On 'Graceful', Curtis Cooper Is Having Fun For the First Time

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Curtis Cooper has itchy fingers. Throughout our entire conversation, I could hear them playing their guitar, tapping out rhythms, or plunking out melodies on a piano. That same kind of distracted energy can be found all over their lush new album, Graceful. Packed to the brim with little sonic "treats," Graceful, released in early June, is a thoughtful album that explores late 20's ennui, gender, and life under the existential threat of climate change.

Cooper and I speak over the phone on a breezy Saturday about their upcoming album, their delightful day job, and climbing really tall things. This is how they introduce themselves: “My name is Curtis Cooper and I'm from Philly. Born and raised, and I am a musician. I use they/them pronouns, and I live in West Philly. Sweet, sweet West Philly.”

So you’ve got a new album out. It’s called Graceful, right?

Yes.

I was listening a bit to Messy and Laughing in Line, your previous albums, and Graceful feels like a huge step.

Yeah, I think so.

The album itself feels very dense, and I want to know how you feel about it. Does Graceful reflect not only a sonic growth, but a certain amount of emotional growth that’s happened since Messy?

Oh, yeah. Definitely emotional growth. I mean, [with] Messy, I was so fucking depressed. I was just in it, totally in it, and that was my life, that was the world. And that’s how the world is, you know, when you feel like that. God, yeah, I feel so much better. This record is a lot more like⁠—I really just did it in my room. So I got to spend a lot of time just fucking around. ‘Cause when you're in the studio, you're kinda paying the time thing, so I did most of the vocals, all the acoustic guitar and all the weird synth stuff just in my room. And then I sent the STEM [files] over to my friend Scott, and that’s when I started doing studio stuff. That’s where I got the drums, and the stuff I couldn't do myself.

I didn’t even think it was gonna be a record, I was just doing it a song at a time here and there. But I think, just because I did everything in my room on each track, it kind of feels more fluid than I initially intended. The second track I wrote in 2015 when I was living in Nashville. I was only there like a month; I was on a buddy’s couch.

Would you say the album is the unifier for all of these songs from over the years? Or do you look back and think, “Oh, I was writing about this four years ago, and I just wrote a song about the same thing four months ago.” Is there a subconscious thread to all of these songs?

The album [is the unifier]. That song from 2015 is a song about traveling, and it's like a folk song—a typical folk song. And I remember initially wanting the album to be a folk record, but it didn’t turn out like that at all. I mean, I guess it's ‘cause I was writing it on an acoustic guitar, so in my head I'm like, “That means I'm playing folk.” But not really. So yeah, I’d say the album is the unifier itself. I'm always kind of writing about depression, and that’s about it, really. Sometimes it just falls together.

In essence, it’s very rare that something you’ve written isn’t going to be an extension of you. And since all of this stuff is you, it's always going to come together in one way.

Yes, that’s very true.

You mentioned you produced all of this in your room. All of the strings and all those sounds came from you tinkering in your bedroom?

Definitely.

Could you go into that process a bit for me?

I always start off with a chord progression. So this one song [“Breathe Out”] is about breathing. And I wanted to write a song in 5/4 [time], which is hard to do. It is. So I found a guitar rhythm I liked. Initially, I was trying to get better at using fewer chords.

I did a lot of weird stuff, like seeing how long I could hit one note without it sounding atonal. Like if a song is in C, but I'm in A-minor, I just keep hitting ‘C’ over and over and over again so eventually the song will resolve on C. So just a lot of tinkering.

Is there something about the atonal quality that you like? Something about that, specifically, that resonates with you?

One track is called “All of the Time.” Let’s just say if it’s in C, it’s just jumping around between A minor, F, G, C, A minor, you know what I mean? Just kind of bouncing around? If you then just hit the root note the whole time, eventually that chord resolves and it’s just so pretty when it FINALLY does it. It’s just like waiting—waiting for something to come home, waiting, waiting, waiting, and then finally it just...resolves.

That atonal shit, that’s the fun stuff in music. Things that are just a little out, and then resolve. Something that’s a little wrong and then becomes right. I think those are the prettiest things; those are the best treats on a record.

Treats are my favorite thing. Something that only happens once in a song. Like a little yell in the background, or when the organ comes in just for the bridge, something weird like that.

Why do you like that?

I don’t know. I think it’s just what makes a song more interesting; it gives it more character. Like if I just wrote a song that was verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus...I do that. Everyone does that. But if you just add, like, on the third verse, a little “Caww!” [laughs] out of nowhere...it’s kind of like a joke, but it’s like a treat for the listener. How many treats can you fit into one song? How many things can only happen one time?

Like in “Breathe Out”, when the electric guitar comes in on the beginning of the second verse like “weeeooowww”, that’s a treat that only happens one time. In the outro the drums are electronic, but there's a stop with the drums I did totally by accident. But that stop, it sounds really good and it only happens that one time, so it’s a treat. It's fun; these are just the fun things.

It’s interesting to hear you describe how much fun you're having with this album. Especially because I was looking at your process for writing Messy, and it sounds like catharsis was very much the point of that album. Is there a word you could attach to Graceful that you think would be appropriate?

I don’t know. I don’t think I have a very great vocabulary.

Oh no, that’s okay! If you want to make up a word you can. Or if you want to describe a feeling.

I mean, the first record I wrote I was trying to write just pop. I used pop tricks. Simple chord progressions. The second one I just kind of lost my mind and did weird stuff, the weirder the better. I was just trying to just make the listener lose their mind. And this is the first one where I feel like I had no expectations, I was really trying to be myself. I was just trying to have as much fun as possible recording.

If I had to throw one word around, I guess, I don’t know. I’m just messing around.

Are there any overarching themes to this album?

Definitely gender. I always write about depression, ‘cause I’m always up and down, but to be clear I'm very stable. I'm finally on the right fucking medicine. For the first in my life, I'm on the right fucking medicine.

Congratulations! That’s awesome.

Feels good. There's definitely songs about depression in there, and just random stuff like travelling and my house being robbed. But I would definitely say gender is the heaviest part. That’s what “graceful” means. That’s how I see myself, that’s how I want to be seen. That’s how I see myself in the positive moments. Graceful, gorgeous, beautiful, the things that I strive to be seen as, the things the people who love me see me as.  So definitely gender. Half the tracks touch on that one way or another.

That is very therapeutic, too. I'm very good at talking about depression and stuff like that, but talking about gender leaves me feeling very exposed; it’s something I’m still confused about. You know? Even after all this time. You make strides, and they're things that make you feel better, and you make these realizations about yourself, but it's still a tricky subject. And it flip flops. Like, some days, you just feel like shit! Some days you are like, “I am trapped in a skin suit that I hate!” And some days you’re just like, “Ahh, I look so good.” You know? I mean I hope people get the latter of those two, not just the former.

You do music for fun. If you're not having fun, it’s gonna suck. It's not going to sound good. I did this for myself, and it feels good to have it off my chest now.

“You do music for fun. If you’re not having fun, it’s gonna suck.”

At shows, have you had any negative confrontations because of your presentation?

Not really. Not to my face, you know what I mean? Definitely on the street you’ll get shit like that. People call you faggot sometimes. But not at shows. It has literally not come up at shows in God knows how long. I'm playing a lot of DIY shows, safer spaces. It’s rare that I’m going to play a bar that isn’t known as a trans-friendly place. When I was growing up I got a lot of shit dressed up as a man. So when I came out, I remember thinking, “I'm gonna get in some shit for this.” And it’s definitely something I’m very nervous about. I don’t take the subways at night. If I'm dressed up, feeling good, I’m with a group a friends. It's actually never happened that I'm walking alone at night wearing a dress or something like that. I am always with someone or taking an Uber, that’s the kind of shit I spend money on; just getting somewhere safe. So I don’t think I give it a chance to come up.

Outside of music, you’re also a gardener, right?

Oh yeah. Gardening is my main gig.

How did you get into that?

It’s a family business. It’s me, my mom and my brother. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. My mom was working when she went into labor with me. So I’ve always done it; it’s always been my job during high school, between college in summers. I was always working as a gardener.

My brother and myself run a lot of it. My mom is still definitely in charge. It’s called Philadelphia Gardens and my mom has been doing it since the ‘80s. It’s a great job. I’m just outside, and it's hard! We all get stress dreams half the nights, ‘cause, you know, its family and you don’t want to let your family down. I’ll wake up some nights thinking, “Oh god, did I water this garden?”

I don’t know. It’s all worth it.

Why is it worth it?

It’s beautiful! I can never have a job inside, first of all. I worked masonry and I was working 7 to 7 just moving bricks, being paid under the table. With carpentry, it's fun, but you’re just working in one spot all day, and you're inside.

With gardening, we can show up, and after a day you have a beautiful garden. We can plant stuff and there will be butterflies landing on stuff while we’re there. We just brought nature into your life. It’s very rewarding and it’s quickly rewarding.

Its fun working with my family! We do family therapy every other week just to help separate business and family. And it's great working my brother. I love my brother to death, we’re incredibly close. So it’s just a pleasure.

Do you mind if I ask how your family has been with the gender stuff?

Oh, good. We go to therapy about it. I’ve been out about two years now to them. It comes up every once in a while, but they're nothing but supportive. They're very, very supportive I’m very lucky.

I’m so glad to hear that.

Oh yeah, and it was just a huge weight off my mind. And you’re just getting misgendered every day by people who love you, and it's just like, “I have to just tell these people what is going on in my head.” And it’s just been great. It’s been really great.

Would you say with the current state of the world, climate change and all that, that your work takes on more importance?

There's only so much you can do. In my opinion, the world is completely doomed. When you drive along the highway, everything you see is invasive. People are planting ginkgo trees, which are totally useless. So yes, when we do gardens we make sure to use native plants and native trees, and to use things that give you a bang for your buck and give back to nature. But the idea that people have lawns is insane. People just have grass! Like, what the fuck is wrong with people? The world is ending. The plants have been destroyed. Everything is going to either adapt or die.

It’s important, what we’re doing, but it feels to me like we are fighting a winless battle.

Wow.

A little bit of positivity there. But it’s crazy— the world is invasive plants. We did this. We brought plants over from Asia and put them in our backyard, and they just took over. That’s how rose bushes got here! Apparently rose bushes came as a cheap way to keep cattle in, and then they just took over. Deer aren’t native to Pennsylvania. We killed off all the wolves and now we have deer here, and they eat everything. We’ve just destroyed the planet; it's all over.

Having that perspective, does any of this inform your work?

I don’t know. I guess I have some existential dread. The world is going to end; do I really need to buy a house, have kids, and have a family? These are things you're supposed to have, but do I really want that? I don’t know if it affects my music very much, but it definitely affects my attitude towards life, I would say. The world could very well end in our lifetime, or maybe not our lifetime, but soon. So what are you gonna do? Work a job you fuckin’ hate and then just die, just so you can raise a family? I’m lucky I have a job I love that gives me time to travel and all this stuff. Some people have to work these jobs they hate, and are working towards their deaths.

I’ve been going skydiving a lot. That’s my rush.

How was that?

Oh, it's great. I’m going again on Saturday. I've been three times and this is my fourth time.

I hated it. I’m glad I did it once, but I never want to do it again.

Really? Oh man, I’m such an adrenaline junkie. That’s my drug of choice.

I'm glad you brought that up because I’ve been noticing you are climbing a bunch of [stuff] all over your Instagram. You’re always climbing, you’re always posting these videos, and I’m always worried for you.

Yes, yes, I am.

I trust that you're taking care of yourself. Why are you doing it? What do you get from it?

It’s adrenaline! I just love adrenaline. I don’t do drugs anymore, and that was a big part of my life for a while. And I feel like this is that replacement.

Maybe it's part of the ADHD, everything else seems kind of boring. We grew up next to a junkyard when I was a kid and I would just play in that all the time. I would climb up the walls and just play in junk. And we grew up near a park, a little tiny park, and I would just climb the trees. I’ve always loved climbing shit. I don’t know what it is, it’s just part of me.

Is it getting to the top? Is it that sense of accomplishment?

Nah, I’m getting to the top. Wherever I can. There’s a couple safe spots near me I can climb alone. It definitely comes out when I’m depressed, so if I’m feeling like I want to be tall and I want to be high up, I can just do it in a safe way.

Why do you want to be tall?

It’s not like, tall..you ever read Yertle the Turtle? I feel like it’s like that. Not that I need to own everything like the king turtle did, but it is like this feeling of being high up. It’s definitely part of the adrenaline rush. It’s a beautiful sight that not a lot of people see. I mean, people have been there ‘cause there’s so much graffiti around, but it is a special thing. It just feels special.

As a final question, who is this record for? I know you said [it’s] for yourself, but who can you imagine listening to this record?

I wrote this album to help me with gender issues, so it’s for people struggling with gender issues. That's really what it’s about. Struggling with visibility; too much visibility, not enough visibility. That shit’s real. And we’re in this whole gender renaissance these days where like people are actually starting to respect people in the way they deserve to be treated. So I guess it's for people who want to feel like they have some solidarity. That’s it, that's who I think I wrote this for.

Colin Vallee