Itasca :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Kayla Cohen’s Itasca has grown over the last decade or so from a solitary acoustic pursuit into a full-band enterprise where pensive art folk kicks up a country rock ruckus. Her latest, Imitation of War, was conceived in the isolation of COVID out in California’s Yucca Valley but came to life in collaboration with long-time associates, Evan Backer on bass, Daniel Swire and Evan Burrows on drums, Robbie Cody producing and mixing.

Cohen herself plays the album’s guitars, layering sinuous, interlacing parts over one another in a manner that touches jazz, drone, folk and rock without confining itself to a single genre. She found inspiration for this album’s sound in rock artists including Thin Lizzy and Anonymous, and for its lyrics in Carl Jung and Moliere.

We talked before the holidays about Cohen’s process, her fascination with psychology, her go-to guitars and her ongoing struggles with stage fright. She also described the way in which Imitation of Life feels like a summation of herself and her musical journey, and how the single “Milk” may be the best song she’s ever written. “My past albums feel like growth experiences, but with this album I’ve gotten to a place where I still feel like it’s me, now, and we recorded it two years ago,” she explained. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Tell me about this interesting phrase you used for the album title, Imitation of War.

Kayla Cohen: I started writing this record in 2020. I was watching My Night at Maud’s which is a Roemer movie. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie when the two lead characters are talking to each other in a bedroom. It’s late at night. It’s a great scene. They’re doing this dance around each other and that scene is where I got one of the lines in the chorus of the title track. Then, maybe eight months later, one of my friends said the phrase, “Imitation of war,” while we were talking about relationships and it reminded me of that scene and it sort of brought everything together.

The past few years for me have really been about studying relationships. There’s been a lot of change and learning in that realm. The album began being about relationships and how we imitate what we know even when we don’t realize we’re doing that. But it kind of applies to everything when you start thinking about it. What’s happening right now in Gaza… I think about Netanyahu imitating other men that have come before him, imitating masculinities or bravado he has seen. You can think about everything in terms of imitation.

AD: I was wondering about that. You got attached to this phrase several years ago, but now it resonates with all this war and conflict we’re seeing in the world. Maybe the meaning has changed.

Kayla Cohen: Yeah. I’m political in my own world, but for me social media is so hard. I have to keep it really separated. It’s so overwhelming. I’m not even going to go into the bigger implications in my outward facing world. I’m talking about it as just being about the music and relationships.

AD: You mentioned that this album was about relationships and I was thinking that this was not really a confessional album. The lyrics are really full of a lot of abstract images and archetypes that have an archaic feel to them. Almost like renaissance poetry. Tell me about your writing process for this album and whether there were specific influences in the background.

Kayla Cohen: I got really into Carl Jung in the process of writing this album. That’s where the archetypal themes are coming from. Also Moliere. One of the track titles refers to him. That song is me parodying myself being on stage. I got into Balzac also and thinking about theatrical ways of looking at life and that was kind of an influence, too.

AD: What was it about Jung that spoke to you?

Kayla Cohen: I’ve always had a very active dream life. Let me think…In the very beginning a friend gave me a Marion Woodman book. This was maybe in 2020. I had a lot of time at home. I read it and it started this whole transformational process. At the time I was 32 and going through a reflective period. I read that first book, and then I got another few other books by her. And it opened the door to all these other writers. And now years later, I’m in this other realm. There’s a book I’m reading now that I want to mention. But I think it just really spoke to me in the place that I was in. It felt universal as well.

AD: I’d love to hear about this other book.

Kayla Cohen: I’m reading a bunch of books right now but this one in particular is called Living at the Edge of Chaos. It’s by Helene Shulman. She’s a Jungian analyst. The book is about, in the medical community, how our cultural biases influence diagnosing mental illness. And how you can become more conscious of that particular thing in order to become a better clinician. The title, Living at the Edge of Chaos, is actually a reference to synchronicity. So the idea is that when you start to encounter synchronicities in your life and experiences of the unknown and things that make you go, “Whoa, what’s really going on there?” that’s kind of…you’re standing at the edge of chaos. You’re experiencing a little bit of the strangeness that exists in the world that we don’t see. She’s also writing about complex systems and theory and how that relates to Jung, and it’s cool. It’s really interesting.

AD: It sounds really interesting in terms of your work as an artist, this whole idea of getting in touch with your subconscious and dealing with hidden, other states. Does that influence the way you write and sing and perform?

Kayla Cohen: Yeah. I do practice meditation. Not as strictly as I would like. I have dealt with stage fright a bunch over the years, and meditation has definitely helped. The idea of treating the stage world as an alternate reality and music, too, has helped. If I can get myself into a trance state, things go a lot more easily. But that’s also about writing, too. It’s just about getting into the flow in some way or another and putting all that other stuff, which is life, aside for the moment.

AD: The guitar playing on this album is just beautiful, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how you’ve developed as a player, how you got started, maybe which guitarists resonated with you and what, if anything, is different about what you’re doing now.

Kayla Cohen: I’ve been playing as this project for over 10 years now and touring a lot and playing in different ways solo and with different groups of people. There’s something about forcing myself to stay with the same project and the same band name over these years which feels so strange sometimes because I’m so different than when I first started.

I started out playing acoustic guitar, and it was a very solitary thing. I was influenced by classical guitar and medieval styles and I wanted to combine that with lyrics. When I was writing this record, I started playing electric a lot more. Because it was more fun and it was more fun to play with a band and be loud, especially after COVID. I just wasn’t interested in the acoustic guitar anymore. The guitar that I played mostly on this record is an SG, a 1971. It’s an early model which doesn’t have a lot of pickups and knobs. It’s simple. I like the tone of that.

But in November, I played a solo show at Zebulon in Los Angeles on acoustic guitar, and I have another show in January. I’m getting back into practicing for those shows, and I’ve really been enjoying playing acoustic again. And I played a Guild from the early 1970s. That guitar I’ve had for maybe eight years and I wrote the first LP that I put out which was Unmoored by the Wind. So I’m still playing that. Using the same guitar for that long is kind of crazy. But the guitar has some wear and tear and it’s aging, and I can’t stop it from getting older.

AD: Do you feel like if you got another guitar it would change what you do?

Kayla Cohen: Hmm. Yeah I think that acoustics are…

AD: I’ve heard that from other musicians, that they get another guitar and it reorients the way they want to write and how it sounds.

Kayla Cohen: I felt that when I got the SG. I wanted to play that all the time. I still do. That guitar is so easy to play. It’s great.

AD: I am especially liking the two guitars on “Cobalt Blue.” Are they both you? Or did you have another player?

Kayla Cohen: All the guitars are me, just tracking over myself.

AD: It’s really nice the way they interact and they have slightly different timbres. It’s really beautiful. What can you tell me about working with Robbie Cody?

Kayla Cohen: There’s a bunch of things I can say about that. One is that in past records, I would be doing a lot of the mixing myself, and I’ll be the first to admit that I got in my own way a lot. I’d get too zoomed in on the mixing process.

On this one, Robbie did everything. He just recorded us. I didn’t even look at files. We put it on ProTools, but we also ran it through a tape machine and a bunch of pre-amps. That’s why it sounds how it does. We mixed on a board, not a computer. He did the mixing, and I was sitting there listening and giving a few comments here and there, but really barely doing anything. So he really took the reins there.

It was so good because I had to just let it be a document of the time that we recorded it, and not get too precious. I’ll listen back and there are a few little things, like guitar notes in some places and lyrics in other places, that, in the past, I would have gone back and changed everything. But I think in a way that also can mute the colors of the thing and make it too bland. So I’m happy I didn’t. It’s like an exercise in stepping back.

AD: Do you feel like it sounds different because he worked on it?

Kayla Cohen: Definitely. He’s really good with gear, with pre-amps and he got a really good room sound. He has really good microphones for the vocal.

AD: It’s got a very clear, pure sound to it, even though it’s pretty rock. Did you have any touchstones in the way you wanted it to sound?

Kayla Cohen: The two records that I was most influenced by were the first Thin Lizzy record and the record by Anonymous, Inside the Shadow. Both of them have layered guitars. Also on that Thin Lizzy record, the song “Dublin” and the song “Saga of the Ageing Orphan,” the way that those sound, I just was really captivated by it.

AD: You’re working with musicians that you’ve worked with for a long time on this album. Can you tell me about them?

Kayla Cohen: Evan Backer is playing bass. He wrote all the bass parts.

AD: Does he have a jazz background?

Kayla Cohen: yes. He’s an amazing bass player. He’s also a drummer. Just an amazing musician. He is also in so many bands right now, touring a lot and he’s really good.

Then drums, Evan Burrows played drums on two of the songs on this album. He plays in Wand and Behavior. And a bunch of other bands. Daniel Swire is the other drummer who played on the rest of them. And he also is an amazing drummer with a very specific sound. He and Evan are so different in their styles, and I love both of their styles. Dan plays the more chill or contemplative sounds and Evan plays the two that are more rock. Evan plays on “Imitation of War” and “Easy Spirit” and then Dan plays on the rest of them.

AD: I don’t know how much you conceptualize this but is it possible to place this record within your overall trajectory or journey as an artist? Is it a continuation of what you were doing before? Does it explore new ground? How do you see it?

Kayla Cohen: I was thinking about what to say about the song, “Milk,” because that’s the next one we’re going to release in January. I think it’s maybe my favorite song that I’ve ever recorded. My past albums, they feel like growth experiences, but with this album I’ve gotten to a place where I still feel like it’s me, now, and we recorded it two years ago. It feels like a different thing. I look at the past records, and I feel like a different person. We all went through COVID, and that was a time of change for everyone.

AD: I think we’ll all be recovering from that for decades, maybe the rest of what we get. Just because everything went away, so now you don’t really trust it anymore. You may have just answered this question, but I always ask it anyway. Do you have any favorite bits or moment on this album? Lines or instrumental sounds on this record that really jump out to you. Not so much what is your favorite song but just moments.

Kayla Cohen: Yeah, so the bridge in “Milk” which is more spoken lyrics rather than sung is a really nice moment for me. The end of “Tears on Sky Mountain” I love. Let’s see, what else. “Olympia,” the last song on that record feels like a hidden track to me, but we recorded that in just one take and chose to use that rather than go over it at all. I like how it sounds. It sounds very much like I’m present in the room. I like the bridge in the middle of “Easy Spirit.”

AD: There’s a lot of really nice guitar work on this. Tell me about the Moliere reference.

Kayla Cohen: That song in particular is about thinking about playing and performing and how it feels to be on stage. It can feel super unnatural and strange. People have told me, “Treat it like theater. Treat it like you know you’re acting. You’re playing a part.” And so that song was me exploring doing that and looking at myself from an outside perspective. I was reading a book of Moliere’s plays and that’s where I got the idea.

AD: We’ve already talked about a few books. Is there anything else you wanted to mention there?

Kayla Cohen: I’m getting really into ecopsychology books now.

AD: You seem really interested in psychology in general. Have you thought about studying it more formally?

Kayla Cohen: I’ve thought about it. I’ve gone back and forth for the past few years. I’m just not at the point right now of being ready to go to school. I feel like I could do that at any point in the rest of my life and there’s no rush for me to go. And I also am trying to figure out how to make my own school of thought, combining different aspects. Because I am into the idea of ecotherapy.

AD: What does that mean?

Kayla Cohen: At its most basic level, it’s taking people into nature and doing therapy there. But also, I think there are more dimensions to it. There’s a primer on eco-therapy. It’s by Craig Chalquist. There are a lot of different essays in it about how we can reframe our views of nature and how we can experience being in nature in a different way than we do. For example, getting down on ground and looking at a leaf really closely or forcing yourself to sit in the same spot in silence for a really long time. But there are deeper ways. I don’t want it to be as basic as that. But there is deep experience within doing something like that.

AD: Do people do this alone or in a group? How does that work?

Kayla Cohen: Either way. I think that being in a group can be helpful because you have to mediate your experience and explain yourself and that’s interesting. And you can also see things through other people’s eyes by learning how they’re experiencing nature, too.

AD: Although if you get too many people, it might mute the natural experience. Are you working on anything else at the moment that you want to talk about? Side projects or other art forms?

Kayla Cohen: A lot of things. I’m working on a cassette that’s going to accompany the album. It’s going to be B-sides and live versions of some of these songs. I’m hoping for that to come out around the same time as the album does or maybe a little bit later.

AD: Also on the Paradise of Bachelors label? Do they do tapes?

Kayla Cohen: Sometimes they do. I’m not really sure yet. I’m doing some live shows in the spring and maybe doing a projection aspect with the shows. I’m trying to tour in Europe again which I haven’t done since before COVID, so we shall see. I also got into pottery over the past year. I’m separately working on that, but that’s a purely personal pursuit.

AD: Personal is okay. I’m sure the music is personal at some level, too.

Kayla Cohen: The music is personal, too, but by having to present it to the outside world in this very specific way, it can feel like work. That’s always the challenge, trying to make it fun again and remember why I started doing this and, of course, I love playing music with my friends and that’s what it is. But there’s also this other way where you …

AD: It’s a business.

Kayla Cohen: Yeah, it’s a business. I have such a critical voice, an inner voice, about the way I’m presenting things. That’s why I love starting pottery because I have no pre-conceived notions about it. No one was going to see my work. It was just for me.

I haven’t even been writing music since this record finished. I was living in the desert for a long time in Yucca Valley and then I moved back to L.A. just to start playing with people again and just to start getting involved in the world again. And so I’ve just been having to work. Also, we were practicing last week, and we were just talking about being lazy. Is it that I’m not writing songs right now because I’m lazy? Is that it? I could be staying up all night writing songs and burning the candle at both ends, but I’m not right now.

AD: I have mixed feelings about that because I feel like writing happens when you do it. You sit down and you do some writing and that’s when it happens. You could wait all year to be inspired and it might never happen. But once you start doing it, it sort of creates itself. But then on the other hand, if you’re tired, if you’re doing other things, you’re probably not going to be making anything good.

Kayla Cohen: That rings true. When I was writing the lyrics for this album, I would force myself to sit down for an hour or two or longer a day and that is the only way that it got written. But I felt inspiration. I was pushing myself but it’s like the inspiration doesn’t completely get manifested unless you sit down.

AD: That’s what I think. You have to put some work in, and then maybe the muse comes. Here’s a question I ask a lot of people. What do you think makes a great song a great song?

Kayla Cohen: Well, let’s see. A unique lyrical viewpoint that does not have cliché and you can hear the person’s self in there. I’m such a lyrics person. Oh, and also, a unique chord change, too. I also listen to a lot of ambient music and electronic music and you can’t apply this to that, but I’m thinking about rock songs. The Gerry Rafferty song, “Right Down the Line”? That song has an amazing chord change. It’s like a karaoke song, but it’s also genius. Also, a few of the Grateful Dead songs that use barred chords and are kind of genius.

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