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Alice Cohen Concocts Magical Realism With ‘Plastic Paradise’: Premiere

There’s something magical about the video for “Plastic Paradise,” a sparkling, retro-futurist gem off of Artificial Fairytales, the new album from avant-pop veteran Alice Cohen.

Premiering on Billboard today (May 10), the clip is set on a boardwalk in the hazy light of early morning, saturated in pink, from the cotton candy and painted food stands to pink silk pajamas and sheets. The camera follows Cohen’s character through naptime dreams and wakefulness as she frolics in a green gown on the beach and wearily serves customers at a sailors’ nightclub. Using the arresting visual treatment paired with incisive lyrics, the Brooklyn-based singer, songwriter and musician explores the idea of the “working woman.” “I don’t need a knight in shining armor,” she croons in a deadpan as the song fades out. “I don’t need an artificial fairytale.” 

It’s one of a few female archetypes represented throughout her sixth LP, which she recorded with the Channel 14 Weather Team, the duo of Swedish composer Adrian Knight and saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist David Lackner. Cohen tells Billboard that the desire to look closer at these representations of women, including the “solitary woman,” was informed by her own experience as an older woman living and making music independently. “I didn’t really take the get-married-and-have-kids route,” she says. 

Cohen was born and raised in Philadelphia as the child of two jazz pianists during the peak of Philly soul in the 1960s and ‘70s. She became obsessed with glam icons the New York Dolls and David Bowie, which she’d play on the piano at coffee shops around town, eventually recording originals on her father’s two-track reel-to-reel studio in her basement. Her funk band Fun City recorded 1979’s “Save the Best for Last” at Sigma Sound Studios, whose list of iconic clients includes Bowie, Aretha Franklin and ZZ Top

A chameleonic musician, Cohen flirted with the major-label music industry as part of synthpop trio the Vels in the ‘80s and grunge outfit Die Monster Die (named after the 1965 horror film of the same name starring Boris Karloff) during the genre’s peak a decade later. Before the turn of the millennium, Cohen had committed to the life of a prolific home-recording, self- or independently-releasing artist, who also has an active career as a visual artist making stop-motion collage music videos for indie bands like Underground System and the Archie Bronson Outfit. “It’s a strange business,” she says. “I got to experience some cool studios but I’ve become more realistic now. I’ve adjusted to a more indie sort of music scene.”  

Artificial Fairytales arrives May 31 on Brooklyn-based label NNA Tapes. Watch the video for "Plastic Paradise" below, and check out the rest of our Q&A after the jump.

Since Pink Keys and Into the Grey Salons, there have always been nods to fairytales and ghost stories and the fantastical. Where does that fascination come from?

Ever since I was little, I liked to go into a fantasy land as an escape. I spent a lot of time off in my fantasy world from the time I was a kid, and I never really outgrew that. It's a space that I like to go in my head and in my imagination. That's where I get my ideas. It’s mixed in with the reality around me, which is why Artificial Fairytales and a bunch of the records have this feeling of the city or neighborhoods or the day-to-day things I see, but they’re mixed into this fantastical realm. It's like a play between the reality and the fantasy.

How much does your visual art inform your music?
They’re definitely in conversation. It's hard for me to say, "Oh, well, I'm mainly a visual person,” but I do see music visually. I do see scenes and things like that, and even more specifically, notes and sounds do have a visual aspect to them. With the videos, it's easier to express, because then you actually have something to look at along with it. The rest of the time, it's sort of like a movie playing in my head.

Where was the video shot?
Most of it was shot in Wildwood, N.J. at the shore, on the boardwalk, right before the season opened up. I'm from Philly, and the director is from South Jersey, so we had this South Jersey-Philly connection. I had gone to Wildwood a lot when I was younger, and it's very special. We just knew we wanted to shoot there. It's got this old-school flavor that's kind of its own world. It’s sort of an island, so it’s a little more isolated. It feels very insular and its own kind of Jersey thing, funny, tacky-but-sort-of-magical, too. But then the party scene was done at Greenpoint event space] Magick City. We turned it into a sailor bar. The exterior is Wildwood, where I'm outside of this nightclub that says “Bar” and has a saxophone player on it, and then when I open the door, I'm going into Magick City. Sorry to spoil the illusion, but that’s how we did it. 

How long did it take you to get from filming a year ago to post-production? 
The editing went on for about eight months, plus the finishing touches at the end, like color correction and putting the titles on. It was like an all-woman team: cinematographer Alice Muller and Gabrielle Muller, the director, is actually the wife of my bandmate, Dave. Gabrielle plays my sort of alter-ego, the other sailor girl. We had this sailor friend of ours that was going to be a boyfriend/love interest, and he was going to be in the bathtub instead of me. I was going to be doing his nails. At the least minute, he couldn't do it, so we came up with Gabrielle. It made this more ambiguous relationship that could be interpreted different ways. I sort of like that better in the end. I was like, "I'll just get in the bathtub." That was the last scene we shot and it felt really good to just get in the warm, silky tub after shooting at 6:00 a.m. every day. Those shoots are hard work.

When did you start working on the songs that would become Artificial Fairytales?
The oldest song on there, “Bubblegum Heart,” is probably about five years old now. I was working on that in 2014 when I was in Warsaw, Poland for a show. The recording was done over a few years. I was collecting songs and finishing the recordings, and then the mixing was like a six-month process. My friend John Terelle who was from the '80s like myself — he was in a band called the Hawaiian Pups — he took my various recordings and combed out the tangles and made it sound really lush and sparkling. I like to write and record, but I'm not much of an editor, mixer-type person. I run out of patience with the technical stuff. 

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