An Interview With Blues-Country Singer-Songwriter, COCO O’CONNOR About Her Debut Album, “Turquoise” And Much More!
Posted On 09 Jun 2016
Fast emerging on Americana and Triple AAA radio nationwide with “Empty In California,” the lead single from her debut album Turquoise, Coco O’Connor grew up near Birmingham, Alabama and paid her dues for a few years living in Los Angeles.
Yet since moving to Santa Fe some 15 years ago, the blues/country singer/songwriter’s life, music and inspiration have been all about wide open spaces, peaceful, sweeping landscapes and her unshakeable, intuitive belief that the mountain she and her husband Taylor live on gives her songs. True environmental minimalists, their house is just down the road from an honest to goodness goldmine, with a breathtaking view of New Mexico‘s state capital and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost sub-range of the Rockies.
“There is a clarity in Santa Fe that makes it hard to be someone you are not,” she says. “I believe it comes from the way the sun hits the landscape, which enhances all the natural colors. It’s like the blue sky is really blue and the green is really green. The light here is so intense that it makes all the colors of the land just pop – almost like 3D images. As an artist receptive to all kinds of inspiration, I embrace the quietness. Being removed from a city allows me to hear melodies, lyrics or words that come into my head…and take those ideas and craft them into songs.”
Coco adds that she often feels as though she has an antenna up and she’s always waiting for it to come into contact with a creative, inspirational frequency. “The same goes for art as well,” she explains. “I am a painter, and tuning into a frequency allows me to see the picture apply the same principle before I go to work on a new series of paintings. I believe when I tune in, I am just tuning into God, the ultimate Creative. It’s easier to tune in when you have peace and quiet and there’s not a lot of other energies, noise or distractions…and by tuning in the art, the creation just flows and becomes what it needs to be.”
One of Coco’s greatest muses is her own personal day to day twist on Kevin Costner‘s Oscar winning landmark film “Dances With Wolves.” She and her husband are raising a unique extended family that includes Titus and Seluh, two friendly but shy high content wolf-dogs they’ve had since they were ten days old. A high content wolf dog is pretty much a wolf, and they have their litters only once a year. “High content” means that they have more wolf than dog. Wolves in the wild only breed during the spring so the pups can be born in summer – allowing them to survive and become strong before winter.
After a nine month wait, Coco and Taylor adopted Titus and Seluh when they were ten days old, bottle feeding them for six weeks until they could eat food. “What is different about raising them is the pack mentality,” she says. “We are the pack. You have to establish that we are the Alphas in the pack. If you don’t do that, the nature of the wolf is to ‘test’ you to see who is really in charge. So we let Titus know that he was not the alpha, my husband was. You show them who the alpha is via the ‘loud noise’ principle, clapping your hands close to the wolf dog’s face. One time is usually enough because these animals have an intelligence level that is off the charts.”
While the wolf-dogs have their “dark side,” opening doors and locks and being crafty thieves, Coco and Taylor treat them like family and often invite them to breakfast and dinner. They pet them, rub their bellies and Titus (the male) even pees like a cocker spaniel when he gets his belly rubbed because he gets excited! The most fun is sharing their food after dinner or feeding them raw meat or bones – and they’re pretty handy as living “garbage disposals,” enjoying all the leftovers.
Titus and Seluh play inspirational and spiritual roles for Coco as well. She says that the most wonderful aspect of them their howl, because there is nothing that touches the soul more than hearing them sing to the sky either day or night. “When you are sad or hurting, they know,” Coco says. “My husband was going through a rough time a few years ago and he just went out and laid down in the yard with them for hours. When he got back to the house he swore that they had taken whatever he was dealing with from him. I believe they have that kind of healing power. Same with me. I was in a terrible state in the hospital and Titus just kept coming to my mind…so much that I began to draw images of him any chance I got. Because I too felt the healing power and needed it.”
Coco’s album Turquoise features five song collaborations by her and the project’s producer Margaret Becker, a Nashville based four-time Grammy nominee and four-time Dove Award winner who has had 21 #1 Christian radio hits. The two met through Coco’s involvement with PCG Nashville, one of America’s leading career/artist development organizations.
Learn more about Coco O’Connor in the following All Access interview:
Thanks so much for your time today! What were some of the highlights of 2015 for you and your music?
2015 was a year full of creativity. I spent most of the year collaborating with some great writers in Nashville like Blue Miller who produced and has co-written with India Arie, Doug Kahan, Britton Cameron and Margaret Becker. Bringing my songs or ideas to these writers really brought my songwriting to a new level. It’s like that saying “diamonds sharpen diamonds”…and that’s what happened with me and the collaboration.
I had a nice body of work to select from as far as songs go. I guess I had around 20 or so while it’s always challenging to decide which ones should be on the record … because I had spent so much time in the writing process it was nice to be able to pick and choose from material that was real quality. I really wanted to record a collection of songs with “no filler.”
So around November we recorded 10 songs …and that was a great way to end the year. It was on a real high note.
Growing up, did you always want to be a musician?
Well my mom had me in a bunch of pageants growing up. So I was in all these classes like dance, voice and guitar because I had to perform in all these pageants. Music was definitely the expression that I gravitated to the most…the singing and playing guitar. When I was 10 or so, my mom suggested that I should start writing my own songs like Dolly Parton (I was a huge fan of hers and still am)…so I began to give it a go and just never stopped. I don’t really think of myself as a musician. Musicians in my mind are like my best friend Rebecca who is a cellist and plays in symphonies. Or my hubby who can’t read a lick of music but can make improv music on a piano that sounds like the most sophisticated concertos. I only wish I could make my instrument talk like a real musician.
I have always been drawn more to words and putting them together to create stories and/or rhymes…so I think I leaned more toward songwriter than a musician. The words and rhyme come easier for me than playing an instrument. Truthfully I never thought much about being a musician when I was growing up because music just felt like a part of me. Music and songwriting was just always something I did….whether it was listening , studying , analyzing, imitating songs or other artists and bands …like I said it just feels like it’s a part of my make up as a person.
Guess that was a roundabout way of saying … yes I did always want to be songwriter/musician growing up. I felt like it’s a gift that is inside me and I wanna give it back to the world. Hopefully, it can help someone…somehow.
Can you recall your earliest musical memory?
Yes, singing “I’m a little tea pot, short and stout …” with my plastic record player that was orange and yellow with a white turntable.
What was it like releasing your debut album, “Turquoise”?
It was like giving birth without an epidural. There were bittersweet moments and emotions that really made me feel a little nuts and some painful ones too. You build up to this wonderful yet difficult experience when you are recording a record and then it’s over in what seems like an instance. Then you are left with this creation ( like a child) and you’re kinda clueless as to what to do next until that release performance or tour or whatever when you start letting it out into the world. I actually had some “post record blues” which left me feeling pretty depressed after it was done. But after I had such a great response from KBAC Radio Free Santa Fe and a really successful CD release performance in Santa Fe, well those blues lifted and now she (Turquoise) is really spreading her own wings and taking flight.
Where did the inspiration for it come from?
I live on a mountain up a road next to a gold mine and I believe that mountain gives me songs. I also wanted to get back to basics and write songs that were powerful with just vocals and guitar. I really believe in the power of a great song. So, I wanted to have a work that was like those records from the 60s and 70s where you listen to them front to back and there is not a song on there that is considered “filler.” I believe that is a hard thing to do nowadays…I mean it was hard back then but there are so many distractions nowadays and temptations to rely on technology. I wanted to focus on honing the craft of songwriting.
What was it like working with 4-time Grammy nominee, Margaret Becker on this record?
Working with her raised my game. She has this ability to kind of push you but at the same time …you know that she is protecting you as well. We had really great chemistry and I couldn’t have asked for a better co-writer and producer. I can’t say enough about her. I mean she is absolutely brilliant and musically she has this balance of head and heart knowledge. That is great for someone like me cause I can be very unbalanced …like one moment really in your face angry and the next very kind and sweet. The cool thing about Margaret is that she recognized that characteristic about me. I heard her telling someone that I was the kind person that lived in the extremes that the middle was not a place you’d find me very often. That is so true. I guess I am more excited by one extreme or the other…the middle of the road just kinda bores me.
What exactly is a Becker Bomb and how did you know when you had one?
I would bring songs to Maggie and sometimes we would build on the framework I already had. But then there were other times where we would get to a certain point with a song or idea and I’d ask…“should we drop the Becker Bomb on it…” and by that I meant just destroy what we had so far and start again. Like scratch all the ideas we had or turn around and go in some completely opposite direction than where we were originally going. It’s my way of just saying that we would ‘deconstruct a song” and build it up in a whole new way from what it was originally.
How did your music change when you moved to Santa Fe?
My music changed when I began to live out here and became more open. It is so different from where I grew up it allowed me to reflect on things and be more bold as a writer.
How has that environment influenced you as an artist?
When we moved out here our place, which is our studio/home, we had no running water and I used an outhouse for a year while we were building a bathroom. Both my hubby and I got pneumonia because we had to take a bath on the porch and we had to go from one building to the other because nothing is connected…and this was in the winter and snow. We had no electricity and used candles for about 6 months while all this building was going on. We purchased the cheapest thing we could find and to save money we lived in the place while we were making it “livable.” So being the Southern Belle that I am and a creature of comfort… I never thought I had so much character or was that tough. However building a place completely to support musical creativity, well let’s just say this environment has made me a frontiers woman. So I guess I am always approaching art from that perspective.
What has it been like raising your 2 wolf dogs?
Beautiful…I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world. It’s magical.
How did that all happen?
Well, we wanted wolves. So we went down to Texas and got two of them, a male (Titus) and female (Seluh). We bottle fed them since they were 10 days old just like a baby. You have to do that so they bond with you. So we have had the pleasure of being with them for 15 years or so. They are very close to us and act like regular dogs. With other people they are very shy and don’t come around.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Some of my favorite artists include Dolly Parton, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Enya, Dwight Yoakam and Elton John.
What musicians continue to inspire you through the years?
Dolly [Parton]. I got to see her at one of the sold out shows at The Ryman last year and she was simply amazing. I mean I hope I am still on stage at 70. The same thing goes for Loretta Lynn. She did one of my favorite records Van Lear Rose with Jack White some years ago and just rocked it. I hope that younger people will find me cool enough to work with when I am in my 70s or 80s.
Who would you love to collaborate with in the future?
I am hoping to co-write with Jim Lauderdale one day soon. I will be opening up for him this August in Santa Fe, so I hope I can get a writing session in…fingers crossed. Joshua James he is a great singer/songwriter from Utah …love his stuff. Chris Stapleton – I think we’d have a great time writing and could do something really soulful. I also would love to work with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi in any way shape or form.
Do you have any touring plans in the near future?
Yes, we are doing will be in the Midwest in Kansas, Missouri, and Kentucky in June and July. Then back in Santa Fe in August for the Jim Lauderdale gig.
Where do you hope to go play?
Anywhere they’ll have me. I got some fans in France, so I’d love to go there and all across Europe. Australia too.
At the end of the day, what do you hope is the message of your music?
I hope when they listen to my songs or come to a show that their world is changed for the better during that time that they spend with me.
What do you hope listeners take away from your songs?
I hope listeners feel like if they can’t say something that they feel or don’t know how to express something that they feel …that they can just say to their significant other or friend or whomever they are trying to get something across to..they can say “I got something I really wanna say but I don’t really know how to express it but this song says it all for me, so have a listen.” Then they play one of my songs.