“Why do we have these divides between popular and classical music? I just want to make music that people listen to, that I think is cool.” -Rosie Cochrane
Rosie Cochrane is a British singer, composer and performer currently based in Toronto, making music under the moniker Spectral Eyes. Her work takes influence from a variety of fields such as goth, dark alternative, industrial, electroacoustic and microtonal styles. Rosie spoke to PRXLUDES about her latest single, ‘Killers’, her debut album, her experiences in the Leeds and Toronto music scenes, and her perspectives on microtonal music.
Hey Rosie! You’ve recently released your latest single, ‘Killers’ — could you tell me a bit about what it’s about and your process while composing it?
Fortunately I was able to release [the single] before the pandemic! It’s out on all the places, you know the drill… -laughs-
Basically, it’s inspired by ‘80s goth songs and by psychopaths. A few years ago, I was reading Wikipedia articles about psychopaths, and I found out that psychopaths make up to 1-3% of the population, and I [was] like “wow, that’s so many people”! -laughs- That was like, way, way higher than what I was expecting [in terms of] the proportion of the population. It’s just like, a general song about psychopaths, based on the information I was reading. The style of it is kind of like, fun ‘80s, spooky, but modernised. It’s actually heavily influenced by Leeds band The Sisters of Mercy, and their hit song ‘This Corrosion’, which they kinda wrote a little bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s just a really fun song; I think ‘Killers’ is trying to emulate that a little bit, being a self-aware gothic song.
It’s interesting you mention The Sisters of Mercy, as I know you spent some time in Leeds. Did you involve yourself in the contemporary music scene at all?
Not really much further than my degree pushed me to be so. I think when I was there, I was more focused on the appreciation of music; most of my composition was [written] for my music degree, [though] I did actually write many of my songs in that period. But for some reason, I didn’t actually like my own music at that point, cause I was very into metal, and I was involved in the [metal] music scene, I was very involved with the Rock Society — I kinda ran that for a year or two, basically! — and with that, it was more about going out and appreciating heavy music.
I think there was kind of a disconnect for me at that time between the music that I liked listening to — that I formed my social group around — the music I was able to perform myself — so kind of like, piano and voice music — and the music I was composing, which is what I was doing in class. And I think I couldn’t really hear the connection, because at that time a lot of my songs were just in piano and voice format, because it’s what I could do as a performer; I can’t play guitar, so I couldn’t write metal songs on the guitar! [Sometimes] it’s like, why couldn’t I learn guitar instead of saxophone when I was a kid? -laughs- And I wasn’t diligent enough to actually learn how to play the guitar properly, even though I got one when I was 17. By that point, I was like, “I already know how to play piano, so whatever”… -laughs-
But there was a disconnect, and I wrote this music, but I didn’t really like it… I [did] like the electronic stuff I was doing in class, actually, because I was able to make that kinda heavy in some ways. I did this piece that had, like, these really high-pitched, screechy noises that I had taken from the brakes of the train that [goes] through the village I grew up in, cause every time the train brakes, you’re like “eurgh”… -laughs- So I took that [loudness] and put that in there, I guess that was kind of metal in a way.
Yeah, I think you end up subconsciously channeling what you’re passionate about into your music, no matter how much you feel you’re avoiding it.
Yeah. But I found, kind of, a disconnect between that and what I was doing in my spare time, writing songs that were maybe a bit more personal, with voice and piano, because the voice and piano arrangement didn’t sound like what I was listening to (rock and metal), and I felt like I wanted to write more like what I was listening to, but I couldn’t so I felt like I didn’t like it.
Did you manage to find your footing a bit more when you moved away from Leeds?
I moved to Canada basically straight away after I finished my degree at Leeds, and this feeling continued for about 8 months into that. I didn’t feel inspired by anything that I was writing, and I didn’t really know what my creative direction was, and then I was like, “this music degree… what was it for?” I didn’t know what I [wanted to] do! -laughs-
But in May  — after I moved in September, so this is two years ago now — I realised what I wanted to do, and that’s when Spectral Eyes was born. I realised I wanted to go in an electronic direction, because I didn’t have to play guitar for that, or find someone to do drums… I didn’t have to find other people. I could have just, like, formed a band with people, I’m sure I could’ve found someone that would do it, but I don’t wanna just form a band with whoever I find that can do it, you know what I mean? I think I had really high standards, or a specific vision that I felt, that maybe only certain players would really get. But for those players to be interested, I would have to actually have some kind of portfolio first of all, and that’s how I thought well, I’ll do things electronically, cause I can do that all by myself, I can play around with that and find my sound. And [that] means it’s flexible, because you can make some really heavy music electronically. So, for this first album at least, if it has to be put into any sort of music scene, I think it would fit the best into the goth/industrial scene.
What drew you to that sort of industrial sound? Do you think you’re doing it yourself as a matter of creative control?
Yeah, I think kind of is creative control. It is what I want as well, I do like goth/industrial music. I prefer it to metal now, actually; it’s chill, it’s like, calming, in a way, kinda like dark stillness? -laughs- I’m not sure how to describe it.
Is there anything in particular that pushed you away from metal?
I think metal, in its current iteration, become a little stale in many of [its] pathways. I mean, there are some bands, I think, that are still being innovative, but they’re the ones that are combining it with stuff that’s not metal. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the band Igorrr?
I fucking love him.
Yeah. That’s the kind of metal I like now! -laughs- I think if it situates itself in any scene, it kinda situates itself in the metal scene, it’s sort of saying to metalheads “look what metal can be” — that’s kind of what it’s doing. I think it kind of has a purpose of bringing metalheads forward, [introduces] different sounds.
But yeah, that’s kinda why I switched to electronic, goth, industrial [type] stuff, because I feel like that has more of a pathway forward at the moment. Especially since [with] electronic music, you can get really experimental with it… Sometimes I feel like I’m going mad working on the same track for hours and hours, like, over and over again I’m like, “does this sound good? Because I think it sounds good!”, but then I just listen to it for hours… -laughs-
I get what you mean. I feel like it’s a double-edged sword, though, sometimes I’m working on something and I start hating it…
Yeah, the opposite also [stands], like I work on something and I’m like “this sounds really boring now”, and then I leave it for a while and I listen back and I’m like “actually, this wasn’t half bad”!
I remember you were working on an album as well?
Yeah, I’ve got 8 songs; I’m kind of in the final [stages] now, cause I wanna get it out in October. The album’s called Octopus, and it’s gonna have 8 tracks, because… octopi. Octopi are really cool, they’re one of my favourite animals cause they’re, like, so alien; they kind of make me think maybe there’s some sort of universality to intelligence, because they evolved in this completely different pathway. We even evolved eyes separately to octopi, our common ancestor didn’t have eyes… I guess intelligence was evolved separately too. And it’s like, they kind of understand what’s going on, even though they’re so different to us, genetically. They’re such sneaky bastards, as well! I love their personalities. -laughs-
I mean, I’ve seen loads of YouTube videos of octopi being arseholes, it’s brilliant.
Yeah. And the way they move is very mesmerising; it’s like every tentacle is moved so purposefully, cause they effectively have a brain in each tentacle, so they [can] move of their own accord, so they kind of have like 9 brains in total. -laughs-
So I named [the album] after my track called ‘Octopus’, because I’m basically using the octopus as a metaphor for polyamory. The song’s kind of like a punky rant about people’s misconceptions of polyamory, and I’m taking that to be the title track because it’s a cool name for an album… and octopi are really cool.
What would you say the main themes of the album are?
The album’s basically about hedonism, actually. I think [because] a lot of it was written when I was in Leeds, which was a really hedonistic segment of my life… It’s kind of going on a journey, like it start off a bit light-hearted, and then it gets a bit heavier, and ends up with a song about climate disaster. So I think in the end, I think it’s about distractions, as well, and people living individually and more “in-the-moment”, but if everybody distracts themselves all the time, we’re gonna end up with disaster.
Are there any tracks you’d like to go more in-depth on?
So, the two songs before the last one — I’m just working backwards here, I guess! — they’re both songs about people taking drugs. So the first one (track 6) is about euphoria, being able to see things in a way you’ve never seen them before; it’s called Transcendence, and it’s basically about this [sense] of “this is really living the life, this is awesome”… And the second one, the penultimate song (track 7) is called Oblivion, and it’s about people taking drugs for the sake of it, to distract themselves, to block [something] out. It’s kind of like the two sides of that coin.
I’ve got another song called Night Side [that] I wrote in my first year of university, that’s about my life becoming about drinking, being like “what happened to my life, it’s all about drinking”!
I completely relate, that was pretty much my first year in Leeds as well.
Yeah. There’s a few different aspects of hedonism going on [in the album], I guess. I basically had 6 of those songs already, and I was like “what’s a way to tie them together”, and the other two emerged from that. I think Night Side was the first song I wrote out of those, and that was over six years ago, now. I kinda just wanna get it finished off, though I’m finding it difficult to get in the mood during the pandemic, because it’s like a party album, and I’m not feeling like that right now. But it’s like, by the time this album comes out, people might feel like that again. So I have to push through, and get into a headspace that I’m not in, to do the album properly; I need to carry it forward, and if I make an album that has that feel to it, that might cheer up some people. I need to find the energy from somewhere to really propel it.
To be honest, a lot of times I feel that the final stages of preparing an album for release kinda feel like that.
Yeah, I’ve just got to push through at this point.
I know you’ve been involved in the Toronto arts and music scene, putting on house shows and the like; how did that all start?
Toronto is an expensive city; we [don’t] have as much arts council grants and what-have-you as the UK does. It’s expensive to rent a venue, and if you do, you’ve [always] got this stress of “are enough people gonna turn up? Maybe not everyone has money to turn up, buy drinks, [or] pay cover”… It makes sense to do house shows [instead] because there’s a lot of artists here, there’s probably a bit of an over-saturation… A lot of people wanna play, even if it’s just to, like, 10 people, in an intimate house setting. So it makes sense to have people coming through the door; it also means that the people that have come to see them will [be able to] see my music, and my husband’s music, depending on which one of us is playing. We would usually alternate between, like, one of us plays, and two other people [play] too; but maybe the other one of us would do a short set at the end or something, just like while people are chatting.
Yeah, it makes sense cause we have this place that’s downtown as well, and we never know when we’re gonna get kicked out, because the landlord decides to do renovations and jack up the rent, or something… So we’ve just gotta make the most of it. -laughs-
Yeah, you’ve gotta do it all while you can, right?
Yeah. I kinda like being in a house that probably needs renovations, since it means you don’t have to worry about people scratching the walls, that kind of stuff… people coming in and out. It’s the perfect mix of, like, the house is crappy enough that you can have people over and not worry too much, but it’s not crappy enough that you can’t have people over.
How did you find getting involved in the Toronto arts scene?
I feel like you have to snowball a little bit. I could’ve put a bit more energy into it, I feel like I had less energy than I would’ve liked to be proactive, I’ve maybe been a little bit passive… It just means it’s been more of a snowball effect, really. But I find that if you start going to open mics, you see a lot of the same people over and over again; there’s certainly a solid network of people who turn up to open mic nights.
So your network was more of an organic growth…
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m not particularly a fake person, so I find it difficult to schmooze with people; it’s kind of my problem too, sometimes I feel like I should just talk to people. -laughs-
How did the name Spectral Eyes come about?
Well, there’s several reasons. I think it kind of, first came from university. I did a lot of microtonal theory and composition, especially towards the end of university; that’s an area I’m really interested in, breaking out of the mould of tuning systems that we’re so accustomed to in the West. There’s a lot of flexibility there. However, after university I decided to go in a [poppier] direction. For the moment, it is kind of twelve-tone based; I think that’s in part because most of the songs were first composed on the piano, and I just [arranged] them electronically — also, when you’re arranging electronically, you gotta use that piano roll! -laughs- It’s a hassle to make things microtonal in DAWs, but I think I will do that eventually. I do often bear the [tonal] spectrum in mind [when writing], like, I can hear the different overtones in things if I have some kind of drone going on; I have incorporated that a little bit into this album, in some of the songs.
But basically, I called myself Spectral Eyes because I want to keep that avenue open; I think this first album, Octopus, is gonna fit more cleanly into what’s already existing [tonally] than later albums. I’m already starting to think about the album after Octopus, I think I’m gonna call it Spectral Demise… you can probably guess what’s gonna happen in Spectral Demise! -laughs-
I mean, the clue’s in the name, right?
So I’m thinking about how to do that right now, but that’s the next project, I think. I basically want to take the listener on a journey, start out with something that’s kind of similar to [things] they’ve heard before, and then I want to bridge the disconnect between the pop that most people listen to, and the obscure, avant-garde, contemporary music scene; it seems kind of grandiose, but [look at] the amount of people that pay attention to it in the population. I wanna eventually bridge this, like, why do we have these divides between popular and classical music? I just want to make music that people listen to, that I think is cool. I’m gonna start off with some beats, people like beats… -laughs-
So yeah, spectral composition… I feel [that] Spectral Eyes is a name that’s very personal to me, and I want it to be something that isn’t really specific to what I’m doing right now, but is a name I can carry with me through [to] whatever projects I’m doing in the future, which will probably be quite varied, I would imagine.
What is it that makes the name Spectral Eyes so personal to you, would you say?
The other thing was [that] when I was a teenager, I was more into making videos; I’m talking like 13-16ish. I made a lot of Machinima with The Sims 2 — I was one of those people! — I put the videos online, I was in the online Sims director forums or whatever. But anyway, me and someone else, we teamed up and made some videos, and we called ourselves Spectrum Creations. So it was a nod back to that. The idea behind that — and behind Spectral Eyes, too — is to not be too prescriptive, and to be open-minded with the direction, using the spectrum as a metaphor for all possibilities. I guess I can approach it looking at the world where you try and look at the details, and not get too side-tracked into one particular, [incoherent] way of looking at things. I mean, no set of ideology or how people think in a certain time period, or culture… No one is gonna have all the answers, so to have more perspective, you’ve got to keep an open mind, I think. I take that approach [both] in music and in the ideas in my life, generally, that feed in to my music.
When I chose this name a couple years ago, I didn’t know why it felt so personal… Like, all my clothing is either black, or ridiculously rainbow coloured. -laughs- But then I realised, the words “spectral eyes” formed an identity, because [of] something I’d forgotten about; when I was 3 or 4, I started wearing glasses, but I think I called them spectacles as the time. I realise that there’s certain syllables in my mind that are to do with formative words that meant a lot to me at [that] age; it makes me like the sound of some syllables more than others, because they’re attached to these words. So the word “spectacles” was one of them, as that word became an identity [for me] at that age — which I’d forgotten about [them], I kind of re-remembered that after the fact. Obviously, my own name, the words “reception class”, because that starts with the same two letters as my name, and I enjoyed school… yeah, a bunch of other words from that time having certain syllables. I wondered why it felt so personal, but then I [realised]. -laughs-
Let’s revisit your idea of breaking the mould of Western tuning systems, if that’s cool. How did you get introduced to microtonality?
I think when I was 17, I found some videos on YouTube of someone doing a 19ET guitar composition, and it like, blew my mind! I was like “what is this”? -laughs- I think that was when I’d already decided I was going to do music at university, and I was just waiting for the end of Sixth Form. And I was just like “yeah, this is what I wanna do at university”…
Why do you think you were drawn to xenharmony?
I think it’s because I played the piano a lot, and I was starting to get bored of the combinations of the twelve note [scale]. Cause I think I really focus on harmony a lot — I’m trying to focus on other aspects as well, I feel like my rhythm was kind of lacking compared to my expertise in other aspects — but yeah, I was starting to get bored of the possibilities on piano, so I was like “what other possibilities are there?” Since I’ve started doing the electronic music, and it’s not just on the piano, I feel less of a need to do that, because you can experiment with stuff like texture, timbre, stuff you can’t just do on a piano.
I felt a bit bored with the possibilities, so I was looking for more, I think. That’s what drew me to it. There are some really fucking cool intervals that you don’t get on the piano. I’d like to be able to sing microtonally properly, eventually; I think I’ve just about mastered getting a nice natural 7th in there, [but] I feel like it’s more of an intuitive thing when you do that, in comparison to some kind of external sound source.
We’re so used to the traditional twelve-tone notation system, it can be hard to program our brains otherwise. But if you look at certain non-Western scales, people from those cultures can wrap their heads around them intuitively…
Yeah. I think eventually — especially if my live performances are just my voice and a backing track — I want to be captivating through being, like, really “in tune”. I’ve thought about, actually, going to a singing teacher that sings Indian music, because I feel like I wanna get that kind of tuning; [but] in terms of the intonation, I don’t necessarily want to sing in that style. I want to sing in more of a rock style with more microtonal [intonation]. Maybe I need two singing teachers! I just need to try something. -laughs-
Rosie’s work can be found at: