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Amber Coffman on Her Debut Solo Album and Life After Dirty Projectors

It’s Amber Coffman’s time to shine. Photo-Illustration: Vulture

For nearly ten years, Amber Coffman was a member of New York indie genre-breakers Dirty Projectors, singing alongside her then-boyfriend Dave Longstreth. Her soft, silky voice stood out on the band’s biggest songs, like “Stillness Is the Move,” and, as the band grew in exposure, she branched out to unexpected features with Major Lazer, Snoop Dogg, and J. Cole between albums. But then, last year, Longstreth announced that the next Dirty Projectors record would be a solo project, that Coffman had exited the group, and the two had broken up. In a statement shared shortly after Longstreth’s tell-all album’s release, Coffman said it was “never my intention or wish to leave the band” and that she was blindsided by Longstreth’s solo plans under the Projectors name.

Behind the scenes, though, Coffman knew a solo career was always her end game — a path she’d been on since her start with the band, though she took the side streets to get there. On June 2, her solo debut, City of No Reply, (produced by Longstreth before they had a full falling out) will see a release that’s been a decade in the making. Coffman talked to Vulture about finding her own sound, how moving to California influenced the album, learning when to say no to collaborations, and why she worked with Longstreth even after their breakup.

How long had you been building toward leaving Dirty Projectors?
It’s funny, a lot of people ask this question about when did I decide to leave. I’ve wanted to make a solo record for my entire life and it wasn’t really like I decided. It’s always been on my mind. It also wasn’t like, Oh, my time’s coming to an end with one thing, so now I’m gonna do this other thing. But the last tour cycle for the last Projectors album was winding down, which always leaves an opening in a way. What now? I was approaching 29 and I just figured that was as good a time as any. I’d spent the better part of a decade doing a lot of other things and I really wanted to make this happen.

Without outside influence or other bandmates’ opinions to consider for the first time in your career, how did you discover your solo sound?
It was a bit of a journey. I didn’t really know what kind of album I was gonna wind up with when I started. And I didn’t totally know how to describe what I wanted to do or what made the best sense as far as how to approach it. The ideas just came to me over the course of the time that I was writing. They would pop in my head and, a lot of times, we’d already have a rhythm or a bass line or a drum idea attached to them as well, so it wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision in choosing a sound. Things just developed naturally.

What kinds of things had you been listening to at the time?
The music that has influenced me and my life is always in me and definitely came out in my songs. But there’s no one or two things that I was listening to at the time. I was really looking to artists that have managed to create something on their own terms that feels fluid and free and not necessarily tied down to one thing. Like Björk and Frank Ocean — these people who always push themselves to try new things. That’s what I want to be able to do — not choose a sound and have to stick with it. I wanted to have a wide range of things going on on the album so that the future could be kept open.

What drew you to work with Dave again, aside from the familiarity?
I knew that he would be able to do a lot of different things and that was probably ultimately why I ended up working with him rather than a producer with a super-specific sound. Obviously, Dave has a Dave sound, but he’s still capable of anything. One thing we had talked about from the time we met, ten years ago, was me doing a solo record. We always talked about working together on it. So after I moved out here to California and had some time to work on some ideas and meet with various people, I just eventually found my way to working with him. Also, we gave it a test run a couple of times to see how [working together again] was gonna go — once in the spring of 2014 and then maybe later that year. There’s a period when you try to work with a new person of learning each other and getting comfortable. I’m a pretty diplomatic person and to learn a new producer means you have to learn how to also say no. I knew it was going to be easier with Dave to say whatever I needed to say.

Knowing when to pass has always seemed like one of your best artistic strengths. You’ve worked with Major Lazer, Frank Ocean, and J. Cole, but haven’t made a habit of doing features. What’s your process for choosing who to collaborate with and are you just turning down artists left and right?
I don’t want to come across sounding like a jerk or anything [Laughs].

Toot your own horn!
I have turned some things down because I have to connect with the song or the idea and if I really don’t, I just have a hard time pursuing it. There was a time period when I was first starting to work on this record and I got inquires here and there and I felt like it was time to figure my own sound out. I stepped away from doing as many collaborations for a while because I didn’t want to assert myself in one kind of direction while I was trying to figure out what this thing was gonna be for myself. Having made my own record will probably inform the way that I collaborate in the future as well. There’s been some opportunities that maybe would’ve been good for me, but it’s hard if you don’t connect on a deeper level. The Major Lazer song was many years ago at this point, and I felt like experimenting and trying things out. That’s a good place to be, but there are also periods of going more inward.

Who’s an automatic yes for you?
Rihanna. I loved Anti, I’m obsessed with that album. There are tons of people who would be an automatic yes — Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” [on which Coffman has credited vocals] was one of them.

The idea of this album has been percolating for so long, but when did you actually sit down to start writing it?
I’d had some ideas going before I moved to L.A., but I look at moving here as the beginning. The summer of 2013, I remember coming here and being like, I’m gonna set myself up and I’m gonna do to this thing. I had no furniture. It took a while to get situated enough to be ready to dive in. Then I workshopped and made demos on my own for a good year before I tried to work with Dave. I didn’t want it to be a co-writing thing where someone was gonna write a melody or words. In the early stages, the producers I was meeting with were trying to figure out where the boundaries were and what they’re being asked or permitted to contribute. It’s an interesting little dance and was a long process.

Dave talked to me about having to write through the pain for his Dirty Projectors album as a form of therapy. But your album seems far less reactionary and set further in the future. Where was your head at?
I was living by myself for the first time in my life. After so many years of touring with people and being on this ship for a long time, I had a lot to figure out. There was a lot of personal growth to be done after coming out here.

That growth sounds like it’s brought you to a place of genuine happiness on this album. Even on a sadder song like “Miss You,” I can hear the smile in your voice.
I’m doing pretty good [now], but I wasn’t in the happiest place when I was working on the album. I’m a very hopeful person in general, so I think that even at my worst times, I’m still able to be positive and snap out of it. I wasn’t easy-breezy writing the record by any means — I went through a lot of stuff, a lot of hard times. But ultimately, to survive those things, you have to believe that you can. By nature, I’m fairly optimistic.

Is there a memory that stands out from the making of the album?
I had to finish some lyrics in 2015 — we were in the middle of recording final tracks for everything and getting ready to do vocals — and I went to stay at this yurt on this big piece of land in Santa Barbara County. I had to peel myself away from everything and everyone or I never would’ve finished. I was finishing the lyrics for “Do You Believe” — the version I was working off of already had bird sounds on it, and I just kept finding all these really beautiful feathers from different kinds of birds when I’d be walking down these paths. I’d find them at the strangest times. Then one time, I was in the house on the same property as the yurt and the doors were all wide open. I was totally alone on this piece of land and I was wandering around the kitchen and noticed this hummingbird had got stuck in the skylight. They can only perch or fly, they can’t really stand or walk. This poor bird, I didn’t know how long it’d been up there, so I grabbed a broom and thought I was maybe gonna guide it up out of the skylight. But the bird just landed on the broom and I slowly lowered it down and let it outside. I watched it fly up into this really huge tree and I just sat there for a really long time. It was so symbolic.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman on Her Debut Solo Album