Culture

World, meet Cosima

A year of self-discovery kickstarted South London artist Cosima's career. Now she's a straight-talking singer making music on her own terms

10.01.2020 | Shannon Mahanty
 

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For the first 17 years of South London native Cosima Ehni’s life, everything was going according to plan. That plan involved becoming a fashion stylist, a dream she was well on her way to fulfilling - though she was still a teenager, Cosima worked for Erin O’Connor’s agency, Model Sanctuary, and regularly assisted on shoots - but as her landmark birthdays rolled closer, the kind that make you take stock of successes and failures alike, Cosima had a sudden change of heart. “I was on the way home from my friends house one day and I called my mum and said, “the only thing I want from my grandma for my birthday is a one way ticket to Germany.”

“That was the point I realised I wanted to be a singer” explains Cosima, now 25, who had always loved music but never before seriously considered it as a career. “I stopped and thought, this is what I want to do, I want to write and communicate.” A few weeks later, and she was living in the suburbs of Hamburg with her grandma. She’d swapped her London life for something altogether more stripped back where days were spent working - which included baking pretzels for a local bakery, alongside various sales assistant posts - while the remainder of her time was spent dedicated to music; singing it, listening to it, discovering it.

COSIMA, MEET COSIMA 

"l grew up in a flat in London where if I was doing any vocal exercises someone from downstairs would be knocking on the ceiling, or you just feel really self conscious because everyone can hear what you're doing. So being there, I made so many recordings on my laptop. There's ones of me singing Whitney Houston songs, which I couldn't sing well, but it was amazing to be able to try and not feel uncomfortable." Writing came easy. Cosima says by the time she left, she'd filled her grandma's attic with boxes of journals. "I love writers who explore the female experience, that was a big thing for me, learning that I could explore all of this within myself. Every time I discovered a feminist writer or a female artist that moved me, I felt like, oh shit, I can do that too!"

“I also realised I hadn’t done my scales for years,” continues Cosima. “My vocal register was not as expansive as it should be. So when I got to Germany I found a singing teacher and really focussed.” What Cosima refers to as her “year of solitude” allowed her to hold a magnifying glass to herself to work out the kind of artist she wanted to be. The answer is one with a languid and beguiling voice, and one who, having honed her introspective songwriting skills uses them to shine a light on everything from absent fathers to waning self-esteem. “To me music is a communication tool,” she explains. “It’s a big way to express myself, because I haven’t always been the best verbal communicator. I’m sure many of my ex’s would say that. In music, the truth is what I'm singing. At the start you’re just writing it down in a notebook and it doesn't get more intimate than that. There’s something so liberating about being able to be that honest.”

"I haven't always BEEN THE BEST COMMUNICATOR. I'M SURE MANY OF MY EXES WOULD SAY THAT."

Going it Alone

Cosima returned to London after a year in Germany, armed with an arsenal of music. She was quickly signed to Island records, before eventually realising she wanted to make music on her own terms. In 2016, she launched independent label, South of Heaven, which meant Cosima could be completely in control of her musical output.

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"Everyone is trying to figure out ‘what sells’ because we're not making as much money from music as we used to, but the thing with art, with anything really, is that when you’re dead, you can’t explain to someone, 'oh, I didn’t really want to do that I was really pressured into it' says Cosima of her decision to leave major label life behind. "You don't have that luxury, and for me that’s the biggest thing."

Free from the pressures of her label, Cosima was able to explore the concepts that interested her the most, and through her years of songwriting she's developed an ability to use music to interrogate the messy world of dating in the modern landscape. "We're living in a weird moment" she says. "The amount of conversations that I have with women I know, where it feels like every single part of them is taken to pieces because physically they don’t feel like they match up to whatever they’re seeing around them, I write about it a lot because it really gets to me and it gets to the women close around me as well."

Make Dating Great Again

In Girls Who Get Ready, Cosima muses, "how can I inspire lust, with looks? How can I catch your eye, in a sea of them?" "Dealing with enough arseholes you realise you deserve more" she laughs. "Around the time I wrote Insecure was when I realised, OK that's enough. For a year [in my relationship] I'd felt like I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t hot enough, I wasn’t fun or social enough. When really this is who I am! People often ask, 'do they want me' instead of 'what do I want?' You make all your decisions based on this idea of, 'I want to be good enough for them', you’re not dating a person you’re dating yourself. That's what I realised when I was bending over backwards to make sure I was enough; I wasn't dating him, I was dating every single insecurity i’ve ever had since I was 11".

It seems Cosima's campaign to make dating great again is working. "Once after a show this guy came up to me and said my set made him want to call up all his exes and apologise" she says, proudly.  Her advice to everyone else? "If something doesn’t make you feel good, there's no point. Just turn around, get out. You deserve more." 

ON HEAVY ROTATION

Listen to the tracks that made Cosima

Loretta Lynn - coal miner's daughter

My Dad is the reason I listen to country - which no one ever believes because that’s my black side! He kept saying you need to listen to Loretta Lynn Coal Miner's Daughter. I’m an insomniac and he could never sleep either, so we’d have these YouTube exchanges where we’d be like, listen to this, listen to that. And at first I was like “I do not want to listen to the Coal Miner's Daughter”, but now i really love it.

tracy chapman - behind the wall

Me and my mum are super super close. I remember she had a Tracy Chapman album, which had a song called Behind the Wall, that was the first time I really listened to a song and really cared about it. Then she threw out the CD and I didn't hear it again until I was like 18 when I found it again.

Judy Garland - Dear Mr Gable

My friend Isabella had these Judy Garland CDs and I remember she lent them to me and I would just sing Dear Mr. Gable every day for about a year straight. I would stand in front of the mirror. Before I’d heard that i didn't think you could communicate that much with just a voice.

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