Sierra and Bianca Casady are hard to pin down. The sisters' output as CocoRosie — the increasingly electro-styled folk project with nods to European television, Native American chants, Victorian operettas, and Hipstamatic photographs — still gets tagged as freak-folk, and it's all over the map.
Unsurprising, then, that New Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona, and Brooklyn are all past homes for the Casady sisters. Before forming CocoRosie in 2003, Bianca studied linguistics and sociology in college, then pursued visual arts and writing in New York. All the while, Sierra was embarking upon an opera-singing career in Paris.
"We were on our own paths," Bianca confirms. "A few times, we gave each other fucked-up haircuts in the closet [as children]. I want to get back into that stuff." For the past seven years, they've rarely been apart, but proximity's one of their few shared qualities.
Interacting with these two quiet yet strong women, self-identified as "dual opposites," reveals both of them as thoughtful and far from pretension and is an experience bordering on spiritual. New Times caught up with Bianca via email during her stint in China, whereas Sierra was reached by phone while at their other residence in Paris two and a half weeks later.
In our conversations, elder sibling Sierra's replies are drawn out, with so much weight on the words that she often stops midsentence to process. Eventually, she chimes in minutes later with the rest of her sentence, like hitting the play button on her favorite cassette tape, with no knowledge of mental interruption.
"We're almost opposites in almost every way, which brings a pretty crazy chemistry," Sierra says, laughing. "Even with the lyrics-writing of this record, we worked through stream-of-consciousness-style writing and sometimes just pure improvisation on the mic."
She is referring to Grey Oceans, the duo's first release via Sub Pop and fourth overall. For this recording, Bianca and Sierra built a drum set out of found objects/trash-like pots, pans, bottles, weird wires, and chains for one-of-a-kind percussion accompaniment. Add smooth strokes of the ivories, sharp acoustic instruments, and the sisters' mix of raspy and angelic harmonies, and while hearing the title track, one can easily get lost in the imagery of lyrics like "I'm watching myself like an old movie on color TV/When people whisper in Portuguese/It's just as mysterious." Is this an old woman singing to us from her grave?
Sierra still hasn't finished her remarks regarding CocoRosie's current aesthetic, though.
"Playing with duality and contradiction has been a thing that, yeah, we always really came together on. For this last record, there was a lot of this hyperdichotomy of nature versus technology, experimenting with the degradation of electronic rhythms and sounds and experimenting with trying to assimilate how nature kind of has taken over the Earth. Maybe in a futuristic sense, working on decomposing all of the plastic and all of the pollution and all of the kind of hardware of these times. So we really thought about that — I guess in a fantastical sense — and worked on that as a style." Whew.
In contrast to her sister, Bianca's answers are direct and concise. When asked about her influences, she gives a gypsy's laundry list: "gardens, graveyards, the end of the world, fairy raves, smoke, and magic."
When pressed, Bianca is more forthcoming regarding another key difference between them: her drag persona, dubbed Rupert and classified as a femme goth guy who reads tarot cards. "I'm just a sucker for [mustaches]," she says. "It's a way of playing my own muse. I got strung out on Genet and got into sailors and spice merchants and stuff. I bought a striped robe from the Dead Sea or the Red Sea — a really old one — and it started a whole Arabic Prince thing, which I haven't been able to shake since."
Even if Sierra doesn't fully relate to her sister's androgynous mustache, she can understand its allure. "I know that lately I've explored facial hair, but not so much to pose like a masculine image but just exploring the image of hairy people — hairy women, I guess," she says. "Kind of like [the bearded lady at the circus] but going way, way further. Either further back, like before the race of humans, or shooting back into my fantasy of what the future could be like where the Earth is totally different, creatures like human beings are totally different, and they have a lot of hair because the weather is really tough or stuff like that."
Sierra attaches a somber feeling to Rupert, but that doesn't mean Grey Oceans is a gloomy affair. "There's a lot of joyful moments in our music right now and a lot of fashion inspirations to really be lighthearted and beautiful," Sierra continues. "We're focused on happiness. A lot of our songs have a kind of sadder, dark quality — quite a few of them. So to contrast that with a really light atmosphere is a goal."
With Grey Oceans, CocoRosie is reaching back to its roots and a homemade kind of atmosphere achieved on its debut, La Maison de Mon Rêve ("The love letter we wrote to one another," Bianca says). There's an organic feeling but with new touches. The twosome has expanded to include a pianist from France's Reunion Island, Gael Rakotondrabe. His musical influences are just as vast as the Casadys', having grown up playing Creole music, then moving to Paris to start a career in jazz. A beatboxer and a percussionist are also part of the band's current incarnation — mood-swaying vocals intact but with an added punch.
"Even our really kind of more lofty, floaty songs that we put into the set [are brought] to a really intensely rhythmical place," says Sierra, when discussing the newer members' influence on CocoRosie's sound.
These floaty songs range from a dance song about suicide ("God Has a Voice, She Speaks Through Me") to "Hopscotch," which features jungle-style drum 'n' bass beats sampled from the early '90s. Children sing in the background with vaudevillian undertones, and you can't help but feel a little schizophrenic listening to all of the hints at different genres in just one song. But CocoRosie claims this was purely intentional.
"Doing this record, we were focused on states of consciousness that fell between night and day, between awake and sleep, between death and birth," says Sierra. "It was kind of lucid faces, not kind of like lucid dreaming. That was a big focal point for us. And we worked actually a lot during the twilight hours."
Much of the skillfully planned fashion the Casadys cultivate onstage — goth-accented, Victorian-style ball gowns and Bianca's mustache — carries over to the rest of their lives. "When we're in a creative mood, we're going to be dressing up because that's what evokes a creative spirit for us," says Sierra. "So that's what we're doing all the time, pretty much."
For all of their stylistic and personality differences, however, the sisters of CocoRosie can agree upon rarely taking breaks between concerts. They've just finished an extensive 75-show tour and took only a little less than a month off before jumping back into the rigorous schedule. "You get a rhythm, and you more or less become an addict to that lifestyle," says Sierra. "It's pretty hard to stop all of a sudden."