Pop duo CocoRosie tries to get the world to listen

Coco Rosie/Courtesy

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A few days after Sinead O’Connor wrote her widely discussed letter to Miley Cyrus, I spoke on the phone with Sierra Casady, one-half of the “spiritual pop” duo CocoRosie. Sierra and her bandmate and sister, Bianca, are known for their unique brand of mystic pop music featuring Sierra’s opera-trained vocals and the duo’s eccentric performances, in which Bianca often cross-dresses. I asked if, as a nonconformist symbol within the music industry, she had anything to add to the mass conversation on the controversial pop star and the ostensibly offensive behavior of her tongue. Sierra’s response was, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

It’s difficult to believe any American between the ages of 12 and 40 — especially one who works in the music industry — could be oblivious to the name “Miley Cyrus” today. At the same time, however, Casady’s answer fits perfectly with the (often conflated) star image of her and her sister. The whimsical freak-folk icons appear more as mythical creatures than they do as performers. They seem to inhabit their own eccentric reality. The authenticity of this otherworldliness is often challenged by critics, and from another angle, Sierra challenges that assumption of character. “We do have a strong relationship with the world, but it’s on our own terms,” she said. Some things, such as Miley, they choose to ignore.

Sierra admitted she and Bianca often ignore music altogether — a fact about the sisters that is frequently cited as evidence of either their pretentiousness or creative originality, depending on who is talking. The aura of their work characterizes it as a pure product of the ingenuity that sparks from their magnetic sisterly bond. For them, making music is not a process of calculated composition but a means of negotiating with reality and processing their experiences through a lifelong artistic impulse. “In our creative work, we don’t come from a real conceptual basis most of the time,” Sierra said. “It’s more intuitive and organic and cathartic.”

Sierra attributes her and Bianca’s artistic drive and selective interaction with mass culture to the alternative environment in which they were raised. Their father, often described as a Native American shaman, was only intermittently present, and their mother constantly moved them around the country with her. Sierra says they weren’t allowed to watch television and instead focused on learning to produce creatively from an intuitive basis.

Considering their unconventional upbringing, it’s fitting that there were “rougher periods” that drew them apart. But as the tale goes, one day in 2003, Bianca surprised Sierra in her Paris apartment, and in Sierra’s words, “everything was new.” They sat in her claw-foot tub and spontaneously recorded an intimate and bluesy series of songs. Although they had no initial commercial intentions, this recording eventually became La maison de mon reve, the debut album that brought the sisters to lo-fi fame in 2004.

Now, the two are approaching their 10-year anniversary as CocoRosie and released their fifth album, Tales of a GrassWidow, in May. In it, operatic vocals spew esoteric poetry atop layered beats evocative of hip-hop and world music, forming a distinctively CocoRosie sound. But in terms of rhythm and melody, this album is arguably the duo’s most accessible to date.

Since 2004, CocoRosie’s sound has transformed dramatically, with complex electronic production, fuller vocals and more conventional compositional formulas now filling out its sound. Still, that fairylike whisper-singing of early tracks such as “Good Friday” is unmistakably present, making one feel simultaneously uneasy and comforted. Although the two have definitely made it out of the tub, GrassWidow affirms that CocoRosie still inhabits its own mystic bubble in many ways.

Although Sierra admits she and Bianca tend to shut some things out, she assured me that they do actively engage with social issues. Especially with GrassWidow, they have moved away from the highly personal content of previous albums to engage with social movements such as feminism. Sierra describes the album as dealing with the question of what it is like to be a woman today, incorporating both nonpersonal true stories and the duo’s usual fantasy-based stories.

Sierra and Bianca are also working on a variety of other projects. One of these is with the Future Feminists, a group of their friends that includes musician Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons), filmmaker Kembra Pfahler and performer Johanna Constantine — all daring artists. Together, they are working on a New York City art exhibition and performance series that will be unveiled in early February 2014. Sierra describes it in part as “re-exploring and reinstalling indigenous ideas and values.” These artists and others have also contributed to “Girls Against God,” a biannual and radically feminist magazine  Bianca founded and debuted in July.

But can the Casadys make an effective and informed political statement without being fully engaged with what’s going on in the world? They may not be important for politics, but the recent antics of Miley Cyrus (think 2013 Video Music Awards) have proved to be a hot topic in American feminist discourse of late.

On the other hand, perhaps limiting their consumption of mass culture is what allows the Casadys to make the daring statements that they do. According to Sierra, putting up certain boundaries and filters is crucial to feeling comfortable challenging cultural boundaries within art, gender, patriarchy and so forth. She thinks of it as reserving psychic space for their creative processes.

This selective engagement makes sense for a band whose work draws constant criticism. Although they have a large following of devout fans, they have often been accused of trying too hard to counter mainstream culture. Many find it difficult to believe that the Casadys would choose to dress in nonsexualized, costumelike outfits and create absurdly eerie harmonies for any other reason than to draw attention as radical nonconformists.

In a minute way, the Casady sisters are analogous to Miley Cyrus. Both are female musical acts making statements and stirring controversy by performing in ways women aren’t supposed to, despite negative criticism. Of course, they have situated themselves at the opposite ends of the tactical and musical spectrums (along with almost every other spectrum). CocoRosie sits on an end that’s easier to dismiss than the media-happy Miley, but maybe we should take notes from Sierra and reserve some of our attention for more meaningful deviations from the norm.

Contact Sarah Burke at [email protected].