Some time last summer, former model and rising New York free spirit Hannah Cohen released a music video so evocative it demanded a double take. The nearly underwater visuals accompanied "The Crying Game," a haunting confessional of lost love and betrayal, sung by a voice that sounds like a cross between the weeping Sirens of Greek myth meets Lana Del Rey. Twenty-five-year-old Cohen, originally from San Francisco, has only been performing for about four years, after a whirlwind stint as a model on runways from Milan to Malaysia. (She first took off for New York at age 17.) On stage, Cohen is both ethereal and endearing, as evidenced by last Friday's intimate Le Poisson Rouge show. There, Cohen, cloaked in a green poncho, her long brown hair framing her porcelain-like face, sang a stripped down set of tear-soaked songs -- just her on guitar, collaborator Thomas Bartlett (he of Doveman) on piano -- to a crowd illuminated by candles and soft lavender lighting, occasionally bursting into nervous laughter. "I'm waiting for the big applause," she once tells the crowd charmingly. "Like, yeaahhhh!" The songs are from her upcoming buzzed-about debut, Child Bride, a self-described coded soundtrack to her life recorded over the past year in a half. Cohen met me at West Village eatery Gottino the next day for peppermint tea to discuss stage fright, the album, how modeling prepared her for her budding music career, and her love of animals.
Tell me about "The Crying Game" and the concept for the video:
Model-Turned-Musician Hannah Cohen Talks New Album Child Bride, the Curse of Lana Del Rey and the Fashion Industry
I became acquainted with photographer Matthu Placek over the last year and a half, who directed the video and came up with the concept. I started sharing my songs with him and I was in the process of recording. We had actually gone out to San Francisco to shoot and we were playing around, making videos, running around naked in the forest... well, that was just me: I was running around naked, he wasn't. Next time I played him 'The Crying Game" from the record, he fell in love with it, so he imagined, "I wanna submerge you in a huge water tank." He was calling people and they were like, that's gonna be $40,000. Who knew water was so expensive? Anyway, we build a tank for me on the ground, and it took us eight shots, all one take, in a 17-hour day. They would drown me each time and I had to act like I wasn't holding my breath, and I would just let the water go up in my nose. They had to do my dry and curl my hair and do my makeup in between takes of course, and I was like, "I'm not touching my hair for a month." I had an emotional hangover the next day, and they were blasting the music. The song is really heavy, so it's just like, water torture.
Were you wearing a life jacket in the tank, or were you just lying there, like swimming lessons 101?
No, I just had my bathing suit on. There's some behind-the-scenes video circulating around on the interwebs. My friend filmed those scenes, and at the end, she just was like, "I just wanna have all the takes of you with snot coming out your nose." You can see me in this video, kind of not that happy.
Tell me about the song.
The song is about a lot of people. I kind of write songs and I think it's a secret code to myself. The tone of the record is pretty heavy.
Tell me about the song "California."
Well, I'm from San Francisco. I moved to New York at 17 to model and the song is just about home, and missing it, and it's my love letter to California. I wish I could be there everyday, but I can't. I hope I could be bicoastal one day. It's my sanctuary, California. But you can't replace New York, either.
Do you like New York?
I do! Now it's my home, but I can be out of sight, out of mind, so I could honestly be anywhere and make it work.
Child Bride is kind of a provocative title for a debut album. What's behind that?
I understand that it is provocative, but my interest in it is being kind of obsessed with how much power those words have. In essence, a child bride is powerless, and I was in a place and a time where I felt powerless.
Did you feel powerless when you were making the record? The songs certainly take on a darker tone and have a sense of longing and heartbreak throughout.
I think the tone that the music was being written from was feeling powerless then, a year and a half ago. When I was making the record, I felt like I hadn't been. I knew what I was doing and I had the support of a lot of really great musicians. So that part --the making of the record -- was a really positive thing. Just writing the songs is painful.
How long have you actually been writing music?
I've always been around musicians my entire life. My father's a jazz musician; I grew up with a lot of West Coast jazz cats, old guys. But not until four years did I pick up a guitar and I never really sang before either. I was singing along to like, Billie Holiday songs, but I listened to everyone. These are all my very first songs.
I know you're just getting started, in a way. But it seems to be perilous these days for young, talented female musicians these days, especially in light of the backlash to Lana Del Rey.
I'm a big fan of her work.Her performance on Saturday Night Live was kind of hard to watch because I don't think she was ready, but I think in these times, with records, if there's any attention for it, people are trying to push it. Maybe she wasn't ready to go that far so quickly, but people are like, "Go," and just pushed her too hard. And now she's (allegedly) canceled her shows. She is probably sick of reading horrible, really nasty things about her.
With that in mind, do you fear anything like that for yourself?
I don't think so, because I hope people don't hate me (laughs). I think the way it's been has been a very natural, organic progression. I read this thing once though, that was like, "People are getting sick of Lana Del Rey, so here, check out Hannah Cohen," and I was like oh my God! The only thing I've gotten close to with that is people have called me Hannah Del Rey.
How did you get into modeling?
I was an athlete, a soccer player. I started playing when I was four, and I was on a competitive traveling league by age 11, then I was traveling all over California training for four to six hours a day. Super jock. Then in high school, I got scouted in the parking lot of Whole Foods. So those people started booking me and I starting working San Francisco, around my senior year of high school, just doing commercial stuff. I didn't want to be a model; I wanted to be a vet. My whole entire life I had leopard geckos and cats and dogs and miniature horses. I still have a miniature horse named B.B. from when I was 10 (short for Black Bandit), who is all black. I used to walk him downtown and people would like, crash their cars everywhere. I would take him into Macy's (laughs). I wanted to be a vet or an athlete, but when I graduated high school at 17, and I moved to New York, where I was with Major and then Wilhemina Models. I lived in Milan, London, Australia, all over the place. It wasn't for me, and I never got to the point where I was a huge high-fashion model. Then I started working with artists once I came back to New York to make my life here, because a lot of my friends were in the art world.
So what was your first show like?
My boyfriend at the time, who does music, invited like, 50 people in this small room at Rockwood Music Hall. There were music people and I was not ready yet. I was wearing tights and boots and a sweater dress, and I was sweating and shaking. My friend was sitting in the front and was like, "It was so cute, you were shaking!" I was so upset, so nervous. Not cute. My ex just thought he was helping me and he was but I was just so not ready. I had taught myself how to play guitar and I know basic chord changes, but I had to make sure I knew what I playing.
Any upcoming collaborations that you're excited about?
I worked with Thomas (Bartlett, of Doveman), when I recorded a cover of his song "Boy + Angel" for my record, but the next thing we're probably gonna do is this electro-pop-disco-funk thing. I wanna be in a silver jumpsuit and big hair. Or maybe just a high-waisted silver contraption. I'm actually a really up person, though my songs are really sad.
What music serves as mood music for you?
The last Grizzly Bear album, from a few summers ago,Veckatimest, was the soundtrack to my summer, which was a really heavy summer. I went through a lot of stuff and I put that on. I should send you some Brazilian vinyl records, I get super vibes from that sort of stuff.
What made you decide that fashion wasn't an ideal industry for you to be a part of?
I love fashion but I don't wanna be a hanger. I wanted to be in the high-fashion stuff but I wasn't that girl. So, at that time, I was a sunny blonde, California girl who was also a jock. I was too young and I don't think I was ready for it. Maybe it goes back to the whole child bride thing: not being ready for a very adult world that you're being forced into. I continue to be involved in fashion somewhat but it got a little too dark and I had to go home and reset. Charge my batteries. I loved it but it can suck your blood a little bit. Being 17 and your agency will tell you to lose weight, but just in your legs. But don't run, your legs will get big if you run. So basically, you're telling me to not eat and that some of the girls like to triple-layer their clothes to go running. And it was like, summer and 95 degrees out. They were taking tips from jockeys who immerse themselves in the manure piles and sweat. I felt like that's what they wanted me to do. I think that it got to my head a lot. I've pretty much come out of modeling unscathed, but I don't wish that upon any 16-year-old. Not everyone's so bad, I had positive experiences and met a lot of great people but I had a hard time. It's hard going out when you're 17 and you move to Milan. I remember my 18th birthday, I was in Milan by myself. I went to a café and had a Diet Coke and smoked a pack of cigarettes. It was a solitary moment and I was feeling so sorry for myself. I had some moments though -- I was once on the cover of Travel + Leisure, and I got to go to Malaysia and Paris for over two-and-a-half weeks: just me, a makeup artist, a photographer, and a stylist going to five-star hotels. It was vacation!
Do you think the fashion industry prepared you for music?
I've learned to be able to relax and just have all eyes on me. It's a free-for-all for everyone to be looking right at you, which can seem creepy, but modeling has definitely helped me.
Sounds like the rigor of fashion definitely helped you with your experience shooting "The Crying Game."
I was never propelled from a 25-story building. I actually find shows like America's Next Top Model a bit offensive for that sort of thing. I do think what Tyra does is amazing, especially for body positivity, the idea of "the big girl." When you think about it, aren't all the models big girls? They're these tall, huge beings.
Anything else on TV fascinate you?
I don't really watch much TV, it kind of creeps me out. It pisses me off when I watch commercials, and they're so sexist and weird. I watched the Super Bowl and the commercials are so testosterone-driven, I was just -- horrified. I'm horrified by America. I don't mean to sound snobby, I'd just rather read a book, hang out of my friends, or hang out with my cat, Mr. Crabby Tabby. He's really cute. When I play guitar he just sits there and listens.