Released in 2019, Coup Jean’s “Aloe” is an album that is deeply personal, and explores subjects like loss, queer relationships, mental illness and the patriarchy.
With mainly jazz, soul and pop influences in addition to stunningly vulnerable lyrics, “Aloe” is Coup Jean’s debut album, and a brilliant one at that.
Coup Jean describes the album as a love letter to the five stages of grief.
“Aloe is melancholy, Aloe is grief,
When all the other flowers dance, Aloe likes to sleep,” states Jean’s website.
In this conversation with Coup Jean, we delve into his inspirations, how his art is inspired by his queerness and his plans for the future.
Q. You said you stopped singing for a while after your sister passed away. When and how, then, did you decide to make Aloe?
My sister, Dr. Kakoli Banerjee, was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer in December, 2014. Unfortunately, by the time we caught it, we were already too late to stop it. She left us in September, 2015. I didn’t have much communication with her in the last couple of months because she was in too much pain to make calls. The thought of her, a good person- generous, loyal, compassionate and altruistic, having to suffer through that agony, for what?
I wasn’t naïve. I was aware there was nothing that could have been done. But the meaning of it all was lost on me. Like some kind of cosmic joke. And there I was, without my sun to anchor me.
I’d seen death up close before. Still, nothing could have prepared me for it.
I couldn’t do anything for a long time. Any of the things I would normally do. It wasn’t like when I lost my dad in 2009 at all. The pain hit different. No amount of Dido, Lady Gaga or even Ella Fitzgerald could fill this hollowness. I was dazed, angry and profoundly sad for a long period between December 2014 and May 2016. My two lifelong constants– my sister and my need for music– had left me. It was jarring, eerie. I’m still very angry most days.
I had been writing down some stray thoughts in order to untangle them and my friends helped me get back in touch with music. In June, it was pointed out to me that I had more than enough material for a full length album, something I had been urged to try my hand at earlier. All I needed was music. My friends started volunteering their time and effort, helped me shape my haphazard ideas. And then in August, at a farewell party for my friend Chiquita, she and another dear friend Rohan, literally started a crowdfunding campaign on Ketto for me. I was putting myself through film school at the time and there was no way I’d be able to do this otherwise.
Long before 2014, recording and publishing my own originals had been a pipe dream. As a vocalist, I never thought it would actually happen. When I pictured it originally I’d been wearing rose colored glasses, I guess. When it happened, I literally did it to stop myself going insane. Survivors’ guilt can take many forms, I suppose.
Q. How did the process of creating Aloe play a role in your healing?
Making Aloe helped give me perspective. I made the mistake of putting too much of my personal expectations solely into the completion of Aloe. As a musical ode to my sister, and to all those trying to process grief, Aloe became both the eye of the storm that was my life at the time and my personal mission. There was too much riding on it.
Several things changed in quick succession. The album became an EP. Some songs were dropped, others altered. Technical and personal difficulties kept delaying the production.
I realized true freedom is quite illusory, there’s only so much one can do. So I took a step back for a while. And when I looked at Aloe again, I still wanted to finish it, but the driving force now was not anger or desperation, it was a cold acceptance of one universal truth- everything ends. Personal healing is and will remain a work in process. Five years of mourning a person simply cannot outweigh a lifetime of love.
Q. How does being Desi and queer impact your work?
Every form of self-expression is ultimately a conduit for lived experience. As a somewhat effeminate gay man living in a heteropatriarchal system I’ve been bullied, harassed, groped, belittled, beaten and punished. You kind of start expecting it everywhere after the first few times. Throughout school, during college, post grads, professional spaces. It’s all the same. There are very few safe spaces for queer people. Very little space afforded to them in general. You start telling yourself, no one is above it. Nowhere is too public. Of course this conditioning is barbaric, of course it leaves deep scars.
I remember being bullied in school for my higher-than-usual-for-boys voice. Nothing remotely feminine was acceptable at an all-boys school. But I also had some great people who gave me positive reinforcement.
Of course it affects you. You try not to dwell on it. You try to have civil conversations. You try learning about feminist politics. So that you can continue to have civil discussions. You find words like macroaggression and tallying people’s social privileges or lack thereof. Of course you want to oppose this violence. Yet you have to be civil because radicalism will lead to more violence. But none of these terms matters when a person is having their agency taken away.
I’ve had my agency taken away from me. I’ve been raped. I’ve lived in fear. Fact is, no statistical counting of labels and privileges actually matters when it comes to instinct.
Would I like for that to change? Absolutely. I would like trans people to have more rights, I would love for the Hijra community to be provided education, healthcare and work by our Government, I would love for queer people to be able to adopt, for queer love to be normalized, for women to have more equitable opportunities, for the IPC to at least acknowledge that domestic and sexual violence can occur irrespective of sex of victim. It would make my life a lot easier. Maybe my first boyfriend wouldn’t feel the need to keep me secret for 11 odd years, then.
But these are ifs and buts, based on retrospective readings of circumstances beyond my control.
So it only serves to be nostalgic about how something affected me if I’m ready to deal with it in my own terms and move on.
Being gay and Desi, it shaped my thinking, sure. So did being into western pop music from a very young age. So did growing up on Bengali food. When I garnish my music, I know which song represents what flavor to me.
What I’m trying to say is, it’s more pertinent I think to ask, how can I affect the Queer Indian space? What can I do to help?
That said, most of the romantic songs are written from the perspective of a gay, unrequited lover. Hairfall, in fact, is about all the boys I truly loved and lost.
Also, quick shoutout to Nandini Moitra and Upasana Agarwal, proprietors and operators of Amra Odhbhut Café and Collective in Kolkata. I met Nan and Upasana at Kolkata Pride in 2013, and their work with the café really cemented the importance of love shared within the queer community. A lot of us, when we get rejected by our own families or friends, actively seek tribes without even realizing it. These lovely ladies built a café with the idea of making it a safe space for queer feminist values. It’s a real testament to the joyful noise that this community is capable of making when we band together. This community will never make you feel like an outsider. It will never let you give up on yourself.
Also, shout out to the inimitable Debabrata Das AKA Ti.Shis, they basically produced the publicity campaign.
As for being Desi, writing western music independently in India, has presented its difficulties, but it has also greatly inspired my musical palate and appetite. The world at large is still more accessible to white people than to non-whites. But times are changing, hopefully.
I’ll let you know should any international major labels ask me to sign a record deal. But I want to keep making music regardless. For myself, just as much as for everyone who appreciated Aloe.
I will say this, Indian indie musicians are incredibly supportive and driven. My collaborators Shireen Ghosh (of Whale in The Pond), Shamik Ghoshal and Deeptarko Chowdhury, Rohit Ganesh and Tapasi Bhattacharya (of Rejected Cartoons) and guitarist Gaurav Tamang went above and beyond the call of duty on Aloe.
Q. What is something you learnt during the making of your album?
Simply put, ‘make better choices.’ Also, ‘go easy on yourself and trust your friends to have your back.’
Q. What is your favourite song you have ever created?
You haven’t heard it yet. If my impostor syndrome ever backs off, maybe you will someday.
Q. How do you want your music to make listeners feel?
Safe, first and foremost. Seen, secondly. And I want them to feel alive. For everything that may or may not mean to an individual, I want my listeners to grasp that more than anything.
Q. What is your creative process like?
It’s different for different projects. But it’s almost always erratic. And more often than not it’s introspective. I listen to a lot of Broadway show tunes and Jazz, so I take my musical cues from there. The recorder on my phone is my best friend where the capture of these stray thoughts is concerned. I also like work out melodies for songs by doing harmonic vocal exercises.
Q. What is something that inspires you?
The steadfastly indomitable human spirit. And videos of unlikely animal friendships.
Q. What would you say are your main influences at the moment?
At the moment, I’m working on my film career, I’ve recently taken up teaching some students online, so that feels very rewarding. Musically, I’m listening to a lot of Bossa Nova and Scandinavian dance pop.
Q. What are your future plans? Is there more music coming soon?
Just before the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown began, I was planning on putting together a band and touring some cities in India with my music. I do plan on releasing more singles as well along with maybe a video for one of the tracks on Aloe. But it’ll probably be a while before any of that can happen. I’m currently still looking for representation; I would like to see what I can do with a commercial budget for a full length album eventually. It’s too early to talk about it but I am also writing for a concept album heavy on musical collaboration. Fingers crossed. For regular updates, you can check www.coupjean.com.