Cosima Is Owning Her Narrative

Cosima Is Owning Her Narrative

by Logan Potter

Cosima's entire platform is built on complete independence. The UK-based artist's newest visual release for 2019's "Insecure," is the first music video she hasn't directed herself, she styles all her visuals and she even developed a record label, South of Heaven, that she began releasing her music under last year.

This way of working also drives Cosima's lyrics. "My lyrics are my own," she says, underlining the importance of owning her narrative as a Black musician. On "Insecure," that means singing about a partner who constantly leaves her feeling second best. "You say that I'm insecure and that makes you nervous/ But I'm only insecure when I'm with you."

Self-love is a journey, but Cosima ensures that she always comes first in her work through soft, emotional tracks that provide insightful recollections of her experience with heartache and clarity. She draws inspiration from classic influences, namely the vocals and stylings of musicals, for her modern take on jazzy, soulful singles.

If you have not yet heard of Cosima, consider this your introduction, ahead of the release of her next project.

At what point did you discover that you wanted to pursue music?

I always loved singing, and listening to music and singers. In my late teens, I wanted to be a stylist's assistant, so I was doing that. And then at some point, I had my heart broken for the first time. I didn't think it was really broken, it was like the simulation where you're like, "Oh my gosh, this is terrible," and then you go back and you laugh at it. But at the time, it was very real.

It was really funny because I'd always sung, but at that point, I really leaned into music heavily and there was a lot of stuff going on in my life that meant that music became a lot more of a coping mechanism. I was really adamant that I wouldn't pursue music unless I could really sing properly, so I moved to Germany with my grandparents and took singing lessons there for a year. That was the point when I decided, "I'm going to do the best version of this I can."

It has been four years now since your debut EP, South of Heaven. In those four years, how do you think you and your sound have evolved and developed?

When you're a creative, a lot of the time the process is almost like trying to get as close as possible to the thing in your mind. When you sing, you imagine what you're going to sing like and you're like, "Okay, great, does not sound like how I imagined it." Then you practice and then in three months, you get a bit closer to it. Then in six months, you get even closer to it, and you work your way towards the ultimate communication of what's going on in your mind. Usually, the skill set is the thing that makes that communication easier. By writing more songs, the songs come more naturally. By working on production more, it's easier to access different sounds I want. I feel like that's been the progression; it's been growth in a natural way.

What kind of music are you listening to that inspires you?

Voices for me are everything, so I listen to music for voices. I started listening to music really intensely when I discovered Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald — singers who really just make you feel things. And to this day, that's what I like to listen to. I love listening to acapellas of songs. I think it was my sister's now-fiancé, he gave me a USB stick that had Marvin Gaye acapellas on them, and I just listened to that because harmonies are so interesting to me. A lot of the time, I listen as "down to the vocal" as I can.

Have you been involved in the production of your own music?

Yes, I'm very involved in everything, I have always got vision for everything. But I also love collaborating with people, so the production is the most open. I'll be like, "This is what I think the song should sound like." And then I like to meet someone in the middle and really collaborate in a way where I know what I like, I know I want, but I'm also open to what somebody else can bring out in the song. Because when it's your song, you know exactly what happened at every single line, you know exactly what the story is behind that line. Sometimes it helps them when somebody else steps in, and they read that line, it's completely different. And maybe their reading of it is more relatable to other people because they weren't in the hallway with you when that one thing happened and you were like, "That's exactly what it was."

You created your own record label. What inspired you to release your music independently?

You know how you pay tolls when you cross bridges? Any type of challenge that comes with that is the tax that comes with the freedom. For me, music is personal; it's not just something I do, it's how I process my life, it's how I tell my stories. Listening to other people's music does the same thing for me, and when something is that precious to you, it's like a mother instinct. You just want to protect it. And for me, that's what having my own label was. It's looking at my music and being like, "How much is this worth to me? How much is protecting this worth to me? How much does just being able to tell my story from my mouth mean something to me?"

A lot of time, especially when you're a woman, there's so much room for other people to get in the middle of you and telling your story. I've always looked at women who have ownership of themselves and of the stories they're telling, and I've always wanted to be one of them. And then when it came to making my own label, I was like, "Wait, this is my chance to be one of those women and see what it feels like to be in control of myself, my art." It's really difficult, but it's really rewarding. Everything that you do, you did it with your hands, and it's really special.

"I want to be able to make room for other people to tell their specific experiences. Everyone should be able to own their narratives."

The "Insecure" video you just released is the first you didn't direct yourself. What was your role in that process?

It was such a new way of doing it, and it was a way of doing it that I really enjoyed as well. It was quite relaxed, because usually when I'm doing music videos, I'll be watching loads of references, watching musicals and just really driving myself mad with it a bit and over-analyzing everything. Working with Ciesay was a really special, relaxed way of doing things. It was literally like, "Here are things I want to wear. These are the different things that we both like; let's just go in a room and capture it." The song's quite intimate, and he captured it really intimately. I really like that because it feels intimate and just not as overproduced and super planned. It was just me, him, looking at the colors.

What things did you know you wanted to see in that video?

I knew I wanted it to be something quite still, almost more like a collection of images. And I knew I wanted close-ups, but I always want close-ups; I think I've watched too many musicals. I always want close-ups. I just wanted that feeling of intimacy, but also that feeling of loneliness, because the song is about being in a relationship with someone who always makes you feel like they're looking over your shoulder for the better option, which I think is a really normal thing now. I wanted that feeling of intimacy, but also loneliness within that intimacy. That's really the worst when you feel like that.

Musicals are a big inspiration for you. What sparked that interest?

It's because a lot of jazz standards are from musicals. When I discovered jazz singers, who were the first singers I discovered for myself — I was home educated until I was 11, so I had a lot of time on my hands — I'd go to the library near my house [and] they had sheet music, so they would have the songs of Lorenz Hart or Hammerstein or Sondheim, and then I would just borrow the books and sing my way through them. At some point, I realized, "Why does it always say 'From the musical...' but everyone's doing different interpretations of them?" Something about that really interested me; everyone's singing the same song, but singing the same song completely differently. Ella Fitzgerald singing a song is so different to Billie Holiday singing a song, and then Nancy Wilson will sing a song... you project your life experience onto it. Seeing all the different remakes of musicals or the different original Broadway cast recordings and then seeing different cast recordings — it's so many different versions of a similar thing, which really teaches you a lot about individuality and how much you can bring to something.

One of the virtual performances you did recently was your COLORS performance, which benefited the ACLU. What has the experience been like for you releasing art during both a pandemic and revolution for racial justice?

It's been very heavy. Being Black, it's something that's been so heavily part of [my] life; I don't know a world where I've been told to trust police by my dad. Sometimes, things happen that spark a mass movement towards change, which is really amazing. But then sometimes when that happens, if it's something that directly affects you, you find yourself re-looking at your whole life and looking at all of your experiences that you've ever had and you freeze. I felt like that, a lot of my friends felt like that, where you're just like, "Wait, I need to sit down and think about my childhood, everything after that. My dad's childhood, everything after that." You're trying to understand your own feelings, and at the same time, trying to like, "Okay, great, we can move forward." There was a period of time directly after where it just didn't feel right to do anything, because sometimes you have to take that moment where things have to stop. It was encouraging to see people actually do that and stop.

I discovered a lot of music when I was learning about the Civil Rights Movement, so a lot of the singers I know, I know because I was reading about who was at those marches, or who was this leader friends with or who performed it at this — it's so tied together. Nina Simone is someone whose certain songs I discovered and then I looked into like, "Why do they exist?" It's always been something that's so linked in with art, so I feel like there's a moment for pause and there's a moment where you also reevaluate. Is this important? If it makes someone feel better, then it should exist in the world. But you really start having those conversations with yourself, and that's not a bad thing. It's been a lot, but I think moments have to happen that bring about change, and hopefully, the change will be [made].

Has it been a personal, therapeutic experience for you to start writing right now?

It goes back to having my own label and being able to tell my own stories, because the most important thing in terms of artists and in terms of Black artists is Black artists being able to tell completely different stories within what being Black is. A lot of the time, especially with music, it's like, "Well, this is what a Black artist looks like, this is what a Black artist should sing about and if it's anything outside of this, we don't understand or believe that this could come from this type of person."

For me, it's only made me double down more on the idea that I want to tell my specific experience and then at some point, I want to be able to make room for other people to tell their specific experiences. Everyone should be able to own their narratives and to show that there's a multitude of different experiences and different stories to be told by people who share melanin, but even that is so varied. It [has] emboldened me to be like, "I am exactly who I am, and these are my stories and they are true." Even if you think that this is exactly what a Black person should be making, there's a breadth of experience and life experiences, and I think everyone should have the opportunity to tell them themselves.

What does the future look like for you and your music, especially this project that you're working on?

With every step you take, it's bringing it closer to your ultimate vision of what you can create. Moving forward, the most important thing is I believe that artists should be able to release music consistently and with freedom. Releasing the next project, the next body of work, the biggest goal for me is that it then makes way for me to be able to release more. I think everything that you release should enable you to do the next thing. I hope that when people listen to it they find comfort in it, because I found enough comfort in putting it together.

Photo courtesy of Cosima