Every now and then, a major-label pop star comes around who embodies a scrappier indie ethos. Irish, London-based singer and songwriter Cosha is one of those people. Like Charli XCX, who toys with the idea of the album-promo-tour cycle, or funk innovator NAO, who also doesn’t submit to the constant grind of putting out new music almost constantly, 22-year-old Cosha now tends to do her own thing. In her particular case, that involves changing her artist name from Bonzai while still establishing her career, pushing out declarative mixtape RIP Bonzai early last month and making a series of videos for that tape. It also means making those videos without relying on the cushion of massive budgets.
Take the visuals for RIP Bonzai closer, “Flacko,” which we’re premiering. The shoot fell together in a way that sounds less like a call sheet-and-email-thread negotiation and more like how you and your hungover mates agree on a brunch spot. While in LA for some songwriting sessions with ex-Vampire Weekender Rostam, “my friend Mitch was like ‘do you wanna take some photos?’” she remembers, speaking to me over FaceTime from the sun-filled south London flat she shares with her boyfriend. “And I was chilling, on a Sunday morning or something, so said, ‘yeah – cool.’
Then it turned out a friend of her friend’s had rented out “this proper, fat-ass camera” for a job that had been cancelled that week. And now, the camera was available. “I had the ‘Flacko’ demo, and I’d always liked it. So we got it together really quickly from there, trying to get out and catch the sunset and shit,” shooting at a house on the hills rented short-term by someone she knew. “I was like, ‘ermmm, can we come up and use this house for a bit? I don’t know what we’re gonna do there, but we have this friggin camera.’” She’s the first to admit that “Flacko” doesn’t feel like a single, in the traditional radio-leaning, major label sense. “It’s not even so much of a jump-out track. The whole thing was really random, and more for fun.”
You can hear some of that spontaneity in the track itself. It’s a woozy uptempo piece of electropop, like a cooling sheet of tulle fanning over your body on an unforgiving hot day. As with a lot of the music Cosha makes, both on her previous and new releases, its genre is hard to pin down. Chic-esque guitars, rumbling bass, snappy hand claps and found sound samples all clatter for space underneath her breathy vocal. But that description makes “Flacko” sound overly busy or messy. Rather, it’s a floaty, textured and cleverly layered tune, produced by her mate Alex Crossan, of Mura Masa, with a bit of extra input from Mount Kimbie’s Kai Campos (“a little secret”). The song sounds designed for the nights when the hours between 1AM and 5AM seem to suddenly speed up before you’re in a third location for the sunrise. “It already felt like it had a scenery: it felt like a rave in a forest, where the moonlight is the only light. That vibe. To try and keep that from the demo, and finish the song, was difficult. But I think we nearly got there and the video fits as well.”
You can pin the track’s dreaminess down to something more specific, though. And that’s the fact that, as she tells me later, a lot of the vocals in the final version are from the initial demo track she laid down. “On some of the lines I am just speaking gibberish, you know?” she says, laughing. “Some of the lyrics are there, some are just the hhmmmguffh of the demo vocals.” If you’re the sort of person who listens to the Song Exploder podcast, or someone who writes music yourself, you’ll know that a song’s first or early drafts often use mumbled words, gibberish or just sounds shaped around the melody. The full lyrics can often come later.
Reflecting on it now, Cosha talks about how she had to go through a more confusing stage in her career to reach this point of ‘fuck it, let’s just try something’ confidence. She moved to London at 17, to start a course at Tech Music School. There she met a manager, whose wife taught at the school, and she went on to sing backing vocals for NAO (who now, in full circle neatness, appears as the only featured artist on the RIP Bonzai tape). But Cosha lasted a year at the school. Soon, she was signed by Columbia Records, and named Bonzai through a serendipitous moment that also showcases how easily a new artist can be moulded by industry heft.
About four years ago, she helped out her friend Alex, of Mura Masa, by writing four songs for him, loosely considering that some might show up on an upcoming project of his. “At the time, I wasn’t like ‘yeah, I’m going to call myself Bonzai, and this is the plan.’ My manager then, who was also Alex’s manager, asked what I was going to call myself. And I wasn’t sure.” She thought, ‘maybe my given name – Cassia – maybe Bonzai.’ Then when Mura Masa’s 2014 tape Soundtrack to a Death came out, she saw her artist name as Bonzai on “Know Me Better,” which she’d written. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to use it. “But it was too late. I kind of rolled with it, to the point last year where I didn’t have vision about the project. And it’s not really about the name, to be honest – I just wanted to stop.” So she called that one friend everyone needs, who’ll pick up the phone anytime and tell you the honest truth. And he suggested she take a break, chill out and think about what she wanted to do.
She stopped for a year or so, staying with the same label. “It was a little bit of a battle; I got some backlash. But they’ve been really nice; especially for a major label. They’ve been letting me do my thing. But it wasn’t straightforward.” Listening to her talk, you can hear how easily she could have stumbled and fallen, as someone so inexperienced in an industry this ruthless. “That was literally it: I came here so young and naive, and yeah… it all just happened really fast. I didn’t really stop and think about it until, well, last year – when I was like, ‘what am I actually doing?’”
Now, she’s taking it slow. Like NAO, who taught her a fair bit about vocal arranging and paying meticulous attention to detail, Cosha is learning not to rush too quickly, chasing deadlines that might not benefit her work. She laughs, though, adding that RIP Bonzai itself all came together very fast, just as the “Flacko” video did. But she’s happy with her “low-budget, or even no-budget” approach, which has created a video centred on vignettes of her performing to camera and playing with shadows and light. She looks at ease in front of the lens. She definitely looks relaxed, leaning back on a load of pillows on this stickily hot Monday morning, and joking self-deprecatingly about not knowing her angles for selfies yet. Mostly, she sounds ready for the next stage as Cosha. It’s all down to a quiet inner confidence – one that no amount of zeroes on a recording contract can properly buy.
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