Evelyn Cools on Leveling the Production Playing Field

Photo by Tye Edwards

When Evelyn Cools describes her unfolding music career as a journey, it isn’t just a metaphor. The now-New-Jersey-based singer/songwriter was born in Belgium, and she’s been on the move ever since, traveling first for her parents’ work and now for her own. She’s spent time in Hong Kong as well as mainland China, studied cultural and creative industries in London, and she recorded her new EP, Misfit Paradise, while she was working as a sound engineer in L.A.

From the first track, Cools lets you know where she’s writing from. “Another Night” finds her on a chilly patch of California coastline, inspiring a melancholy what-if. The rest of the EP fleshes out her fascination with place and the concept of home. Sometimes it’s a literal place, like the national park that sparked her passion for nature on “Yosemite,” but can also be a more abstract sense of found family, as on the title track, “Misfit Paradise.”

You can think of each song as a misfit with its own personality as Cools dabbles in different styles. “Another Night” takes a keyboard-driven pop approach. “Gold Woman” has a fiery country edge. “Yosemite” paints its landscape in cinematic folk-rock. But in each one, Cools channels the feeling of the world around her into a monumentally catchy melody.

Misfit Paradise is also Cools’ first self-recorded EP–in collaboration with producer Enrique Lara–taking the shortest route yet from her brain to the finished product. Before the release, she spoke to The All Scene Eye about creative problem solving and learning how to level the playing field between an artist and their producer.

How have you been doing given the ongoing pandemic conditions?

It’s been kind of a settling into it. In the beginning, there were a lot more ups and downs, and I think now I’ve started to get a better workflow and kind of adjust. I was doing so many live shows, both as a musician and as an audio engineer, so it was really a rethinking of my creative process, and in the middle of that, my fiance and I also moved. It was a lot to handle, but I’m starting to feel like I have a flow again, and it’s nice having this EP to focus on. In the beginning, I was feeling a little lost, but this is something that I’ve been working on for almost two years, so it’s nice that at least that stays consistent.

What is it like for you putting out an EP right now?

Well, on the logistical end, it’s been tricky. I had just moved from L.A. in February, and I was planning on going back there to finish up all the visuals and hopefully two music videos, which, even here, being in New York, it’s hard to film most things even if you have the people around you. It’s just something that’s really tricky right now. Also, I love playing live, and I always imagined releasing this EP with a lot of live shows, especially intimate shows where I can do things acoustically and really connect with the audience, so I think it’s mainly been hard coming to terms with that.

It’s not how I would have envisioned my release of the EP, but at the same time, it’s been so cool talking to people from everywhere over Zoom. I feel like there’s a lot more openness to connect that way–also with blogs and interviews–and it’s been cool seeing how people are trying to keep this community alive online. I’ve been trying to find my place within that as well, doing live streams and such. It’s a little weird in the beginning when you’re used to playing to a real audience, so I think it’s definitely been settling into it and also letting go of the expectations that I had before all of this started happening.

What has it been like for you settling into that live stream mindset? Is playing that way something you enjoy?

It is–I think the first live stream I ever did was a few years ago, and it was actually way more fun than I had anticipated, so I’ve been enjoying it. I haven’t been doing as many as other musicians because I’ve been so focused on the backend of the EP and making sure that I do have enough visuals and that I am connecting online with people, but I’ll definitely do a live stream for the EP release, so I’m excited to do that just on my Instagram. I have a lot of people from around the world that follow me, so the nice thing is that I get to choose a time in the middle of the day here in New York that people in L.A. can listen to me and people back home in Belgium can hear me. I think it’s actually brought my family members that haven’t really seen my journey from close by because they’re in Europe, and also just my European friends–I think it’s brought them closer to my journey, which is a cool thing that probably wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for quarantine and things like that.

Your last EP, Calming Storm, came out in 2015. When did you start working on the songs that would become the Misfit Paradise EP?

I think the first song I wrote from this EP was “Yosemite” three years ago, but the majority of them have been written in the last two years, right before I moved to L.A. from New York and encompassing that whole transition–getting to L.A. on my own for the first time without friends or family, starting to understand myself better and almost see it as a therapy. Experiences that I’ve had my whole life that I never really thought about deeply, they all started coming out into songs about two years ago.

Has your relationship to these songs changed in that time?

I think all of the songs have just become more special to me because this is the first EP that I’ve completely self-produced, and it’s completely my own vision. The first EP that I did, I was very fresh to the music scene and I was really trying to understand all the aspects of it for the first time, so it was nice to have a record label that was also a production company that could guide me with everything, with, you know, the songwriting, the production, and the visuals, but over the years, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gone to audio school and I’ve really tried to delve into what it means to be an independent musician and do everything from a very DIY approach. So these songs are super, super important to me. It shows how much I’ve grown, and they just completely feel like how I wanted them to sound when I first wrote them.

I read somewhere that at one point you took a course in recording and production at the Institute of Audio Research. You’ve alluded to the fact that you’ve done some engineering for other people. What first got you into the technical side of things?

In 2015, I took an elective course at university. I was studying a course called cultural and creative industries–a bachelor in London–and it was an elective on sound recording. That’s what first introduced me to the world of sound and the more technical side, which was really inspiring to me, and at the same time, I always felt a lack of being able to express myself as a musician to audio engineers and producers. I felt like I didn’t have the right skills or the right vernacular to express what I wanted out of the sound, so really, it was a way for me to also get a more level playing field with the people that I was going to be working with–and yeah, really understand my own music better and not feel as unsure of myself when I’m performing at shows and the audio engineer asks, like, “What do you want for your EQ?” or “How much reverb do you want?” It gave me a lot more confidence as a musician to also have an understanding of the technical side.

How did having that level playing field affect the way that you approached these songs?

I found a producer in L.A. that was very much aligned from the beginning with my music. All the things that I envisioned for it, he was saying before I had even told him about it. But really, in the process of producing and recording the songs, I felt like it was much more of a collaboration rather than a producer telling me how I should sound. It’s just given me a lot more confidence in my own abilities, and that also allowed me to create a product that feels far more authentic to my own vision.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to other artists who want to start recording their own music?

I think from a live sound perspective, it’s really important to understand at least a little bit of the technicalities. It can be very scary in the beginning when you’re performing and you don’t really feel confident speaking to the people around you and your team. It can be very daunting, and in the beginning, I just felt like I wasn’t really worthy of being there, almost, or I felt scared to talk about the things that I really wanted for my sound because I felt like I wasn’t able to vocalize that. On the recording side, you know, demos, you can easily record on your phone. If you’re not going for a high-quality recording at home, that’s fine because you can work with producers, you can record in studios, but I really do think that having a basic understanding of live sound can help you as a performing artist.

You mentioned that the first song you wrote on this EP was “Yosemite,” and that’s one that you released as an acoustic arrangement in 2017. What was it like revisiting that to incorporate into the EP?

Yeah, when I first wrote it, I actually envisioned production behind it. I envisioned the feeling of driving through mountains, kind of a low drums and bass, sweeping feelings, but all of that felt so difficult to obtain without having a team around me that could make it happen. That’s a song that I’ve been playing for a while acoustically, and I know that people really enjoy it, and at that time, I was studying audio engineering here in New York, and it was the first song that I recorded myself and released myself. So the acoustic version is something special on its own, but really, this new produced version is how I envisioned it from the start, and I honestly can’t really believe that it came out exactly the way that I was hearing it in my head. It’s been a really, really beautiful process with that song, and it continues to be one of my favorite songs that I’ve written. I perform it live every single time.

When you perform that song, is there a particular memory or a trip to Yosemite that you think of, or is it a more general feeling?

It’s kind of shifted. The first time I went to Yosemite, at least that I can remember, I was 14. I might have been before, but that was the most impactful trip that I had, and ever since seeing that, it’s given me so much more respect for nature, preservation of the environment, and sustainability. It really started that conversation within myself, that that’s something that I find really important. And then when I decided to move to California on my own, just the fact that Yosemite National Park and all this beautiful nature that’s around it was there, it gave me a sense home, almost, or just courage to go and do that on my own.

A year later, I–my boyfriend also has a very close connection with Yosemite. He’s been going there for a long time, and we went there and camped for the first time together as a family with our dog. That was probably the most magical experience that I’ve had in Yosemite, but it’s kind of crazy how it feels like all of this has built up to that. He’s now my fiance, and we’ll hopefully get married in Yosemite as well, so it’s kind of strange but beautiful how that park has woven through my life and has given me a lot of peace. Just knowing that it exists and that places like that exist, it’s an endless source of inspiration.

Is that something you’ve been able to continue to draw on even in quarantine? Is there still a way for you to access nature and that source of inspiration?

Definitely. It’s definitely been hard moving, in the beginning to Brooklyn–we just moved to New Jersey, so it feels a little bit more nature-oriented, but moving from California, where we were camping almost every weekend sometimes, or you can drive for 45 minutes and you’re in the middle of nowhere, I think that’s definitely been an adjustment. Moving here, and then at the same time, with quarantine, it’s even harder to get out of the city, but I think it’s been really important to have my music and to have those memories. I know that my most authentic self is when I’m in places like that, so I definitely try to draw on that and just look at old photos, listen to the song, play the song–and a lot of my music has references to nature, so I think through my music, I almost transport myself into that time or those places.

Home is a theme that you’ve touched on that runs a lot through this EP. Can you tell me about the title track, “Misfit Paradise,” and how that became the name of this project?

That was actually a song that I wrote inspired by audio school, and it was the first time in my life that I was in an environment with people from completely different cultures–completely different backgrounds. I’ve grown up as an expat child, so we always went to international schools, my brothers and I, which is diverse in its own way, but when it comes to people’s social classes and the way they’re being brought up, it was all pretty similar. I think this was the first time I had people around me from all ages, all races, that were all just tied together by the love of music. 

That was such an eye-opening experience for me, how it really doesn’t matter what your past is–it doesn’t matter how much you’ve been educated or literally anything. It doesn’t matter as long as you have good intentions and you have passion for something. That was the root of the song, but I think in general, a message that I want to give to people is that it doesn’t always matter what circumstances you come from. The societal values that you see around you don’t have to dictate your future and who you surround yourself with–to allow yourself to break out of that, and that there’s a paradise for misfits.

I think the reason I chose that as the title track for the EP is it really does feel like it’s an encompassing term of how my last two years of my life have gone, just really searching for people that inspire me and the place that I can call home, whether that’s a physical place, or the people that I surround myself with. It’s been a really important term in my journey. I’ve carried that song, “Misfit Paradise,” with me to different places as well, and it’s always stayed true to my situation. I think it also sounds kind of cool. [laughs]

Part of that undercurrent in this album is that you recorded a lot of it in an actual home–I read that you recorded things in your living room. How did that space influence the way that you were recording? And to clarify, where was that?

So, it was actually in my producer’s living room. I think it was, like, midcity in L.A., and in the beginning, it was honestly to keep costs down, the fact that we didn’t have to rent out a studio. I was also working full time as an assistant engineer at a dialog recording studio in Burbank, so it was really kind of, whenever I had the time to go after work, or on a weekend when I wasn’t audio engineering at live shows. It was really an intense time, but it was wonderful to have a space that felt so easily accessible–so not-daunting. Sometimes recording studios can be a little bit scary [laughs] and this felt so natural. 

Whatever I wanted to sing, whatever I wanted to play for my producer, new songs, it felt like a very easy space to do that in. It was also cool for me having an audio background to work together with my producer in problem-solving–like, putting blankets on the walls and trying out different positions for the microphone to get as close to a studio recording sound as we could. It was a really exciting process for me too because of it. 

The strings for “Misfit Paradise” I recorded in another musician’s bedroom in Silver Lake. He was kind of producing the string section, and he had one cello player and one violin player, and they did a bunch of takes and just moved around the space with microphones overhead so if you put it all together, it sounded like a fuller ensemble. That was such a cool experience for me to be a part of as well.

How did that part come about–that little microcosm of the recording process?

Well, actually, this was a musician that I had met, and he had done this for his own music before, and it was just such a cool, problem-solving hack because recording strings can be so expensive. If you want to get a full sound, you really want at least four musicians, and it would be great if they’re sitting in a beautiful space–like, beautiful acoustics–and all of that is just very expensive. At the same time, I didn’t want to just use midi strings. You know, a lot of music these days is being done with samples and midi instruments, which is really cool for a lot of genres. I think it’s awesome that these things are more accessible to people, but for this EP, it was really important for me to get almost exclusively live instruments. That’s something that I hadn’t had the first time around, and as an audio engineer as well, I just felt like it was really important to do that at least once and see how those sounds compared. I think overall, it feels a lot more natural and just fuller.

Is this kind of methodology something that you would do again, or was it something that was just important for you to do this time?

No, 100% I would do it again. I think it would be wonderful if I had my own studio–I’m working on that here in New Jersey, where I can at least record great vocals, but it’s a little tricky right now. My producer’s in L.A., and I definitely want to keep working with him, and I love the approach that we have. Besides keeping the cost down, it’s also just a really cool, exciting way of working, but now I’m just trying to troubleshoot all these distance issues that we might be having for recording future songs. In the future, there’s a good possibility that we’ll be doing something very similar, but with people all in their own locations, recording things DIY. I could very much see myself recording guitar and vocals here, and then my producer in L.A. recording drums and bass, and then someone else recording strings in a different state–that’s also a cool thing about what’s happening, is that people are problem-solving these things and being creative. I’m looking forward to it as well, but it’ll be a little bit of a trial and error, I’m sure.

You mentioned the way that you had to change your plans in terms of the visuals for this album. What can you tell me about what you have planned going forward?

So, I planned on doing two videos in L.A., which we ended up just making into one video for “Misfit Paradise.” I’m working with my art director who’s in L.A., and I had a videographer that I hired over here in New York to film all the parts that she thought were important to have me in, so she’s doing a combination of archive footage and then me singing the song–it’s kind of meeting in the middle [laughs] for what we can do right now. That’s going to be out in September, which we’re still working on a little bit, but it’s almost finished, so I’m very excited for that. We also want to do a music video that we already have a concept for for the last song on the album, called “Soaring,” but that’s really something that I want to do in person with my art director. She’s so amazing to work with, and I think it’s really important for us to not be impatient and wait it out so we can make that vision come to life.

In the meantime, how are you planning to celebrate the EP release?

It’s premiering the day before on a blog that I’m really excited about, and then I’m also going to do a live stream on my Instagram, and I think that’ll be really fun. It’ll be a combination of me singing some songs from the EP, answering any questions, and hopefully just having a conversation with a bunch of people that I’ve met around the world about this project that I’ve been working on so long. I think the promotion process never really stops after that either. It’s important to keep promoting the songs even after they’re out, and I’m still figuring out what the best ways to do that are in this climate where we can’t do real shows, but I’m excited.

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