Friday, August 21, 2009

C o b y K o e h l - Born To Sing



I have known Coby for half my life. He is beyond my best friend...he is my brother.
I met him on the street one day when he was with a mutual friend, and we later decided to collaborate on music, as I was a songwriter and he was a singer. At the time, he attended the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts and I was working in the medical field. Our evenings were spent, cramped on the floor in the dining room of my apartment in Silver Spring, with Coby singing into a Radio Shack mic and me trying to figure out how to work my new 4-track recorder.

The first song I actually heard Coby sing was God Bless The Child, which he did in the bathroom because it had "great accoustics". He would later sing this acapella because I had yet to figure out how to imput music into the 4-track. I did not have any instruments, even though I could play the piano, so I would sample beats for him to sing to. The first original song we recorded was one that I wrote about him called "Blue Eyed Soul", with a backing beat courtesy of a sample from a remix of "Don't Take My Mind On A Trip" by Boy George.
As time passed and my skills improved (though marginally), our songs would become more complex, with harmonies and overdubs. We would create themed demos in the format of albums, and use each one to explore new styles, both lyrically and vocally, as well as trying our hand at new sounds. Over a period of 5 years, we would experiment with pop, light rock, dance, jazz, house, blues, R and B, and standards. The songs ranged from standard radio love songs, to socially conscious commentary, with topics as diverse as drug addiction, racism, alcoholism, depression, homelessness, sexual identity and the norms of society. Our next project would lift the heaviness in an all dance collection about club life, New York City, and humor laden grooves.


We look back on much of what we did and often criticize ourselves unfairly. At the time, we thought we were crafting great songs, in spite of the fact that it wasn't our music, but we have both grown and improved in our individual crafts. Coby's voice and my songwriting are much better than in the old days, but we can not discount what we created or how those experiences shaped the artists we are today. Coby is a much better singer now, but this doesn't take away some of the great work he did in those early years. I became a better writer, but there are songs from that period that will always rank as some of our favorites.

Life would take us to California to pursue our dream, and back to DC. Coby ultimately ended up in New York City, where his name is known in certain circles and he has developed a small fan base, as well as constant support from people like Stu Hamstra from Cabaret Hotline, who describes Coby as "disturbingly talented".


Coby has performed at Rose's Turn, Don't Tell Mama's, Save The Robots, Lucky Chengs, and The Cutting Room, among many other venues. He also wrote a play about his life called "Survival of the Fetus" which was featured as a workshop at La Mama, Etc., where he played himself and which featured many of those songs from our early 4-track years.

photo: & flyer design: rSEANd PHOTOGRAPHY

These days, when you see him perform, it is no longer with just a piano and prerecorded music. He now has a full scale band, all of whom are incredible musicians, and the chemistry between the musicians and the man fronting them is infectious. Many of these performances can be seen on YouTube. I wanted to feature Coby, who beyond being a friend, is one of my favorite singers, and ask him questions that we have discussed in passing, that would allow others to get a glimpse of the man behind the voice.

flyer design: rSEANd PHOTOGRAPHY

When did you first realize that you had a great voice?
I actually sang before I spoke. I've always known that I could sing, but I don't think I've reached that place where I feel I have a great voice. I always think that it could be better.

In this photo: Coby being handed a microphone to sing by his father.

Who are the artists that inspired and influenced you?
Nina Simone, whose voice has such raw emotion and is so distinctive. When you hear Nina Simone you immediately know it's her. It's like she is her own instrument, that no one else can play or recreate. She was a child prodigy, she went to Julliard, and she used her music as part of the Civil Rights movement, writing protest songs, before women of color were even granted a voice.

photo & flyer design: rSEANd PHOTOGRAPHY

Other artists that inspired me were Shirely Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, Teena Marie, Jill Scott, Prince, Eryka Badu, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, The Bee Gees, and Madonna.
When I was kid, I was obsessed with Michael Jackson, who was the entire package for me. He was magical. When you looked at him, it was like complete awe. It was fantasy, reality, the unattainable... it was perfection. But to him, it was never good enough. And that's a true artist, in my opinion. True artists are never satisfied or rest on their laurels. They are always aiming to be better.
Boy George, who've I've often been compared to, since the beginning of Culture Club. Not only is he a great singer and a phenominal songwriter, but even at a young age he had the courage and integrity to stand up and be who he is. He is a pioneer and I have tremendous respect and admiration for him. I aspire to be as good as he is and to leave a fraction of the mark he's left.
What do you enjoy about live performing?
Interacting with the audience and actually having someone to sing for, besides just myself. Singing has been my therepy - it's like my free prozac since I don't have health insurance.


What was your favorite live performance?
The Cutting Room in New York City with my band.
(You can see these performances on YouTube. Search for Coby Koehl Cutting Room)

photo of Coby and flyer design: rSEANd PHOTOGRAPHY

How would you describe your sound?
Dyslextic, Eclectic and Fierce. (laughs). I would say it's neo-soul, jazz, house, r n b, gospel and easy listening all mixed together.


What other artistic talents do you have, besides singing?
I'm a songwriter. I'm a playwrite, a fashion stylist and a make-up artist. I'm also a visual artist, who likes to create mixed media collages.

What are mixed media collages?
Mixed media means images that you find in newspapers and magazines, images you find on the street, using slide shows and projections, video installations. I take images and pay homage to our media gods and whores.

I've seen your collages and you seem to be telling stories in them.
Absolutely. I've collected images of Madonna from the last 30 years of her career and my collages are like a timeline of her different looks, styles, personas and sounds.

What other singers are you most interested in at the moment?
I think Lady Gaga is an incredible talent. I call her the albino, electronic Nina Simone.
I also think Maxwell is amazing.

What is important to you as a person, rather than a performer?
It's important to me to be a good person, and I strive to be that everyday.


Boy George has described you as one of the greatest singers he's heard since Amy Winehouse on his Facebook and Twitter. How did that come about?
I actually sent him some of my songs on Facebook, after he accepted my friendship. Since I'd always been compared to him, I felt a kinship. He responded so beautifully and favorably. What a blessing to have an idol of mine love my music. It's unfathomable. And please pinch me right now.

How do you feel about the music industry?
I think it's all about the plastic packaging and once you tear away the layers, there's nothing in there. Not enough talent. Now it's about the quick fix and not longevity. Very few perfomers actually have long range careers.

What keeps you motivated?
I have the ability to do something that so many people are not able to do. I feel so blessed for the gift of being able to sing. There's nothing I love to do more.

What is your favorite original song?
This Time by Sean Dibble.
You actually wrote that song about me and for me.

© 2009 Sean Dibble
Do not repost without permission

All photos are self-portraits taken by Coby Koehl, except where indicated.

Find Coby Koehl on Facebook.
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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. very cool story. I've seen many of his videos on youtube and always like his style. Nice to see he's got a brain to go along with his voice. Does he have a CD I can buy somewhere?


David Costa