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curtains: in conversation with coup jean

Released in 2019, Coup Jean’s Aloe is an album that is deeply personal, exploring subjects like loss, queer relationships, mental illness and the patriarchy. Inspired by the loss of Jean's sister in 2015, the album has helped several others to cope with the loss of a loved one– something that Jean is endlessly amazed by.

In person as we talk, Coup Jean is thoughtful and gentle, sharing his inner feelings and thoughts without hesitation. In the end, a single message shines through brighter than the other: with his work and his words, all Jean wants to do is improve others' lives.

In this conversation with Coup Jean, we delve into how the process of creating Aloe helped him cope with the death of his sister, how his life was changed by loss and recovery from something so huge.

Push up Daisies: When and how did you decide to make Aloe and how did it turn from an idea into a full-fledged album?

Coup Jean: I lost my sister in 2015 after she struggled with cancer for about eight and a half months. She got diagnosed in the fourth stage, and then it kind of just escalated. We tried to stay very positive, but nothing really helped. This was in September 2015 and by February of 2016, I was pretty much losing it. It felt like the walls were closing in on me. I was having panic attacks and my anxiety and depression were all growing worse.

A friend of mine, Chiquita– also a musician– kind of twisted my arm. I had written half a song and I'd never really tried my hand at songwriting before that. I tinkered, here and there, but I never thought that anything I wrote could actually be good enough to publish. And Chiquita twisted my arm and kind of told me to go for it, to just let this be the process that helps me deal with all that. To start writing my feelings even if I think they suck because it'll help. So, I started doing that and before I knew it, I had almost 24 songs and they were all very negative– some of them were self-loathing, there was a lot of survivor's guilt. I looked at all this material in front of me and I couldn't stomach my own words. I didn't like most of it. I was going to trash the whole project because it felt like it wasn't helping, but then I realized that by holding on to all that anger and trauma and grief, I wasn't being fair to the memory of my sister. It was her mother– my mami or aunt– who actually pointed that out. She said, “Listen, if you want to make her proud, if you want to live up to her memory, you just have to have a happy, fulfilled life.” That was a huge wake-up call coming from her because she had lost her daughter. And then I realized that even if it doesn't really bring about the cathartic change that I'm hoping for, these words are still something that I've felt and felt deeply. Who am I to dismiss that? If there are like me out there– people who are also dealing with losing someone and self-loathing, then maybe it could help them. Chiquita once again twisted my arm and this one night, we were drunk out of our minds, and she started a fundraiser for me right there. And she said, “This still needs a lot of information, there's bank information, tax information, personal information, you need to make a video.” And I said that I don't really want to do any of that. And she said, “Well, tough, you have to. Because you need purpose and this is purpose.” I didn't realize it then, but now, I'm very thankful to Chiquita because people are listening. You listened, and it helped. And I'm so glad that I can feel useful again.

Push up Daisies: And how did the process of creating Aloe play a role in your healing?

Coup Jean: I've learnt something about human beings at large by observing myself. I'm an editor by profession, so observation is kind of my job. And I've realized during this whole crowdfunding process, that for the longest time, I hadn't really been observing myself. I hadn't been watching myself to make sure that I don't slip into old self-destructive patterns. When I actually took stock of that, I inadvertently, without meaning to, put all the stakes on this EP. I took out whatever personal savings I had and whatever we had made from the fundraiser and I found a couple of friends who agreed to produce the album, and we just sort of jumped in. The recording process itself took forever because we were recording in a tiny home studio, and there were a lot of issues. My uncle passed away, my course still wasn't over and I was trying to juggle work and classes and the album. Around the time that I actually had recorded four songs and they had started getting mixed, I could still feel the walls closing in on me. There were still so many variables that I couldn't control, and everyone was telling me different things– maybe you need to listen to yourself more, maybe you need to listen to others more– in all that, I kind of lost sight of why I did that in the first place. And I started putting more on the EP than the EP deserved. I staked my entire personal wellbeing on it. And when it fell apart, I was just kind of like, “okay, yeah, just leave me here to die because that's what's going to happen.” And then I realized that if I'm going to heal, then I'm going to have to stop looking at this body of work like a crutch. I'm going to have to listen to what my soul needs, to what my body needs– and it's okay to listen to yourself once in a while. It's not selfish to do that.

Push up Daisies: Are you spiritual or religious? How do you think that affects anyone's perception of death?

Coup Jean: I'm agnostic, for the most part. In order to get over depression, I tried a number of things. I tried Buddhism. I'm not happy to admit it but I leaned pretty heavily on cannabis. And a whole bunch of coping mechanisms. None of them really worked. The way I see it– it doesn't matter if you're spiritual or religious– if you seek validation from a source that's outside of your control, or if you seek absolution or salvation from that same source, you're setting yourself up for disappointment and you know it. You're just not willing to admit it to yourself. Because if there is change to be made, I believe the only way to do that is to look inward. Maybe just look around you, take stock of the people who love you, who care for you, and take heart that if you have so many well-wishers, you can't be all that bad. Maybe put some work into trying to better yourself.

Push up Daisies: As a creative, how does the thought or fear of death drive you to create more?

Coup Jean: There was a time when I used to be scared of death. When I was little, my sister– she was my cousin, and she was 18 years my senior and she kind of raised me. She like my personal wonderwoman– actually, she was more than that– she was like my sun. I orbited around her. I had a deal with God back then– my father's chronically ill, so he's not going to survive for very long. My mother doesn't care about me, one way or the other, so it didn't really matter what happened to her at that point. So I'd made this deal with a higher power. Like, I know all of these people are going to die– my grandfather, my grandmother, my uncle and aunt, probably my father– I get it. I will never ask you for anything as long as you promise that you will always keep my sister by my side. So, I was scared of death for everyone else. The thought of my mortality hadn't really occurred to me at that point.

Now, with everything said and done, I'm no longer scared of death. There was a couple of years in between while making Aloe and before that, even– my sister had been suffering for months– and I'd gone on a trip to Chennai, and I remember she stayed up with me for the entire night while I travelled, which must've been very painful for her, I can't even imagine. But she did that, and I was in the mental space that if anything happens to her, my life is gone too. I don't want to live in a world without her. After she passed away, that went on in my head for quite some time. It was only recently that I started seeing my value again. I'd be remiss if I said that it was some great personal awawkening– it wasn't that. It was just the fact that she left survivors behind– she left an eight year-old son, she left my aunt who is as much a mother to me as she was to my sister. Now, I'm kind of holding on because I have to. I'm not scared of death anymore but I'm scared that everytime somebody dies, it'll take me by surprise because I'll never be ready for it.

Push up Daisies: How would you like to be remembered?

Coup Jean: Honestly, as someone who was always kind. If I'm leaving behind a legacy, I would say that I want people to remember me as kind, flawed, human. My sister used to say– this is a line from a film called Pay It Forward– she used to repeat it quite often, saying, “When given the choice between doing the easy thing and and the right thing, always do the right thing.” It's hard enough to make a decision as to what is right and what is wrong. Most of us aren't prepared for adult life– we just kind of get thrust into it and we fumble around and we look to our elders and think they have all the answers, we can learn from them– but the fact is that they're just as clueless. They're going to make mistakes too, they're going to make choices that hurt people– so to hold yourself or to hold anyone else up to this unrealistic standard of what's right, it's a moot strategy. You don't know what the right thing to do is until you're faced with such a situation where you're going to have to sacrifice something in order to do what is right.

Push up Daisies: In what ways can it be healthy to contemplate death?

Coup Jean: I wouldn't presume to speak for anyone else, but I think life is waking up every day, waiting for death. It's the organic condition– we all live, we die. We're never prepared for it. The only healthy way for me to contemplate death is to think about how much I've actually been able to achieve– not as a capitalistic individual, but as a person who made living, real connections, and brought joy into someone's life.

If you come up short– God forbid, you look into the mirror and realize that you haven't even been able to make yourself happy– that's your wake-up call. That's how you contemplate death. You do everything you can to make yourself happy, as long as you're not stepping on anyone else's rights.

Push up Daisies: What is a film/book/art piece revolving around death that left its mark on you?

Coup Jean: There's this poem by Lord Tennyson. It's called Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead– it's about this woman who is a war widow, and her husband's compatriots bring his body back, and she can't cry. She's in shock. No matter what the people around her do or say, they can't make her cry. And the last couple of lines–

Rose a nurse of ninety years,

Set his child upon her knee—

Like summer tempest came her tears—

"Sweet my child, I live for thee."’

It used to be my sister's favourite poem. I never realized the wealth of those words until she was actually gone, and I was contemplating her final words to me, which were, “I won't be able to watch my son grow up.” I don't know, maybe I see everything through a personalized lens, but none of us are really equipped to deal with grief and loss.

So, I read this poem when I was in Grade Six. Back then, it made me scared of losing everyone around me. Now, when I read it, it's this strange sort of restless peace– like this is it, there's no two ways around this, this is going to happen, people are going to die, some people are going to get killed, some lives will be cut short, and some people are going to live happy, long lives and they're still leave a wealth of emotions behind even when they're not there.

Push up Daisies: What is something that you learnt after the release of Aloe?

Coup Jean: On the production front– that's the easiest lesson of all– the EP was stuck in production for a very long time. We started with work in 2017 and we were ultimately able to release it in 2019. So, the first thing I learnt was that if you have words or music, you need to not just find a producer based on convenience, but trust your gut. Find someone who understands your sound, and will know what to do with that. To all the first-time recording artists out there who are trying to make their own music: don't rush the process. Don't compromise with the process because there's an easy way out. It doesn't work like that. Like anything else in life, it''ll take a lot of pitfalls, it'll take a lot of errors, a lot of trials to get it right. And you owe that to yourself, and to your music. That's one thing I learnt.

Another thing that really struck me was– I didn't really promote the EP much. Even now, I can't bring myself to promote it. It's not that I don't want to, it's that it feels too much like capitalizing off something deeply personal. It feels like I would be betraying myself. So, with whatever minimum publicity that the album got, the fact that people are still listening to it is wonderful. I get messages on Instagram or my personal email, where people will write to me saying, “I lost someone and I find myself answering my own questions in their voice after they're gone, but your songs helped me to pinpoint the problem.” That humbling experience taught me that everybody is worthy of love and affection– people make mistakes, people make horrible choices, they repeatedly hurt others without realizing– but at the end of the day, we're all works in progress. Forgive yourself, even if you can't forgive those who hurt you. Because if you keep it inside you, it will eat you up from the inside. And you don't want to diminish your life like that. You don't want to take away whatever potential you have to do something good, to help somebody. You may not be a mathematical genius or a doctor who saved thousands of lives, but you're still a contributing member. You still have a part to play. And until it's your time, you're not going anywhere.


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