Now/It's: An Interview with Coco Reilly

While it might seem trite in its repeated use, there truly is something to be said for the company one keeps. Rather than run through the gauntlet of variations on the terms, let's take the consideration and ruminate over it as we listen to "Define You" by Coco Reilly. Three years in making (on top of an additional ten of formative work), "Define You" is the lead single in Coco Reilly's reintegration back into the musical artist realm. There were other projects, but we'll skip those, and rather, consider that while Reilly might have experienced performative hiatus, she never sat idly by in creative hiatus. Instead, she continued to develop and hone her style, slowly but surely cementing what would eventually become the Coco Reilly we hear on "Define You." Through the continued building of her oeuvre, in addition to connecting with the likes of Ron Gallo and Erin Rae, Coco Reilly has subsequently cemented herself as a fixture of East Nashville's musical community, not only through the company she keeps, but her own steady development.

Now/It's met with Coco Reilly at Dose Cafe & Dram Bar in the Riverside Village neighborhood of East Nashville.

N/I - So how have things been going for you?

Coco - They’ve been good. I’ve been busy in a good way. It’s kind of been zero to sixty after thirteen years of doing nothing.

N/I - Seriously!

Coco - It’s cool though.

N/I - I’m trying to think - from what I’ve gathered - the stuff you’re working on, or the stuff you have coming out is a culmination of the past three years’ worth of effort?

Coco - It is. Where’d you find that out? Good research [laughs].

N/I - That’s a good question. I don’t necessarily remember. I feel like I shouldn’t reveal, but honestly, I just don’t remember.

Coco - No! That’s great. I was just curious if there was anything that was already out on the Internet.

N/I - If I had to guess, I’d say social media. Doing this is the one realm where it’s okay to stalk through people’s social media and stuff.

Coco - Oh yeah. You have to!

N/I - Well I’m interested in learning what brought all this back around, then - because you said “thirteen years” in the making. If the new music is three, then there’s another ten that’s totally unaccounted for.

Coco - Yeah. Are we on the record now?

N/I - We are. I’m recording. And for the record, I won’t try and catch you in any sort of weird quote.

Coco - I don’t really have anything weird to offer [laughs].

N/I - No need to try and catch people off guard with this stuff.

Coco - Ask whatever you want. I’m an open book….. So I started to play music when I was young. I started writing songs when I was in second grade, on the flute, actually [laughs].

N/I - The flute? Like the real flute? Not a recorder?

Coco - No, composing songs for the flute.

N/I - Really?

Coco - Yeah!

N/I - So you were composing flute pieces in second grade?

Coco - Yes. I’m not saying they were immaculate or complicated [laughs]....

N/I - Still, I think there’s something to be said for being able to comprehend composition and structure in general.

Coco - I wanted to play violin, but my school wouldn’t let me, because they didn’t have violin in “regular” band, so I took up the flute. My dad bought me a blank composition book, and once I knew a few basic notes, I just realized “Oh! I can write whatever I want! I can put my own notes there.” So that was sort of my first foray into knowing I had some sort of control over creating.

N/I - What the outcome would be in terms of sound.

Coco - Yeah. So I played flute for seven years, and I was sort of snooty about it as a child. I really loved it though, I loved playing in the orchestra. Then, when I was thirteen, I picked up the guitar for the first time, and at the time, No Doubt was really popular, so I was like “I want to be that.”

N/I - Like Gwen Stefani?

Coco - Yeah. I wanted to play guitar like Alanis Morissette.

N/I - Right. Jagged Little Pill was like the biggest thing ever for a year and a half.

Coco - It was. I hadn’t really been introduced to great music consistently yet- but my dad listened to Queen and The Beatles a little bit, but I didn’t absorb that much decent music until I was older and found it on my own.

N/I - You’re totally fine. My dad really loves spy movie soundtracks, so I remember going on the road with him to whatever sporting event I had and we’d listen to the Peter Gunn theme, or the James Bond theme a thousand times.

Coco - That’s kind of awesome.

N/I - In retrospect, it’s pretty funny, but I remember then thinking that those types of pieces must have been what grown ups listened to. So you’re good on not listening to good music until later thing.

Coco - It took me a while. And unfortunately, I was born into the pop punk scene - that’s the type of music I was into in high school - and my brothers were skateboarders, so we all wound up listening to that music.

N/I - Older? Younger?

Coco - I have one older brother and I have four younger siblings, three brothers and one sister.

N/I - Okay. The older sibling always has the influence on what you usually end up listening to.

Coco - Definitely. And he listened to a lot of rock and punk. So I went through that whole phase and played in a band and then I quit when I was 18. I got jaded really quickly and I was like “I’m never going to be in the music industry again, that was terrible.” So I just went back to school a couple times. I thought I wanted to be a doctor [laughs]. Specifically neuroscience. And then I very quickly missed music and the freedom that comes along with it. But then I wound up working a bunch of jobs to pay the bills. I went to Indianapolis and played music with a band there, on and off. I never really committed to anything. Then I went to New York City and wound up stuck in some other jobs, and played maybe five shows during the time I was there. I never stopped writing music, I just didn’t pursue it at all. So I had a whole catalog of songs that were just sitting there. So the catalyst to get back into music…. This is very long winded.

N/I - No! This is fine. I invite tangential explanations. You’re more than welcome to talk about whatever you want to.

Coco - I appreciate it. Where was I? Is there another question you need to ask me?

N/I - Not necessarily. So we’re basically creeping along to the point where you decide to leave New York.

Coco - I guess if we’re going to recap it, you can say that I started playing flute when I was a kid, I was in and out of music when I was a teenager and then I got tired of that. I went back to school, ended up working a bunch of corporate jobs in New York City, and then my last job in New York, I worked at a sound design studio, and I realized that being that close to music again, but not being able to make it was something that sparked me. I was a production coordinator.

N/I - So you were oddly close to music still.

Coco - I was just organizing people who were composing and doing foley sounds for movies. So I quit that job and then next day, I went back into music. I was sort of a long, weird journey from New York City to Nashville and I didn’t have any idea of how to do it. So my boyfriend at the time had recommended I do a Tiny Desk concert. I was like “No. I haven’t played music in a long time.” But I put one up, and then a friend saw it and she was writing a movie - it was her first short film - and she asked me to try composing some music for it. Then, just with a stroke of luck, her film went to Sundance….

N/I - Oh wow. That’s incredible.

Coco - It was incredible. So that launched me back into music with a little bit of confidence.

N/I - Some solid positive feedback and validation after being dormant.

Coco - Absolutely. It was really fun, though. It was just music, no words which was nice.

N/I - Right. You were doing the sound design.

Coco - Which I had never done before. I was really grateful that she gave me the opportunity. So my first real dive back into music was hearing my music in a theater at Sundance, which was surreal.

N/I - So did you perform at Sundance?

Coco - No. It was one of those pieces where I wouldn’t have been able to perform it. I wish. That’d be fun.

N/I - That’d be the coolest.

Coco - So from there, I started writing a record. I came to Nashville to record an EP, and it was much different from what I’m doing now. I started kind of folk. Like simple folk stuff.

N/I - I feel like that’s a pretty normal way to segue into things.

Coco - Yeah. I didn’t have a band. I didn’t know where to start again.

N/I - Right. If you feel like you have to play shows, but you don’t have a band, and you don’t know where to go, there’s almost always a songwriter’s round somewhere, no matter where you are.

Coco - Exactly. So I had lived here for about six months, and the people who wound up being my band were Ron Gallo and friends. I met them in New York City, but we weren’t close, we had only met maybe once or twice. And we all ended up moving here at the exact same time. So then we started hanging out, and he told me to “Just come over and jam. Stop being so scared.” They all kindly forced me to get comfortable with playing electric guitar, and getting me to relax a bit. So they played my first show with me, which wasn’t this past November, but the November before that. And that’s it. It just kind of went from there.

N/I - So that first show, was it mostly songs that had been sitting there from those thirteen years of not necessarily playing out as Kristen or eventually, Coco?

Coco - Pretty much.

N/I - So are those songs in the repertoire now?

Coco - Some of them. Most of them are not.

N/I - That’s usually how it goes.

Coco - I was just trying to figure out what I sounded like again. So some of them are still in, and some of them are out. But then I recorded the album two more times.

N/I - Oh wow.

Coco - I tried recording it in Indianapolis with some friends, and then I tried recording it again with Joe Bisirri, from Ron’s band. He’s amazing. Him and Ian Ferguson. They were both a huge part in helping the record…..

N/I - Come to fruition.

Coco - Right. To come to life. So we just did that at Ron’s house. I decided to re-record, not because they did a bad job, but because I felt like I was still getting my footing, and I felt like there was a lot that I could change. I just wanted to do it better if I could afford to.

N/I - Well I am of the school of thought where if I write something, I’ll revise it ten times over. That way, if I revise ten times, it means I like it. If I don’t, I won’t.

Coco - You don’t care about it.

N/I - Exactly. So that’s totally normal in my book.

Coco - So we just actually finished recording the record a couple of weeks ago, and I ended up doing it with Jerry Bernhardt, who is my guitar player. And Dom Billett, who is my drummer, and Ian Ferguson, again. And Will Brown played keys. They’re all so incredible. I’m really glad they even gave me the time of the day.

N/I - It really is. It sounds like the way that these things have all come about for you is through making a concerted effort to make sure it’s good, but then in doing that, it draws people of a certain skill level in that elevates your music. Then it makes you want to record it again….

Coco - They truly do elevate my music [laughs].

N/I - Well that’s great. And individually, each of the projects of theirs that I’ve witnessed, it’s like, dang, you’ve got a murderer’s row of people who played on your record.

Coco - I really, really do. I pinch myself that that group actually wanted to be around me. From Ron to Erin Rae, who’s became one of my closest friends. Whether or not we all play the same type of music or not, their work ethic and their talent and just the level at which they operate has inspired me and helped me figure what I’m doing. They’re not only musically inspiring, but their emotional intelligence. It’s helped me so much in my attempt to get back into music.

N/I - That’s huge. Especially in any town where there’s a “scene” - hard air quotes on that - but sometimes, some people I’ve talked to have found people that are creatively inspiring, but not necessarily willing to foster that sense of community, and then that just becomes almost vitriolic or destructive on one’s psyche, which then works to the detriment of creative outputs. So the fact that you were able to come in and seamlessly fit in is pretty incredible.


Coco - I feel so lucky. It felt like there were a bunch of puzzle pieces I was missing, then I moved to Nashville and there was this group of people who became my core group of friends like I’ve never had before. We just operate so fundamentally on the same level, philosophically, as human beings and our approach to life. I think having that sort of camaraderie really lifts people up to be the best version of themselves, no matter what they do. And I’ve never had that before. I’ve had close friends, but I think their generosity with their time and their talent…. Erin was the first one - last summer - she said “Oh, I called my manager and asked if you could open up for us on this tour.” And she didn’t ask me first, and I didn’t ask her - she just offered it. She said “I think you should come with us.” And that was my first tour in almost thirteen years.

N/I - In ages, sure.

Coco - I was terrified, of course [laughs].

N/I - That’s totally fair.

Coco - I was like “I don’t deserve to be on this tour.” But we share a band, and she was like “We’re just adding one person, basically.” So that kind of thoughtfulness and support that you don’t even have to ask for, when people just serve it, and are kind, you can tell that they want you to do well. That’s not a small thing.

N/I - I don’t think so at all.

Coco - A lot of times…. I know there have been times where I wanted people to play a show with me, but I didn’t necessarily have the power to do that. I’m just super grateful for any tiny connection that anyone has given me. It all really matters a lot to me, and I’m really grateful for it.

N/I - Well I think that’s a beautiful thing, and I think gratitude in any capacity is fantastic, no matter what it might involve. I am curious, though - what do you think it is about that group and coming to Nashville that made everything click, as opposed to Indianapolis or New York. Obviously, there was the philosophical alignment and all that, but was there anything else in terms of the manner of which you first met anyone? I know with Ron and his whole crew, it’s an extension of New York, but at the end of the day, they wound up here too.

Coco - That’s a good question. I’m not really sure. It’s kind of an intangible thing. It’s a great question, I’m not trying to dodge it with that.

N/I - It’s all good. Honestly, I’d be kind of amazed if you had a clear cut answer, because if you did have a clear cut answer, that would almost certainly mean that it’s not quite as bountiful as it sounds as it is.

Coco - I mean, I would love to try and answer it. I do think it’s very special, whatever it is that aligned in this specific time and place. I didn’t know Ron well enough to know that he was moving down here, and then I met Erin through Jerry, because Jerry was playing with Erin and Andrew Combs and that whole crew. I remember the first time I saw Erin - I tell her this all the time - the first time I saw Erin play at The Basement East, it was on her birthday, and this was, I think, a few years ago. I saw her play and I just thought to myself “I’m going to be best friends with that person.” Which is a really weird thought when you’re an older person and not in kindergarten [laughs]. But there was just something about her that I had this feeling that I already know that person. I have those moments rarely, but when they happen they’re always on point. The intuition.

N/I - That’s probably good that they don’t happen all that often….

Coco - [Laughs] It keeps it special.

N/I - But it was the same thing with Ron and Jerry and Dom. The first time I saw them play - a friend of mine was on tour with them, and they played a boat that went around the Statue of Liberty in New York. I didn’t know who they were, and they were on tour with a friend of mine at the time who had invited me out, and when I saw them all play, I was like “First of all, this is a really weird venue.”

N/I - Was it a ferry boat?

Coco - Just one of those tour boats that goes around the Statue of Liberty. But I saw them all play and for the first time…. Oh, and Andrew Combs played too. There was something about this group of people where I felt like “Wow. I think I want to play music again, and I want them to be my band.” Then the next time they came in town, I asked if they wanted to get together and jam, and I was so nervous. We jammed in this weird practice space in New York. So those were really the only interactions we had, and it wasn’t until maybe a year and a half later that they moved to Nashville and we became good friends. But it was the same feeling of that intuitive thing, “I don’t know how long it’s going to take for this thing to develop and I’m not going to force it, but I feel like I should know these people.” It’s just the feeling that you know somebody already. I don’t know what that is. That would be a whole different conversation [laughs].

N/I - Sure. You can intuit it, and it seems like your intuition is pretty accurate. And being in the world of music and amongst other musicians, I would believe that to be a pretty important ability to have. I’m sure you’ve run into plenty of people who are like “Hey! I love your music! Oh my god, you love the Shangri-Lahs too!? Do you want to sing on my record?” It’s pretty easy to sniff out disingenuous people, but there are still some people that are very good at it. It sounds like you’ve had the fortune of not running into too much of that. Or maybe you have?

Coco - I think I’ve had the fortune of running into a lot of it.

N/I - Okay, and then from experience….

Coco - From experience, I can smell it from a mile away.

N/I - Well then I apologize for being presumptuous.

Coco - No! I think that’s also true. It can happen either way. I do think that’s an advantage of getting into the music industry so young - I was thirteen - I started playing shows then, so when I got to eighteen, I had already lived this whole life.

N/I - You were a grizzled vet by then.

Coco - [Laughs] And I had already had some bad business deals, and people pushing me in a direction I didn’t want to go in, so I think age and life experience, and working different jobs outside of music gave me even more perspective. It doesn’t matter what world you’re in, there are genuine people in each line of work, and then the not so. Then you learn what those personality types are, what they look like, how they act, and so I’m very fortunate that I’ve managed despite the long, winding road to get back into music with all these people. I feel like without that experience, I wouldn’t appreciate it the way I do now. And I wouldn’t have the good sense to avoid certain things. I don’t have any desperation anymore, like when I was young.

N/I - That’s pretty nice.

Coco - I have a much more relaxed approach to being in music. Whatever happens, happens. I’m not going to stress over that stuff. Of course, from my creative perspective, I’m a perfectionist.

N/I - Absolutely. You’re not going to record a voice memo and throw it up on Spotify, or anything like that.

Coco - I have my own standard of excellence, but it’s strictly based on my views and what the core group of people that I respect think. I’m at a point in my life where I only respect what people I respect think of my music. And even then, I still go with my gut at the end of the day.

N/I - Realistically, I think that’s the place where most everyone would like to get.

Coco - And it’s hard to get to, so I hope that anyone that reads this doesn’t think I don’t appreciate it.

N/I - I don’t think so. The way you said it is about as well spoken as anyone could explain it. From your view, you’ve had enough of the bad experiences, and now you have the ideal best scenario, it sounds like. What else could you hope or want for? For some stranger to believe in you as much as Erin Rae or Ron?

Coco - It’s true. And it’s a really hard place to get to, so I don’t want people to think that it’s a simple thing. It’s important for people to know that it took a lot of self work and patience to get to a certain point where I could relax enough to not care what people think, and that I wasn’t just born not caring or always feeling self-assured.

N/I - I think that’s been made very apparent by the thirteen years and different crossroads and benchmarks that you hit at a young age and were forced to learn some unique lessons from.

Coco - Right. And I just had the thought - what makes my group of friends so special is that a lot of people in my past - it’s like they sort of want you to be a version of yourself that makes them comfortable, I think. Whereas, I think the first time I was with this group of friends, they wanted me to be more like myself. The first time I was recording, and someone suggested something, Ron could see my face kind of trying to say something nice, and he said “Hey, look at me. Fuck that. This is your record, don’t be afraid to speak up. Yes, that idea is good, but if your idea is better, it is, because it’s yours.” And I had never had anyone give that kind of genuine push before, or make me not feel self conscious about being too bossy or direct. And all those insecurities come from myself, anyways. So it really points back to self work and working on yourself and really getting your own emotions in check. But it helps to have your closest group of people surrounding you helping with that.

N/I - Where they’re able to endorse that approach. So you can have them and your songwriting as means to help with the self work stuff.

Coco - I wish songwriting was more fun - and I’m not saying it isn’t - but I’ve never been like “Let’s just write a fun song.” It’s a deep, emotional thing that I need to do. I hope people know I say that with a sense of humor [laughs], not with an overly serious attitude. Not that I care what people think, of course [laughs]. Full circle joke.

N/I - Good call back! So “Define You” kind of fits in that realm, then. I know you were writing the song for someone else, but at a certain point, it became a song for you.

Coco - As in to give to someone else? Or dedicated to someone else.

N/I - Either or, really.

Coco - I was writing it with someone else in mind, and then I decided I was tired of writing songs for other people. Not because that person is bad, but I just decided “What could be a template of what a guy could say to me that I’ve never heard before?” If someone was going to write me a love song, what would I want the core themes to be? Instead of “I want you to be my everything,” or “I think you’re beautiful….”

N/I - “The sun, the moon, the stars….”

Coco - Right. And that’s fine. It’s sweet and nice, with good intent. But I think the ultimate love song to me would be “Define You.” Or that’s what I had in mind when I wrote it. I’ve been in relationships with controlling people, and for the record, when I say that, I’m not trying to slander anyone….

N/I - I mean, everyone has been in a relationship with controlling people, so it’s familiar.

Coco - And this person didn’t necessarily know any better. He had a lot of work to do on his own. I try not to speak negatively about anyone, because everyone’s on their own path.

N/I - I’m right there with you.

Coco - And our paths crossed at the wrong time. But that feeling was just the worst [laughs]. When someone’s not allowing you to be yourself, because it makes them uncomfortable. So this song was based on that. And I wanted it to feel good, because the rest of the record, it’s safe to say, is a bit melancholy and moody. Lots of minor chords and all that. So I thought if I’m going to write a love song, I’m going to make it feel the way I think love should feel.