Coral Egan: In the Key of C


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Coral EganI could feel the vibes, the excitement in her voice. She was in the studio, in the throes of creation, and I felt the last thing on her mind was indulging an interview. And yet there I was, the self-designated musicus interruptus, whom this gracious young lady abided for almost an hour. We began speaking about her new CD, provisionally entitled Magnify, due for release in August, 2007.

All About Jazz: Is Magnify going to be an extension of or departure from My Favorite Distraction (Justin Time, 2004)?

Coral Egan: For sure, it's going to be simpler, and for the first time in my career I'm collaborating with someone: Jay Atwill.

AAJ: Tell us about Jay and how you began to write music together?

CE: During our many long hours on the road touring as a duo, we would often discuss the lyrics and music I was already writing for this next album. We developed an excellent rapport and at some point it occurred to me that it would be nice to get out of my own musical bubble and collaborate with another artist. And of course I'm a great admirer of both Jay's music and lyrics and I was pretty sure that working with him would enhance my own song writing skills.

AAJ: Was one of you more responsible for the melodies, the lyrics?

CE: That would depend on the song. But throughout the writing process, there was a lot of give and take with most of it happening quite spontaneously and instinctively.

AAJ: How did you go about resolving musical conflicts? For example, Jay introduces a melody line you don't like, or vice versa?

CE: I tend to be very frank with what works and what doesn't with my music, and seeing that it is my album, someone has to have the last word and that fell to me. From Jay's side, there were absolutely no feelings of possessiveness which really impressed me because you to have a lot of self-confidence to be in that kind of dynamic; I hope he enjoyed the process as much as I did.

AAJ: So Magnify is going to be simpler. Is simpler an implicit criticism of the quite complex My Favorite Distraction?

CE: I think there's a tendency to want to put everything you have into your first album—not necessarily to show off but to prove that not only can you do it, but you do it and it works. Of course there are things that I would do differently now but that's OK because I'm evolving as a composer and I hope my best work is still ahead of me. I look at My Favorite Distraction (MFD) as a learning experience and necessary link to what's next.

AAJ: Did you deliberately try to simplify your writing?

CE: No, it just came out that way in the writing process. For sure, Jay's input was invaluable.

AAJ: What song are you most proud of from MFD?

CE: I have come to really appreciate "Breathe. For the longest time I was struggling with the lyrics when Charles [Papasoff], my producer, sat me down one afternoon and told me to write them—and the words just flowed. Charles, who is very inspirational, somehow liberated me from my usual way of writing and it resulted in the most poetic lyrics I've written to date.

AAJ: Some people don't like to listen to other music when they're in the studio for fear of it sneaking into the final result. Your comments?

CE: To be honest, after listening to music all day, the last thing you want to do when you get home is listen to more. But I was listening to lots of music while writing for Magnify. Prior to that, I had spent years listening to almost no one, so it was almost a relief when got back into it again, facilitated by my boyfriend-DJ's incredible music collection.

AAJ: How do you create? How does the blank page get filled?

CE:: There are so many ways this can happen, but the key is to be receptive to the beginning of something that will disappear unless you recognize it for what it is. Before I even sit down at either the piano or guitar, I already feel that there is a musical idea locked up inside me that wants to come out. So I start fooling around with the notes, and it usually isn't long before a certain chord or sequence of notes hits me in a certain way and I know that's it—the beginning of something that wants to grow, and I'm kind of just helping it along. After that, I might develop it in one or two sittings or I might have to work on it for months. Sometimes you come to a point where something isn't working—and I might have to try hundreds of combinations before I get it right. And then, if it's right, it might not be right for the bass which means I might have to change it again.

The other way I write is when I'm away from my instruments: I might be going for a walk or biking and a melody or an idea for a song pops into my head. First thing I do when I get home is go to the piano and begin working on it so I don't lose it.

AAJ: Like yourself, I love Stevie Wonder, but have always felt that some of the endings in his songs go on way too long because I suspect he was surrounded by "yes people who didn't have either the confidence or courage to go up to him and say, "Stevie: this eight-minute song should be cut down to four minutes. Who is that one person(s) in your inner circle that can come up to you and say, "Coral, get rid of this change, this modulation, it's not working ?

CE: That would be my producer, Charles Papasoff, whose musical instinct I trust implicitly, mostly because he knows me so well. Among Charles' many gifts, one is his natural humility which allows him to serve the music. But I definitely welcome input from the musicians and I try to give them the freedom to create.

AAJ: You strike me as a person who is on a very even keel, well-grounded, socially well-adjusted, philosophically ahead of your years. Am I off the mark as usual, or are you someone who hasn't had to mess up in life in order to create?

CE: I have had my fair share of painful experiences, especially during my creative periods. When I was younger, I needed to be sad to write where the writing became part of a cathartic process. But after MFD, which brought me two years of touring, I felt blessed for this small but significant success. And now, with the drive and energy that comes with playing live with a band, I write more out of joy and gratitude which translates into more energetic music

AAJ: I learned recently that Pat Metheny has never touched drugs or alcohol, a decision I'm sure he hasn't regretted, especially if he has seen the documentary Let's Get Lost, about the life and pathetic death of Chet Baker. Have drugs or alcohol ever been a part of your music equation? If yes, how have they abetted the creative process, if not, why not?

CE: Geez, I'm gonna get in trouble for this one. Yes, I have used drugs to further my creativity, especially hashish during the writing process. For my last album, I relied on my dear friend Jameison [Irish Whiskey] to keep the nerves down while I sang the vocal tracks. But now that I'm pregnant, I have been blissfully forced to abstain from using any of the above during the recording of this album—and sobriety is suiting me just fine.

AAJ: Talk to us about the turning points or crises in your life and how they may have informed your music.

CE: Do we really want to go there? [laughs] Seriously, I consider myself an exceedingly lucky person and no longer relate to my misfortunes as a motor for my creativity.

AAJ: Who has been the most influential music person in your life and why?

CE: That would have to be my mother, Karen Young, who has been recording and performing music for over twenty years. From my earliest memories, she offered the greatest of musical educations, introducing me to many genres of music without ever imposing her own views so I could decide on my own what music I liked best. Then, to encourage my development, she asked me to sing back up vocals for her which I did for a couple of years

It was her belief in my talent gave me the confidence to be authentic and take over some of the gigs she didn't have time to do herself. And because her appreciation of what I do is only slightly biased, I am able to trust what she likes and where I am going. Bless her.

AAJ: What are the pluses and minuses of having a fairly well known musical mother as an influence? Was there ever a time when the shadow she cast intimidated you and, if yes, what did you have to do to become you? Did you have to go through a rebellious phase? Did you ever harbor matricidal thoughts? Were you forced to take up a musical instrument as a child?

CE: To the contrary. My mother was the most generous of artists where I was concerned and she enjoyed sharing the glow, and made sure that my desire to make music my life wasn't tainted by any confused mother-daughter bond. And she has never begrudged my desire to fly onward and become my own artist/person.

AAJ: In the '60s and '70s, people were listening to the Beatles, Moody Blues, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder etc., music that featured lots of changes and modulations. By contrast, much of today's music is monophonic or mono-tonal, which does not prepare the listener to internalize complex music, which your music is. Does it frustrate knowing that there might have been a much larger audience for your music in your mother's day? Do you think young people's ears are being poorly served by the music that is available to them?

CE: It's like complaining about the weather. What's the point when you can do nothing about it? I can't allow my music, my creative impulses to be held hostage by the listener. I do what I do because I have to do it and I hope there are people out there who can appreciate it.

AAJ: Why do you think young people are attracted to music that doesn't modulate?

CE: Indoctrination, my friend. We can get used to anything.

AAJ: Would you say Europeans are more receptive to your music?

CE: That seems to be the case. In fact I'm working with Gina Vodegel, from Belgium, who is trying to help me get out there and find my European demographic. She's been a great help, having managed my myspace page. Her motivation has been spurred mostly by her true love of music. I can't thank her enough.

AAJ: I notice you're not doing covers anymore?

CE: That's true. At some point I decided that when it comes to the standards, or anything for that matter, if I can't add something that's truly original or thought-provoking, I'm not going to do it. I don't want to become part of that recyclying that's going on ad nauseam.

AAJ: You must be referring to Rod Stewart, whose versions of the standards make me long for the days when the vomitorium was just around the corner.

CE: I actually like some of Rod's original music, but his take on the standards—and he's not alone out there—well, has added very little to what we already know about them.

AAJ: But in his defense, couldn't it be argued that at least for listeners who are not familiar with the standards, he's providing a portal, a point of entry to music which they would otherwise never listen to?

CE: Absolutely, and hopefully some of these listeners just won't stop at Rod's place, but will develop a curiosity to explore other versions and discover (diss-cover) why this music is immortal.

AAJ: Who among your contemporaries are making you listen to the standards?

CE: Cassandra Wilson, for one. Brad Mehldau is another. Cassandra owns whatever she does, and I like the idea that she doesn't restrict herself to any particular genre.

AAJ: Marketing people love categories, and of course your music is refreshingly all over the place? Does this cause problems?

CE: It has to a small extent, which can cause bigger problems. But I've been very fortunate in my collaboration with my label, Justin Time, who despite that fact that I'm not an established player, has given me virtually carte blanche in respect to my repertoire and what happens in the studio. But at the same time, I realize that I've sort of been in my own creative bubble and haven't devoted enough time and energy to marketing my product, that is getting together a competent team to spread the word around about my music—both here and abroad. Once I'm finished up in the studio, I'm going to finally get more involved in the promotional aspect.

AAJ: Are you suggesting that Justin Time isn't as involved in the marketing aspect as they should be?

CE: I think that it takes more than a willing label to make it happen nowadays.

AAJ: What music are you listening to now?

CE: I've been taking solace in classical music of late. I want to give my baby a chance to hear something else besides the one album I've been working on. Poor girl . . .

AAJ: What music were you listening to ten years ago that you're still listening to?

CE: I'm forever in love with soul music of the '70s, Brazilian from the '60s and '70s, but I'm long over due to get back on the current wave and learn a little about what's musically happening today: I'm shamefully out of the loop.

AAJ: Why does some music endure?

CE: I think even timeless music is in the eye of the beholder, but for music to endure, at least for me, it's because something extraordinary has been captured, or the overwhelming talent of the artist has surpassed my expectation, and of course it ends up being music from which I never tire.

AAJ: What music do you hate?

CE: Saccharine music, whatever the genre.

AAJ: What do you dislike most about the music life?

CE: Moments of doubt.

AAJ: Do you prefer performing live or creating in the studio?

CE: I don't think I have a preference. I absolutely love both! They each have their moment, but it's great to be able to go back and forth and keep things fresh.

Coral Egan AAJ: What are your thoughts on all this illegal downloading from the Internet?

CE: Well, how to fight the inevitable? I think people will always learn how to profit from the next innovation. Oh, and long live the grass roots!

AAJ: What else do you like to do in life besides making music?

CE: Up until this year, I have been an avid volleyball player, practically an addict. But now I think "mom will suffice.

AAJ: Do you have a favorite novelist?

CE: No favorites, I tend to bounce around a lot between classics of Thomas Hardy and whatever people throw my way.

AAJ: If music weren't your life, what would your second career choice have been?

CE: I think if I had had the necessary discipline, I would have loved to apply myself to some kind of alternative medicine; I've always enjoyed giving massage.

AAJ: No interview would be complete without the desert island question. So there you are, alone for life on a desert island, with a hundred minutes of your all-time favorite musical distractions. And the winners are?

CE: A hundred minutes? That's not enough! João Gilberto live, Jeff Buckley, the music box song of Aphex Twin, some Palestrina music, "I Can't Write Left Handed, by Bill Withers. A Joni [Mitchell] tune or two. Can there be a piano on the island?

Selected Discography

Robert Michaels, Robert Michaels (WEA, 2005)
Coral Egan, My Favorite Distraction (Justin Time, 2004)
Coral Egan, The Path of Least Resistance (Justin Time, 2003)
Charles Papasoff, Catharsis 2 (Nisapa, 2001)

Photo Credit
Marcel Dubois

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