Since the release of her debut album, This Is Not a Bedroom in 2014, Alex Cohen of Alex Napping and Pema, hasn’t stopped working. Signed to both Father/Daughter Records and Topshelf Records, with 4 albums and an EP under her belt, as well as an array of music videos, Alex's incredible drive and work ethic have proved the maxim, “the harder I work, the luckier I get” truer than ever. However, it's her words on process that display both the effort and resilience required to truly enjoy making things: "enjoying the journey, enjoying the process, for me it’s been a long and hard-won thing, to realize I really do enjoy the process. It obviously is important to me to finish things...but I really do just love to work."
You have a remarkable drive create things. How do you maintain such high levels of productivity?
It’s funny because it’s just a compulsion. I don’t think of it as anything that’s out of the ordinary for me, it’s just what I have to do to feel normal and validated as a person. If I’m not creating at that pace and output, then I feel sad. And the thing is, I don’t know, I just have ideas, and I want to see them through, and I want to make them. Maybe it’s because I got so used to building the time and space into my life to work on things, even when I’m not feeling very inspired, that it’s just become habit that I can just be inspired by literally anything. Which is, I guess, a good thing. I feel like every single day of my life I have an idea about something or some project I want to do. And the only option I have is to do it.
How do you build that time and space to do all the things you do?
One of my favorite things to do, is every Sunday I have an hour which I set aside, and I look at my week. I have all my things on my to-do lists and I keep a running to-do list of everything in my calendar. And Sunday I sit down, and I’m like okay, what do I need to do this week, and I literally plan every single hour of my day. And I build in time, like on Tuesday, this time is my creative time. And I don’t view that time as free time, it’s like I’m clocking in for my job.
And you just butt to chair?
You moved to New York, broke out of the local Austin music scene, got signed to the amazing labels (Father/Daughter Records and Topshelf Records) you’ve been signed to-- that’s the highlight reel. But how do you deal with the ebb and flow of what you believe success to be?
I think about this a lot, it’s really easy to kind of go down a wormhole of, “oh things have slowed down for a few months, what does it mean.” What I’m trying to do is build a sustainable career as a musician, and I want a skill set that’s going to help for longevity. I don’t want to just put out a couple good albums in my twenties that a few people emotionally relate to, and that’s my career. I’m trying to build up a catalog of albums that’s diverse, and making sure in each of them I learn new skills and try new things. And maybe they don’t sound similar, but I think for me, success would be, being able to create a long-term career as a musician and producer and songwriter where I’m able to make a decent wage. That’s what I want
Do you have a day job to support your life?
I work part-time doing some freelance social media management stuff. I’ve been doing that since I graduated college. But that’s the dream, to not do that anymore.
Tell me about the difference between Alex Napping and Pema
I feel like those lines are increasingly blurred these days. It used to be that I felt that Pema was just a way for me, as an individual, to explore things in music and music production that maybe I hadn’t felt like I had the space or wherewithal to do with Alex Napping because it was a collaborative project. I started Pema because I wanted to start learning how to produce music. It’s weird how you work at something and one day you’re like, “wow, I guess I’m not faking it anymore!” even though you always feel like you are. The first Pema album I did, I collaborated with a bunch of different people because I wanted to absorb their workflows and techniques and be like, “okay these are people I know who produce music, how do they do it?” I decided to produce one track myself and it ended up becoming a couple more than just one. And then I realized, I can do this, and I did a second album and I decided to do it totally by myself. That was a wild time. I recorded 95% of it in my bedroom, then I did vocals and had written up a bunch of horn arrangements and piano parts and recorded them at my friend Jose’s studio. That was an intense time. Afterwards, I was like, okay I’m ready to collaborate again. That album is coming out on a label called Topshelf Records. They’re good people. Kevin is one of the co-owners and founders. I’d been sending him demos and mixes-- I think I started sending him stuff about a year ago. I was slow about it. I have this weird thing where I finish a project and I don’t want to share it for six months. I feel like I just spent so much time and energy on this thing, I don’t want anyone to see it.
How do you deal with the stress or anxiety of putting yourself or your work out there?
I feel like sometimes it really sucks to put something out there, even if it’s well received, its never going to be exactly what you want. So you have to learn to not have expectations. Especially since I’m in the middle of releasing of something right now, the thing that has been my center and foundation, as it’s coming out, is to just be working on something else. I actually am putting energy into this thing, but I’m really putting more of my energy into making something else that no one else knows about. I think that was really stressful last year, when I was putting out the last Alex Napping record, I was on tour a lot, I wasn’t home a lot and I wasn’t able to spend as much time working on things as I like. I’ve realized that working is a really grounding thing for me. That it helps me deal with the anxiety of touring, releasing and promoting things. And I found that if I have something new I’m excited about, then I don’t care as much or have as much invested in caring about people’s reactions to the other thing
Tell me about your collaborative process. Who have you been working with?
I was in the woods for a month at the beginning of April with my friends Cameron and Aaron. Cameron had a band called Cende and he was the drummer in Porches forever. We just made a record together and we spent a month in upstate New York doing all the initial tracking and songwriting. I had some pretty fleshed out demos, but we didn’t want to be limited or feel bound by any ideas or preconceptions. We did that and came to New York and I spent six weeks just recording vocals… It’s been fun. Especially with Aaron, I felt like we’re on the same wavelength in terms of what kind of music we want to make. Like relationships, I feel like you aren’t obligated to collaborate with people, if you have been. If you’re not on the same path or have the same vision… it’s hard but you shouldn’t feel tied down to it. It’s like a breakup, it can be shitty.
In terms of your bigger dreams, how do you set goals?
I’ve told this to a lot of people recently, but I want to make a record a year until I die. I don’t know, I have loose goals in terms of timelines I want to have things done by or projects that I definitely want to do in the immediate future, which I guess for me is anywhere from 6 months to two years. If I have a project in the docket, I really want to get it done in the next two years. I feel like having hard goals is generally kind of harmful for me and my personality. I don’t know, I think it sets things up too much in a way, in that there’s the potential to not achieve something and feel bad about it. I just think of loose timelines for when projects should be done. That’s as far as goal setting I get. On a day-to-day basis I just want to be working. I want to be working on the thing I’m working on and do that. It’s not grand. But I feel like a lot of this work is not very grand or romantic, it’s just a lot of trudging through.
There’s a joy in that!
Yeah! And I think this is really important to me-- enjoying the journey, enjoying the process, and for me it’s been a long and hard-won thing, to realize I really do enjoy the process. It obviously is important to me to finish things, and I do like finishing things in reasonable timelines, but I really do just love to work. I don’t want to retire from this shit.
How do you deal with people not liking you, liking your ideas or being jealous of you?
After I put out that first record, was actually a really horrible time in my life. Not because of that, but because I released something that was totally my own, and then kind of dealt with the post-release blues, of “that’s over, what’s next?” And then I spent the next year being pretty miserable and not working. So I don’t know. I feel like I was just in a really internal place then, so I don’t even know if I was paying attention to what people were saying... Finally, I was like, “why do I feel so shitty?” and then I realized I wanted to be a musician but I wasn’t doing a very good job at it. So I decided to do a good job. And learn things. I wish I had a better answer. I don’t know, it sounds stupid to be like, “I don’t care what people say,” but I don’t. I just want to be working on things that I’m proud of and am happy to be working on. So maybe that’s my answer, what I focus on, when that happens, is just fucking tuning it out. I know that I’m making a really good record right now.
I really admire about you is your ability to teach yourself things, in particular programs such as Logic and Ableton. Do you just get books or watch YouTube videos? You are one of the only women I know personally, who knows how to produce and record herself.
I think interacting with the program, you just have to open it up and be like, "my goal is to make a song" and then, whenever you encounter anything you literally have no idea how to do, which is often when you’re starting, you’re like I’ll search this thing, and if I can’t find it I’d call a friend. I think that at some point, you’ve got to recognize that it will be tedious. The internet is such a valuable resource. My newest thing this year, is that I’ve been learning hip-hop dance, I’ve been going to classes, and I was really nervous before my first class so I looked up classes on YouTube. I found this amazing dance instructor on YouTube, and I’ve been going through his videos and it's so fun. It gave me the confidence to go to my first class.
This new record that I’m working on, I’m so excited about it. I wrote this whole space opera story for it, so the record is about that. So that’s my new thing, I only make concept records haha. I’m finally living out my dream. But it’s hard. I’m broke, I don’t have a lot of free time and I’m always constantly in doubt if I’m good enough or doing the right thing, or am I a fucking fraud, but that’s part of it. But I feel like I’m breaking even, and that’s good.