Coco Morier Interview
Nicole “Coco” Morier is a singer, songwriter and guitarist. She worked alongside some of the world’s top music producers like Max Martin, Bloodshy and Avant, Stargate, and Ryan Tedder (from OneRepublic), and wrote songs for Ellie Goulding, Britney Spears, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez. She played guitar on tour with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and recently she released her own album “Dreamer” – iTunes preview – produced by Lester Mendez (Shakira, Jessica Simpson).
I met with Nicole to talk about the world of Top 40 songwriting, how collaborations work between songwriters, artists and producers, and how she finds inspiration for new songs. As she sits down, Coco Morier is telling me about a new project she is currently working on…
So, your album “Dreamer” was just out, and you’re already busy doing new things?
Yeah, I’m kinda always songwriting. Even when I feel like I’m not writing very many songs, I’m still writing like one a week at least – and then I feel like I’m really lazy. It’s generally 2 or 3 songs a week. If 2 or 3 weeks go by and I haven’t written a song I’ll feel like I’m such a loser (laughs).
Coco Morier wrote Keep on Dancin’ for Ellie Goulding.
Do you get rusty? Like it’s harder to write when you haven’t done it for a while?
Yeah. Exactly. Sometimes you take a couple of weeks off, but you don’t realize how much physical energy it takes to go into being creative. Especially lyrics: with chords and stuff, there are things you can just pull from. But with lyrics it’s like a blank canvas, it could be anything. It’s a lot of energy to try and magically think of some new thing that’s never been said before, pull the words, and after like 3 or 4 hours straight of just working on lyrics, I’m just exhausted, I feel like I have to lie down (laughs). But when I’m in a flow with it, if I’m writing every day, it’s coming easier, it’s a muscle and if you work it every day it’s stronger.
Do you usually sit down to write lyrics? Or do you start singing, and whatever comes out…
A little bit of both. Mostly I let the melodies drive the lyrics, or at least the feel, like if there’s a certain feel to the track, I get a vibe first from the music. I hardly ever come up with full lyrics written, and then try to build a track around them. I have tried that sometimes, because it’s good to break your habits and it can be very fun, but I think it’s harder. Out of all the people I’ve worked with, maybe only 1% always start from lyrics. Like Billy Steinberg, who wrote Madonna’s Like a Virgin and a lot of hit songs in the eighties: he comes in with a full lyric sheet and he used to have a guy who does all the melodies for him. But I think it’s a little old school, like when it used to be “A lyricist is a lyricist.” So I’ll get a vibe from some of the melodies I might hear, if I have a really great melody and a rhythm to it, I might try to fit the lyric to that. Like I’ll try to pick out a word or two from what I’m mumbling, so that it fits sonically to the sound of the words. But after I get a good melody I usually start to dive in to find the main concept or title phrase. And then I fill in the blanks with lyrics. Because you could have a title, for example like “Breathless”, but then you have to figure out “Well, what does that mean? Is it going to be about a girl who’s taken away by love?”
If we can go back a little bit: how do you usually start a song?
That again can change. It also depends on what kind of song I write, like if I’m going to write something more like a rhythmic dance track, then I start with a beat. I’m very beat driven when it comes to songs. I play guitar, but I don’t play a lot of acoustic guitar, and when I sit down with just an acoustic guitar, the melodies I’m inspired to write tend to be more mellow. So if I want something more up-tempo, more rhythmically driven, it’s easier if I have some kind of beat. I’ll put a beat down, and some chords usually. Usually a 3-chord loop is enough for me to write a song (laughs) rather than trying to get too fancy about it.
So how do you lay down the beat? Do you use loops, or program something?
I’ll program something. Because the loops… I don’t know… they just feel … maybe a little generic and fun to listen to myself, but… Sometimes it can be a good place to start, actually if I use a loop it will be something I found, as a sample from a record or something. Yeah I feel like it’s fun to just build it out. And also in my home studio I have a lot of analog gear: I have a Roland TR-808, that’s synced up with a Roland SH101 and then I have that synced up to Logic via a USB interface so that when I press play in Logic, the 808 is just running, it’s synced. I like that, I like tactile things, and I love to look at the 808, I think it looks great! (laughs) And it sounds amazing! I mean, these days the 808 plug-ins sound pretty close. I’ve been working with Logic now for 15 years, and I can’t believe the way things sound now. I have the Universal Audio Apollo, and some of the UAD plug-ins, like their guitar amps for example, are incredible.
Coco Morier shows how her TR-808 and SH-101 work with Logic.
Do you use the guitar amps on your guitars?
I have. The new Fender Tweed plug-in sounds so good. We actually used it as a demo and then the next week we didn’t have the demo anymore and we just couldn’t find the sound so I just had to buy it because it sounds too good! I really like the Neve 1073 Pre-amp, the vintage mics on the Ocean Way Studios plugin… I use a lot of that.
Do you have a go-to signal chain? A preferred mic? Or do you just trust the engineer you’re working with?
Most of my new album I did with Lester Mendez so yeah, I just really trust him. I actually don’t know what mic he uses, but he’s really good at producing vocals. When I record demos it doesn’t matter as much, so I tend to go for just a quick, good sound. I go to my Waves CLA Vocals plug-in, because that’s just a quick way to get something nice to listen to.
So for your album all your vocals were recorded in a studio?
Yes. I recorded all of them in a studio. My home studio is more for writing, songwriting… I don’t really have a great setup at home in terms of sound, acoustics and insulation because I’m right by a big street, so you get the rumbling of cars. So I set up my vocal mic in a closet with some mattress blankets from the moving store, just pinned them to the walls. But it’s not ideal for final takes, more for songwriting demos. My vocal mic at home is a Pearlman TM-1, which is kind of U47 vintage sound, but for a small budget, obviously not quite as nice. But I also love the Manley mics, they work really well with my soft voice and make everything pop and sound clean and crisp.
Coco Morier’s new single Dreamer
So do you prefer to focus on the songwriting, and let other people handle the production tasks?
A certain amount of production is songwriting now, and I think that came from hip-hop and EDM where the beat is essential to the song. If I can get it to a point where it’s inspiring to write, that’s where my production goes. But the finishing touches I leave to the experts, especially when it comes to Top 40 stuff, it has to fit a format. You can’t have something that’s going to poke out too much, even in terms of how it’s mixed. It has to be fluid, you know.
If I do produce songs, usually it’s more for my own stuff, because I feel like I have a little bit more liberty to mess around. There’s a reason why you consistently see the same producer names pop up in Top 40 too. It’s not easy sounding so simple yet so precise.
So how much of the production is dictated by your songwriting and how much of it is the producer’s creation?
It depends who I’m writing with. Some producers are strictly beats, they just want to do the sound design, and they’re not interested in the lyric or arrangement. You really have to come in and tell them what you want. Sometimes for people like that I like to write a song on piano or guitar and just send them the acapella and chords and let them build a track around it.
And then there’s other people like Ryan Tedder who I collaborate with often: he’s an all-around songwriter, he can produce, write chords, write melodies, write lyrics. And since I do those things as well we kind of kind of cover the scope of the song and even when I’m not strictly producing I have a lot of ideas that go beyond just the song writing and in to the feel of the track. On the song Keep On Dancin that we did with Ellie Goulding, we started writing to a sparse track that Noel Zacanella had started and that set the pace, but after that it was just a flurry of ideas back and forth.
Lyrics really are completely different than every other song production aspect…
It’s a bit of a skill, and people think it’s more something you’re born with, but I think if you practice it, like you would a guitar, then you learn how to do it at one point. Maybe some people have more of a knack than others, but I think it’s just a lot of people don’t want to do it. It’s hard, especially with pop music: you have to say something universal, that everyone can relate to, but hasn’t been said in that way a million times already. It’s fun though. I like it!
Do you double your vocals on your recordings?
It depends on the songs, I think my voice sounds really nice doubled, especially on my solo stuff, it’s more kind of a breathy vocal, it’s kinda soft, and that sounds nice doubled. And also it comes from a lot of the stuff that I love like 60s girl group stuff, like Shangri-Las, or even a lot of the 60s records were all doubled.
Your vocal harmonies are very dreamy and airy, how do you come up with them, do you just experiment?
Experiment, yeah. One of my favorite parts of writing and production processes is background vocals, I just love it once you have all the elements in the song and then you get to play with them. I’ve listened to a lot of 60s music, or even 30s and 40s, where background vocals, when people were doing groups and had a lot of harmonies, were really experimental. So I love to come up with like things that aren’t the typical oohs or aahs. A good example is my Britney Spears song How I Roll, in the beginning I’m doing all these hiccup type “Ooh HUH, Ooh Hah, hah…” and you turn that into like a loop. I love when harmonies are unexpected and you don’t just do a 3rd harmony. I have a bit of a musical theory background, but I find I’m not really fine-tuning that. I know the basic chords, basically (laughs). So I think whatever I do it comes from my ear. When I work for people like Lester, who has jazz background, he’ll love when I come up with something really unusual and he’ll also come up with really unique harmony ideas by playing the chord variations on his Rhodes.
Coco Morier wrote How I Roll for Britney Spears
When you go in the studio for your album with Lester, the songs are pretty much written?
No. We wrote and produced on the spot. Lester and I work really well together because usually about 30 minutes before I come in he starts a track. Just a basic idea: just a little bit of drums, and some chords. 90% of the time I like it and hear a melody right away and I’m so inspired by the sound of the track that the lyrics are really easy to write. And I don’t know if it’s because I feel really comfortable around him or because it’s really inspiring, but most of the songs on the album were written in a day or two. They just flew out. But this was over a period of a couple of years of writing so it wasn’t like we did it every day in a row.
So even the lyrics were done in one or two days?
Yeah I mean sometimes I go back but somehow the sounds and everything was so inspiring that it just flowed out. And that’s not … normal, like sometimes it takes weeks…months even. Especially when it’s my own stuff, cause then I’m more precious about it. I’m very proud of the lyrics on this album too, and they’re so me, they fit, you know. I’m kind of surprised how effortless it was.
Do you have the opposite experience, like being stuck in a song and then finding the chorus 6 months later?
Yeah, I used to start songs and if they got stuck, I would let them go. Over the years you have hundreds of songs that you never finished, and you realize “Oh, some of them are good ideas, I should have tried a little harder”. And now it’s only these last couple of years that I’ve gotten better at rewriting. So if I have a good idea I’ll rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. If I’ve worked on it five or six different times and I can’t get a lyric that I’m happy with, I have to go back and change the chords or the melody.
So you stick with your idea until you make it work?
Sometimes I do if I’m really excited about it, and then I try and try and try. And there’s been some where it feels like okay, you can’t force it, and it’s really too much struggle, maybe it becomes a waste of your time and I set it aside. Sometimes I go back with someone new to it who can help, because they may get a new idea. Usually it works. Sometimes it doesn’t work, then you go down the rabbit hole with it.
If you work with someone on an idea and that never goes anywhere, can you then use that idea for something else?
You usually just have to ask. If I work with a songwriter and we’re stuck on something, I’ll ask “Hey do you mind if I bring in this other writer.” They usually don’t mind. That’s why you usually end up seeing – and I don’t particularly adhere to this thing – you know, when you see pop songs with ten writers on it. I rarely ever do that, I don’t even know how those songs get made. Maybe some of the writers wrote one lyric, or they were in the room, or sometimes it’s because the producer used a sample, and then sometimes even record labels (it really annoys me when they do this) will just take a part they like from your song and then give it to someone else to rewrite without asking you (laughs)! But I try not to be super precious about it, because as a songwriter you’ll end up with a broken heart (laughs).
Have you been in the opposite situation where the producer has the track fully produced and just wants a melody and lyrics?
Oh yes. That used to happen a lot more often, there was a time when people would just send tracks out to like 10 top line writers and see who wrote the best lyrics and melody on it. And I would try sometimes, but I don’t really like to write to tracks. I feel like you’re locked in. Sometimes you’re given a stereo file, they’re mastered to the max, there’s no room sonically on top of it. The waveforms are black because there’s this loudness war. The only time I did was last year with Stargate. I wrote a song and it ended up on the Demi Lovato album. And I never met them, I just got the tracks. But they’re very good at what they do, they’ve got tons of hits. They sent a track that’s pleasant to listen to, so that you can hear it over and over again when you’re writing, and the chords and the structure are very obvious right away, like this is a verse, chorus, and they leave it open enough to have some room to write on, then they finish it after.
Coco Morier wrote Wildfire for Demi Lovato.
So you write only the top line and the lyrics?
On top of a stereo track, yeah.
And then is there some back and forth?
In this case, I remember corresponding with them. I wrote it with Ryan Tedder as well. He fixed some of my lyrics, wrote a whole bridge, and it was done. But that was lucky, I don’t know, it really doesn’t happen that often. Now it’s kinda reversed, because of all the DJs: instead of you getting tracks, they actually want Acapellas, so I’ve been sending my Acapellas to several different people to see who produces the best track!
Do they sometimes find chord progressions that you weren’t thinking of when writing the Acapella?
Oh absolutely, sometimes they are really bizarre and unexpected, and sometimes they are flat out wrong and rub notes from the vocal. Don’t get me wrong, I like renegade musicians and I am that too. Logic helped me to become a full fledged musician because I can use my instincts and I can experiment, I don’t have to know how to play drums, I can just program them in and see how it sounds. But it’s still good I think to have a basic knowledge of chords and scales. Or just use your ears! (haha)
In Logic do you have any go-to tools or techniques you like to use?
I love using the Latch automation. Like if I put on a delay and then I just use the Latch mode to tweak the delay in real time, so that there’s stuff moving. I find a lot of times something unexpected happens that’s really cool and then I’ll take that and make a loop out of it or turn it in to it’s own hook.
So you use a controller?
Yes. I just set it up with the controller cause I love when stuff is kinda accidental. So I might take a synth, play the chords, hit Latch, run some kind of effect, and play the piece so that whenever I’m turning the knob it gets recorded. It’s like playing an instrument live: instead of being boxed in and program things, it moves in a way that is not rigid and exactly on the grid. I like to pitch things, play with vocals, take out certain notes, and just see what happens. I love to play around with Logic’s Bitcrusher effect. On vocals, guitars, it has some of that really digitalized effect… especially when I’m using a lot of analog stuff, sometimes I want to break up the warmth with something that goes straight inside your ear!
Any plans for the future?
I think, now that I have my full album released, I’ll probably set up my own label and start releasing just single songs, not do a full album right away, cause I have a bunch more songs to release. I might just start doing them individually, and choose some to do music videos or remixes.
Is the label for you? Or you and other artists?
It’s for me right now, and also for other collaborations I do. I still have some songs from my old band Electrocute that I’m going to release. I just did a 3 song Christmas EP called Electrocute Xmas which I’m really excited about. That’s out Dec. 2. I’m also doing guest vocals on some other artist’s stuff, Oliver and DENM, and then just songwriting. I just wrote a bunch of songs with Hayley Kiyoko for her upcoming album and had song called Ease My Mind on the EP that just came out , and I just had a single from an all-girl band from Toronto called The Beaches. They’re like Joan Jett, all girl rock band, it’s really good. And… I wrote a musical about Michael Jackson! (laughs) More on that to come soon!
Well good luck with your musical and your other projects, and thank you so much for taking the time to sit down and discuss your craft with us!
My pleasure! It was great talking with you!