines and tweaking the vocals, like, “All right!” So, it's just fun because we're really playing, really just having a good time as friends and hanging out, really.

And you've worked with people, whether it's on the EP or artists like Britney, who are known for having really open tastes, and...I don't know where I'm going with this. But you spent some time in Germany, and how do you think the European sound that you were involved in still plays into your music, be it your own stuff or stuff you write for other artists?
I think it's been really great coming to LA with this breadth of music knowledge because even before Berlin I lived in New Orleans, New York, I lived in Austin for a little while just out of high school; so I picked up all this different music along the way. But Berlin was especially informative because it was this kind of wild electronic scene going on and Peaches had just gotten there, and people were sampling 60s garage music and putting beats to it. It just opened up these doors of what was possible.

Also, coming here, you know, dance music is blowing up, but I think American dance music is still sounding like what they were doing in Europe, like, five years ago. In Europe they're always a little more excited about the newest thing, while Americans.... It's funny, because they'll pick up on stuff from America and make it popular there first and then we'll take it back and be like “Oh, this is great!” Like house music: that started in America, and then Europeans kinda take onto it and show us how it's done and then we're like “Oh yeah!” I feel like it's good to have both. In terms of my first Britney cut, Teresa [LaBarbera Whites], her A&R, [knows] Britney is an international artist and so I think they picked up “Heaven on Earth” because it sounded like a European dance song at the time. It stood out on the album because the rest was kind of American, urban stuff, so it was cool to have that song on there.

Heaven on Earth” was your first big break; from an artistic standpoint, how, if at all, did that influence the types of songs that you were then trying to sell as a songwriter? Did the specifics of that song dictate any of the themes or elements that you stuck with? How did the fact that it was your first big success influence what you've done as a songwriter?
Stylistically, no, I didn't feel limited at all, because my next big cut was doing a retro throwback soul song with Tom Jones, and I wrote a ballad for him. When I started songwriting for other artists it was in my mind to keep my very eclectic musical taste open and I have all kinds of interests and different music I love, so it didn't limit me at all in that respect. What it did was teach me... that was one of the first very honest, from-my-heart songs that I wrote, and I was a little embarrassed, because I thought “Oh my gosh, these are cheesy lyrics, is it too open? Is it too simple?” Because with Electrocute I was hiding behind a bit of irony and being just a little punk brat, you know? I started writing songs and I wanted to do something kinda weird, and I was always trying to, but I feel like I was hiding behind something, not getting to my true self as a songwriter. And when I did that and it was a great song, and it connected with people, I realized I need to be honest in my songwriting. Really the best songs I write, still – even when they're fun songs like “How I Roll” – it's still me, coming from my taste and such. Now I can connect better, after I realized that, and it just kind of opened [me] and taught me not to be scared and [to] just put it out there. But I don't feel like in terms of genre or anything that I felt stuck in it.

Well, that leads me to a question I was trying to figure out how to put. I'm really interested in finding out what's behind the emerald curtain and all that, with writing, and production and such, but I do realize that when we don't know the process and don't spend the time with you in the studio, we do a lot of speculation and sometimes we get it wrong. But that's not necessarily a bad thing; when you don't know exactly where things come from it sometimes makes you more interested. What do you think is the importance of mystery in pop music?
Yeah I think it's good to have a certain amount of mystique. A lot of artists that I love carry that. And you don't want to hear someone just, like, baring their fucking soul every minute! Sometimes you want it to be something for you to figure out, not like... I don't want to shove it down people's throats exactly how I feel every minute. It's trying to have a certain mystery, and, fuck, I don't even know what I'm talking about half the time. It's a good question, I wish I could answer it. I guess I don't think about it that much; it's just kind of in there and I'm just kind of writing what comes out and not really thinking.

Well, and maybe that's the answer a lot of the time; I remember studying art and the professor would say things like “this blue thing is about blah blah blah” and sometimes I wonder if the artist just thought “Oh, that's pretty.” I've talked to other artists and at some point they stop reading what is written about them. Do you still pay attention to that, and does it bother you or is it amusing when someone gets it wrong? Whether that's interpretation or something like “a girl and a bear,” or I read one review that quoted the line from “How I Roll” as “You can be my fuck tonight.”
That was like... I knew that “thug” sounded like “fuck” because even when I demo'd it I was like “Ooh, this is gonna be misinterpreted,” but that was a pretty good one. [Laughs] People go crazy with it too! I'm like “Really? What else do you have to do with your day?” People are like freaking out, I love it. My favorite is reading YouTube comments. People think that because they're anonymous they can just say whatever. I think that it's so entertaining because, like really, they argue with each other and I think it's hilarious because people get so worked up. And I find it really flattering if it's one of my songs because it creates this big drama. And then you see every YouTube comment there's gotta be [Lady] Gaga mentioned in there somewhere because she's mentioned and they're like “Fuck you! Britney rules over Gaga!” I mean are these twelve year olds? Maybe they are, it's just like...

I was talking to the singer Anjulie and she mentioned that she's often compared to Gaga, and she's Indian. Everyone is compared to Gaga, or Britney...
I know. The point of reference these days is pretty thin, I wish we could get a little more going on that people could be excited about so they have more, you know...

What are the barriers to that, in the United States, at least? Why do you think that is so difficult for us to get a wider sphere of influence?
I think it's because labels aren't selling 20 million copies of their big artists anymore and they're not able to diversify. The indie labels kind of took over the role. It used to be that this kind of weird band like the Ramones could be on a major label even though they weren't, like, a typical pop act, and then indies came in and then now it's kind of spread out, so no one can take the risk to put out something interesting. It's like the indies are just overwhelmed because there are so many bands, and nobody knows really how to find them. Even the indie label culture has disappeared. It used to be like “Oh, you can just buy anything from Sub Pop, and you'd know it was good,” and even that's so watered down and spread out it's hard to find good stuff.

Then with the pop music, they're just scared to release anything, so there's all these great artists – I work with them all the time – and they get passed over because they finally put out a single that sounds like the most mainstream thing you can do it has no guts to it, and then they're surprised that it flops, and then they drop the artist. And meanwhile all these good songs and these great artists get pushed to the side because the labels are too scared. So I don't think it's that there's less interesting stuff, it's just they're struggling to find a home for it and it's all kind of changing over. But I think that'll change pretty soon because, you know, everything's aligned and these artists will learn to just start doing it themselves instead of relying on this big industry.

How does your work as coco morier depart from your work with Electrocute?
I think just, um, well let's see... It's a little more sophisticated and a little more where I'm at in terms of my craft, in terms of my songs and stuff, you know? I started Electrocute just with, like, I really had no idea what I was doing, and I was just like kinda throwing everything in there. I guess now the songs are a little more thought out and a little more grown up.

So what's the next step?
I don't know! I mean, I'm playing live shows, and kind of just seeing where it takes us. I've got a few more songs recorded. I haven't really planned out the next steps but we'll see if we're gonna keep self releasing or if a label comes up. Gonna play in LA once a month and see where it goes.

Anything else you'd like people to know?
I love all the support, the feedback's been great. So refreshing because I was a little bit, um... it's been a while since I've been releasing stuff and I've never done something as a solo project and its just really nice and motivating, all the feedback and it inspires me to do more and keep writing songs and putting them out.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I called Morier again a few weeks ago to clarify a few points and ask about the new label Ingrid, which she joins with independent (and mostly Swedish) types like Miike Snow, Lykke Li, The Teddybears, and more.

First off, tell me about your new label! That's exciting. How did that come about?
As far as I know it was the concept of [Peter] Bjorn and Pontus [Winnberg] from Miike Snow. They just have the same frustrations I've had over the years with like you know working a lot with labels that haven't been moving forward with, basically, the rest of the world in terms of how we access music and promote it, and so I think at one point it's just like why not do it yourself? So they had this kind of started and they invited me to join because I kind of fit in with the rest of the group. It's all people who have their own projects with artists and performers and they also produce and write for other people. I at first became more friends with Christian [Karlsson] and Pontus from Miike Snow because we were working on the Sky Ferreira thing, so we were collaborating a lot. So they asked if it was cool for me to join in cause we're all in the same boat, I guess.

Since you piqued my interest with your story about “Whiplash,” I wanted to ask about the origins of some of my favorite songs on the EP, first being “Explosions.”
That song I wrote with Magnus in Sweden. That was kind of cool because we were working on my EP and I was out there writing and he just made a beat. We were writing a lot that week and we'd done like eight songs or something and I was getting a little burnt out, and I think he was too, so I told him to do basically what he had done on “How I Roll,” just make a beat and I'd sing over it without any notes or chords to steer me; I'll just sing on something rhythmic. So he made that percussive beat, and I took it home and came up with the melody, and then we wrote the chorus later.

My Satellite”?
That one I was writing with Freescha, and I think that one wasn't really specifically written for me, it just kind of came about later. I think I was...I can't even remember, that one I wrote quite a while ago. I was sort of inspired by their track.

And “Journey to the Center of the World.”
That one I actually wrote when I was working with Sky Ferreira, and I had it in mind for her, but she never used it. So I had it and I was just like “that's cool....”

So you worked with various producers. Have you gotten into production much, or does that interest you?
Yeah, I used to produce a lot more when I was doing Electrocute. In the beginning I did all the main elements, like made the beats and kind of put it together. The first EP I did was kind of all myself, and then when we did the album I did the production like ¾ of the way and then we brought it to my friend Mickey Petralia in LA and had him [finish it]. He'd get players in like Greg Kurstin and he'd redo parts, because I was working on Logic and I didn't have all the instruments. So I do do that, but at one point I'm just too busy, you know? I still do a little, but I'm so lucky to have all these great producers to collaborate with so it's kind of like, what's the point?

And for me, I write a lot of songs, and it takes time, you know, to write lyrics, plus I have two bands going on and a record label and writing pop stuff and making know. I would love to produce more, but I feel like I have to be a little more shut up, like I have a little writing room that I work in. But I do mess around, like I'll make beats and get inspired and I'll write songs. I am starting a project with a French singer that's coming up on Ingrid called Spy Numbers that I'm producing the music for.

Production kind of seems like a boys' club, even when women are dominating the pop scene. There's this wonderfully sexist undercurrent to the idea that Britney, or Katy Perry or whoever are good and all but the real artistry is on the part of the men behind the scenes. What are your thoughts on that, and do you sense that idea at play within the industry?
Well yeah. I mean to me sometimes not only is it, like, you'll see like a song that Cathy Dennis or I wrote and the producers are the only ones who get mentioned, and we have huge parts in arranging, melodies, all this stuff and even if we're not getting a producer credit, those songs – you know I see them and I do it myself and I have a huge part. Like “How I Roll,” from the beginning I was playing a big part in that song, [but] I just kind of over and over again see that's all the producers. It's like “Okay, but I actually wrote that song...”

And then producers also put themselves on writing credits.
Well I mean today's music, I guess, because so much of the writing is a lot about the production, like the beats and stuff like that, I think it is fair that they take some writing [credit]. I think sometimes it's excessive, because you know, standard is 50%, but a lot of the people I work with personally, they are writing quite a bit. You know I think it is a boys' club. Especially in terms of the pop world, I see mostly male producers behind the scenes. There are a lot of women writing and playing all the instruments and stuff on music, but it's true, I don't see [women producing] as much.

It's probably why I try and motivate myself to do more of that, not just because there are so few women but because when I do it I realize I'm actually giving it something different. It's just like when you see a girl drummer or something: there's no thing of like “Oh, she's good, for a girl,” it's just women will put a different touch into it, or maybe it's because you don't see it as often. It would be nice to see more women behind the scenes. And, you know, part of the fun of doing Electrocute, where I was producing most of the stuff, we'd have these teenage girl fans and they were like looking up to us, and I didn't have many role models like that when I was younger. I was kind of know, I'm from Albequerque so it's like {laugh} a provincial town and maybe there was one girl in a band who played bass and I was like “Wow, how did she do it?” It was amazing, and it took me 'til I came to Berlin and there was like Peaches and Cobra Killer, there were a lot of girls, Chicks on Speed, making their own music.

I want to ask again about the notion of character in pop music; I was a little vague last time so I wanted to place it in terms of coco morier. Who is “coco morier” in relation to Nicole Morier?
Well, I mean it's all the same, it's me. But I was using my name as a songwriter and, you know, before that I had Electrocute, which wasn't even really... my name wasn't even involved, it was just a band name. So I think my name was out there as a songwriter and I kind of just wanted my own stuff as an artist to be a little separate from that. I thought of names that were much further away from my real name, but in the end a lot of the good names are taken! Like, everything's taken right now because of the internet. I mean you can go online and it's really hard to find something cool that hasn't been used, and I was getting a little frustrated. I've always had “Coco” as a nickname – it's been my Facebook name for years, and I used “Coco” in Electrocute as well, so a lot of people were like “Why don't you just use that? It's a great name!” Then it's kind of still me, and it's a nickname I've carried around for a long time, but it's also... I dunno, I just think “Nicole Morier” is not as much of a rock star name. A lot of my music is influenced by 60s French pop stuff so it kind of fits into the style of music as well.

I feel like some artists feel that they need to adopt a new character in order to explore different styles or genres, whether it's like Lana Del Rey or Marina and the Diamonds' "Electra Heart stuff," or a different viewpoint like Beyoncé and "Sasha Fierce." What's behind that?
I think it's just people who are trying to do something that's just a little more interesting. It's fun to explore your personality – the way I am if I'm wearing a really straight bob with a straight fringe compared to if I put my hair in pigtails. I'll really have a different personality, and they're all me, but it's just different extensions. So you might be more fierce and seductive or you might be more playful and girly, whatever your look is, or your name, it does, it helps you feel a certain way. I don't know, you maybe just want to stand out and just have something catchy. And I'm glad they do it because it would just be boring if everyone was like “Sarah Smith” or whatever.

So you're saying it's helpful for the artist as much as the audience...
Well if you go around calling yourself “Sasha Fierce,” yeah! You're like “I'm Sasha Fierce!” It's just being brave and putting yourself out there and having something fresh. I mean the Beatles get that; I just watched the George Harrison documentary and they were so stuck that when they came up with Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band they were really like “We're gonna be a different band!” And then they made this revolutionary album because they didn't have to be the Beatles anymore. It changed the face of music, and that was really them just going “We're bored with being the Beatles, we don't even know what to do as the Beatles anymore, so we're gonna call ourselves this band,” and then that allowed them to make something really far out and stretch the limits of their own imagination. People don't realize when we're trying to create something, we have to, like, get ourselves in modes, and when you've also been out in the world and exposed for so long like Beyoncé, you have all this pressure to top yourself, so creating a new name just helps you expand your imagination as well.

Any projects on the horizon you can tell us about?
Yeah, there's the Ingrid label launch I'm working on a compilation on Record Store Day. It's gonna be really cool, like vinyl packaging. And I'm gonna be at Coachella, and do a show at the Bootleg on April 18, then going to release another EP through Ingrid in June. I'm writing for some other projects but nothing's really coming out soon so it's all this stuff in the works.

Last question, because everyone's been asking me: is there a demo somewhere of Britney singing “Whiplash?”
Yes. I'll never ever ever give it up. But a lot of people write me and ask me for all these kinds of things, instrumentals, stuff like that... Man, I can't give that stuff out! So yes, there is, but don't think it'll see the light of day.

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