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The Rise of Cuteness – An Interview With Stephen Cope

Stephen Cope discusses his experience as a recording artist, producer, and activist.

By Zach Collier

Stephen Cope is an active part of the Provo music scene. A unique individual, Cope is a gender non-conformist, leading voice in Provo’s LBGTQ+ community, and well known for posting “cute stickers” to social media. See what Stephen has to say about the Medusa Collective, music production at Studio Studio Dada, performing in various local groups, and solo project Officer Jenny.

Hey Stephen. Thanks for letting us contact you!

I’m really excited! Thanks for reaching out to me.

To begin, tell us a little bit about yourself – who are you? Where are you from? What brought you to Provo?

I grew up in Murrieta, this little city in southern California. I moved up here to study music production at BYU. I fucking loved some of my classes, mostly my literary theory classes, but honestly BYU was a goddamn nightmare. The school harassed me about my gender nonconformity until I somehow graduated even though I stopped going to class because of all the anxiety the harassment caused me. Anyways, I started a studio, fell in love, helped found an artistic collective for women and non-binary folks and shit, so I’m sticking around for a while.

I’m assuming that’s the Medusa Collective. What does it do? How did it start? What role has Studio Studio Dada played?

The Medusa Collective is basically a bunch of women and non-binary musicians, artists, and engineers working together and supporting each other. We’ve hosted concerts and art shows and other events showcasing women and non-binary folks. We have free audio workshops for women and non-binary folks on Sunday nights and open mic nights on Tuesday nights at my studio. We’re putting on this event called Medusafest that I’m really excited about! About forty women and non-binary people are participating and we’re randomly putting them in bands together and giving them a month to write and rehearse, and on February 6th, we’re having a huge concert with all the bands. It’s going to be so fun and hopefully some of the bands will stick.

Whoa. That’s a fantastic concept. Very exciting. I love that you’re not only getting them together, but also getting them to create something. Fantastic way to encourage growth. When did you first start writing and performing music? Where was your first performance, and what was it like?

I started writing in high school. I played keyboard and guitar in a little pop band and helped write songs. We played at some shitty local battle of the bands. I can’t remember much about it, honestly. They gave us free pizza. That’s like all I ever want.

[Laughs] Pizza is pretty fantastic. Think as far back as your memory will allow you. What is the first song you remember hearing in your life? How has that influenced you?

Oh, god, probably little folk tunes right? Twinkle, Twinkle and like Skip to My Lou and shit. I mean, those songs are simple, but they’re timeless; and when I write melodies, even if they’re sung over complex or non-traditional harmonic changes, I try to make them simple and timeless like those folk songs I grew up with. Oh, and video game music was huge for me. I grew up playing SNES games and DOS platformers like Commander Keen and Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventures and Sierra and LucasArts point-and-click games. I still play those. I fing love Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle and shit, and the soundtracks for all those games heavily influenced my tastes regarding melody and harmony. They’re often pretty campy, you know? I love writing campy-ass songs.

Let’s talk Officer Jenny. How would you define your style? What message, if any, are you trying to send through that project?

God, I don’t know. I usually just call it shitty pop. I write about different shit that’s important to me. Gender and gender nonconformity, anti-establishment and anti-police shit, mental health, how fed up I feel, stuff like that. It’s all like pretty relatable content. I guess part of it is like trying to talk about things people experience and feel but maybe have a difficult time expressing. Like I just released a music video with a song called “To Be Close to Me” about how difficult it is for me to form and maintain emotional attachments, which I think is something a lot of folks experience and probably feel really shitty about.

Officer Jenny is often snarky and humorous – with tracks like “Santa Doesn’t Love You Anymore,” “It’s so Lonely Here At Hogwarts,” and “Spooky Party.” I mean, the name itself is a fantastic Pokemon reference. At the same time, ~* Queen of Cups *~ delves into some pretty serious stuff – like child abuse and the final destiny of the soul. How do you reconcile these two extremes? What inspires you to write? What is your writing and recording process like?

Yeah, I’ve been asked about that before. I think ~* Queen of Cups *~ is just a different, maybe more solemn approach to the same shit I’ve been exploring in a lot of my other songs. “Santa” and “Hogwarts” and “Spooky” are just like fun, silly, one-off holiday folk songs, but like “Pull Me Over Jesus” is saying the same shit “Semen Samples” 1 and 3 are. It’s just tonally different, more bitter and irreverent. I actually stick to pretty much the same writing process most of the time. I’ll come up with a melody and harmonic structure, then write lyrics, usually based around some lyrical hook. I like hate putting effort into anything, so I usually just use ABAB, AABA, or AAA song forms.

The album art for ~* Queen of Cups *~

How did you get into sound engineering and music production?

Oh, my parents were great and gave me an SM58 for my birthday or Christmas or something once I started writing songs. I just used an XLR to 1/4″ cable with an adapter to plug it into the mic jack on my dad’s old laptop. The sound quality was awful, and god, I hope nobody ever finds those recordings. I used Audacity, and I’d record in my shower for reverb and do bullshit like scrape a pen along a spiral notebook spine or crunch paper for percussion. Art. But, yeah, I eventually picked up a KSM27 and some shitty MXL pencils and started recording bands in Murrieta for practice. I did a really bad job.

So when did Studio Studio Dada get its official start? What were the initial challenges you faced, and how have you seen success since then?

I started the studio at the end of 2013. It was honestly pretty easy to find folks to record. I didn’t have much gear, and I had pretty goddamn limited experience, so the first few records I helped produce, Ekphrasis, Literally Weird, It’s All for You, involved a lot of experimenting with processing to make up for my honestly amateur engineering. They’re still some of my favorite records I’ve worked on. Almost all of the drums and vocals on It’s All for You are reamped and running through overdrive pedals. That album is a fucked up lo-fi mess sonically, but I think it works with Dakota’s [Dakota Miller of The Salt, The Sea, and The Sun God] singing and playing. Adam [Adam Klopp of Bat Manors] and I blew out a lot of the vocal tracks and used a lot of tape warble on Literally Weird, which is partly why it sounds like a 70s folk record. I have a way bigger mic and instrument selection now, and I’ve grown dramatically as a tracking/mixing/mastering engineer, but I still try to do things in interesting ways to keep my mixes from getting stale.

You’ve worked with many of the well-known alternative artists in Provo City – Bat Manors, Quiet House, Porch Lights, Violettas. How did you get in contact with them? What is your relationship like with these artists? Do you have a favorite memory from your sessions with any of these artists?

We’re all friends! I’m really lucky to be friends with talented fucking people. Elizabeth Holden of Violettas and Tess Bybee and Paula Bravo of Batty Blue all started The Medusa Collective with me. I play bass in Violettas and organ in Quiet House. Alyssa Pyper of Night Wings and I were roommates. Ben Swisher of Sen Wisher is living in Oregon now, but we’re working on another record remotely. Stuart’s bedroom [Stuart Wheeler of Quiet House] is in my studio (or I record in his bedroom). I’ve gotten to work with amazing people, honestly, and I hope folks hear their amazing records.

Does Studio Studio Dada have a signature sound or style? What sets you apart from, say, June Audio?

I try to keep shit as DIY as possible, so the sound is always pretty tied to the artist. I do have principles I like to stick to. I love Bob Ross’ “happy accidents” thing. It’s so cute, and I really do think people can connect more easily to music and art that feels human. I really like at least the idea of producing tracks using aleatoric[1] processes, and I have a fuckton of dice of various shapes and a deck of cards in the studio. Nobody ever uses it though, which is bullshit. A lot of the backing vocals on the Sen Wisher record are just diatonic tone clusters composed on the fly by Ben’s friends and it sounds fucking incredible. I also really love omnidirectional mics, and my recordings have a lot of room resonances as a result. I don’t really know if any of that is different from June. I fucking love June Audio. It’s a great goddamn studio.

A Medusa Collective show at Velour Live Music Gallery.

You are an active part of the LGBTQ community here in Provo – making sure people who may be marginalized by the Provo mainstream have a place to feel like they are safe and like they belong. What has your experience been like here in Provo as you’ve reached out to help those in need? What results have come from your efforts? What positives have you seen?

Yeah! I’m non-binary and queer, so it’s a largely self-serving effort, honestly. It’s been great, though. Everybody’s really enthusiastic about it, and so many folks in Provo are working really fucking hard to improve things for LGBTQ+ folks. I mean people actually know about non-binary gender and there’s a growing queer community. It’s really great. There’s definitely more work to do, though. We’re a long way from where we need to be.

The stereotypical image of Provo is the classic straight-laced Mormon image: clean shaven, close cut hair, polo shirts, cargo shorts, cheery smiles, a BYU student ID. In what ways is that an accurate representation of Provo culture? In what ways is it not? Is it important to challenge those stereotypes?

I mean, BYU students are a substantial part of Provo’s population, so it’s fairly accurate. Of course there’s a natural rejection of that culture, and Provo has its share of aesthetic and social subcultures, especially within the music scene, which is largely left-leaning politically. I think that’s part of why The Medusa Collective has been so successful A lot of folks around here are conscious of male dominance in music and art, which is amazing. Challenging stereotypes about Provo residents is totally important! It gives those who don’t fit the image, the punks, the outcasts, and the queers, a place in this little town.

What are your plans for the future? Do you hope to stay in Provo? Where do you see the studio in five years? 

My wife Erika and I are planning on moving eventually, maybe to Tennessee or the Northwest. I love Provo so much, but we just need change. We’re thinking about buying a house, and I’ll probably just run my studio out of there.

Do you feel that Provo has enough talent to make a difference on a national level? What would it take for Provo to become an LA or a Nashville?

Yeah, Provo definitely has talent, though I’d like to see more exploration of non-traditional compositional processes and musical and lyrical aesthetics. I honestly don’t know much about LA or Nashville’s music scene, but I’d love to see Provo flourish as a community that especially supports music and art by women, LGBTQ+ folks, folks of color, disabled folks, folks with mental disorders and other marginalized people. That’s where the music and art that really matters and moves comes from.

To learn more about Studio Studio Dada, visit the studio’s official website. To check out Stephen’s solo project, Officer Jenny, click here. To get involved with the Medusa Collective and explore their upcoming events, click here. Check out this performance of “Steady + Sure” by Quiet House, recorded and mixed at Studio Studio Dada.

[1] Aleatoric music is music in which some element of the composition is left to chance.

2 replies on “The Rise of Cuteness – An Interview With Stephen Cope”

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