Portrait

A cup of tea at home with musician Gabriella Cohen. By Alice Whitmore.

Singer-songwriter Gabriella Cohen

It takes all of three minutes for Gabriella Cohen to disarm me with compliments. First, my perfume: she leans in to my pulse points, eyes closed. “You smell really good. What is that?” I can’t recall the name of the shop but promise to send her a link. “No,” she says, “I don’t want to get it. It’s your thing. I can’t.” Then: “You have amazing eyes. They make me want to cry.” It’s a nice way to begin a Thursday morning.

Gabriella prepares a French press, preheats the coffee cups. As I wait, I survey the books leaning inside a vintage sideboard: The Complete Kama Sutra, The Secret Language of Birthdays, How Can I Use Herbs in My Daily Life? The house is magazine-worthy. A big old place with stained-glass windows and paint peeling from impossibly high ceilings. There are flowers on every surface – tall strelitzia stems blazing from a vase on the mantelpiece, salvaged bouquets of irises and bougainvillea, a pot of ivy hanging from the shower rail. In the backyard I glimpse a neat vegetable bed – spinach leaves smiling out from the straw – and a Hills hoist.

Gabriella lives here in Melbourne with her sister, best friend, and “No. 1 fashion adviser”, the musician Bonnie Love. The two of them grew up in a small permaculture community (an “eco-village”, she calls it) two hours’ drive north of Brisbane, “deep in the hinterland, in the valley. A little fern gully paradise.” Their parents were artists – writers, musicians – and the sisters were raised on a broad range of music. “Lots of African music, Brazilian music, Arabic music. Lots of The Beatles, and Graceland by Paul Simon, and Tibetan throat singing. It was very colourful.” Gabriella moved to Brisbane at 18, to study music, then to Melbourne. “I was petrified the first time I went to Brisbane. I still kind of am, crossing the road. I always picture my death.”

These days, she is well travelled. Her second album, Pink Is the Colour of Unconditional Love, was recorded and produced across several continents, with the help of long-time friend and collaborator Kate “Babyshakes” Dillon. The pair began recording the album in a farmhouse in rural Victoria. When they were invited to join Californian duo Foxygen on tour, they decided to finish it on the road.

“We would try to mix in the van, and in the back of the dressing rooms after the shows,” says Gabriella. “We did some on a boat in Brighton. Then I took the album to Italy, up a mountain.” The record was finally finished in Baja California, Mexico, midway through a road trip from San Miguel de Allende to San Francisco.

Gabriella’s music is a tisane of nostalgic styles: languid surf-rock, ’60s girl group, occasional spells of bossa nova. (Her mother was born in Tel Aviv, but grew up in São Paulo. “The bossa nova we listened to was almost naive,” Gabriella tells me, “light and happy.”) I list all the influences her music calls to mind, and she nods. “Kate calls it a salad.”

Halfway through our interview, Gabriella gets up to brew more coffee and fetch me a blanket. She’s a self-confessed nurturer. “My mum is, like, a Jewish feeding mother.” She wraps a thick shawl, candy pink, around her shoulders. Outside, the wind off the bay is fierce; fingers of it snake inside and rattle the doors.

There’s a side to Gabriella that is cinematically romantic, and bluesy. She sings about love, heartbreak, longing. There’s a song on her latest album called “Miserable Baby”, an ironic doo-wop number. But Gabriella in the real world is like a tall glass of seltzer water. Her joy is easy, effervescent. “I’m pretty damn happy,” she admits. “I feel like a cartoon at the moment, just bounding around.”

And why not? She turned 28 just a few days earlier – she’s a Leo – and already has two feted albums under her belt. She’s musically directing the headline act for this year’s Festival of Jewish Arts and Music: a tribute to Lou Reed’s Transformer.

Gabriella’s days are wholesome and free-flowing. She wakes up, runs on the beach. Writes. Drinks cups of tea. Visits the library, or the ducks in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens. “And I play piano whenever I want. It’s very chill.” Occasionally, she takes herself on an Artist’s Date. “Right before my birthday I went to the Astor [movie theatre]. I’ve never so quickly fallen in love with a space. I ended up playing piano upstairs, for the cat, until they had to kick me out. It was such a dream.”

She recently bought a piano of her own. “It’s the most beautiful thing. I want to marry it.” Gabriella lifts the lid to show me the white spread of its teeth. “It’s so like a fairytale. It’s too much.” She’s been writing more songs on the piano, but says she’s still “very much an amateur”. Piano lessons are on the cards. “I’m into lessons this year. Tennis lessons, dance lessons. I’m doing ballet and capoeira. And samba.” She wants to join a choir. And learn how to work clay. “I’d like to become a potter, make ceramic things.” She’s got this idea of starting up a boot camp for musicians. Yoga. Cooking classes. Embracing the health kick. “Healthy is rock’n’roll,” she tells me. I believe her.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Life in full colour". Subscribe here.

Alice Whitmore
is a Melbourne-based writer and literary translator, and an editor at Cordite Poetry Review.