Interview: Cooly G

Sharon O'Connell

By Sharon O'Connell

on 07.18.12 in Interviews

Playin' Me

Cooly G

In the increasingly crowded post-dubstep scene, there are still strikingly few female beats builders, but one name that stands out is Merissa Campbell. As Cooly G, the self-taught Brixton producer, singer, DJ and label boss — not to mention single mother of two and semi-pro footballer — has been turning heads since 2008, when she dropped the first CD-R in her Dub Organizer series. It sparked a blaze of enthusiasm in the blogosphere and sold out of independent record stores within a week. The same year, a tune uploaded to MySpace one Sunday night had, by the Wednesday, attracted the attention of Hyperdub boss Steve Goodman (aka Kode9) who released her vinyl debut 12″, Narst/Love Dub. Now comes her debut album, Playin’ Me, an intensely soulful and personalised, highly accomplished hybrid of deep vocal house, dub, dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass that sees Cooly G moving out of the underground and well beyond the sound that initially had her tagged as the queen of U.K. funky.

What first triggered your interest in music?

I was probably about two or three, so I don’t really remember, but I’ve seen the pictures of my dad’s analog studio set-up in the front room at home and I just wanted to be with him the whole time, because he was playing tunes. I was into the sound of the bass and I do remember touching all the knobs. My dad’s now given me that mixing desk. I just moved into my new house a week ago, so I’m settling in, but I want to bring it back in when I start making new tunes again.

You started DJing when you were a kid. How did that happen?

When I was seven years old, I used to sit on the wall on our estate in Brixton, overlooking the car wash of this petrol station. Every time people would come, I’d say, “I’ll wash your car for a fiver.” I saved up all the money and bought myself some decks, because my uncle used to DJ and he had a sick room in his house, which was just pure music. So, I got my decks, bought my first vinyl, which was Five Star and started mixing straight away. Within about six months, I got to play at a christening, selecting my own tunes, and I’ve been just doing it ever since.

Your album runs the gamut of styles and emotions, from sweet vocal house with overtones of Soul II Soul and Lamb to dark, Vex’d-like electronica. Where do you think it fits in with what’s happening now?

I feel like it doesn’t really fit in, but I don’t really think about that. I just make tunes — although I don’t know what kind of tunes they are. I can actually make a hip-hop beat and a slow drum beat and a reggae beat, but when I’m doing this — whatever it is — I’m just flowing. I enjoy it.

The record is sequenced almost as two “sides” — the first half is sweet, light and warm, the second is darker, colder and more unsettling. What was your aim there?

It wasn’t conscious, but I’ve sat down and analysed it since and the album is really me, in a weird way. There’s a rough side to me and a smooth side to me within a relationship and that’s what the album is mainly about. There’s times where I just can’t be bothered with guys; I just get mad at them. So it ended up being this split thing, even though that wasn’t intentional.

What kind of music has been your inspiration?

I will always listen to old-school music. My iTunes playlist is from about 10 years ago, going back. I’m always listening to Mica Paris or Sizzla, R Kelly, H-Town, Donell Jones, Joe, a lot of dub reggae…

What was the springboard for your album’s illbient dub tracks, like “What Airtime”?

I went to Croatia two years ago. It was the first time I saw dBridge and Jon Hopkins do a live show and it just tore me apart. I was like, “What the fuck is this sound?!” They were killing me. I was up all the way through it and I don’t usually stay at shows. It was beautiful to me. When dBridge was playing drum ‘n’ bass without all the crazy chikka-chik, chikka-chik, I was like, “That’s the kind of shit I hear in my head when I listen to drum ‘n’ bass.” I block out the drums. And someone had actually done it. So, on the plane going back toLondon, I started making a beat. And hearing Jon Hopkins is what made me want to start doing live sets.

How do you pull off those sets, given that you’re on the mic as well as mixing live?

When I’m doing a live show, to be honest, I’m shitting my pants. I freak out like I’m going to vomit and run away, and everyone’s pulling me back. I’m doing the tracks live on the Ableton and I’m on the mic as well, so I have to make sure everything’s on-point. If I do it wrong, I won’t be able to sort it out, and that’s what’s going on in my head. The first live show I did last year in Barcelona, I actually vomited before I went onstage. It’s proper dramatic.

Aside from your labelmate Ikonika, and Subeena and Pursuit Grooves, there are still very few women on the U.K. scene who produce their own tracks. Why do you think this is?

There aren’t a lot of women who do everything, but I don’t ever really think about it, to be honest, because I’m just having fun. If I don’t make a track and let it out and sing and do plug-ins and enjoy the whole process, I’m not going to be happy. I’m doing me, and everybody else is doing them, and that’s just the way it goes. Part two of my compilation coming out on Dub Organizer has some female producers on it, too, but I’m still mixing down their stuff. They can make the track, but they can’t arrange it and mix it. But I’m trying to teach them that, too.

Not only do you have a fast-accelerating music career, but you’re also a single mum and you play semi-professional football. How do you juggle everything?

It’s vibes. If I didn’t always have my music set up and ready, I’d be really frustrated, because I just want to let it go. The only thing I really have that’s spare time is watching EastEnders and Hollyoaks — that’s my thing. My kids come before this Cooly G stuff. All I’m trying to do is make music and make money for them. I’m on my own doing it — that’s my life.