In her work with the band CocoRosie, Bianca Casady cross-dresses, raps, plays coffee grinders, and inhabits a series of creative, costume-wearing personas, including one named Rupert, a psychic and a tarot enthusiast. The band, a collaboration with her sister, Sierra, has become known for its signature collage of genres (French jazz, opera), sounds (windup toys, beatboxing), and fashion styles (Victorian, vaudeville, 1990s urban), a divisive cocktail that has pointedly attracted or repelled audiences.
With CocoRosie, Casady is, foremost, a writer. Her poems, transposed into lyrics, tell the story of the band, dictating costumes, artwork, and characters. Sung-spoken with a Billie Holiday timbre and a Wu Tang swagger, the words go deep, both into K-holes of language and the Casady sisters’ past, a sprawling, emotional fairy tale of shaman fathers and long-lost siblings.
In addition to her music, Casady has founded the Voodoo-EROS record label, releasing a motley roster of subversive rappers and songwriters, and Mad Vicky’s Tea Gallery, a temporary art gallery in Paris whose namesake is one of Bianca’s witchy personas. Casady is also an internationally exhibiting artist, and her collages and drawings depict a visual universe not dissimilar to CocoRosie’s, filled with gender-bending unicorns, Native American mythology, and the everyday, man-made spaces she and her sister refer to as “artificial paradise.”
This interview took place backstage at Terminal 5, a few hours before CocoRosie’s most recent performance in New York City, the band’s onetime home before they became, as they are now, itinerant. Casady and I met as we searched for an entrance into the venue, where, later that night, her new video works projected across the stage and the duo performed in vintage pajamas.
THE BELIEVER: CocoRosie seems to be as much about the costumes and the artwork as it is about the music. It’s one big collage of mediums, including your identities or personas, which are always changing. Would you say identity is a part of the CocoRosie project?
BIANCA CASADY: Definitely. Whatever aesthetic phase we’re going through can be accessed through our expression of identity. That comes through in photographs or even how we are onstage. And there will be a correlation between the style of writing and the music on the record. It’s very personal. It’s not something that we attempt to control as much as just serve. But it’s often how we start. A lot of our creative process begins with hair or clothing or makeup. And this is more and more true. I think, from touring so much, and getting ready every night, it’s become the center of everything.
BLVR: Is this a strictly performance-based process or does it cross over into your personal life?
BC: It’s totally a part of our personal life. We take pictures a lot. It’s not for a specific project, but it’s a part of the process of developing the look. It’s constantly evolving, and even from the beginning of the tour to the end of the tour the look morphs a lot. It changes a little bit every night, down to the way we put makeup on. We also pick things up along the way.
BLVR: Literally, too, right?
BC: Yeah. We find old wigs. Just having a particular wig— wigs have a lot of weird energy, especially used wigs—can shift our whole look. If you use a synthetic wig, it’ll start to dread up in synthetic ways and the character will start to emerge out of the hairpiece. Mostly, we like old things, old pieces of clothing, and in Europe, where we just toured, it’s not hard to find stuff that’s over one hundred years old.
BLVR: So being on tour, you don’t feel like you’re jumping in and out of your onstage identity. It’s just one flowing performance.
BC: On this tour, particularly, I’ve really embraced sleeping and living in my same stage clothing. Our costumes are also really comfortable. They’re these vintage pajamas that are really soft and warm. I just go right from the stage to the bunk. I don’t even wash off the makeup. It’s tragic, washing it off. So I just let it build up. This tour has been a lot of the chimney-sweep look, wiping streaks of soot on our face.
BLVR: So is this interview part of the whole thing? Is this your onstage personality?
BC: I’m actually a little free of everything today. I had a day off yesterday in New York. I know this city well and have just been acting empty and invisible. Usually we play New York as a first show and it can be really stressful, but we’re about thirty or forty shows in, so we’re on autopilot now. I really don’t have a care in the world. Everything is running on its own.
BLVR: Can you think of other musicians or artists who play with their identity in a way that excites you? Hip hop seems to be filled with it.
BC: Wu Tang has their mythologies, woven into ancient Eastern philosophies. Someone pretty obvious is Leigh Bowery. That’s an artist I’ve felt particularly close to. Even though he was a fashion designer, at certain points he was only designing stuff for himself. I think that’s an interesting definition of a fashion designer. It’s not something that has to be reproduced to buy, but he’s still a designer. It’s about doing it every day, constantly transforming, discovering new sides of yourself. For me, the getting-ready-to-go-out is more important than the going-out. And that’s something I really connect with. I’ve had getting-ready-to-go-out parties since I was really young.
BLVR: You make your own clothes?
BC: From twelve to eighteen I was doing it a lot. I was sewing all the time. Now I don’t have a machine. I don’t really have anything anymore. I guess six months ago I made some more costumes. My sister started felting recently, too. Our hats are all felted on the record cover for Grey Oceans.
BLVR: The way you play with identity usually crosses into the territory of gender roles. But the way you address them seems less concerned with sexuality or sexual preference than it does with the masculine and feminine roles in society.
BC: If you’re really delving into identity and exploring a lot of variation, I don’t see how one could avoid the gender thing. We recently started exploring nonhuman identity as well—elemental beings or extraterrestrials. Spending more time in the woods and thinking about fashion in nature, imagining a post-human future. What are the fairies wearing? How are their gender lines working? It’s just like animals and butterflies. A lot of male birds have much more brilliant plumage—the peacock, for instance. Everything can be reversed. We’re fantasy fanatics. Sometimes in my own perception of myself I’m a heavily mustached man, a sailor, or a dark, brooding composer from the late 1800s. These are the images that just resound in my mind. It’s how I feel when I’m writing. My writing identity is immediately male. One of my only female personas is a crackhead and a witch. I guess that’s just evident of the kind of creative or powerful female in society. They end up being a witch. That was Mad Vicky.
BLVR: That’s the woman who runs the tea gallery.
BC: Before that she was doing other stuff, too.
BLVR: Do all your identities have names?
BC: Yeah. I only have five characters. I don’t really have one right now. The last one was called Rupert because I always thought that was the most horrible name. But I don’t really feel like I choose the names. Rupert is into tarot. Rupert’s kind of a psychic guy. He’s a very effeminate guy. I got into tarot for a while and made my own tarot deck. Or… Rupert did. Rupert made a tarot deck. But I’m kind of in between characters right now.
BLVR: Was Rupert one of the characters on Grey Oceans?
BC: Maybe just a phase of it. Rupert lasted a year. We worked on the record for a couple of years, as well as some of the poetry. The poetry often comes quite a bit before the music. I’m just writing all the time and certain poems will just come forward when we start to make music.
BLVR: So you generally think of the lyrics as poems that you then adapt to the music?
BC: Sometimes they’re just straight poems and they’re not augmented or changed to make them more song-like. Or if there’s already music happening, I really just write a song. But generally the songs are poems and they’re unchanged.
BLVR: With all of this changing of identities, are you building up a mythology that you refer back to?
BC: It’s more about wandering. My sister’s not as identity-obsessed. We’re really, really different. Her characters move much more slowly. I’ll go through five characters in a couple of years.
BLVR: You’re just burning through your characters.
BC: Sierra’s also been a muse. I’ll participate in curating her identity. It sometimes comes out of my poems. I wrote a poem called “The Bloody Twins” which not only became a song on our previous record [The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn], but the record cover is based on the concept.
BLVR: There are two of her on the cover, right?
BC: Yeah. That also comes from her voice. She has multiple voices. Her identity really comes from her voice. Her voice is her guide. My poetry is my guide.
BLVR: Do your identities connect with your different styles of singing and rapping?
BC: That’s a conflict I have. My voice is so childish. It doesn’t reflect my attitude. It’s a weird conundrum I’m stuck with, whereas my sister has a huge range of voices. It’s just how it is.
BLVR: I said “rapping” a second ago, but do you think of what you do as rapping?
BC: Not really. If I were to connect to any rappers out there, my favorite group is Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.
BLVR: So good.
BC: There are so many things about them that I love. They’re not exactly rapping, they’re doing this rapping-singing thing. Their melodies are weird, almost microtonal. It’s so emotional when they do their harmonies. And they have childlike voices. Especially for men.
BLVR: Especially for hip-hop.
BC: They have such beautiful hairdos, too. And great names. Krayzie Bone. Wish Bone. Flesh-n-Bone. There’s a guy named Flesh-n-Bone! They’re really in between worlds.
BLVR: I’ve heard you use this term artificial paradise before, describing your music and art. What is that?
BC: That really belongs to Sierra. She’s really into huge swimming pools, running tracks, shampoos. That’s a good example of artificial paradise—a big swimming pool. It’s the kind of thing that makes her imagination go wild. When we first started making music together, we were exercise fanatics. We’d go to this outdoor track at a gym. It was the first time I’d started running. A lot of our creative ideas really came on the track, especially at night, when the big lights come on. There’s something about being in a really controlled and man-made space that allows your imagination to really expand. Nature is so unbelievably beautiful and creative already, it’s almost like you don’t need to come up for more ideas of beauty in that context. Maybe it’s the ugliness and synthetic qualities that get us going. Being in a place with no windows.
BLVR: Maybe creativity and nature can only be perceived in juxtaposition to these artificial paradises.
BC: We like high contrast.
BLVR: That seems to be true across the board for CocoRosie. You’ll put a Victorian costume next to an urban costume, and that becomes your look. Or you’ll put a beatboxer behind an old-timey melody and that becomes your sound.
BC: We’ve noticed that it’s our tendency. We just get off on it, for some reason. Taking two things that really don’t belong, and then finding something new by making them work. Almost finding a new language. That’s also what it’s like for the two of us working together. Maybe it’s because of our opposite nature together. Duality—we can’t really get away from it. It seems like kind of a passé theme, the whole yin-and-yang, black and white thing. It doesn’t really go away, though. The moon and the sun. You can’t really escape it. Even with clothing. I like putting already-made objects into the clothing—a lot of reappropriation.
BLVR: Your visual art is in line with that.
BC: I haven’t been drawing so much anymore. My more recent art is a lot of video and projections. But even though it’s called video, it’s really just stills and photography. It’s animation in a really amateur way that’s projected onstage.
BLVR: Did you ever feel that you were a participant in the art world?
BC: Just a little bit. Not enough to be traumatized by it. I had kind of a funny first solo show at Deitch [Projects]. Then there was some trickle-down from that. There’s a show in Milan right now called It’s Not Only Rock n Roll, Baby, and it’s a bunch of musician-artists. I get invitations and I don’t have to be that involved. And even if I don’t think I’m involved in making art all of the time, it’s only a matter of months before I build up a small body of work. I’m mostly wrapped up in themes, not so much what it produces, medium-wise or material-wise.
BLVR: Is the Mad Vicky Tea Gallery still around?
BC: It’s been terminated. It was too grounded, having a physical location. It’s a physical responsibility. I’m disconnected. I don’t own anything. I don’t have a phone.
BLVR: Is that a stance?
BC: Pretty much. It’s a way of being. I think I’m going to take it further soon. It’s a constant state of flux. It feels good. But maybe I do less art because I don’t want to physically commit to making things, or stay somewhere, or buy paper.
BLVR: I’ve heard you say that you sometimes make music that you hate. Can you explain what you mean by that?
BC: Crushed velvet was the worst thing I could think of for many years. Then there was a day when it hit me— crushed velvet is going to be my thing. I bought a bunch of crushed velvet and made stuff out of it. It’s like a compass for me, what I hate. I can follow the things that are the most horrible to put on, because there’s something to be found there. There’s something to discover. It’s a passage, a black hole. As far as music goes, it’s a way of constantly letting go. If you accept that you’re not necessarily making stuff that you like, there’s a submission that you can enjoy. It can be pretty limiting to make something to your own taste. We’re in it for the mystery ride. I think that’s what keeps us involved.
BLVR: You seem to be a very divisive band: people are distinctly for or against CocoRosie.
BC: Yes, definitely.
BLVR: Do you think that might be because of what you’re talking about? I mean, you’re pushing against even your own sensibilities.
BC: I’m not sure. I hate to say that it’s a gender thing, but I think it has something to do with us being girls. It just makes people sick. I think if we were brothers, doing what we’re doing, people would look at it differently. I’m not saying everyone would love us. I think it’s a prejudice. It’s our girlieness.
BLVR: But you’re not very girlie.
BC: I know we’re not, but the outer image, the world-curated image of us, is very girlie. It’s very kitschy and flowery when people try and interpret us. I can see why it would be nauseating. I use toys onstage. I don’t know. It’s a little tacky.
BLVR: But you’re trying to make that sort of tension, right?
BC: Yeah. Generally, it’s good to strike up a love/hate thing.
BLVR: Do you listen to music that you hate?
BC: Yeah, but then what happens is I stop hating it. It’s like these flamed suspenders I’m wearing right now. At some point I really hated flames. Now I could have flame tattoos. Now I love flames. And I’d be stuck with them. I totally do that. I was even worse when I was younger. I get tattoos that I hate. I hated this one tattoo forever. For a while I wanted to cut off my own arm. I remember I was struck with fear when I saw the image of it. It was on the wall at the tattoo parlor. When I saw it, my heart started beating. It was like vertigo, when someone wants to jump because they’re afraid—it doesn’t make sense. That’s why I got this tattoo. But I think tattoos are a great lesson. You have to accept what you did, accept them on your body, accept the vanity. I think it’s a really healthy exercise. I always encourage people to get tattoos, especially if they’re precious about it.