Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
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Ora Cogan is following her own compass

20 March 2024, 14:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Paloma Ruiz

As she announces a special European release of her eighth album Formless, Canadian experimental singer/songwriter Ora Cogan talks to Alan Pedder about finding ways to feel good when everything goes bad.

Born to a creative, loving family within the small community of Salt Spring Island off the Pacific coastline of Canada, Ora Cogan had a somewhat surreal childhood.

Her father was a photojournalist and her mother a popular singer/songwriter, and the family home doubled as a recording studio that played host to local island artists as well as international stars like pioneering flautist Paul Horn. Music was everywhere, noon to night. Her parents were activists, too; her mother was among more than 850 arrested in the 1993 protests against logging in the Vancouver Island rainforests and spent a short time in prison when Cogan was a child.

Growing up, Cogan immersed herself in the dusty LPs of old-timey folk music in her parents’ collection, as well as learning how to play grunge and rock songs from the hobos that hung around the local park. She wrote her first songs as an awkward teen in the corners of skate parks and house parties. “The first time I got on stage alone was to sing acapella Sinéad O’Connor songs at a party on a farm,” she says, cringing. “I bombed pretty hard and cried in the rose bushes… I guess it’s all been uphill from there.”

I first encountered Cogan’s music through her association with Frazey Ford and Trish Klein of Vancouver folk royalty The Be Good Tanyas. Leaving home at 15 to take up an apprenticeship on a smaller neighbouring island, Cogan later moved across the water to the city, playing in various bands and different music communities. She was in her mid-20s when Ford and Klein took her under their wings, helping her to record her debut album Tatter (2007), believing in the uniqueness of her artistic voice. The album is not currently available to stream in Europe, save for one song on Bandcamp and her exquisite cover of the world-weary standard “Motherless Child”, but it’s enough to get a feel for her earliest steps into self-penned balladry and traditional folk.


By 2010, Cogan had fallen in with Vancouver’s noise and experimental punk scene and began to incorporate subtly shifting drones and microtonal singing into her music. She credits her third album The Quarry with being her first foray into psych and doom-folk. “I was getting excited about elements in traditional folk songs that can make music as heavy and vital as metal or punk,” she says. “When it came to putting together my own songs, I wanted to do everything at the same time. I’ve been coming from the same ridiculous place since I was a teen, but I’m getting better at existing in the weird Venn diagram of things I love.”

Cogan’s creative process took another big leap with her sixth album Crickets, released in 2017. Largely written over a winter spent housesitting for a friend in Tla-o-qui-aht territory, against a backdrop of wild Pacific storms, it pushed her into exploring a more visual approach to songwriting and bringing in synths and other instruments she wouldn’t normally gravitate to. “It’s the first time I found the courage to put my human self into making a record,” she says. “I started seeing the making of an album as both a concept to execute and a practice of listening to the spirit of the work as it forms from a stream of consciousness.”

For her next album, 2020’s Bells in the Ruins, Cogan ran almost solely on vibes, letting the songs steer the sensorial experience of the work as they came. It’s perhaps her most emo record, beautifully realised through her vivid and painterly storytelling with a strong naturalistic bent. There were songs of struggle, of shadows, devils and blades, but there was a tenderness to them that lingered in the mind.

Ora Cogan landscape

As a diehard touring musician forced off the road during the pandemic, Cogan took up her father’s baton as a photojournalist. For months she documented anti-logging protests within Pacheedaht territory on southern Vancouver Island – events that snowballed into one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Activists and indigenous land defenders facing off against militarised police at the blockades were subjected to a brutality that rocked Cogan’s sense of stability in the world as she witnessed, photographed and wrote about the violence with her friend and fellow journalist Jerome Turner.

Her world was rocked further still when her father passed away in November that same year after a long illness, and Cogan’s intense sorrow can be felt in the marrow of her latest album, Formless. “Without a bleak hellscape of grief and a deep desire to not be a miserable wastebag, this album could not exist,” she says, emphatically. “I was grieving my father. I was broken-hearted. I was burnt out from a lot of stuff. Everything sucked, basically, and the ground was shifting underneath me at every turn.”

Writing Formless was her lifeline, in the most literal sense, keeping her afloat and ultimately teaching her to move towards her pain “in a good way.” “I wasn’t really cohesive as a human and working on the music was good for putting myself back together,” she says. “I was crying a lot, but the work ended up feeling so bright and clear. I think that growing some humility and accepting my vulnerability was what gave me the strength to see the project through, along with support from some really good friends.”

Abandoning any preconceived notions she might once have had for what her creative process could look like, Cogan knew that in order to make meaningful work she would have to embrace the chaos of the moment. Not to try and break it down, but to sit within its turbulent flow and listen. One way of doing that was to take long, meditative walks with her dog Toro (aka Noodle) in the forests and river trails around her home in Nanaimo, recording voice notes and jotting down ideas. Later, after recording some rough demos, she’d play them while driving, singing along to reveal the melodies. She also took an online songwriting workshop mentored by ex-Deerhoof member Chris Cohen who inspired her to challenge her ideas of song structure.

The result is an album of atmospheric expanded Americana – folkgaze, some might call it – that filters the derangement of the times through a hazy cloudland of serendipitous grooves and drowsy orchestration. Co-produced with David Parry of Loving, the tracks were recorded mostly live to analogue tape with the rhythm section of David Proctor and Finn Smith (who both co-wrote some of the arrangements), though Cogan recorded her vocals alone “for the most part.” Guest musicians include Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba, who duets on new single “Ways of Losing”, and Cormac Mac Diarmada of Lankum, who added violin and viola to “Feel Life”.

“The desperate need to do something life affirming during a really hard time was a fantastic driver for the work,” says Cogan, describing the album as a way of recalibrating her internal compass. “There were some cute moments after we recorded ‘Cowgirl’ and ‘Feel Life’ where everyone started dancing, and playing those at shows has been really fun.”

"Without a bleak hellscape of grief and a deep desire to not be a miserable wastebag, this album could not exist."


The title Formless was suggested by a friend of Cogan’s one night after they had been talking about how grief can make a person feel between-worlds – “one foot in the world of the living and one in the spirit world” – and it immediately stuck. Both worlds can be deeply weird and sad, and Cogan doesn’t flinch from that in her writing. The woozy “Ways of Losing” may sound like an artefact of some unknown utopia, with its cinematic choral swoops and trumpet-addled close, but at its heart is the very dystopic state of our collective mental health.

“I lost one friend to a fentanyl overdose and one to suicide last year,” says Cogan, adding that she doesn’t know anyone in Western Canada who hasn’t been touched by the fentanyl overdose epidemic currently raging, with more than six people in her province losing their lives each day. “Writing this song was my way of processing a lot of grief and wishing their spirits well. It’s a love letter to people who don’t fit well into our cruel society.”

In the video, Cogan and Mendoza celebrate the bond of friendship, rambling around the streets of Mexico City in the daylight and dark, rivers of glitter falling from their eyes. “Shooting that video with Bray Jorstad and Micah Henry, who have worked on all the incredible music videos for Formless, was such a dream and maybe one of my favourite times ever. I’m really grateful and humbled that Luz joined me for the most vulnerable song on the record. I’ve been a fan of Y La Bamba forever. Their work is genius and has broken my heart open many times over.”

Ora Cogan smile

When it comes to music and other artforms, Cogan is most excited by works that defy or subvert the generally accepted rules in some unusual way. It’s one reason why she keeps returning to the story of “Katie Cruel”, a centuries-old folk song from Scotland that she first recorded over a decade ago on her fourth album Ribbon Vine, and reinvents on Formless. “That song, to me, is about defiance and resilience,” she says. “It’s likely about a sex worker who travelled with light infantry soldiers, but there are lines in that song that could resonate with anyone who has ever gone against the grain or been degraded.”

“Histories of certain communities are often left out of textbooks, which are so often written by those in power, but those histories have made it into songs. If ‘folk music’ is the people’s music, then there are a lot of genres that could be considered folk, and I love thinking of modern music that way. As being a part of a thread to our ancestors and to future generations.”

Formless is released on 31 May via Prism Tongue Records. Ora Cogan is touring Europe throughout June, ending with a run of six UK dates from 23–29 June.

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