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  • Nathan Yoder

A Chat with Ora Cogan

A few weeks back, DC dropped into summer with an artist interview (thanks again, Ned!), and now that we're sweating through these blistering dog days, let's have another!

I've long been a fan of Ora Cogan's work. A recording artist based on Vancouver Island, she's been a mainstay in the PNW music community for over a decade now. On August 25th, she'll be releasing her new album, Formless, on Prism Tongue Records, and I've gotta tell ya, it's a good one. Like, really good. I reached out to Ora with a handful of questions about the album as well as other topics, and she was gracious enough to get back to me with some really thoughtful responses. Read our chat below, and don't forget to check out/pre-order Formless when you've got a sec.

Ora Cogan by Stasia Garraway

DC: Okay, so I typically open these "chats" by asking my interviewee to explain the whole backstory behind their new album. But I am beginning to feel like that is too big of an ask on my end. Like, this line of questioning requires artists to craft these really long answers which I'm sure are super time-consuming and laborious to write. So instead, let's kick things off with this: when thinking about your soon-to-be-released album, Formless, what are you most proud of, and why?

OC: It was a very chaotic, painful and cathartic process for me to write this record. So honestly I’m proud to have finished it all. I’m proud of the collaborations. I’m really blown away by all the musicians who had a part to play with this record and what they brought to this project in general. I’m proud of how vital it feels to me. There’s a good spirit in these songs. It feels good to play them and I love that people are wiggling and dancing a bit at the shows.

DC: Musically-speaking, is there anything new you tried out or experimented with when creating Formless? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it's your eighth full-release (wow!), so how was your musical approach on Formless different from (or heck, even similar to) your past works?

OC: It was a mess. I had ideas of what I wanted to do but none of that worked. I’d say the thing that was different was that there was no coherent process. I wrote for years and by the time we went to the studio I felt like I had nothing and everything at the same time. I took all these broken pieces, sketches and song lyrics that went on for dozens of pages and brought it all to my collaborators who were really pretty cool considering I was a hot mess. It was really fun to work with Finn Smith and David Proctor on the collaborative arrangements we did. They’re both brilliant.. A lot of songs went through a few iterations before settling. My mind and spirit were like a broken radio with bad reception.. Scanning through bits of wisdom and pain and goofiness… I guess the natural and world scrambling process of grief.. All the technical processes were secondary.

DC: I am curious, too, about the impact of place on your music. I read that you began work on Formless in that lonely period of pandemic isolation, during which you spent a lot of time wandering nearby woods with your dog. How do you feel your immediate surroundings might have found their way into your work? Or if you'd like to go broader, how does your life on Vancouver Island influence your craft?

OC: If there was a landscape this record came from, it's a big field in the valley close to where I grew up. There are hawthorn trees, big douglas fir trees… It’s a nice open place where I’ve done some of my best and worst thinking. I also spent some time up north and there are landscapes up there that are deep in my heart.. Did a writing session while on tour there with my band for a few days and went to Wells for a show…It was really special.

DC: Whew! Okay, let's get a little more specific. I noticed that you included a re-recorded interpretation of the traditional song Katie Cruel on your new album, and this Formless version gallops a little bit more than the one found on Ribbon Vine. I am so curious to hear why you decided to take another crack at Katie Cruel, and also, was this decision made before or after your episode of "One Song" with Peter Broderick? That was super fun to listen to, by the way!

OC: That song has haunted me forever… the mood has become more defiant.. It’s a weird meditation at this point… A spicy meditation. I’ve never stopped playing live. I love this song so much and it felt like there was some special new energy to it live so it just felt right to do another take on it. Not sure if I decided to do that before or after doing the thing with Peter! Gosh I love him! Did you see the intro where he’s in a speedo diving into cold Irish waters??? Amazing human.

DC: Now that we're on to specific parts of Formless, I gotta say that while the whole album is so so so good, Side B holds my favorite stretches. I adore Ways of Losing which features Luz from Y La Bamba, one of a couple collaborators you worked with on the album. Since I'm a non-professional musician and don't really know how these things work, I'm curious to hear how the collaboration process plays out for you. Like, do you have artists in mind that you'd like to work with, and then create together, or do you write music first and then think to yourself, "Oh, I think ___ would sound so good on this" - or does it totally depend on the circumstance?

OC: I’ve been a fan of Y La Bamba for years, and when we met in CDMX last year I felt a connection.. I guess it was a combo of intuition and courage to go ahead reach out to them. I always find there is some kinda intuition involved. Its usually idiosyncratic.. Who you cross paths with and what ends up working out.

DC: I just gotta take a second to gush and say that your song Darling on 2017's Crickets is one of my all-time favorites. Thanks for playing it at Pickathon a few years back, by the way! Is it in your setlist for future shows? What can folks expect to see at upcoming Ora Cogan concerts after Formless is out? New stuff? Old stuff? Surprises out of left field?

OC: Thank you so much! I could see about playing that song although the songs I’m more drawn to right now are a bit more frenetic and silly.. I think there will be the songs from Formless, Some oldies of mine, some covers and some improv for sure. I’ve got a 4-5 piece band now. We’re having fun. It’s more groove oriented, a bit more vital and big sounding. I LOVE that people are starting to dance. Hoping to have some good wild nights coming up.

DC: Let's turn things outward now. What have you been digging lately? This could be any music or specific artists you're currently into, or anything else really. Books, movies, tv shows, even free-time hobbies or activities!

OC: I’ve been reading Calvino, I’m pretty obsessed with Jim Jarmuch and Felini… I’m really into Lankum, Poor Creature and loads of Irish music I’ve been nerding out about since I started listening to Fire Draw Near. There is a great scene of music in Nanaimo where I live…I think Bad People is my all time favorite band. They’re a Cramps tribute band but really so much more. Katie Porter and Bill Bellerue have a great new project together called Eternities..

DC: And finally, what are you excited about in the near future? Formless is out in late August (yay!), and what are your plans after that?

OC: I’ll be doing some local record release shows in October, touring down the west coast and over to New Mexoco in Nov / Dec and over to Europe in the winter with my band! It’s been a tough time so I’m incredibly excited to get out on the road! I’m also writing another album and hoping to get into the studio in the winter.

A big thank you to Ora for her willingness to take part in this interview, and to get a little gushy, also for the beautiful music she releases into the world. Here's the link to her new album one more time - be sure to check it out.


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