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Crissi Cochrane on Songwriting

I was sitting in a coffee shop when first heard Crissi Cochrane's "Nobody's Bird", and instantly fell in love with this artist's jazz nuanced sound. Her most recent work "Little Sway", is a pop-jazz album where her voice is without a doubt the highlight of the album. Crissi's pitch-perfect, elegant voice, is both spellbinding and inspiring. Cochrane's tracks flow eloquently into one another, creating a beautifully realized whole. I recently had a chance to talk to this Windsor based artist. Check it out.

Isaac Gutierrez for Born Loser.: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Crissi Cochrane: My name is Crissi Cochrane. I'm a soul/pop/jazz singer, songwriter, and guitarist, originally from the East Coast of Canada, and currently living in Windsor, Ontario, Canada's southernmost city. We're 4 hours south of Toronto and directly across from Detroit, Michigan. In fact, Detroit is north of us – it's the only place where you can look north and see America.

BL: How long have you been writing songs?

CC: I started writing songs when I was about 15 years old, so that means I've been at it for 14 years. I did write songs when I was younger than that, but I never performed them – growing up in the 90s, we all loved boy bands and girl bands, so some school friends and I would write little songs, nothing serious. But it was probably good to get some of the bad songs out of me early on, so I could move on to making better ones.

BL: What is your musical background? Do you have a musical family or did you just fall into songwriting all on your own?

CC: Songwriting was a natural outlet for me – I loved journaling as a child, which evolved into angsty free-form poetry as a teenager, finally becoming the basis of lyrics for songs. I picked up the guitar at home around age 11, and the flute at school around age 13, and I was pretty obsessed with locking myself in my room with either instrument and practicing for hours. My dad's always played guitar, especially at family gatherings, so there was always a guitar around, and I tried learning several times before it really stuck with me.

BL: What sorts of things have you done to improve your songwriting since then? Any favorite books or previous mentors you'd like to talk about?

CC: Dissecting the songs you love is always a good place to start – learning how to play those chords, progressions, and melodies helps you to internalize the nuances of their style. I'm never satisfied with my current knowledge of any instrument, which keeps me learning and being inspired all the time. It took me some years to learn that songs don't just come to you, or, at least, they won't always – eventually, you have to sit down and make time to write. And there are a lot of great songwriting teachers to give you tricks to make that process easier – I loved Pat Pattison's online class on writing lyrics (through Berklee on, he's also authored some great books on songwriting.

BL: Let’s talk a bit about your songwriting process. How does a song usually develop – do you first start with the lyrics, melody, chord progression, or something else?

CC: The process can be different every time – but the first step is generally always the same: have a good idea for a subject. If I have no idea what I'd like to say, everything is impossible (or at best, kind of disjointed and not great). I actually write custom love songs as a sideline, getting people to tell me about someone they love, and then writing and recording a song just for them. In doing this, my process has shifted to being mostly lyrics first, then music. But when I write just for myself, I'm often making it up as I go along, either singing out lyrics and a melody into the air and writing chords after the fact, or writing chords, lyrics, and melody as I go.

BL: What are the ideal conditions for song writing? Do you have a favorite place or time to write?

CC: I have a tiny office in my apartment where I do all of my writing. But I often edit my ideas while I'm walking in the city, or riding the bus, doing errands – thinking, is this the right line of lyrics? Should this song go somewhere else? Is there something I need to say still? Any time of day is fine to write, although I think I do think dusk is maybe my favourite time – it's just key to make sure I've got enough emotional energy to do it. There's no point in trying to write when my body or mind are exhausted, it just doesn't turn out as well.

BL: How long does it usually take you to write a song?

CC: My love songs by request usually take about 1-2 hours for the lyrics, and 25 minutes to put those lyrics to music. (I always record the music-writing part in case I do something great in the moment and then can't remember it a minute later; when I've finished writing the music and I stop the recording, it's strangely always about 25 minutes long.) Songs I write for myself can take 15 minutes to several weeks, but usually in those longer cases, it's because I've decided to add a bridge or improve the lyrics.

BL: How do you avoid using the same words/themes/rhymes/patterns when you write?

CC: Learning new material is key. It keeps you trying things you wouldn't come up with on your own, and finding little bits to borrow in your songwriting. That being said, in my custom songs, I do find I settle in to the same general vibe pretty often. But the goal with those songs isn't really to satisfy my own creative urges so much as it is to deliver something that captures what the client wants to express, and I have a go-to musical set of tools that I rely on for that. Regardless, every song has different progressions and the lyrics are always unique. I try to avoid cliches as much as possible, and that helps keep things distinct.

BL: Are there any songwriters that you look up to?

CC: Not anyone in particular, though, like most people, I go through phases of loving a certain artist (or their writers) really intensely and then kind of moving on to something else that's new to me. Right now I'm pretty in love with the songwriting on the 1954 album Chet Baker Sings... it's so dreamy and romantic, and with such lovely and sometimes unexpected melodies. Almost every song has different writers, there are 23 different writers on the record, but that's how it is with albums of jazz standards. They all had this really lovely style in the period when they were writing... it sometimes feels like they were the first ones to say the most basic things about love in songs, but it doesn't come across as cliched or trite, just really sincere and beautiful.

BL: What do you find most inspires you to write?

CC: Any strong emotion, really - could be love, gratitude, fear, frustration... but I've mostly been writing just love songs by request this year. I've got a lot on the go – I'm pregnant and trying to finish recording an album and move into my first house before the baby comes in June, so I haven't had the energy to write more. I do love writing the love song requests though. I love channelling other people's love through my own to make something special, and I feel like the baby's getting to hear a lot of songwriting from the womb.

BL: I think for me personally, it’s always hard to know when something is “ready” or good enough to share. How do you know when you’re finished working on a song?

CC: I'm a perfectionist, so I get that sense of uncertainty sometimes too – but I am also a really harsh critic of myself, so if something feels like it's not better than the bulk of what I've done before, I generally just let it go, usually before it gets too far along. Basically, if I can write through to the end of a song, I'll end up performing it live as soon as I can, to see if I still like it in front of an audience. It's rare that I end up changing things drastically once they're written to the end, but sometimes I'll add in a new section if a groove feels too predictable or stagnant, or I'll reword some of the lyrics if something isn't clear enough. Sometimes, a song sits on the back burner for a long time, and then I'll return to it completely refreshed and have a great new take on it.

BL: What have you learned in your years of songwriting that you wish you would have known sooner?

CC: You have a lot more songs in you than you think you do. But songwriting is a kind of muscle, and if you don't use it, you lose it.

BL: I recently watched the TedTalks presentation you did. Can you tell us a bit about about “Love Songs for Hire”?

CC: For years, I supported my music-making with unrelated day jobs, like most all musicians do, but I was able to transition into making music full-time in 2014 after I released my album “Little Sway.” Given that most of my income comes from performing, which takes up a relatively small number of hours in a week, I get to enjoy being time-rich, but there are some really slow patches where there isn't as much work to be had, especially after Christmas. On February 1, 2016, I came up with the idea of writing custom love songs as Valentine's Day gifts. I offered to write and record 10 custom songs, based on a short questionnaire about the person receiving the song. I wasn't sure if I'd sell any of them, but I sold them all, and then some, writing and recording 12 original songs in 10 days. I thought it might be just a one-time thing, but the local media picked up the story and it ended up getting national attention, and I was inundated with requests, so I've kept it going ever since.

BL: What have you learned or taken away from that experience?

CC: It's a privilege to be able to help people express their love. Hearing the positive feedback makes me feel so fulfilled, knowing the good that my music can do in the world, one person at a time. I'm grateful that I have the ability to do this type of work – writing, performing, and recording – and that it gives me so much opportunity to keep my skills sharp. Musicians often need many different sources of income to stay afloat, and this has been so rewarding both financially and emotionally. I haven't had to think about looking for a day job in a long time.

BL: How do you deal with writer’s block or distractions?

CC: Knowing what you want to say is so essential. Sometimes if I get stuck, I'll just sort of journal on the subject and see if I can uncover some new territory. I have to make time to work on songwriting, but it's generally really unproductive if I'm just not feeling it, so I'll often put off songwriting until I feel like my energy levels are right. I'm lucky to have my office to block out most distractions, but all bets will be off once the baby's here. I'll have to learn some new tricks.

BL: What would you consider the most important thing to keep in mind when writing?

CC: Well, there really are no rules, but for me, it's essential to ensure that there's some prosody in the song – meaning, that all the elements of the music work together to support the message of the lyrics. I think you should be able to tell what the general emotion of the song is, without listening to any of the lyrics.

BL: When you’re writing, do you sit down and force yourself to get things done, or yourself or do you just go with the flow?

CC: I never force myself, but I'll try to schedule songwriting into my day somewhere, and I'll make sure that when that time rolls around, I'm well rested, I've eaten, and I'm feeling good. If I don't feel up to it when the time comes, it usually means some more self-care is in order, and then I'll get into it as soon as I can.

BL: Who are your favorite current songwriters or musicians?

CC: My true favourites are generally not current – like Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Stan Getz... I love that nostalgia of music from past eras. Before the digital revolution, you had to be so very good to get your work on recording, so the bar was often set really high. It's a bit harder to find music now that feels as good as the old greats do (and I know, to my own ear, I'm certainly not hitting that bar yet either). But for more current artists, I've been enjoying Sidibe, Moonchild, Shura, Niki & The Dove, The Bird & The Bee, and Ledisi. Which is all a lot of modern pop/soul. And all female vocalists too, now that I think of it.

BL: What advice would you give to someone who is pursuing a musical career?

CC: Don't be an asshole. Nobody will want to help you if you're anything less than courteous, thoughtful, and polite, and there's no way to advance without other people believing in you and caring about your success. And don't be arrogant. When you're convinced of your own greatness, it's easy to stop trying new things, and it's really hard to survive in any creative field if you aren't constantly evolving. But also, don't be too hard on yourself – you need a certain amount of self-confidence and self-respect to endure the trials of musicianhood. Try to find a happy medium and you'll keep growing as a musician and as a person.

BL: What projects are you currently working on, and what are your plans for the near future?

CC: I'm really, desperately hoping to at least have tracking finished on my new album by the time the baby comes, so I can hand it off for mixing and mastering while I'm on maternity leave. I do all my own marketing, publicity, radio tracking, design, etc., which I can do from the comfort of home, so that's kind of perfect while I'm settling in with a newborn. I'm hoping to have it out sometime in the fall. I'm also performing now in The Family Soul, a seven-piece soul band formed by my husband, and we'll probably be putting out some videos and recordings as soon as we can.

BL: My friend Raquelle is the person that introduced me to your music. What piece of life advice can you give Raquelle?

CC: Here's something I'm trying lately – instead of saying sorry, say thank you. For example, “I'm sorry I'm such a mess” becomes “thank you for being patient with me.” It obviously doesn't work if you've straight up wronged someone and actually need to apologize, but if you find yourself apologizing in a sort of self-deprecating way all the time, this is a nice way to shift your attitude, and let other people know that you appreciate them.

BL: And to wrap things up, I’ve been trying to think of a slogan for the site. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Born Loser music blog”?

CC: “All about winners since 20xx”? Something to make it apparent that it isn't a blog about born losers :)

Listen to Crissi Here!:

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