Interview: John Isaac Watters of COYOL

This week we chatted with John Isaac Watters, one third of the Los Angeles-based folk band, COYOL. In the latest installment of our interview series, Isaac discusses growing up in the Southwest and Mexico, his new album, and his musical idols.

Twenty Two: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Isaac: I was born in Mexico City. We moved to Berkeley, CA for a couple years while my dad was finishing school. Then all around in Mexico till I was 9. Then my family moved to Arizona, a little ways outside of Tucson, and I was there through high school. I came out to LA to study architecture at USC, and have been here since, just over 10 years now. I still find work as an architect, and do some art projects, but I am becoming more and more interested in writing and performing songs. I have a solo project that’s just my name, John Isaac Watters, and a band we call COYOL.

Twenty Two: Have you always been interested in music and performing?

Isaac: Not always. When I was in fourth grade I started playing violin and I was in different school orchestras through high school, but that was the most musical performing I did. I didn’t start thinking about writing songs till I was almost done with architecture school, and my little brother Joel started asking me to play fiddle on country songs he had written.

Twenty Two: How would you describe your sound?

Isaac: I would say it’s very simple folk music.

Twenty Two: What’s the process you go through when you’re working on new music?

Isaac: I haven’t found an easily repeatable process yet, but I try to write often, and play new ideas over and over till they turn into songs. I don’t have a writing schedule or a secret place to go, though I am looking for one. I like writing when I’m travelling, especially on trains and buses. Since I’m already moving, those moments in transit have an inherent freedom that allows ideas to come out. I have tried setting goals for myself, or forcing myself to write a certain number of songs, or to write in form, so that I can feel like I am somehow helping myself become a better writer. I don’t usually achieve those, but it’s good to get me started. Most of the time, the songs that I feel best about surprise me, and I can’t trace them back to a process or any specific set of actions.

Twenty Two: Can you describe the process of making music for yourself versus making music with a band? Do you have a different mindset?

Isaac: When I’m writing by myself, the initial process isn’t that different. It’s just coming up with ideas, trying to find words that I believe are worth saying over and over. Certain songs fit better with COYOL and others fit better with my solo stuff. I don’t initiate the songwriting process with one or the other in mind. We also sometimes write from scratch as COYOL which is me, Will Gramling and Celeigh Chapman, and then the process is a little different. It’s more of a workshop. We edit and refine each other.

Twenty Two: Do you find yourself writing about the same subjects or do the topics of your songs vary greatly?

Isaac: I don’t know if I write about subjects. What I am writing about is still a little mysterious to me and I almost never sit down to write about a specific idea. I usually write in a series of images that make me feel a certain way. I don’t know if my songs have topics. If you were going to try to nail them down to a specific topic, I bet they would jump around a lot. But they have a pretty consistent feeling to them. There have also been times when my friends or family have told me what one of my songs means before I could figure it out. The album I just put out is called “Casas”. These songs are all wandering around in my mind near the ideas of habitation and home, but I don’t know if you would hear that by listening to them. You might say the songs are about growing old, or losing limbs, which is probably more correct.

Twenty Two: What can our readers expect to hear on “Casas”? How does it differ from your earlier album, “Parachute Tramps”?

Isaac: I’d like to think “Casas” is a more cohesive album. Its instrumentation is a lot simpler: guitar, piano, singing and a little tambourine. It was recorded with Will Gramling and Alex Rhodes. Since we used so few instruments and they are such brilliant musicians, we were able to be in the same room the whole time and do each song in one take, instead of layering in a lot of stuff like we did on “Parachute Tramps.” But, for all its simplicity, Chris Rondinella’s engineering skills still give “Casas” a really full sound. How’s that for advertising? Just listen to it!

Twenty Two: Where do you find inspiration?

Isaac: Right now, I really like watching the light change throughout the day. I think that Echo Park for some reason has particularly wonderful sunlight. I like to go for walks in the evening, right before or right after the sun goes down and it’s nice and cool. Then I can think pretty clearly. But that’s just more recently. Other than that, I just try to remember things that I’ve seen or times I’ve felt certain ways. I like trees a lot, also the desert, cold oceans, and cliffs. Lately I have been reading Federico García Lorca, Paul Celan, T.S. Eliot, and Isaiah over and over.

Twenty Two: Whose musical career would you like to emulate?

Isaac: That’s a tricky question. I’m pretty unaware of the progression of musical careers. I mostly just listen to songs, so I’m not sure how to answer that. There are a few songwriters whose songs I can listen to over and over, people like Will Oldham, Tom Waits, John Prine, and Jeff Mangum. If I could write something that good, if I could just make one really good album, and perform regularly, to my thinking that would be a great musical career, even one really good song, or one really good show.

Twenty Two: How has growing up all over the southwest and living in Echo Park influenced your work?

Isaac: When I was young and running around in the desert, I developed an affinity for vastness — big skies and big mountains. When I am writing, I often sense that limitless space. In contrast, Echo Park is such a successful human experiment in conquering the desert. It has an intimate geography, the kind that holds you gently. In Echo Park it’s easy to forget that LA is still so young. It also seems to be growing smaller as more and more of my friends move here. Meanwhile the desert grows larger. These two ideas — the expanding solitude of harsh landscapes and the comfort of friends — are big enough to write about for a lifetime. Being part of this community of artists has influenced my work just as much as running around in the desert with my brother when I was young.

Twenty Two: What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Isaac: Hopefully soon I’ll record and release the second and third parts of  “Casas.” They are called “Campanas” and “Campesino.” I have the songs. I just need to get into the studio! Also, COYOL will be releasing some new tracks soon, and we are scheduled to play a November residency at Los Globos in Silver Lake. So please come to that!

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A special thanks to Isaac for giving us the opportunity to learn more about his music. You can keep up with him by checking out his website, Facebook, and Twitter, while you can follow COYOL on BandcampFacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

Check out Isaac’s music for yourself:

Can’t get enough of COYOL? Check out our interview with the band’s multi-talented frontwoman, Celeigh Chapman.

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