If you’ve heard The Detroit Cobras even once, you know you’ve hit upon something utterly unique — regardless of the fact they’re covering someone else’s songs. And without knowing a thing about her, just one listen will tell you that singer Rachel Nagy, with her powerhouse voice, dangling cigarette and high-heeled boots, is a woman who knows and loves her rock well, and is intent upon doing right by it.
Relaxed at home in Pennsylvania, Rachel shares her thoughts on the many misconceptions of covers, her unpolished vocal style, and expounds on The Cobras’ unbending musical mandate: to honor the true greats of rock and soul in a heartfelt, no-nonsense, completely original way.
People often discount bands that emulate a well-known musical formula by labeling them ‘uncreative’ or ‘talentless’, but I think that it takes quite a lot of discipline and skill to emulate a genre well. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely — and you show a very good understanding of what it takes, actually. People do do that all the time—they discount you. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re just doing what’s been done already,’ but it’s more than that. We’re paying homage to something that is so much bigger and so much better than us. We’re trying to follow a template of true greatness but we’re not trying to do it verbatim. We’ve got a rough and tumble take on what we do.
And it’s certainly not about improving the original…
(laughs) I just want to try to rise to the occasion and capture that feel and that rhythm of how it used to be done. When you write something of your own, it’s easy to flub it or be sloppy but we have very specific parameters with what we do. We put an original through our filter but we still give it that respect that it deserves. It cracks me up when people say, ‘Well, it only a cover.’ It’s like, ‘Well no, it’s not only a cover. It’s actually quite a lot to take on because you look a lot dumber if you don’t do it well (laughs).
And it’s everything about the genre; it’s the playing, the vocals, their delivery…
Yeah. Even coming from the school that we do — punk and garage — there are a lot of singers who aren’t singers at all. There’s yelling and screaming and it doesn’t matter. With this, it all matters. It can’t be a loud mess and it can’t be played out of whack and I can’t just scream at the top of my lungs and be all angry. It’s going to show.
So you never had any vocal training?
No…and actually, it took ’til our third record before I could hear my voice and not truly cringe inside (laughs). It’s always been like, ‘Ugh! Why am I doing this?!’ It’s strange for me to hear, ‘You’re a great singer!’ and I’ve had to learn to stop arguing with people about why I wasn’t; I had to learn to be gracious and say thank you instead of arguing them down from that opinion (laughs).
I can’t imagine you could think that…
Well (laughs), I had these ridiculously great singers to follow, like Irma Thomas and Pete Washington. When I compare myself to them, I’m a pretty dirty copy (laughs).
You have some terrific range though. You may be known for your gritty, ballsy vocal style but you have some very pretty and sweet moments on your records as well.
Thank you, I appreciate that.
You know, it’s one thing to be a Courtney Love and to yell and carry on, but when she slows things down…it doesn’t always work.
Right, that’s true. I just never thought my voice was ‘pretty’ in any way and I’ve really had to come with grips that it has it’s holds its own beauty even though it may not be traditionally beautiful. There has to be something in it if this many people can tell me it means something to them…I guess it can’t be total garbage! (laughs).
What’s touring like for you? Is life good on the road?
It’s usually a pretty good time because we really try to make sure that the people we work with are people we enjoy; I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to keep at this for so long. Nobody’s allowed to be an asshole or a Prima Donna, you know? Usually we surround ourselves with friends, and we definitely take attitude over skill (laughs), because that makes for a good time with no fights or screaming matches. I’d like a lot more of that moving forward.
Do you truly shine as a live band or as recording artists?
It’s a combination of both. Unfortunately, because of the way we operate and due to finances, we gotta get in and get it done when we go in the studio, you know? We can’t say, ‘Okay, we have a year to work with this and perfect it.’ We’ve got a day to get in there and get it done right. We did something recently that I didn’t feel got done correctly — therefore isn’t acceptable to me — so we’re not going to do anything with it. It’s easy to go back and say, ‘Maybe this is how we should have done it,’ or ‘Oh man, we should have taken more time with that,’ but we just don’t have that luxury. In a live setting though, when we’re good, we’re really, really good.
Since day one?
Well, we’ve had rough patches and had people who’ve played with us who weren’t the people we needed, but we go out there and do it and hope for the best. There’ve been times when we have all the right people and it’s magic and when that happens. It’s the best feeling in the whole world. That’s when I think, truly, we are a live band…even though there are other times when I get off the stage and go, ‘Aw, man, we shouldn’t have done that; I wish we could take that back’ (laughs). As I go forward and get older, I get more of an understanding that this is important and I want to do it the best I can. I want to get more…precise…and work with people that I click with. This can be such fun when you just have the right people with you. So much fun.