Warpaint’s Emily Kokal Talks Musical Childhood, the Band’s New LP and the Value of Boredom

Emily Kokal, vocalist, guitar player, and songwriter for the band Warpaint, knows the value of being bored. She might not be where she is today—poised to release the group’s newest album, Radiate Like This, on May 6 and headed out for a European tour—had it not been for boredom. With nothing to do, she discovered songwriting books, guitar chords, and the beginnings of what would become her profession: creativity.

On those occasions when her mother grounded her as a kid, that’s perhaps when it all really started. Today, though, kids (and people, in general) are inundated with options and things to do. But what happens to people, she wonders, without times of uncertainty, without downtime? Thankfully for Kokal, she had her own moments like this, and they helped give her the tools to become the acclaimed artist she is now. With hope, she says, others will experience the same.

“My mom,” Kokal says, “or my mom’s boyfriend had the Beatlemania guitar book. And I opened the book one day—this is why boredom is so important for children. Boredom makes you do things like pick up a guitar.”

Growing up, Kokal was in a musical family. She would travel from her home in Eugene, Oregon during the summers and visit her grandmother in the Bay Area and play her piano. In fact, that same piano now sits in the Warpaint studio space. Her uncle was a singer who performed Frank Sinatra songs in big full rooms. He even brought her up on stage when she was just two years old and while, in the still-vivid memory, she recalls both feeling very shy and a great deal of love for the attention. Others in her family would sing Grateful Dead songs and play covers together.

“That spirit of music brought us together,” Kokal says. “It planted the seed that music could be a profession.”

Because of that, she always knew what she wanted to do. As a kid, she had a lot of energy. She was a natural performer and lover of entertainment and entertaining. But music was the bridge from this joy to a deeper-thinking life and existence for Kokal. She calls it a “nervous system reset.” Music grounded her in a way that allowed for self-discovery. She began to study it, from songs she loved to tablature structure. She began to play music with friends, learning things like the introduction of “Stairway to Heaven.”

“I started to understand myself better,” she says.

These points of discovery helped introduce Kokal to her future bandmates. At 18 years old, Kokal and her friend, Warpaint’s Theresa Wayman, moved to New York City to become nannies. She began to get a broader understanding of the world in the Big Apple. All the while she continued to think about music. Later, she moved back to the west coast and soon found herself in her early 20s in Los Angeles. She began playing shows on the west coast and in LA, meeting Jenny Lee Lindberg at a casting call for a Gap ad. Lindberg played bass. Wayman and Kokal played guitar and sang. Things were coming together. Later at a gig, Kokal met Shannyn Sossamon, who played drums and was an established actor. Sossamon said the four should start a band. It was Valentine’s Day in 2004 when they all got together to jam. It was love at first riff.

“We’d just drone out and riff out until everyone liked what they were playing,” Kokal says.

The band began to earn some notoriety. Kokal later struck up a romantic relationship with Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, who helped record the band and even do live sound at some shows. Kokal says the way he mixed the quartet’s debut EP was “just so beautiful, he really understood us.” With a laugh, she also remembers him diving on stage when her amp went out. As Warpaint began to gain some attention, they headed out on some major tours, including with the likes of Depeche Mode and Harry Styles. The band was living the dream—busy, taxed but breaking into the scene in a very real way.

“The Harry Styles thing was so hilarious at first,” Kokal remembers. “It was just like, what? But now it makes sense because he takes a lot of women on stage and introduces his fans to women and non-binary artists. He’s bringing a new spin to what it means to be a male pop artist.”

Prior to the band’s 2022 album, the group released three others: The Fool in 2010, Warpaint in 2014, and Heads Up in 2016. After the 2016 offering, though, life changes occurred: Kokal had a baby (who is now two years old). Wayman is also a parent to a teenager. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Stella Mozgawa, who took over on drums for Sossamon later on, recently produced some of Courtney Barnett’s new recordings and played with Kurt Vile. Lindberg has been working as a visual artist. So, while the group hadn’t released new work until now, they were never exactly on a hiatus.

“We literally never stopped working,” Kokal says.

To create their new album, the band began demoing songs, sharing files, and learning digital recording equipment. Prior to the pandemic shutdown, they’d tracked most of the basics for the new album, but to complete it, while the members were in different parts of the world in lockdown, there was a great deal of file sharing. Just as when she discovered her love of songwriting during those boring moments as a kid, during lockdown Kokal found she loves mixing and tracking and mastering.

“I love that shit,” she says. “I learned so much. It was nice to have a little bit of personal control.”

The new LP features a number of standout songs. The ethereal, dreamy work showcases tracks like the moody “Trouble,” harmony-driven “Proof,” the hypnotic “Melting” and the acoustic “Send Nudes.” In fact, “Trouble” began with a piano line that Kokal came up with on her grandmother’s piano when she was young. The way she thinks about it today, Kokal says the album has “feminine” energy: there’s something very “warm and inviting” on the LP. On songs like “Proof,” she began them at her home, while pregnant. Now, with the songs set to be released into the world, Kokal is taking things one day at a time, readying herself for the tour. She intends to bring her two-year-old abroad with her, as well. It’s all about sharing the lexicon of music.

“I love that it is a language all its own,” Kokal says of the art form. “We all speak it and it speaks more to our soul and emotions and less to our heads. It speaks a language that we can all relate to instantaneously and it has the power to transform and transmute.”

Photo via Warpaint / Sacks & Co.

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