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After the Dirty Projectors, It's Amber Coffman's Turn

We talk to the singer about going solo, her fear of being misunderstood, and the timeless pop of her debut 'City of No Reply'

by Andrea Domanick
Jun 8 2017, 6:10pm

Over the past year or so, Amber Coffman has often been asked to explain herself. First, the ex-Dirty Projector made headlines for calling out abuse in the music industry, sparking months of debate, interviews, and heated thinkpieces. Then, last fall, Coffman got word that former bandmate and partner Dave Longstreth was releasing a Dirty Projectors album about their breakup—much to her surprise. The record was laden with thinly-veiled references to the relationship like, "What I want from art is truth / What you want is fame," prompting Coffman to release a statement about the breakup and her departure.

"I mean it's a big, bad world," Coffman says on a May afternoon in LA. "I think that I've had a tendency at times to maybe bite off more than I could chew, just in general in my life. I think I've maybe learned to—I mean, I hope that I've learned this—to know when to take a step back and make sure that you're okay first. It's been a really tough year on so many levels."

With her solo debut City of No Reply, Coffman finally gets to just be, sans explanation. Though Longstreth helped produce it, and heartbreak is among its themes, it's not a breakup album. Instead, Coffman offers a cohesive ode to solitude and independence—and to embracing the joys and discomfort that accompany them. City is a determined record, at times almost defiantly warm and vulnerable, though never saccharine, with lines like, "Everyone has noticed this courage I've found / 'Cause I don't fear a thing when you're around / Baby I need you in a serious way / Can't give you all this love when you push me away," as on the 70s pop of "No Coffee."

Where Coffman's soprano lent bright accents and harmonies to her guitar-driven work with the Dirty Projectors, here it reveals a more nuanced pop force that has more in common with the melodic candor of dub and tenderness of R&B than the indie quirk with which fans might associate her ("What even is indie anymore?" Coffman asks, laughing). Her songwriting is steeped in alternately sultry and somber production that's as varied as her past collaborations with the likes of Frank Ocean, J. Cole, and Major Lazer. As the album's sunny first half gives way to its more introspective, sparse conclusion (see: the subtle jazz rhythms and fleeting male harmonies of "Brand New"), Coffman leaves us standing comfortably on her own: "Do I regret the time I wasted?" she sings. "I wanna thank you for setting me free."

Noisey: The album feels very cohesive but it doesn't fall into any one particular genre or style. Was that something that developed over time, or did you always know what it was going to feel like?
Amber Coffman: I just really kind of let the ideas be what they were going to be and I hoped that it would all make sense together in the end. Alan Moulder was the mixer. He's just totally legendary. We knew we needed to go with someone who is really talented, and he would be able to kind of help us make it cohesive, you know? But I didn't have a map for the kind of record it was gonna be or anything like that. I didn't want it to just all be one sound, which was ultimately why I didn't work with beatmaker-style producers and stuff, because I think you can kind of venture into that territory pretty easily when you go with someone who has a real specific sound. I really just kind of hoped that it would all make sense together in the end. I'm glad you feel it's cohesive.

What are some of those sounds that were influencing you?
I love the 70s, I think that's one of the most timeless eras of music. That was something that I really wanted, was to attempt making something that would be as timeless as possible but still sound new. So the 70s factored into that because there's so much music from that time that feels like it will just never get old.

How do you figure out what you want to say as a solo artist after being in a band and having pushback and collaborators?
I knew I wanted to make something direct. Which is a scary thing, but I wanted to make something that felt really honest and straightforward. I think that there so much music that I love that feels very kind of to-the-point. And in the last ten years, I feel it's been somewhat harder to come by, particularly with indie music. Or, you know, whatever that means anyway. Who knows what indie means anymore? [ Laughs] But yeah, I knew these very basic things, that I wanted to make something that would matter, that would connect with people, and it would feel like me. It would feel like I was being myself, like I was not trying to be anything. So, other than that I don't think I had any idea what it was gonna sound like ultimately because I could do a lot of different styles, and I've done a lot of different kinds of collaborations and things, throughout my musical career and stuff, so I just didn't really have a preconceived idea about what it would sound like I just had like, a playlist of music that I liked that sounded, you know, either timeless or new, or a combination of the two.

There's kind of an undercurrent of humor to your music and videos. Is that something that you make a point of trying to include? Is humor important to you?
It wasn't exactly a conscious thing, you know? I think that it's sort of like, you know how some people, their reaction to kind of traumatic events is to sort of laugh? Or you know, people that will laugh at a funeral? It's that kind of humor, where it's sort of reflexive because it is so uncomfortable. But it definitely wasn't conscious. I only realized the humor parts of it in retrospect.

What have you learned about the world over the past year?
[Laughs] Oh, God... Well, that is a tough one. Over the past year? How can I put that into words? I mean it's a big, bad world. I think that I've had a tendency at times to maybe bite off more than I could chew, just in general in my life. I think I've maybe learned to—I mean, I hope that I've learned this—to know when to take a step back and make sure that you're okay first. It's been a really tough year on so many levels. We could talk about that for an entire day.

It feels like you've often been put into these positions where you're forced to explain yourself, or make statements about yourself. Like the fact that you had to put a statement out about the breakup, or all of the interviews and debates about the Heathcliff situation. Has that made you more wary or cautious about being more vocal, or just being you?
I think at times yeah, I guess it's given me pause. My personality is to kind of lay it all out there on the table and be pretty direct with people in my life. I go through different periods of time with social media and how vocal I want to be, and there are times where I feel I just desperately need an outlet, and to bounce off of other people, and so I'll sort of blurt some things out. And there are times where I want to take it all back. Like, what does it matter what I have to say, really? I certainly don't feel like I'm any kind of authority on any subject at all, in terms of social justice. And there are so many more people who are more qualified to speak on these things, so the things that I say often come from a pretty gut emotional kind of place. That has a purpose on its own, but I don't feel that I'm any sort of authority on anything. There are times when I'm like, why should I say anything?

Yeah, you deleted your Twitter for a minute, right?
I didn't delete it, but I did take a big long break from social media for maybe five or six months. I went through and deleted a lot of tweets, which I sometimes do. I have a thing with my past where I really will shed a lot of it and sort of put it away forever. And Twitter and social media is a weird thing because it's documenting all of these things, and then a few years later it's like, I don't necessarily need these documents to be around. So I have this funny relationship with my social media. I like the way you can connect with people, and I like it as a form of expression, you know what I mean? But I don't really feel like I need it as a historical document.

It's strange because it implies that we're all held to being that person, who like, tweeted something in December 2013, you know? It's a little bit more unforgiving, for some reason you're not allowed to change.
Yeah, it's one thing if you're like, a 77-year-old sociopathic narcissist, but it's another when you're like in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and you're still searching and learning so much about life. That a scary thing to me about social media and the times that we live in. The backlash that you see happen to people for like, whatever, things they say. It's interesting. I feel like I have so much to learn and that I'm constantly taking in more than I can really process. So it's kind of a weird thing to feel like that, but also be a pretty opinionated person, because sometimes the way I come to a realization is to get into a debate or be able to bounce off of other people. Sometimes people like to take what people say as the end-all, be-all of who that person is, but I think I'm also changing, so maybe that's the thing about deleting things. Every couple months I feel like a different person in a lot of ways.

If you could go back and delete songs that you've made in your life, would you?
Mhmmm. [Laughs] I mean, no one's heard them, but yeah.

What about songs people have heard?
I don't think I could call anything out by name, necessarily. There might be like one thing that I maybe wouldn't have done. I'm not gonna say what it is.

What was the biggest challenge for you making this album? Was there a creative turning point that you were pushed through?
Finishing things. It was hard, it took me longer than I would've liked, at times. I would take really long breaks from ideas and then come back to them and eventually finish them. It's hard to know where it was all going, or what it was gonna be like, and at times that can feel pretty overwhelming.

A good turning point was when I wrote the verses to "All to Myself." Like a lot of the songs, the first idea was the chorus. And then when I wrote the [rest of] the words, I felt, "This is working, this is gonna happen." That was the first time I felt like I really said what I was feeling and what the song needed to say in just a simple, straightforward kind of way. I hesitate to say which song was the hardest to me, because I don't want people listening to it and reading into it, like "Oh yeah I can tell" [ Laughs], but there was a song, probably the last song that I finished, where I finalized the lyrics and put down the vocals, and felt not so sure about it, but everyone else that was working with me loved it. That was sort of a strange thing because I didn't really have that with the other songs. I felt pretty confident about most of them. That's sort of a strange feeling, to not be so sure but having the people that I respect be sure. If they're hearing something that they like, I guess that's something.

Are you afraid of not being taken seriously?
I don't know how serious that I took myself, to be honest. [ Laughs] I'm more afraid of being misunderstood, I think. I'm more afraid of not communicating effectively. I think that's probably the biggest thing.

Misunderstood in what sense?
In any sense. You know, just my intentions and what I want and what I'm trying to do, and who I am. I guess the fear is failing to communicate those things accurately.

What about in context of your other bandmates that have put out solo work? Do you feel like there's something to prove in their shadow?
I mean it's sort of a time tested theme that women be judged against their male collaborators, and that sort of thing. I just hope that people can let me be myself and be me on my own terms, and understand that I am a human being with lots of my own experiences. I know that when people are aware of a band, they're vaguely aware of these sort of characters within a group, where they may have some limited little context or background on who those people are. I certainly have a lifetime of experiences and also a future that doesn't have to do with a band that I was in, necessarily. I would just like to make music and make more things with people, and just enjoy that.

Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter.