Emily Kokal, singer, guitarist and songwriter of the band Warpaint, knows the value of boredom. She might not be where she is today – set to drop the band’s new album Radiate Like This on May 6 and set off on a European tour – if it weren’t for boredom . Idle, she discovers songwriting books, guitar chords and the beginnings of what will become her profession: creativity.
On those occasions when her mother anchored her in her childhood, maybe that’s when it all really started. Today, however, children (and people in general) are inundated with options and things to do. But what happens to people, she wonders, without periods of uncertainty, without downtime? Luckily for Kokal, she had her own moments like this, and they helped give her the tools to become the acclaimed entertainer she is now. Hopefully, she says, others will experience the same.
“My mom,” says Kokal, “or my mom’s boyfriend had the Beatlemania guitar book. And I opened the book one day, which is why boredom is so important to children. Boredom makes you do things like pick up a guitar.
Growing up, Kokal was in a family of musicians. She would travel from her home in Eugene, Oregon during the summers and visit her grandmother in the Bay Area and play her piano. In fact, that same piano now sits in the Warpaint studio space. His uncle was a singer who performed Frank Sinatra songs to large, full halls. He even raised her on stage when she was only two years old and when, in still vivid memory, she remembers both great shyness and a great love for attention. Other members of his family would sing Grateful Dead songs and play covers together.
“That musical spirit brought us together,” says Kokal. “It planted the seed that music could be a profession.”
Thanks to this, she always knew what she wanted to do. As a child, she had a lot of energy. She was a natural performer and a lover of fun and entertainment. But music was the bridge between that joy and a deeper life and existence for Kokal. She calls it a “nervous system reset.” Music grounded her in a way that allowed for self-discovery. She started studying it, from the songs she liked to the structure of the tablatures. She started playing music with friends, learning things like the introduction to “Stairway to Heaven”.
“I started to understand myself better,” she says.
These discovery points helped introduce Kokal to his future bandmates. At 18, Kokal and her friend, Theresa Wayman of Warpaint, moved to New York to become nannies. She began to gain a broader understanding of the world in the Big Apple. All the while, she kept thinking about music. She later moved back to the West Coast and soon found herself in her early twenties in Los Angeles. She began playing shows on the West Coast and in Los Angeles, meeting Jenny Lee Lindberg while casting for a Gap commercial. Lindberg played bass. Wayman and Kokal played guitar and sang. Things were coming together. Later, at a concert, Kokal met Shannyn Sossamon, who played drums and was an established actor. Sossamon said the four should start a band. It was Valentine’s Day in 2004 when they all got together to jam. It was love at first riff.
“We just buzzed and riffed until everyone liked what they were playing,” says Kokal.
The group began to gain some notoriety. Kokal later struck up a romantic relationship with Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, who helped record the band and even did live sound at some shows. Kokal says the way he mixed the quartet’s debut EP was “so beautiful, he really understood us.” Laughing, she also remembers him diving on stage when his amp went off. As Warpaint began to attract attention, they embarked on major tours, including with Depeche Mode and Harry Styles. The band was living the dream – busy, taxed but stepping onto the stage in a very real way.
“The Harry Styles thing was so hilarious at first,” Kokal recalled. “It was just like, what? But now it makes sense because he takes a lot of women on stage and introduces his fans to women and non-binary artists. He brings a new spin on what it means to be a pop artist male.
Ahead of the band’s 2022 album, the band released three more: The idiot in 2010, war paint in 2014 and Heads Up in 2016. After the 2016 offer, however, life changes happened: Kokal had a baby (who is now two years old). Wayman is also a parent of a teenager. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Stella Mozgawa, who later took over drumming from Sossamon, recently produced some of Courtney Barnett’s new recordings and performed with Kurt Vile. Lindberg worked as a visual artist. So while the band haven’t released any new work so far, they’ve never exactly been on hiatus.
“We literally never stopped working,” says Kokal.
To create their new album, the band started making song demos, sharing files and learning digital recording equipment. Before the pandemic shutdown, they had gone through most of the basics for the new album, but to complete it, while the members were in different parts of the world on lockdown, there was a lot of file sharing. Just like when she discovered her love for songwriting during those boring childhood times, during lockdown, Kokal found she loved mixing, tracking and mastering.
“I love that shit,” she said. “I learned so much. It was nice to have a bit of personal control.
The new LP contains a number of standout songs. The ethereal, dreamy work features tracks like the moody “Trouble,” harmony-focused “Proof,” the hypnotic “Melting,” and the acoustic “Send Nudes.” In fact, “Trouble” started with a piano line that Kokal invented on her grandmother’s piano when she was young. The way she thinks about it today, Kokal says the album has a “feminine” energy: there’s something very “warm and inviting” about the LP. On songs like “Proof”, she started them at home, while she was pregnant. Now, with the songs slated for worldwide release, Kokal is taking it one day at a time, preparing for the tour. She also plans to take her two-year-old son abroad with her. It’s about sharing the lexicon of music.
“I love that it’s a language in its own right,” Kokal says of this art form. “We all speak it and it speaks more to our soul and our emotions than to our head. He speaks a language that we can all instantly identify with and he has the power to transform and transmute.
Photo via Warpaint/ Bags & Co.