Coming alive in the dark: COUCOU CHLOE's chaotic music is inspired by life and isolation
Tracy Kawalik speaks to COUCOU CHLOE about her upcoming project, artistic evolution and the life-saving power of music
French-born, London-based artist and producer COUCOU CHLOE chops beats and creates her music away from the spotlight. An introspective extrovert, she weaves warped animal samples and deep, diaristic lyrics into austere, skeletal beats, futuristic compositions, and pounding club anthems best enjoyed in the dark. There, she delivers the finished product centre stage, with explosive live performances for writhing mosh pits of fans.
Out of dank Soho streets and pelting spring showers, Erika Jane, AKA COUCOU CHLOE, walks into the London Edition hotel bar, unassumingly cool yet electrifying the space. Dressed in baby blue co-ord, she takes a seat against a backdrop of rich tapestries, a pool table and a ceiling of twinkling chandeliers, flashing her pitch-black eyes in my direction with a warm smile.
“If you ask me how I describe my performance style, I'm not Mariah Carey, but I hold a mic in front of a crowd and let the magic happen. When I perform, I want the crowd to feel special, free, to connect. I want them to find a home for their feelings in my music. I want them to feel like they belong,” she beams. “My passion for live performance stems from the energy and response of the audience. I'm myself on stage. I know the crowd is here for me, and I'm here for them. And when that connection is at a maximum during a gig, I've been like, ‘Damn, that was a cool exchange; I felt something.’” Recently she’s been experimenting beyond her usual sets laced with dancefloor belters to test out emotive, ballad-driven, unreleased material, and the audience reception was so overwhelmingly supportive she was moved to tears off stage.
“I’m inspired by a chaotic mix of life and isolation. I like to disconnect and make music in the studio, away from the club. Unless I'm performing or watching a specific set, I hate clubs. They make me anxious,” she laughs. “I'm also not the type of artist in the corner of the party with her laptop out making music. I feel like making music is like writing your personal diary and showing it to the world. So when I put together my last EP ‘ONE’ I did it in a very intimate way so that I could figure out what was going on in my head and spit it out without questioning what I was expressing.”
COUCOU CHLOE has been fiercely raw in sharing the complexities of her inner workings with her fans from the outset. On her last release, she sang about self-hatred and doubt. For her forthcoming project, she plunges even deeper into herself, exploring visceral loss, perception of time, twisted romance, heartbreak, and more.
“I want people to hear my voice more today, because I feel like there are things I want to express with words more clearly than I used to. Right now, that’s where I’m reaching sonically, but there are multiple mediums I want to unleash. I want to show the full spectrum of what I can do,” she says. “The inspiration behind the new project is life, man. The more you grow and understand living and the complexities of your emotions, the more you can express that. Almost everything I've experienced has become material for me to share.”
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Before the birth of COUCOU CHLOE, Erika Jane grew up in a small village in the South of France playing video games from the age of three and classical music on a piano given to her by her grandparents. She began creating her own music on a keyboard she purchased herself, also collecting outdoor sound recordings, drafting experimental productions and eventually enrolling in the elite contemporary art school Villa Arson.
“I was in art school and for a minute studying contemporary and modern art. But I was immediately more drawn to performance, video and sound installations. Little by little, I started to realise that the element I wanted to develop in my practice was sound. At this time, I was questioning myself on what you could call sound and what you could call music. Finally, I thought, ‘Don’t be shy, just say that you want to make music and fuck it!’ With added encouragement from her brother Leo (also responsible for teaching her how to use Logic Pro), she dropped out of art school and made the jump to London to hone her production skills and pursue music. “I had a desire to leave Nice because it was a bit dead. My best friend was living in London, and when I arrived, it immediately felt like home. I was stimulated and inspired.”
COUCOU CHLOE went from being stifled in France’s art world, to tearing into London’s music scene on a fast and ferocious come-up. Her debut ‘Halo’ landed in 2016 via Berlin label Creamcake, with a first ever DJ set for Boiler Room and NTS residency quickly following.
“I’d only released my very first songs when Boiler Room got in touch. They asked if I wanted to play ‘Live or DJ?’. I only had three songs so a live set didn’t feel right, but I’d never DJ’d as well,” admits COUCOU CHLOE. Thankfully she works well under pressure and locked her set down in four days. “I’d wanted to learn how to DJ, but now I had no more excuse to put it off. That was a fun experience for sure and it went really well, but if you watch it back, you can see I’m really concentrating like: ‘Fuck. remember what you have to do!’” Soon she was making waves at outsider club nights like PDA, Bala Club and Oscillate Wildly. By 2017 she gained traction as part of the forward-facing radical club collective NUXXE alongside Shygirl and Sega Bodega, dropping her eponymous ‘Erika Jane’ EP and 2019’s ‘NAUGHTY DOG’.
“I met Sega Bodega and we got very close. We started making quite a lot of songs - we have one more on the way - and decided to give our ‘band’ a name: Y1640, which was the code number to Sega’s apartment door at the time. Naturally, I met Shygirl and made music directly with her a bit later on,” she recalls. “We were always showing each other what we were making, and talking about our music and that was really beautiful for me to discover a space where I could exchange what I was creating. It was a very special and gorgeous synergy.”
Encouraged by her experiences with NUXXE, COUCOU CHLOE kept developing her solo presence and sonic palette. “I had always wanted to use my voice as a material to express myself, now I was no longer shy. There’s a draft of the first vocal I recorded that’s still on YouTube; it was an experiment. I’d just bought a pedal at the time where I could pitch my vocals and put autotune on it; I found a loop guitar and I used that. I couldn’t really write lyrics at the time, so I just improvised and sang the lyrics of Neil Young’s ‘Old Man’. After that I was like ‘Shit. I like to sing! It's quite emotional. Damn I really like to use my voice.’”
That wasn’t the end of her experimentation: COUCOU CHLOE went back to her formative years foraging for sounds and began warping animal samples. “Sometimes when I use a synth from software I find it very digital, very flat. Animals are such broad sampling material. There are a lot of textures and different melodies. In my music I’ve used goats a lot, peacocks, dogs - straight up for melodies. I like to take those and tweak them, add effects, chop it. Pitch them up, pitch them down. I like when there is still something really organic mixed with metallic, really moody drums, sharp, bass-y beats.”
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Her artistic prowess soon built her reputation further afield: she played DJ sets for design houses from Prada and Gucci to Lanvin and Burberry; jumped on tour with Mykki Blanco; and remixed tracks for Lady Gaga and Eartheater. “You know, I feel like things have come fast, and I’ve never really realised what I’m achieving. Sometimes I want to distance myself from it so I can take the success in more deeply. But I just know that when I look back. it's mad what I've been able to accomplish in such a short time.”
“It might sound cliché, but the main thing that motivates me to continue with my music is that ‘this is me’,” she continues. “I don’t know what I would do, or who I would be if I didn’t make music.” Her sonic aesthetic is pure, personal expression — she's not making music for the algorithm. “I know some of the club songs I put out worked quite well. I could be like, this is what people want to hear, I'm going to do that. But I can’t just stick to what I know will work because if I do that, I will lose the sense of who I am, and I would feel miserable. The most important element has always been making music that is totally me.”
In 2021, COUCOU CHLOE dropped a four-track EP ‘ONE’, her most substantial and emotionally raw music to date. The press release called it a 'quantum leap forward for COUCOU CHLOE’S sound'. While models stomped down catwalks to exhilarating singles ‘WIZZ’ and ‘ZERO FIVE STARS’ at pounding decibels, COUCOU CHLOE was having a personal revelation.
“I was feeling extremely down the day I wrote ‘ZERO FIVE STARS’,’” she shares. “I was looking at myself and feeling so shit like ‘Oh look at you, you’re fucking ridiculous. You piece of shit.’ The only way to pick myself up was I had to laugh about it and make fun of myself. I remember I had those Gucci shoes on and I just thought ‘Ok I’m gonna spend the day peeling the Gucci sign off my shoes and be in my head.’”
In the end, she flipped her mood by pouring her sadness into the EP’s most empowering tracks. “There is power in re-owning your feelings. It’s not talking down on yourself. But instead, it’s like, this is what it is, let's confront it. Fuck hiding from that.” She takes a breath. “Everyone listens and consumes music in different ways. They are going to do and take what they want from it. But I think this is such a beautiful thing for me to be able to make music that has someone feeling sexy and empowered, and not alone, out of something I made to pick myself up at my lowest.”
“Sometimes people in real life come up to me after shows and jump in my arms, crying so hard, telling me that I saved their lives: ‘Without you I would be dead. I don’t want to be here anymore, but you gave me the strength.’ Before, I felt like I wasn’t entitled to be that person for them when they were saying such beautiful things, and how much they looked up to me,” she tenderly admits. “I felt like saying to them ‘You know, I’m such a shit. There are things you don’t see?! You see me as strong but I go through the same things as you.”
She bravely reveals her proudest accomplishment as: “Being alive.” Adding: “Getting more comfortable and stronger about what I want to express and having the liberty to do it without feeling or thinking about how it will be perceived. I feel pretty alive now, but there have been times when I felt pretty dead. I'm still here and I'm quite proud about that.
“When people come up to me now and tell me that they got over tough times because of me, instead of justifying it, I say thank you. Because I went to artists for the same thing and they healed me too. Those same fans who’ve struggled, they saved me too! I tell them I see the strength in them like ‘Hey what you see in me, I see that in you as well.’”
COUCOU CHLOE continues to go from strength to strength. Her 2021 remix for Lady Gaga’s ‘Dawn of Chromatica’ project was a learning experience. “When I listened to ‘Stupid Love’, it felt really different to the things that I could express. I didn’t feel like the song was really in my spectrum of feelings at first, so it was really interesting to interpret that song in my way and an experience I loved working on.”
She closed out 2022 with her own remix project ‘1’, linking up with an illustrious list of her musical influences: New York-based experimentalists Eartheater and Tony Seltzer; Stockholm artist and cult icon COBRAH; London rap producer Kelvin Krash; French rapper 8RUKI; trap luminary Brodinski; Zurich sound designer Modulaw; and Huddersfield bassline guru DJ Q.
“It was quite natural to choose what people would be involved in the project because they were already in my spectrum. It wasn’t like reaching out from manager to manager. I felt close to their art already and it was a really beautiful occasion for me to show off other people whose music I already connected with. When I thought about who I wanted to collaborate with, I wasn’t thinking so much about who could ‘remix it’, but who could reappropriate the feeling of the song, make it their own and extend on where I had already taken the music.”
Circling back to fashion, COUCOU CHLOE’s list of ambitions in that world is short and sweet. “My music gets played at fashion shows a lot! I’ve modelled for Burberry and Vivienne Westwood, but I’m not really a model. What I would love to do is the composition for a whole fashion show. Not mixing, but properly composing.”
In the club, playing live is her preferred performance format over DJing. “At first I couldn’t do live because I didn’t have enough songs. But once I had enough songs to perform I was questioning myself like ‘Do I want to play with machines but have my voice as well? How do I want to interact with the crowd?’ Finally I was thought: ‘Fuck it! I made the project in my house, now I want to sing it and connect with the crowd up close. I want to perform.’ I love to DJ, it’s really fun, but when I play this is how I want to show my art.”
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But a DJ set isn’t totally off limits. “When I played in LA for my tour last year, I had been travelling, I hadn’t slept, but when I arrived on stage everyone was screaming and going crazy. The way I was feeling I have never felt that before. This show was sold out, it was completely packed. People were outside still trying to get in, all my guests couldn’t even get in. It was crazy and such a beautiful event. The energy was too good that when I finished my live set, I was like: ‘The night is over when I stop performing. Do you wanna go home? Because I wanna stay with you guys, so can I DJ? Because I don’t want to leave the stage, I want to stay with you. Fuck it, let’s just have fun!’ In the end I DJ’d for another hour!”
Whatever she does, COUCOU CHLOE’s moniker is always stamped in a sultry whisper over her production. “I got my name because one birthday my brother recorded his voice in a card saying ‘Coucou Chloe!’ Coucou means ‘Hello’ in French not ‘Crazy’ by the way! Anyway, I used to play the card to my friends all the time, they started calling me that and when I started to produce the tag stuck.”
Her brother’s name is tattooed twice across her knuckles, among many tattoos she’s done herself, including the name of one of her biggest musical inspirations: alt-rock band Ween. “I listen to a bunch of different things. I really love Chopin. Kodak Black. I was inspired heavily by Snoop instrumentals and ‘90s hip hop visuals. My dad played a lot of Fugees growing up. A lot of the times when I write lyrics I start out on Metro Boomin beats.”
When it comes to what her forthcoming music sounds like, COUCOU CHLOE says it’s more emotional and club-driven then ever before, teasing features from 645AR, Matt OX, Eartheater, Woesum, Brodinski, Tony Seltzer and Kai Whiston. The first single from the new project is coming at the end of May. “‘DRIFT’ is a slimy bass ballad. It's about losing track of time, getting lost in your own head. It's about a race with yourself almost. Where did you end up? You have no fucking clue? I feel like there is a beauty in confusion because sometimes it just makes you freeze and let everything soak in, and sometimes it just pushes you to dismantle.”
“There is also a track called 'NEVER' which is really personal to me, and I sing on that. It's a vaporous, lucid dream where I talk about the loss of someone. And I did lose someone, but I feel like the lyrics could also be about finding and losing yourself.
“I believe if someone ‘leaves’, their memories still have an impact. It's a way to say nothing really dies. Personally, it can mean ‘you always come back to yourself somehow, even when you might feel completely gone’.”
“I’m already working on more,” she adds. “I’m a bit of a machine right now. Sonically the biggest evolution is discovering how to play my basslines, changing my mic — I still use the same one I started with. My setup is very elementary. I just use my mic, a laptop and sometimes a sampler.”
As we close, I’ve somehow convinced her to buy a green flute and she’s convinced me to let her give me a tattoo. Stepping out into the rain she riffs on a dream collab with Rosalía, then explodes with excitement over the possibilities of applying her music to other mediums and expanding the A/V side of her live act. “I would love to do a set one day under the water. I would actually love my music to be in GTA, or play a set in a car park where the music is blasting from a car. Fuck it! Let me open the monster truck show! I would love that!”
COUCOU CHLOE also has big plans to incorporate short film, elaborate lighting, and be hands on with applying her visual art background into her future live shows. “I want to express myself and push myself as an artist beyond everyone’s imagination. I’ve only just begun showing what I'm capable of creating and the art I want to make.”
COUCOU CHLOE headlines London's Village Underground on October 30
Tracy Kawalik is a freelance journalist, follow her on Twitter