Imani Coppola talks about her DIY approach to making “The Protagonist”

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Imani Coppola’s recently released “The Protagonist” (Ipecac Recordings) is impossible to nail down to a particular genre. Throughout the album, Coppola flawlessly jumps between styles including rock, R&B, punk, and even country. But the end result is absolutely cohesive, thanks to Coppola’s own production and dedication to creating the perfect tracklisting order.

You did most of “The Protagonist” on your own. What tends to be the initial spark of a song?

Imani Coppola: It’s weird. It comes from a formless feeling. Sometimes, it’s just a feeling, and somehow, I find words to attach to this feeling. I build it from there, and whatever the mood or the sensation is, I try to cater the production to that mood. But most of the time, to be quite honest, it’s just the lyric. It just pops in my head, and I let it develop there as long as I possibly can because you can really tamper and adulterate a song by applying music to it before it’s ready to be assigned a musical gender. I let it ruminate as much as I can before I sit down and fumble with an instrument. I just try to cater to what it needs instead of what I want it to have.

Do songs ever radically change when you start adding the instrumentation and productions?

Imani Coppola: Yes, that has definitely happened, but it’s never happened when I’ve had full control of the song. That only happens when I’m collaborating with another producer. That’s one of the things I love about it. Sometimes, I don’t love it. Sometimes, I want it just to be exactly how I intended. Sometimes, it’s like, holy fuck, this is so much fucking better than I could have ever made it. I guess it’s a personal preference. In particular, “The Kids Are Dangerous” [off 2012’s The Glass Wall] really went to a whole other place I never thought it would go. That spawned from a lyric. I was riding my bike around the park, and kids were cutting me off because they don’t know what to do yet. They just do whatever.

You’ve been an independent artist for a while but started on a major label. What was that experience like?

Imani Coppola: I had nothing to compare it to. I can tell you that from someone coming from high school and my freshman year in college, it was mind-blowing. It’s something that I couldn’t even take seriously because it was just so fucking surreal. All of a sudden, it felt like the world was at my fingertips. I was able to play with it like it was a toy and it felt surreal and ridiculous. I enjoyed every moment; well, not every moment, but most of the moments I enjoyed. I didn’t take it all so damn seriously like I do now. I’ve kind of tried to get back to that place, but you can’t. You get older. It’s just part of the beauty of getting older that you care more. That’s kind of the point of experience.

Did you ever consider going back to a major?

Imani Coppola: Well, I did go back to that route when I signed with Little Jackie. I have to say it’s a lot more difficult to go back after ten years in the wild. As a more experienced, older, mature person competing with 15-year-olds, you feel like there should be some semblance of respect, having had the experience you had. But no one gives a fuck. In fact, they have less respect for you because you’re not 15. So that was hard. Everyone at the label is younger than you; your band is probably younger than you. It was just very disorienting to have my reintroduction feel unceremonious for me.

What were your goals in making “The Protagonist”?

Imani Coppola: I guess the goal was to do it all myself, to produce it from start to finish in its entirety by myself and to touch all the instruments and to write all the parts. After a certain point in life, you have the capability, and you’re tired of men getting credit for shit that you did. So, I was like, I’m just doing this myself. It’s funny; it’s something that no one really mentioned when they wrote about this album. And it bothers me a little. It’s like, why, why did they overlook the fact that I produced this thing? Is it because I’m a girl? I don’t get credit for my own fucking work that I produced now. So, it’s like I can’t win, no matter what. I’m trying to let go of these gripes because they make me so angry. You can’t go through life being that angry. You’re wasting your life. So, I have just to let go and accept it. It is what it is. I’m sorry, the world can’t deal with a capable woman. It’s just stupid, and it’s not my problem, actually. It’s their fucking problem. So, fuck them. 

What is your studio setup like?

Imani Coppola: Well, it’s really not that fancy. It’s a home studio. I always get a two-bedroom apartment, so I can put my little studio in one room. I blot out the sound with sound foam. I always have a good vocal sound because I know I don’t have a good vocal booth, so I soundproof the shit out of the room: the ceiling, the walls, the rugs, the doors, the windows.. The microphone, I’ve had it forever and have recorded so many records on it. It’s not even the fanciest, most expensive mic. It just works for my voice. We’re so familiar with each other, I think it’s like an Audio Technica 4040 something. I call it the black mic. I know boys like the names of their gear. I don’t give a fuck. It’s just the black mic, and today, I’m using the beige guitar. That’s kind of how I work.

Could you describe the process of making the album?

Imani Coppola: You demo it first for yourself; you just get it out, like a rough draft, and then you sit with it for a while. You listen. Listening is such a big part of the process. The space between the actual work applied and before you re-approach it, it’s imperative. It’s crucial. So, you make decisions through repetition, in listening, and you learn the song that way. Most of the time, when you write a song, even if it’s inside you, you don’t know the song yet; you’ve got to familiarize yourself with it. That takes time. So yeah, I demo it out and listen like crazy.

I would say there are three stages. One is the demo; two is like the second draft. It’s a little bit more polished production-wise. I probably won’t have a final vocal on it until all the production is done. The third draft would be just building up, and then there’s more time to see what needs to be taken out. You see what’s not working; you have arrangement ideas, and you fix things accordingly. Then the mix is a whole other level of a draft. It could go on forever. But I’m obsessed with this process. I fucking live for this process. I love it. I have so much respect for the time involved because I was never allowed that on a major label. Especially for a new artist, you’re not allowed the luxury of time, so you’ve got a budget. You’re in the fucking studio, and they’re paying the studio. When you’re recording at home, it’s like you can work on it at your leisure. It’s not like I take ten years to make an album. I did that shit in a year. The only reason I couldn’t play the electric guitar or the drums on some songs is because I live in Brooklyn in a fucking building with other people. I can’t play my fucking drums, as much as I want to. I can’t. And my electric guitar was stolen, so I didn’t have one, so I had to outsource stuff. But those are two reasons I didn’t play every instrument. Yeah, it bothered me.

With the amount of control you have doing everything yourself, do you ever have trouble knowing when a track is indeed done and it’s time to stop?

Imani Coppola: Sometimes, there’s a feeling. There’s like this calm feeling when you say, “Okay, it’s over now.” Almost like you’ve been struggling with someone battling a terminal illness, and finally, they pass away. You’re just like, okay, they’re at peace now, let it go. That’s kind of a morbid metaphor. And if you don’t know, you might want to reconsider the actual song and everything about it. You might want just to scrap it. Sometimes, when you bust your ass and go crazy over a song, it’s probably because it’s not good. There’s something that’s not right about it, and you can’t get it right. It’s probably not meant to be, you know?

Musically, the album is quite diverse. Did this have an impact on how you chose to sequence the tracklisting?

Imani Coppola: The sequence, I think, is the icing on the cake for me. That is my absolute favorite part of the process: putting the pieces together and making it a narrative. Making it feel like it was a story that was already written. The way the songs go together on the record means everything to the success of how the listener hears it, and how it goes down, how palatable it is, how you digest it. It might be the most important part for me. I mean, obviously, you need the songs in order to have a sequence, but you could fuck an album up with the wrong sequence.

At what point did you have an idea of what the tracklisting order should be?

Imani Coppola: I would say about three-quarters of the way through, or actually, when all the writing is done, that’s when I start the sequencing. I put it together and maybe change a few things, and then once you can hear it back to back, it doesn’t matter how rough it is. Once you get to hear it flow, you get a broader vision and understanding of what each song needs to compliment other songs and what songs don’t need. It really helps to put the whole thing together.

Did any songs change due to their location in the sequence?

Imani Coppola: Yeah, I knew that I needed to put a very aggressive song towards the end. I wouldn’t say it was getting soft, but I just remember knowing that, okay, it’s time; they need a surprise. They need a wake-up, like when you’re listening and you kind of get into a trance and something wakes you up out of your trance. I kind of needed that to happen right there. So that song is called “Ofabio.” It’s the one with like the double kick drum. It’s very, very explicit, talking about sex and sexual things. And with the instrumentation was the strings at the end of “Good Day Good Night, “at the very end of the album. I knew I wanted to have it just go on and be something memorable. Like, oh, I’m going to put a lush string thing here that before I didn’t even think about putting there, but now it fucking needs it because it has all of its brothers and sisters surrounding it.

For more info on Imani Coppola, visit her Facebook page.

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I also currently contribute to the Please Kill Me website (based on the book of the same name.) Below are some of my recent interviews from there.

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