As an extreme perfectionist, Cousin – the music alter ego of Daan Couzijn – “was waiting for the perfect sound, the perfect track, the perfect product” before releasing any music. But as he admits, “I realized it would probably never come.” Luckily for us, he’s come out of the shell and just released his debut EP, Cousin, a 5-track work he’s been working on for a long time.
We first met the Dutch artist through his digital work, but he confessed that his favourite art form was music because “it doesn’t need words or visuals to communicate a feeling.” Focused on conveying his personal emotions and experiences in a universal way that any listener can relate to, he leaves the meaning of the songs to our imagination. “What makes poetry so beautiful is that anyone can identify with the poem in their own way for their own reasons,” he says. With a characteristic lo-fi, melancholic sound, Cousin is opening up and showing some vulnerability, which resonates with all of us. In today’s interview, we discuss shyness, his latest release, and how is he preparing for live concerts once the pandemic is over.
I’d like to start the interview by asking what the similarities and differences are between Daan Couzijn and Cousin?
The most important similarity between Daan Couzijn and Cousin is that in both artistic practices, I want to convey certain emotions through the work. It’s very important to me that the work (whether it’s visual or musical) contains a narrative and that that narrative is communicated to the audience. My work always starts with an emotion, a feeling that I want to express. And I use different mediums for that. To be able to convey an emotion through a certain form of art is why I think art is the most powerful communicative medium.
The difference between both practices is perhaps that my visual work – even though I as a person, my feelings and my thoughts are embedded in it – feels more distant because it is not directly about me. I depart from a personal experience, yes, but I always try to translate it in a universal way that makes it possible for anyone to relate to the work. I don’t want the work to be about me. I don’t want it to be too private. Whereas, in my music, and especially when I perform live, I am the embodiment of the emotion I wish to convey.
I transfer this experience physically onto an audience. I am the medium; it’s my voice, my presence through which I communicate. I am performing as me. I haven’t created a persona I can ‘hide’ behind so to speak. I am not a dancer, I don’t wear crazy costumes, there’s no light show. There aren’t a lot of other components in my live performances rather than the music. There’s no distraction, nothing to hide behind, which makes it also extremely scary to do. It is super personal. It’s also why it took me three years to feel comfortable enough to release this music. And I still have to find the right way of performing live, that fits the music and me as a performer. The reason I use different names for both practices is that I’d like for each practice to be able to exist on its own, independently. But they are, inevitably, very much intertwined.
When we first interviewed you (because of your visual work), you said that you’d pick music as your favourite creative outlet because “it doesn’t need words or visuals to communicate a feeling. It doesn’t need to explain anything. You can play one chord or even just a few separate notes and it immediately ignites a feeling inside of the listener.” Is your approach to music-making so visceral and feeling-oriented? Or do lyrics and visuals also play an important role too when creating it?
I would say it’s extremely visceral and feeling-oriented, yes, because I don’t start off writing a text. I don’t start with a rational concept or a theme. It all starts with a note. I search for sounds that trigger me and then I create a chord progression – a chord progression that evokes a certain emotional reaction within me. And I use that emotion to eventually write lyrics and compose the rest of the music. Lyrics and visuals are helpful, additional components to convey these emotions. But I have to be triggered emotionally by a certain sound or set of notes to be able to write and compose the rest of the track.
I also remember you said you were quite shy, that the Internet helped you shape your personality online which later translated into your behaviour IRL. So tell me, is releasing music another way of coming out of the shell somehow? A way to express to the world your inner feelings, thoughts, fears and hopes?
Oh, absolutely! (Laughs). It’s horrible. I have never felt more vulnerable as I do when performing live or when people listen to my music. I feel absolutely naked, and it’s not always very comfortable. But it’s a beautiful thing to do. I think that now more than ever, we can all learn from being a bit more vulnerable and receptive towards one another. And I think we would be surprised to learn how much we can relate to each other despite our differences. We don’t have to be confident or thick-skinned all the time. Sometimes situations and people get under our skin and it affects us. And we get hurt. And that’s okay.
You’ve just released your first EP, titled as your artistic name, Cousin. Before the launch, you had published two songs – Paper and I don’t care if you cry (over me). What is the starting point of these works? Tell us a bit about the storytelling.
I often feel like I need to protect the potential of the listener being able to relate to these tracks in their own way as much as possible, that’s why I prefer not to elaborate too much on what the songs are about. To some extent, it prevents the listener from connecting to the track in their personal way and it stops them from being able to project their story.
There are many layers to each song; it’s not just one situation that inspired them, it’s many. I don’t want to reduce the depth and relevance to merely one personal experience that potentially lies at the foundation. I didn’t write them like that. It evolved during the process. And it’s about so much more than just the one experience that initiated the writing. It’s meant to illustrate several feelings that I think are experienced universally by everyone. Poetry wouldn’t be poetry if the poet provided the reader with an exact explanation. What makes poetry so beautiful is that anyone can identify with the poem in their own way for their own reasons. In some cases, you don’t even need to fully understand what exactly is written to be able to connect to it, which I believe is very powerful.
I will say that I’ve experienced writing these tracks as a way to reflect on myself as a human being that is – and at times is not – able to emotionally connect with others. That’s what inspired these tracks, amongst other things.
In Cousin, you write, produce and sing the songs. However, you’ve also worked with Marijn Brussaard and recorded the EP at the Redbull Music Studios in Amsterdam. How did it all come together? Could you give us more insight into the creative/production process?
I’m trained as a singer; my instrument is my voice. I can sing, write and compose, but I don’t play any other instruments. I know my way around several DAWs such as Logic Pro and Ableton, and I can use these softwares to create an atmosphere. But this atmosphere needs to be defined, and since the music is mostly electronic, and I am not a producer, this is where Marijn comes in. He helps me to give shape to these atmospheres and expand them. And he’s extremely good at it! I haven’t worked with many other people that are so good at honouring my personal artistic style while, at the same time, are able to offer their own input that truly complements the core of the music.
Besides producing for Cousin, he creates his music together with Feico de Muinck Keizer as a duo named Know V.A., which is completely different from Cousin. That fact alone shows his versatility and capability as a producer. He’s an extremely important factor in the creative process of Cousin, but at the same time, it’s essential to me that the very soul of the music comes from me and me alone, since it is a very personal project. I think our collaboration works best if I start the creative process alone. To create the soul of the song. And then. later, he joins to help me finish it.
It took us a while to find a certain flow in our collaboration and the right sound for Cousin, but I think we reached a point where we both feel very comfortable. We’ve become good friends and I enjoy our collaboration very much.
Up until now, you were making music but didn’t publish much of it – previous to this release, you had three other songs on your SoundCloud account. What made you take the step? Was there a specific moment that made you feel like you wanted to focus more on your music career?
I’m an extreme perfectionist, and I had to accept that this artistic process is an ongoing process. I was waiting for the perfect sound, the perfect track, the perfect product; and I wasn’t going to release anything until it would reach that point. But I realized it would probably never come. I will never reach the point where I can be like, this is perfect and now I feel 100% comfortable sharing it. Plus, I think it’s very important to invite listeners to be a part of this process. How is your audience going to grow with you if they are not part of the process? If they can’t experience your development?
My music and I are going to transform over time. It doesn’t need to be a finished, perfect product right from the get-go. I don’t think that exists, and I don’t think it’s a healthy, productive state of mind. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, worrying about what other people would think. And at one point, I just thought fuck it. If it fails horribly, then it fails horribly. I’ll feel shitty about it for a moment but then I’ll get over it and just give it another go. It’s a cliché but clichés are clichés because they’re true.
You will never move forward if you’re not willing to leave your comfort zone. And it feels so good to allow myself to be vulnerable in this way. I don’t expect everyone to be a fan of the music. Some people will not like it, and that’s fine. But some people will, and that’s all that matters.
Your songs have a sort of flowy, melancholic, lo-fi atmosphere. To me, they’re perfect to listen to at night, in a room with dimmed lights, all by yourself. But is there any specific moment in the day or night that you think works best for your music? Or a place?
To experience my music in the best way, I think it’s very important that you’re in an environment where you can focus on the music and listen. In the past, I was often booked at club nights or certain festivals and events where people want to drink, talk and dance. And I’ve always felt these weren’t the right environments for me and my music to perform.
What I miss a lot in live shows nowadays is people taking the time to concentrate, focus and listen to the music. My most recent live performance was during a festival that took place at the Louvre museum in Paris. It was a huge auditorium and the audience was sitting down during the performance. There was no distraction. It was just me, the music and the audience. To me, this is the best way to experience it.
It’s also no coincidence that most of my music feels structurally different from a lot of pop music you hear today. There is often no chorus, no beat drop, no bridge. There is a different kind of build up and a different kind of climax. It is perhaps less pleasing to listen to if you’re used to a certain type of music. And I do this consciously because I want to catch listeners by surprise and invite them to actually listen to the music instead of just having it on the background.
It’s my dream to eventually translate this electronic music in an orchestral way. To work together with an orchestra and perform live in a big hall or auditorium where the audience is sitting and actively engaging with the music and the performer(s) like they used to do in the times of Édith Piaf or Jacques Brel. There used to be a certain magic in the air during concerts, and I miss this way of experiencing music.
This is your first EP, but you’ve been working on music for several years. How would you say your sound has evolved over time? Is there any direction you’d like to take it to (or not take it to)? Or do you remain open to possibilities and genres?
I remain extremely open to different genres. I have a huge folder on my Macbook with all kinds of music that inspire me, which can go from classical music to jazz to ‘80s pop. There’s not just one style I would like to commit to permanently. As I said before, it’s an ongoing process and I have a lot of ideas I want to realize. A lot of different styles I want to experiment with, such as the orchestral example I’ve just used.
I do think I have been influenced a lot by pop music and that it will always be a recognizable source within my sound whatever I do. Growing up, my dad used to listen to a lot of pop artists such as George Michael, Kylie Minogue and Kate Bush, and I think this is somehow very noticeable in my work – maybe because these were my very first introductions to music.
But I would like to work together more with different instrumentalists and combine these instrumental sounds with electronic beats I’ve now become familiar with. I think it’s also extremely interesting to get input from musicians that work with a completely different instrument than me. I believe it could elevate my music to the next level and maybe help it mature a bit more.
You also work as a visual artist, and so you’ve created the visuals for the songs and EP. Do you like to have total creative freedom and control over your work? How have you created a relationship between sound and image?
I do like to have total creative freedom and control, yes, mostly because I think I am the only one that truly knows, 100%, what exactly it is that I want my music to portray. Even if I can’t describe it in words exactly, I subconsciously and intuitively know exactly what I want. The next step for me would be to create a music video. This is something I am very much looking forward to. It’s exactly what I think will add another poetic layer to the music.
I’m very much inspired by film and the way musical and visual components can complement each other in conveying the emotion you want to share. There’s a specific scene in Xavier Dolan’s Juste La Fin Du Monde, which is one of my favourite movies. In this scene, everything slows down, the music starts playing and two characters exchange a set of looks. There are no words, but so much is being said in that scene. I can’t wait to experiment with this medium in a way that visually supports the music but won’t fully illustrate the story behind it.
Because of Covid-19, almost all festivals and concerts are postponed to 2021. Are you working on a live act to introduce your music to the public? Are you preparing yourself to perform in front of an audience when the time comes?
Yes, it has been quite a year… For now, I’m happy to put all my focus into creating new music for the next EP. I have some visual projects to look forward to – the development of a live performance concept I have in mind, as well as some music videos. Very much looking forward to all of this but Covid-19 is far from being over, so let’s make sure we’re safe and that we are able to get back on our feet after we’ve overcome this pandemic. But I’m positive that we will.
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