LAST year Kate “Babyshakes” Dillon and Gabriella Cohen were in London, searching for a place to stay.
They had been coming up short until one thing led to another and they were handed the keys to a sailing boat. While docked somewhere off the coast of Brighton, the pair got out their recording equipment and added some extra touches to the songs that would become the new Gabriella Cohen album
“It was an odd circumstance,” Gabriella says of their accidental accommodation. “We spent two weeks on that boat. It was awful … it was miserable and rainy.” She took the opportunity to add some vocal parts while Kate — who also plays guitar in Gabriella’s band — engineered.
“We have a tiny little interface that we take with us — that’s all you need — and a microphone and then Logic on the computer … There’s lots of boat noises if you listen in to some songs.”
CLOAKED in a cream-coloured sheep’s wool jacket, Gabriella is sipping a hot chocolate in a dim Melbourne pub.
On the table sits a pair of pink, flower-shaped sunglasses, the ones that feature in the clip for ‘Music Machine’, which was shot in Queensland but cast to look like Los Angeles. Gabriella directed.
Like much of her music, Gabriella’s new album — her second — has a warmth and shimmer to it, like the haze of a long and beautiful holiday. She had been on the road with her band for some while before she made it to the boat.
After touring in support of American duo
In the album’s lyrics, Gabriella watches “bikini-girls strut down Venice Beach”. She sings of bleary-eyed mornings drinking coffee and dreaming about fleeing to Portugal. She knows “it’s not exactly logical” — and a chorus of voices tells her so in the background of the song
“You drive at 30 kilometres an hour and the village is designed to keep the wildlife, the kangaroos and the birds happy — there’s no dogs and cats. That’s kind of my world.”
The album cover — an image of Gabriella standing atop an old car, flanked by palm trees and a horse — was taken in Mexico. It was a candid shot, she says.
“We came across this deserted beach with one horse and three German Shepherds and nothing else. We stayed there for a couple of nights and fasted and drank coconut juice.” The horse took a certain dislike to her. “I was very frightened of it. It wanted to eat my food and I’m not really used to horses, so I jumped on the car.”
Despite the worldly lyrical threads, Gabriella had actually written all of the songs before she began flitting around the globe — while living in Melbourne — and the bulk of the album had already been recorded.
For six weeks, she and Kate moved into a secluded farm house in Seymour in regional Victoria. “We were properly living there,” Gabriella says. “We moved all our stuff. We ate really good food and swam in the river, went for huge walks — and then recorded when we felt like it.”
They had the place to themselves, except for some cows, swarms of cockatoos and “two beautiful farm boys that would come in and see how we were going”.
Kate would occasionally take time out to go and sing opera to the cows. The other half of the band — Arun Roberts on bass and Danni Ogilvie on drums — came to stay for a week and they got most of the record down.
THE artistic bond between Gabriella and Kate acts as a strong anchor for the band.
The pair was first introduced to each other a few years ago in a Brisbane coffee shop. While Gabriella was waiting tables, an ex-boyfriend wandered in with another woman — Kate. A bit unsure what to make of each other at first, they soon met again.
“We met at a party a few weeks later and we were really attracted to each other,” Gabriella remembers. “She was wearing a fur coat and I was wearing a fur coat.” They talked about guitars. “We were kind of mystified by each other; we kind of courted each other, platonically.”
Eventually, they started playing music. “We didn’t do anything musically for maybe six months and then we all moved together at the top of the hill. She left her man, I left mine.”
Since then, the duo has been creatively dedicated to each other. “Kate is such a complement to anything I create,” Gabriella says. “She’s one of those freaks that can play everything and perform well and dance and sing, so, there’s more power when we’re together.”
In 2017 Kate’s project The Full Moon Flower Band released an audiovisual concept album, Chinatown, which tells the story of “an artist living in the future”. Gabriella contributed guitar and drums. A new EP is on the way.
Despite their ease playing together, they each have vastly different influences, Gabriella says: “[Dillon’s] all about Led Zeppelin and shoegaze and psych. I’m in the other direction, I’m into dreamboat folk, very calm things — at the moment. She’s more ’70s and I’m more ’60s in terms of the style.”
But they happily defer to each other’s creative needs. “We argue a lot, but not while we’re making music, because we know it’s for the greater good, for the other person. We’re like each other’s aides in that way.”
While on their global odyssey, the band pulled a month-long stint in LA, of which Gabriella says “all the clichés are very real”. While playing a show, Gabriella’s bassist Arun was head-hunted by Gucci, despite never having modelled before.
“Kate is such a complement to anything I create. She’s one of those freaks that can play everything and perform well and dance and sing, so, there’s more power when we’re together.”
“That very night I was joking about him getting a modelling contract or something, cause he looked so good in the suit,” Gabriella says. “And then soon enough, he was flown to Florence to walk — do the catwalk — and was hanging out with Elton John. No joke.”
Talking to her, it becomes clear there’s an intrinsic playfulness to Gabriella — in her speech as well as in her songs. She follows her answers with a wide grin, as if poking gentle fun at the strange back-and-forth press game she’s being forced to play.
It’s an irreverent charm that translates on stage, too. It seems as if her levity is even somehow working against the imminent Melbourne winter outside. “Maybe it’s because I’m not in a city all the time,” she offers.
GABRIELLA grew up in Queensland in Crystal Waters, a small permaculture village situated an hour-and-a-half north of Brisbane.
“It’s pretty tranquil,” she says. “You drive at 30 kilometres an hour and the village is designed to keep the wildlife, the kangaroos and the birds happy — there’s no dogs and cats. That’s kind of my world.”
She picked up a guitar at 15, and had been playing percussion before that. After moving to Brisbane, she co-founded garage duo The Furrs and began a tutelage in blues guitar, gradually honing her own style.
Bright guitar is front and centre on the new record. Gabriella currently plays a Fender Strat and has done so for about six years, but it took some convincing for her to go electric.
A friend tried to gift Gabriella the guitar but she was adamant she was an acoustic-only folk musician: “He insisted on giving it to me and I kind of grew with it. Now we love each other, the guitar and I.” Kate plays a black Telecaster and, naturally, “they complement each other”.
In 2016, Gabriella released her first album under her own name,
“I wanted to do something more expansive than the last record,” she says. “I wanted to have more percussion and more colour and more instruments. I think we did that and we had a lot of fun doing it, so I’m really proud of everyone involved — we worked really hard.”
Over email, Kate agrees. She says the record “was a logistical feat with much more innovative production techniques than I first anticipated”. Recording outside of a studio proved testing at times.
“When we chose to do it in the Seymour house, I honestly thought a farm would be easier to record in. Turns out all the beautiful, wallpapered, old wooden rooms were very harsh for microphones.”
Kate says her aim for the record was to make it “sound like a beautiful banquet of songs — a feast for the senses, like a long banquet table full of different dishes”; Gabriella wanted it to sound like “a big wholesome salad”. Listening to the record, the analogies hold up more accurately than you may imagine.
Gabriella says there are “little tributes” to other artists in each track. There’s the song
“It kind of rocked my world. The street [where] I was living in Brisbane, we just played it for a year. It’s a really colourful, exciting record.” Foxygen ended up contributing to Pink is the Colour of Unconditional Love: some horns to ‘Baby’ and back up vocals to
Despite the musical euphoria, there’s a sorrow in many of Gabriella’s songs. She ponders romantic troubles and toils with a summertime ennui. The song titles are a maudlin catalogue:
It’s been a long process, making this album, but if Gabriella is feeling world-weary, it’s not showing through. There are more places to go, more songs to write. She grins.
“I love the feeling of when you get a song and you know that it’s really good and you’re in your own space and … it’s not tarnished yet. You’ve got the idea and you can create with that. It’s a special feeling, it’s magical. That’s the whole reason why I do it — because of that seed.”