Studio Apartment #11: Grace Cooper, aka Grace Sings Sludge

Posted by on October 26, 2017

Grace Cooper - ONE

This installment of Studio Apartment will take you into a hazy chamber called Um 529, the home of Grace Cooper. A Bay Area scene veteran, known as Grace Sings Sludge and formerly of The Sandwitches, she has also colluded with garage and living room recording giants like Sonny Smith, Kelley Stoltz, Magic Trick, and The Fresh and Onlys. For her solo work though, she usually goes by just Grace Sings Sludge.

Um 529 is a place where the walls have been known to bend and distort like a hall of mirrors. Depending on your angle, you may see a home, a four-track studio, a movie set, a boyfriend or her watercolored mermaids. It won’t take long before you realize that you have entered a world unto itself. You may catch reflections of saints like Mary Shelley, David Lynch or Patty Smith, but as these pass through the mind, they are quickly replaced by others, making you wonder if you ever saw them at all. The only certainty is that this is where Grace forms her sludge, a fully-formed aesthetic that is intensely personal, full of strange wonders, divine comedies and occasionally, the horror.

While you’re reading, stream her latest album Life With Dick via San Francisco’s Empty Cellar Records. If you have the time, keep listening. Grace shares a label with some of San Francisco’s most emblematic artists, including Tim Cohen, Earth Girl Helen Brown, and more.

Jon Bernson: Can you talk a bit about your latest record ‘Life With Dick?’ What inspired you and how did you go about writing and recording these songs?
Grace Cooper: I started first started writing the lyrics and some of the music for these songs a long time ago, 5,6,7 years ago, during a pretty big transitional period in my life. There was a relationship ending, band ending, a whirlwind rekindling of a romance, moving in with someone for the first time, a lot of drinking. I did that album and left it for awhile. I recorded another album called Red Light Museum in the interim not knowing when “dick” would see the light of day. It’s easier and more enjoyable for me playing the songs on it, now that I know things mostly worked out for everyone.

You’ve made a variety of music under several names. Could you give us a brief overview of your past, present, and future projects before we dive into things?
It all started in my infancy. I grew up with a musician father, so it was pretty seriously embedded in me that music was something to respect, something sacred almost. I shied away from it, until I was in my twenties. I’d been slowly starting to write a couple songs and didn’t know how to show anyone. My way of announcing myself as a musical person was recording a little cover album of my close friends’ punk project Sludgehammer. After that, I just kept going, and started writing my own songs.

Grace Cooper - TWO

The “Sludge” in Grace Sings Sludge just came to mean the murky discharge of my innermost (mostly unpleasant) feelings. I played with The Sandwitches for the rest of my twenties and I’ve also made some other, lesser known, musical appearances under the names Glazed Cougar, Grace the Bass, Grace Face and of course Busted Grace. My plan for the future of my musical career is to disappear and resurface much, much later as The Grim Gram, a dark electronic artist. I’ll be like a more decrepit Marianne Faithfull, with a hunchback and black Victorian clothes. I’ll being carried around in a large basket by sixteen year old Italian boys. It should be good.

Describe your basic live-work studio situation, including any neighbor / roommate constraints? Creative bonuses of your physical space?
I record at the apartment during the day, when most of the other tenants are at work. It’s the only way because I’m extremely aware of them. I’m able to do this because I work a retail job through the weekend. When I moved in, I unknowingly installed a piano right against the wall we share with our neighbor’s bedroom. The neighbor just happens to be a classically trained pianist, so that’s another reason I don’t record at night. Also, I live with my musician boyfriend, who practically sleeps with his guitar in his hand, but we try to stay out of each other’s hair and I never try and record unless he’s at work.

Describe the basic layout of your room/studio.
A common misconception about me is that I’m a bedroom recording artist. In fact, I am a living room couch recording artist. I’ve recorded and figured out the bulk of my music from the last five years in the same spot. Actually, not sitting on the couch but sitting in front up against it. I have a 16′ coffee table; I put my 8 track and computer on and sit between that and the couch. I draw and paint there too.

What is the main program or device you use to record in your space?
Haha, as of right now I have nothing. I’m at a bit of a financial impasse. I was lucky to record my last album (hopefully out sometime 2018) at El Studio with the great Phil Manley, but now I’m back home, up the creek with no paddle so to speak. My Fostex MR8-mk is fried. My favorite program was Garage Band o5, but it got old and the computer broke down. I was starting use the newest version of Garageband on the replacement computer, but that was stolen during a recent break-in. So, yeah, to be honest my studio is just a room at the moment.

Grace Cooper - THREE

How linked is your recording process with your writing process? Explain how they interact, whether minimally or integrally or whatever…
Recording definitely comes after I’ve made most the decisions about how a song will go, at least the structure and lyrics. The structure and melody of the lyrics go hand in hand, arm in arm, but I don’t really think about recording till later. Lots of happy accidents happen while recording though, like stumbling on strange sounds. I end up adding things that just come out of nowhere once I get going with it. That makes the process seem more mystical I guess.

Talk about the process behind the music you’re working on right now.
I’m in the scribbling things down all over, singing lines in my head on the bus phase of whatever is coming. Since I just recorded an album, I was planning on cooling it for awhile, work on drawing, maybe try to remember how to play my older songs when the new ones aren’t creeping in.

Grace Cooper - FOUR

Do you draw inspiration from other mediums besides music? Why is this important to your process?
I’m a very visual person. Often when working on a song, or even before the song, I get an image or multiple images or a dream/nightmare that helps inspire the mood and lyrics. Since I was a little girl, I’ve had a fondness for horror movies,ghost/demon movies and psychological horror, usually with a female lead. A lot of “Natal Horror.” I’ve taken great pleasure in making music videos for my songs and those are all inspired by the horror genre.

Describe a favorite instrument or item of hardware / software and why it is important to your recordings.
My guitars. My first one was a rather flimsy generic telecaster I called “the chord finder.” It’s this beautiful purple color. I wrote fender in sharpie on the headstock when Ifirst got it. The wiring is completely fucked but I keep it on display in my living room. My guitar now is a Mexican telecaster. I got it for a good price at guitar center because it was on police hold and I had to wait for it. It’s been the only thing I’m really comfortable playing for I think over 8 years now. It’s name is “The Brown Beauty.” It’s very heavy and long.

How do you like to organize your recording process? Talk about the way you like to sequence [the recording of] your tracks. In other words, do you prefer to begin with lyrics, or a beat, a click track, a chord progression…?
It’s not the most organized. I always guitar first though. Or drums if the song is going to have them. I take Nic (boyfriend/sometimes drummer) somewhere, either his practice space or to a friends with drum’s (Roxy from The Sandwitches, in the case of Life With Dick) and do a live recording, playing along on guitar, but only tracking drums.That’s where the Fostex came in most handy. Then I could take that home and figure out the rest.

As for sequencing, I like to know what will be the opening track and build out from it, find what flows, what songs should attach to others and which to separate so I can balance out the album. Sometimes I’ll know the bookend songs, and can go from there, but always first song first. It’s like human centipede of songs. Human Centipede 2.

Grace Cooper guitars