Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz
This week, I sat down with Gabbi Coenen and talked about her new release “Black Moon”, her first new song in a couple of years. We talked about the lyrical themes, the role that social media and loneliness played in writing this song and how the pandemic brought it into existence. We also talked about if music theory is necessary for songwriting, the ways that Gabbi experiments in her music and how she doesn’t get writer’s block.
Ramita: What is this song about? What lyrical themes are you exploring in this song?
Gabbi: In this song, it’s kind of both about the pandemic and being stuck at home, especially in the early quarantine period, and also about feeling alone in a relationship, I guess. I started writing the lyrics for the song in that early April 2020 pandemic period, having already been writing a lot about the end of a relationship that had ended the year before, in 2019.
So that was already on my mind, being alone in my apartment again, getting used to being by myself, those feelings of disconnecting with your partner, being so absorbed in your phone! [laughs] When the pandemic started, those feelings I was already having kind of merged with the global feeling we are all trying to deal with… and I am extremely addicted to my phone now, so that’s kind of my little homage to that. And actually, the song was going to be called “Black Mirror”, but I thought that might be copyright infringement, so I changed it.
Ramita: Yes, I definitely felt that! I was thinking that it was a lot about loneliness, and I was wondering if it was more about COVID or more a reflection of relationships these days, and how disconnected we all feel?
Gabbi: I think it’s both! I have always had a really standoffish relationship with social media and being on my phone, I hated the fact that I had to do it. The sad truth is that since I’ve become more addicted to my phone, my audience has grown, I’ve seen the benefit… but I also have this weird thing where I’m like, oversharing, and I’ll delete everything in a flurry of embarrassment and delete the apps off my phone. So I have this very up-and-down relationship with it.
But I’ve made some real friendships on there, like you and I were internet friends before we were real-life friends. And that’s the case for a lot of my LA friends, too. [Social media] is isolating sometimes, feeling like you can only connect with people by a screen, but then other times I feel very connected and happy to have those relationships.
So I think [the song] is about loneliness, more so from real relationships we have in our lives and I think that’s because of the pandemic and not seeing anyone, but also just when you’re in long-term relationships that aren’t working and how you kind of just lose yourself in a screen, basically.
Ramita: Do you feel the addiction—I definitely feel the addiction to my phone, I have to put it away sometimes—do you feel like it affects your songwriting process at all? Is it distracting to have your phone around?
Gabbi: I actually use my phone a lot for writing, so I would say it’s a benefit. If anything, it’s made the process of writing a lot quicker. I’ll literally think of a progression in my head and I’ll transcribe it onto my phone. If I can figure out what the chords are, then I don’t necessarily need to be on an instrument, I can just write it down. Or I hum it into my voice memos, transcribe it later.
I think it’s more the distraction, sometimes. You know, I spent my whole morning on my phone doing posts, running an ad for the show, all that. So sometimes I think, “What else could I have done in that time?” But I’m very much a night owl, so I probably wouldn’t have done anything in that time! Mornings are, you know… if that’s the time I’m going to be on my phone, then fine, because I was probably going to be sleeping otherwise.
Ramita: It’s about knowing yourself!
Gabbi: Yeah, and about having a device to be connected to my audience and to get inspiration from people. Most of the time, I find my social media apps to be pretty inspiring and motivating! It’s more when I feel like I’m sharing a lot or oversharing that I get a little irritated with them, because I feel like my life is like entertainment.
Ramita: It’s the struggle of being an artist, right?
Gabbi: Yeah, exactly. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had a bigger audience. I think I would go insane. When I don’t use them, I start feeling a little more connected to myself, a bit. There is a little less of that “always going” anxious energy, so I do try to do that sometimes… But not right now, because I have this song to release!
Ramita: [laughs] True! It’s actually really nice to hear that the phone is actually helping you—did it help you start the song? How did you start “Black Moon”?
Gabbi: Yes, all the stuff we’re talking about was actually critical to me with this song. I had thought of the piano part first, that would have been, like, January 2020, I was messing around on my mum’s piano when I was visiting her, before I moved here to LA. So I came up with that part, and then when I came out here when the pandemic started, I was playing around a little bit and posted a video of me playing that part to my Instagram story. And Andrew [Lappin], who produced the song and who I’ve worked with before, he replied and said, “Ooh I really like this, you should finish this!” And I said, “What? Okay, whatever you say!” And we had already talked about working on more music when I moved out to LA, we knew that I was planning on being here anyway.
So this was kind of the catalyst for that. Sometimes I find it helpful to have an external motivator to finish things, so he was kind of that. Because I posted on Instagram!
Ramita: It’s interesting how your journey with building your audience has led you to collaborate with other people on these songs! Do you enjoy the collaboration process, or do you enjoy writing by yourself more?
Gabbi: I really like co-writing! I like them both. I think having done more co-writing in the past two years has helped me like my own work a lot better. I always felt like when I was in New York, and only ever writing by myself and my own music that I had all these pop ideas… The project RVBY MY DEAR wasn’t really the vehicle for them, so I didn’t really know what to do with them. And now, all those instincts—and I have all these classical-y, jazzy, experimental kind of ideas that end up as pop-ish songs—but they didn’t really sit alongside each other very well, and I don’t consider myself a pop artist, I don’t want to go down that route with my image or anything like that.
So most of my time, in my early years of songwriting, I was just kind of confused? [laughs] And since moving out to LA, since actively pursuing co-writing more and being given those opportunities, I’ve been able to channel those instincts into the co-writes, and leave the more artsy stuff for my own project. I’m really happy to have those two outlets now and have those two distinctions, I think they feed each other in good ways. And I’m sure working with other people is refining my own process and I always learn something from everyone I work with.
Ramita: I did notice that you did something really interesting with your second verse! You had a more instrumental second verse that was just one line and then you went back to your Chorus. What made you decide to do that? Do you decide, or do you kind of just feel it and keep going?
Gabbi: I think it just kind of happened that way? I was just hearing it that way and did it. I did have the thought of, oh, there’s no second verse here, like later on. Because my confession about this song is that when we started producing it, there was no Bridge or no last Chorus, it was not finished. Like, “Andrew, I don’t know what to tell you, I have to go back to New York and move my stuff, it’s not finished,” and he said, “It’s fine, we’ll just get started anyway!” So we had produced the first half of the song, and he said, “Okay, so you’ll go away and just finish it, and come back,” and I was like, “Oh, okay!”
So literally the two nights before I went back to the studio after I moved back to LA, it was like in a flurry, “what am I going to do?!”. I had voice memos of me playing with ideas, and finally I put it all down in a demo and was like, “Okay, this is it.” But I dunno, it doesn’t really feel like a Verse-Chorus song to me; same with a lot of my songs, the structure is more like the “A” and the “B” parts. I don’t always have these singalong Choruses with a Pre-Chorus leading into them. So it felt okay to me not to have lyrics. And I feel like with some of my other songs, there are so many lyrics that I don’t always have the chance to breathe when I’m singing them! So I like having that space there.
Ramita: It’s way more experimental, your own artist project. And even though you were working with a producer in this case, it was way more experimental. And did you feel like that was a trend for future songs as well, you’re kind of going down this path when it just sort of happens the way you feel them in the moment?
Gabbi: I think so! I had a similar experience when I was working on this other song, it was essentially like an “A”, “B” and “C” section that you could call a Verse, Pre-Chorus and Chorus. But it doesn’t really feel that way, it feels more like a build towards something? And I couldn’t really figure out what that was, I was like, “What is this? Does this need something else?” It would’ve taken too much pulling it apart and putting it back together to make it into a standard Verse-Pre-Chorus structure, and I didn’t want to do that. Because I felt I liked it as it was. And then finally, I had the epiphany of, “Oh this is what the next part will be!” and continued on with the D section, and it felt more complete.
I played that song to someone recently, and they said, “It’s not a single, it’s not a radio track, but it still works.” For this project, I still want to have songs that are more traditionally structured, but I don’t want it to just be that, I want it to have more unusual song structures as well.
Ramita: I know you have a jazz background, and a little bit of classical, too. Do you feel that background and having a music degree and learning music theory—do you feel like it contributes to this more experimental sound? Or do you feel like music theory inhibits you?
Gabbi: I think it’s both, I think that playing with form and structure has to come from the jazz and classical backgrounds. I never really learned songwriting “properly” when I was at music school, it was either piano lessons, jazz improvisation, or composing jazz tunes.
So there was always a more playful approach to structure and form when I started writing music, but in terms of the actual writing process and thinking of chords and melodies, I don’t use any music theory. I don’t really actively think about it when I’m writing. I’m more following ideas and catching ideas in the moment, like, “Ooh, that sounds good,” and go from there. But when I’m editing a song and pulling it together, I’m not thinking at all about, “Does this chord work in this key?”
I think the instincts are coming through just because I’ve had so much training that I know these things instinctively. And I can catch myself repeating myself, which is also annoying! But I’m not using music theory as a part of my process, it’s more the ear training side of my education that is coming into play, whether that’s transcribing things on the fly, or listening to something and thinking, “Does that sound right? Does that sound interesting? Does it sound like I don’t know what I’m doing?” [laughs]
Ramita: It’s interesting that you have this instinct, rather than, “I chose to use this chord because I want it to do this particular thing in this style of music.”
Gabbi: Yes, I watch those producer videos on YouTube all the time about how, “This is what this song is doing, and so on,” and I always find them very interesting! But when I’m listening to a song, I’m not thinking about that at all.
Ramita: It’s more the emotions for you, right?
Gabbi: Yeah, it’s more what it’s bringing emotionally, physically—if the song makes me feel a certain way? That’s more compelling to me in the moment than what is happening theoretically.
Ramita: Do you ever reference specific artists or songwriters when you’re writing a song? Or when you’re producing a song?
Gabbi: [laughs] Yes, so my other big confession for this song—do you know that song, “Plug in Baby” by Muse? I listened to that when I was on tour in 2019 and went through a big period, a two-year period of not listening to any music. It was more like podcasts… I dunno, I think I was just kind of depressed. And then finally, when I was on tour, I just thought, “I need to hear some songs, not just people talking.” And this was one of the songs I put on, and it has this snaking arpeggio, similar-ish harmonic movement, which I think was classical-inspired.
So when I first came up with the piano part, that song was in my head. I think I even wrote a note in my phone that said, “Plug in Baby Muse chords”. I didn’t directly transcribe it, but I was thinking about it and that I wanted to do something like that and it would be cool. So yes, I do reference other songs when I’m first writing and gathering ideas, mostly harmonic content. That’s usually where I start with my writing, that’s usually the foundation. But then when I’m coming up with lyrics and melodies, that’s more books and quotes, stuff I’ve heard people say. I’m not really referencing other songs with that, or for song form. It’s on the production side that I go back to references. Andrew and I had a collaborative playlist where I would add songs that he could go through.
Ramita: Do you find you use references to find your sound or your artist project’s sound? Or do you find you go back to your instincts or musical background for your sound?
Gabbi: I think it’s both. I definitely have a sound that I’m going for and I’ve been trying for years to capture that dreamy, cinematic but also beats-oriented vibe. When I write a song that doesn’t fit with that, I’ll save it for something else. I want each song to stand on its own and have its own vibe, but still fit together and define my own sound.
Ramita: What made you say, “This is the song I want to release,” after a couple of years of not releasing? What made you choose this song over all the songs you’ve written?
Gabbi: There’s something inviting about “Black Moon” that I really like. I’ve written songs that are sonically more in line with what I want to do but less in line than what I’ve put out before, so I felt that this song is like a bridge. It still has some real instruments in it but it’s not a rock band song, there’s no band sound like in my last album. So I think this song is in-between the two sounds. I also think thematically, it fits within the [pandemic], like, “We’re still in this after two years!” I like that it touches on that. It might be a little bit cringe or “just another pandemic song”, but that’s what life is like, and you can’t just expect artists and writers to not have it come out in their work.
Ramita: True—we’re all in this, this is all our lives right now.
Gabbi: Yeah, this is what came out of the current moment. And even if the song isn’t fully about that, it feels timely.
Ramita: If you were to give advice to songwriters about the songwriting process, what would you say? What is your process like and what works for you?
Gabbi: I would say try and keep a record of every idea you have, try and record things as soon as you hear them, write it down as soon as you hear it. Don’t be precious about having a notebook or this and that. As much as I would like to have an aesthetic life and have a beautiful journal, most of it is on [my phone]. And that really gets me on track and keeps me constantly generating ideas: getting it down right away.
It’s hard when you’re actively doing the artist thing, so much has to go through the business and self-promotion, content making… and I haven’t fully gotten into sharing things as I write, “Black Moon” was the only time I’ve ever done that. I think it’s cool how younger people are doing that on TikTok. If that works for you, do that.
But I think it’s also nice to keep things to yourself. Don’t feel guilty about not producing content. My process is really just having lots of seeds floating around and doing the grunt work later to put it all together. Don’t feel guilty about not writing every day, because what does that mean? Is that a whole song? It’s okay if it’s just little bits of songs.
Ramita: Right! Is that how you avoid writer’s block and take the pressure off?
Gabbi: Yeah, I don’t really have writer’s block because I don’t try to force things. The only time I force things is when I’m in a co-writing session, but that’s okay because we’ve got more people in there and someone else will come up with something.