Amber Coffman Talks About Her “Triggering” Past Two Years
The past couple of years have been public ones for Amber Coffman, though that wasn’t her intention. In early 2016, the singer-songwriter opened up a major and much-needed conversation around sexual harassment in the music industry after speaking out about her own experience with Life or Death PR co-founder Heathcliff Berru. Her candor opened the floodgates for a plethora of other women who had been assaulted by Berru to come forward. But 2016 also had some highlights: Coffman appeared on "Nikes," the first track on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, proving she was still following her own creative path. It is clearer than ever that Coffman’s voice is an important one in the music industry for several reasons, and it was time to let it be heard. So what better time to release her debut album, City of No Reply, than now?
For Coffman, a former member of Dirty Projectors, her first album isn’t something that happened overnight. In fact, she’s been working on it since 2011, while she was still with the Brooklyn-based band. Earlier this year, though, Coffman announced she was no longer a part of Dirty Projectors and wouldn’t be appearing on the band’s latest record. Instead, Coffman would be releasing a solo project, one that had allowed her space to tell her own stories.
We recently caught up with Coffman to talk about the solo record, leaving New York City behind, and her healing process since coming forward about sexual harassment.
What made you decide to go solo? Do you miss being in a band?
I’ve always had it in my mind to make a solo record. It wasn’t really a decision—it was a lifelong goal that was always there in the back of my mind. It was a long time coming. But I guess, there are lots of things I miss about being in a band. I joined when I was 22, [the Dirty Projectors] was really my family for most of my adult life. [There’s] all of this good and bad that comes with that. I do miss aspects of it.
How did you come up with the title City of No Reply for the record?
There’s a song with that title, and that was sort of the first thing that I thought of when I wrote that song. And I felt like it had different meanings held within it and that it was an appropriate name for the record at the time with everything I was going through. I think that “City of No Reply,” the song itself, is about a few things. One of them is ghosting. I don’t think I had experienced it before I came [to L.A.] very much. But I don’t think it’s necessarily an L.A. phenomenon. I think it has a lot to do with the way we communicate now. The concept is that L.A. is a place with a lot of spaciousness—mental space and physical space. But to come here and have that space and be able to just sort of reflect by myself... there’s no one there to answer for that except myself, which is another part of the meaning of that title.
What were you listening to when you were making the record?
I wasn’t listening to music to get ideas or anything this time around. I think that, because [making this album] was such a lifelong dream and something that felt like a big moment to arrive at, it was really a combination of all of the influences of my life. It was more about having quiet and sitting with my thoughts and channeling all of the influences from my life. There are a million things I’m a fan of, but I have a hard time answering that question. I just don’t feel I can paint a picture of what inspired this record without talking about all of my influences.
Tell me about as many of your influences as you want!
Growing up, I was really into Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson. A lot of R&B, and I just obsessively memorized records. When I hit my teen years, I got really into rock music and started daydreaming about being in a band, which I was obsessed with until I made that happen. Around 17, I discovered Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Björk—music of a higher consciousness for a 17-year-old. From there, I was going to house shows and discovered indie music and DIY music that way. More recently, I’ve been definitely listening to Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Joanna Newsom, a lot of ‘70s soul music and ‘70s Dolly Parton.
What have you learned about yourself as an artist moving forward? Especially after going solo.
I’ve learned to sort of respect my own process, which, at least this time around, was about really taking my time. I think that my best ideas come to me in idle moments. Most of the songs on the record started with an idea that would just pop into my head; it would be a melody and some lyrics that would be related to whatever was on my mind at the time. I think when I first started out, I really had no idea how this was gonna come together, and I would write over beats that people would give me, or I would try to do a session to build songs. After a decade of working next to someone else and with someone else for their vision, it’s been quite a process to try to figure out how to be on my own, what that means for me, and how I operate—and being okay with all that. I learned a million things other things about myself.
How did L.A. serve as the backdrop for the record?
I always feel funny talking about the L.A. vs. New York thing because it’s just become such a cliché. It’s sort of a cliché that Californians get really into being healthy and being spiritual and all this kinda stuff, but I think it’s because the city allows you to think about yourself and how you relate to the earth, rather than how you relate to other people. It allows you to dig into a more cosmic space within yourself. I don't know if that sounds ridiculous or not.
No, that makes sense.
When I moved here, also, I was almost 29. I was entering into the whole Saturn return thing, which seems like most of my friends from about 20 years on have been going through. I think a lot of our parents’ generation, around their 30s, experienced a midlife crisis. I think the reason for that is when you’re in your 20s, you’re sort of like, “I’m doing it. I’m surviving,” and you kind of start rolling with [the notion that] everything is possible. When you hit 30, you just sort of start to understand yourself in a way, you start to understand things about yourself that maybe you hadn’t thought about before, which isn’t always easy. I think that California, in general, is a pretty magical place, and I think it is spiritual. I think that it’s allowed me to sort of come face-to-face with myself in a way that I never had before.
Obviously, last year was super tough for a lot of people in the music community, but particularly for you, after coming forward about the Heathcliff Berru sexual assault situation. How did coming forward allow you to heal and help you heal others?
I don’t know if I have [healed] yet. And I don't know if others have yet, honestly. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that was definitely a really difficult thing. I don’t think that I had really even been aware of the scope, of not just that particular person but the scope of the abuse and the trauma that women in the music industry and in every other industry face in their lifetime; it’s not something women necessarily get together and talk about all the time. So when that happened... the way I describe it is, it was kind of like a crack opened up in the earth and you could see this really ugly thing underneath. And then, of course, the election season happened, and through that period of time, it just felt like the crack was just getting wider and wider. I don’t think that I had really been that acquainted with the term “triggered” before last year, but I know that when I sat down and read the People magazine writer’s account of the assault that happened to her from Donald Trump, I totally had a breakdown because it just brought so much up about what had happened earlier that year. For the year to begin with that story [around Berru] breaking open and with the election of Donald Trump, I can’t say that it was a very healing year, but I’m doing my best to process it all, and I think everyone else is probably too.
How did this situation impact the making of the record, and how have you been able to self-care moving forward?
Well, the record was done; it was mastered in November of 2015. A lot of delays happened. I think I spent last year in a pretty down place, and I guess it was hard to know the best way to move forward.
What does your future look like? When it comes to making music, do you see yourself being a solo act permanently, or do you see yourself ever going back to a band?
I wouldn’t view being in a band as going back to anything. What I’m trying to say is it’s not always a Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child kind of situation. I plan on making a lot of music and a lot of solo music, and I also love playing with people. I’m a very social person. I think I really enjoy creating with other people and playing with other people, as well, so I’d like to not be limited to one or the other. To me, the future is wide open. I don’t intend on going backward in any kind of way, that’s for sure.
Obviously, you had a public breakup with Dave [Longstreth] from the Dirty Projectors. Are you guys still in touch, or have you guys just parted ways completely?
I don’t speak to him.
That’s totally fair. How did you move on from that?
You know, I think that before this record, probably half the people who knew about the band didn’t even know that we had been together. I would have preferred to keep it that way. I never would’ve talked about this stuff publicly, and I just don’t really want to talk about our relationship. I just don’t wanna focus on that. It just wasn’t my decision to have it be a public thing, and I just don’t wanna be involved in it.
How would you describe your album if you had to sum it up?
It’s an album about learning to live with yourself and to overcome a lot of darkness, maybe internally and externally. I think it’s about hope, ultimately, to sum it up. I think it’s a hopeful record.