On her third and latest album, Blue No More, Gabriella Cohen has arguably crafted the most emotionally intense, groovy, candid and beautiful portrait of being a young woman feeling her way through a harsh world. From the seaside lullaby of “Water” to the Americana and gospel-indebted call and response blues of “Son Of A Gun,” through the pensive but powerful title track, she seemingly holds your heart in her hand and squeezes it as she sings.
Blue No More captures elements of all the places she’s called home in the last five years, from Melbourne’s beachy, palm-lined bayside suburbs and Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to New Orleans’ French Quarter, which is where the album began to take form.
“I left Melbourne in 2019 and myself and my drummer Danni [Ogilvie] went to Austin to do SXSW and I stayed on after that, living in New Orleans for a bit. I was kinda lost at the time, as you do in New Orleans: lose yourself, find yourself,” she tells Audiofemme. “I don’t know if I ever found myself. I was having a hard time in New Orleans and after playing SXSW and how vast it is, you’re not touring and you’re in one spot thinking ‘what is my purpose?’ I didn’t know what the hell to do. I was down and out riding along the French Quarter, having a miserable time. I was subconsciously penning the start to Blue No More.”
Eventually, Cohen returned to Australia, moved in with her sister in Melbourne’s St Kilda, and got a job in a local fish and chip shop while spending her free time working on what would become Blue No More. “It took two years before I realised what I was actually writing, and lots of things happened in between, which made it slow,” she admits. Then, the pandemic hit and provided just the right amount of chaos and cataclysmic energy for Cohen to begin the recording process.
As Australian states were closing their borders, Cohen and her sister left Melbourne before the restrictions prevented their escape and spent a year at Crystal Waters, the 640-acre Queensland eco village built on sustainable agriculture and permaculture principles where her parents live.
“I started recording in a cabin on my parent’s property, then I was recording in a water tank converted into a studio across the lane in the village. Sometimes I would go to Brisbane and I recorded with Sam Cromack from Ballpark Music and another friend [folk musician, producer] JB Patterson. It was half done in Crystal Waters and half done with three friends in Brisbane. All the songs need their little home and I could never do a record in one place,” Cohen says.
That seems fitting given the whirlwind beginnings of Cohen’s music career. After playing in a band called Coco Loco at university, she met and formed The Furrs with Jim Griffin. The duo released their self-titled four-track EP in 2013, and by the following year hit the road with Cults, DMAs and The Babe Rainbow respectively, Cohen honing her craft as a songwriter, recording artist and touring musician along the way.
Cohen and Griffin were in a relationship for two years, the length of the band. “I fell in love with Jimmy and I thought that’s what you do, start a band with the people that you wanna be around. He’s an amazing musician. I was drawn to his demeanour and how talented he was,” she says. “It all came together at the same time which is wild and unstable, but you get great songs out of it!”
Luckily, Cohen also formed some longer-lasting relationships, like one with her current guitarist and collaborator Kate Dillon. “I met her about halfway through The Furrs and as soon as we met each other, we were circling around each other and we knew, or I knew straight away, this is a powerful collaboration waiting to happen,” Cohen recalls. “I was with Jimmy and she was with another of my ex-boyfriends. I whisked her away and we moved to Highgate Hill Park in Brisbane.” The move left them alienated in more than a geographical sense; the top of the hill was “the beginning of the end” of The Furrs, but ushered in a feminine uprising.
By 2015 she and Dillon had moved to Melbourne with drummer and soul singer Bella Carol (Moses Gunn Collective). The same year, Dillon’s parents went on a ten-day cruise and asked their daughter to housesit. Mired in depression and sick of her dead-end day job, Cohen had just broken up with Jimmy, so Dillon suggested they record an album while housesitting. With two microphones, a borrowed drumkit, and no soundproofing, they played all the instruments (bar Marcus Warren playing bass on one song) and ultimately, Cohen’s 2016 debut solo LP Full Closure and No Details resulted.
The album’s lusciously dark but captivatingly catchy mood heralded her as a talent to watch, though not at first. Cohen and Dillon spent eight hours a day at their local café emailing labels and international distribution with their album. “We didn’t get much response. It wasn’t until we left Brisbane for Melbourne and played the record in full that people started responding,” Cohen says. “We got signed to Remote Control, then Captured Tracks, then we went to the US and things went from there. It sounds like a dream, but it was a plan. Brisbane, Melbourne then international. Dare I say, it was manifested.”
Cohen established herself as an artist who works well under pressure, on the road, with limited resources and a makeshift family of musically-inclined friends to pitch in and bring her vision to life. Her second album, Pink Is The Colour of Unconditional Love, was similarly born of unpredictable but fortuitous circumstances.
“We moved to the country town of Seymour, this big private property – a family farm. We lived and recorded there for six weeks then we got the call we were going on tour with Foxygen, another dream come true. We did lots of serious wishing and praying, it’s crazy that even happened,” Cohen recalls. “We did a lot of our overdubs in the tour van and in dressing rooms after shows and coerced members from Foxygen to do heaps of the backing [instrumentals and vocals]. We’ve always done bits and pieces with this gung-ho kind of energy because that’s the only way we could really survive.”
Cohen’s attitude to recording is akin to her off-kilter genre hopping, though there’s nothing haphazard about Blue No More. It scoots around conventional genres to take elements of gospel, doo-wop, blues, folk and soul and create gorgeously organic, heart-rending miniature homages to place, feeling and memory.
“Son Of A Gun” has a very Stax Records, Motown, Staple Singers-style attitude, complete with maracas and a whisky bottle tapped with a pencil for percussive good measure. “I’d learnt this blues piano riff and I just knew I needed those soul kinda voices, like that choir, that gospel sound. I’ve always been really drawn to that feeling,” she explains. “It’s an amalgamation of everything I listen to from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. There was no direct reference.”
Its lyrics are true to life. “In New Orleans, I was living with my partner at the time and we amicably broke up when I returned to Melbourne but I was heartbroken. We’d always walk to the corner store and I’d get a salad roll, he’d get a Coca-Cola. It was definitely more romanticised as I was writing about it after, but it’s all very autobiographical as everything is, I guess.”
“Water” on the other hand, was a song to herself. “That was my lift-me-up song,” she says. “I was having a hard old time. Don’t they always say what you preach, you need to hear the most? I was working at the fish and chip shop and the water around me was the most uplifting thing.”
“But I Wanted To” is a rocksy beast. “I wrote that in 2015 right before we left for Melbourne. It was the end of a relationship and it was this bittersweet… you know when you’re desperately in love with the wrong person and it’s not reciprocated? I’d held onto it so long and I didn’t know what to do with it. It feels fresh on this record, reimagined with all the musicians on it.”
Danni Ogilvie helped to write the drum parts, but it was Luke Hanson (from Dillon’s Full Flower Moon Band) who played the drums. Jess Ferronato from Nice Biscuit played guitar and bass. Kate Dillon, Billie Starr and Grace Cuell from Nice Biscuit did all the harmonies. It was recorded at the Chaos Magic Studios in the West End of Brisbane.
“I think I just wanna make records with everyone I love,” Cohen laughs.
Independently released on January 21st, Blue No More leaves no room to doubt Cohen’s reserves of talent, ideas and musical nous, nor her savviness for curating an album that sways, swerves and wheels around and through genres with no adherence to a strict, straightforward road. You don’t say no to riding shotgun with Gabriella Cohen – she’s going to show you all the places you’ve been before, and some you haven’t, but through her own hazy, sun-drenched gaze.