Dominic Sen is the Brooklyn-based songwriter and producer Alexandra Lily Cohen. Her latest record, Apparition, is out now on Grind Select.
(Photo Credit: Bo Chapli)
Alexandra Lily Cohen, aka Dominic Sen, is a Brooklyn-based pop singer-songwriter and producer; Anna Schwab, aka sadie, is also a New York-based pop singer-songwriter and producer, who recently released her EP Tides. Dominic Sen’s latest record, Apparition, is out now on Grind Select, so to celebrate, the two friends sat down to catch up about it.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Dominic: We’re sitting in my living room. We’re about to, right after this, have a little photoshoot to promote my album release show. It’s going to be cute. But yeah, we’re going to talk about music and producing and our recent releases.
sadie: Right before we turned on the record button, we were talking about your album. I have lots of questions for you.
Dominic: Do you?
sadie: Yeah, I actually do. Because it is a departure from other stuff you’ve been doing. And I know you’re a huge Caroline Polachek fan. Where did the mythology and the sound come from? Or what helped you arrive there? What was inspiring you?
Dominic: So the mythology, funny enough, comes from a creation myth, in a novel that I wrote.
sadie: You wrote?
Dominic: I wrote, yeah. I wrote a novel. I started it in 2018.
sadie: Is that the book that you’re selling in addition?
Dominic: Yeah. So I wrote this novel, I became really attached to this world. There was this creation myth — I have another album that I wrote that will never come out, that has to do with the novel. But this one, I really loved this creation myth, and at the time when I was starting to write these songs — it was the beginning of the pandemic — and I was revisiting some music that I loved from my childhood, namely, Enya.
sadie: I totally hear that.
Dominic: The Lord of the Rings soundtracks also.
sadie: Also really hear that.
Dominic: I used to just fall asleep every single night listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack when I was, like, 11. It was a cool look.
sadie: I love that.
Dominic: So yeah, I was given these sounds. I felt I could take this creation myth that I have in this novel I wrote.
sadie: What is the creation myth?
Dominic: The creation myth is, there is a character who lives in this world — it’s sort of pre-time, pre-history. There’s no sun or moon that exists yet, and it’s a very cold, barren world. And it’s sort of a story of how the sun and the moon come to be and how this group of people in that culture, that civilization, through the witnessing of the creation of the sun and the moon, come to have this magical power called weaving.
sadie: OK, wow. I love that. Weaving — like literally weaving, or is it magical?
Dominic: That’s what it’s called. But they’re not weaving baskets or anything like that, that’s just what the power happens to be called.
sadie: OK, obsessed. Yeah, I totally see that, with how it’s this washed out, white vibe. It’s not a lot of saturation of color, which is interesting.
Dominic: Yeah, I wanted it to feel very ancient. I tried to create that also through the visual world. What about you? What were you inspired by when you were writing this most recent EP?
sadie: I don’t know. I honestly was writing a lot and writing really fast and I just wanted to put more songs out. I mean, I’ve been really inspired by — I guess this is actually new songs that I’ve been writing, not the EP — but the new SZA album.
Dominic: Right… ultimate sad girl.
sadie: I know. Also I’ve been going back and revisiting — I have a whole playlist — I think I shared it with you.
Dominic: sadie 3.0.
sadie: Yeah. I don’t really know, I feel like I’m kind of all over the place. It’s inspiring me. I’m figuring it out.
Dominic: That’s OK, though. I feel like I personally love albums that have a lot of different vibes but still feel cohesive. It feels more interesting to me to be like, what could the next track sound like?
sadie: Totally. OK, wait. I’m not done questioning you.
Dominic: Oh, my gosh.
sadie: So you have this background, this myth. But it also is a very personal album, too, right? Is it Dominic Sen or is it a character?
Dominic: There’s so many layers. When I first started Dominic Sen, Dominic Sen had a backstory.
sadie: Oh really? What’s Dominic Sen?
Dominic: At this point, It’s irrelevant.
sadie: What was it? How did the name come about?
Dominic: The name came about from a sci-fi novel that I was reading at the time.
sadie: What sci-fi novel?
Dominic: It was the series called the Terra Ignota series.
sadie: Are you a big sci-fi fan?
Dominic: Yeah. I’ve been reading a little bit less these days, though. I used to, I mean.
sadie: It’s not embarrassing at all. It’s cool. I read a lot of sci-fi. I haven’t recently, but so do my boyfriend and my dad.
Dominic: We’ll have to start a book club so we can start reading again. I wasn’t embarrassed that I read sci-fi, I was embarrassed that I haven’t been reading as much recently.
sadie: It’s so hard. I mean literally, we’re supposed to cook for ourselves, work, pay the bills, make art, listen to podcasts, keep up with current events, listen to new music, read books, read magazine articles — how are we supposed to do all of that? It’s impossible. I feel like people need to let themselves off the hook.
Dominic: Yeah. If you, say, didn’t have to worry about earning income, what would your ideal day look like for you?
sadie: It’s funny you should ask, because I am unemployed right now.
Dominic: There you go.
sadie: Not for much longer, but I mean, I wake up — I’m doing PT still, so I’ll wake up and do my stretches and my exercises, have coffee and snuggle with my cats. I will usually read The New Yorker while I drink my coffee.
Dominic: So you do get to read your magazine.
sadie: I like a slow morning.
Dominic: Yeah, I’m the same way. I feel like I really don’t like to get started on anything before noon.
sadie: Yeah, I’ve been trying to break that habit. It used to be really hard for me to start working on music before noon. Because it’s just like, your ears. But I wake up, I have my coffee, read The New Yorker, then I write. I force myself to write lyrics for, like, 40 minutes, just jot down some things.
Dominic: Do you just write stream of conscious?
sadie: Sort of. It depends. Sometimes I’ll put some music on in the background and I’ll write to whatever rhythm that song is, just to get a flow going. Or sometimes I’ll just be inspired by something I read or a dream I had. And then I’ll workout, make some lunch, and then work on music for the rest of the day, and then go out and see my friends or sit on my porch.
Dominic: Sounds like a beautiful life.
sadie: Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty beautiful.
Dominic: I feel like mine would look pretty similarly, honestly. I don’t like to work too hard. I feel I do right now because I have to, especially in the middle of an album campaign. There’s just so many random small admin tasks that take forever. And then on top of that, I only have a part time job, so I’m not even fully employed outside of music. But yeah, I feel like these days, especially if I’m also trying to exercise and cook, by the time I can get out of the house to see friends, it’s 9. And I’m like, this isn’t how life is supposed to be.
sadie: No, it’s crazy. Wasn’t it Germany or, some country, was implementing the four day workweek?
Dominic: I know Iceland has tried it out.
sadie: Maybe that could be it. That checks out.
Dominic: Or the 21-hour workweek. I’ve heard that was tossed around.
sadie: I know. It’s actually crazy. I saw something recently that the 9-to-5 workday and five-day-a-week workday was invented during a time when it was assumed that you would have a wife at home to cook and clean and take care of all the household chores. The idea that people actually expect us to work all day and clean and cook is crazy. That’s literally actually like our society was founded with people who had built-in maids for them, whether it was your mom or your wife or your sister, right?
Dominic: And one income coming in was supposed to be enough to cover the whole family, right? And now that’s such a joke.
sadie: It’s actually crazy when you think about it, and we’re still trying to push this archaic system on people and it’s not working. And we have not even tried coming up with something else.
Dominic: I know. We’re surprisingly uncreative when it comes to trying a radically different system that would make everybody happier and improve everyone’s quality of life.
sadie: My hope with AI is — this is obviously a pipe dream, but that it will eliminate most jobs. There will be this dark time, but then what will arise is universal basic income and everyone will just have enough money to live and make art. And it’s going to be the golden age of society.
Dominic: Yeah, it’s the great equalizer. The potential of it is so great. And, for me, I have to cling on to that hope that’s what it will bring — it will get rid of all these jobs. But I heard this person saying — they had drawn a cartoon that was what we think AI will bring, and it was someone painting while a robot was vacuuming the house. And then it was what AI actually looked like.
sadie: It looked like nuclear destruction.
Dominic: [Laughs.] Well, it was just the opposite. It was the AI writing the poems and the person doing hard manual labor.
sadie: Yeah, that’s actually really good. But back to music. This is also something that I always have admired about you, which is that you are literally prolific. Just to hear that you had an album scrapped… So I assume — and I know that you were doing writing — that you already have something else, a project nearly ready to go.
Dominic: It’s not nearly ready.
sadie: But I’m assuming you do have a lot of new music.
Dominic: It’s interesting because I’m writing so much right now. With Apparition, I feel like something really flipped for me in my brain where I was like, Oh, my gosh, I’m a real producer now. It’s kind of the first time that I felt fully—
sadie: You are a real producer. I’m serious. I mean, you already are for me and other people. You could be making your full time living producing for other people.
Dominic: I know. I don’t know, I feel like I would start to get sucked into it and then have less time to work on my own stuff. It’s a weird thing. I’m trying to keep a balance there. But yeah, I’m just writing so much right now and it’s cool, but I feel like my standards have really risen for my own music. In this weird way, it used to be, any song that I started, for the most part, I would see through. But now it’s one out of every, like, three or four songs that I’m like, this deserves to be out.
sadie: That’s my process too. When I’m in a writing phase, I’ll try to start a new idea every day. And unless I’m super excited about one and I get sucked in, I won’t continue one until I go back. You have to be selective. But sometimes, you have to see a song through to the end and then you realize, this isn’t worth releasing.
Dominic: But you learn something along the way.
sadie: Yeah, you totally do. I’ll often take little parts or lyrics I wrote for a song I’m never going to release, or a synth sound or something, and it’ll end up becoming a part of a new song I actually will release. It’s always worth it.
Dominic: Yeah. I mean, we’re obviously working together right now on some of your stuff. So I get some of the stuff you’re working on. How many songs do you feel like you’ve written or started for this next body of work?
sadie: My god, literally hundreds.
sadie: No, hundreds is crazy.
Dominic: You’re writing 10 songs a day.
sadie: Who needs AI when you’re sadie? No, I literally will try to start a new idea every day. And some of them are humiliating and I would never share them. But it’s just to exercise that part of my brain. With the songs that I’m excited about, I hope that this will turn into an album if I can get anyone to put it out. And right now I think I have five songs that I’m like, this is definitely going out. But who knows. I love the feeling of potential of all the songs that you’re going to write that already exist, but you haven’t written them down yet. That’s kind of an exciting feeling.
Dominic: Totally, I feel like I get that.
sadie: You just have to tune into the right frequency and they appear. That’s how I feel with one of the songs that I’m super excited about on the new album. It was like it just came. It was like I blacked out. I don’t even remember how I wrote it. And it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I don’t even know how I did it. Those magic moments.
Dominic: Yeah, same thing, the songs that just kind of pour out of you and then you’re like, What? Where? I was like, in a trance.
sadie: Yeah. Literally in a trance. I remember I was chopping an onion and the lyrics of the hook came to me and I was like, what? It just fell down from the ceiling.
Dominic: Is this “Hit and Run”?
Dominic: [Laughs.] Okay, I had a feeling.
sadie: I was really high and I texted my manager — “I just wrote a hit.”
Dominic: I feel like you sent it to me too, shortly after.
sadie: I was so excited about it.
Dominic: You were like, “This chorus is a hit right?” I love that. I know that feeling.
sadie: It’s an addictive feeling.
Dominic: Do you listen to your own stuff when you write something a lot?
sadie: Sometimes I’ll listen just to be like, wait, do I hate this or do I like it? Or if I send a song to someone, I’ll then listen to it. Should I be embarrassed for just sending this to them? It’s like when you send an email and then you read it back after you sent it to be like, what does it sound like?
Dominic: Oh, my god, there’s like a typo in there or something.
sadie: Then you put yourself in the head of the person receiving it. What does this sound like to the person that just received it? I don’t because then I start to hate everything really. I’ll listen to songs that are in process because I’ll be walking around and a melody will pop up and more lyrics — like the song that I sent you earlier today, I’m trying to write lyrics, so I was listening to it on the drive over here.
Dominic: Yeah, because you said that you write lyrics.
sadie: That’s a new thing. Because I used to always save lyrics to the end. I used to just do — there’s a name for it, but you mumble a melody and you find the rhythm and the sounds and the cadence. I would go in and write lyrics after, and sometimes it’s so frustrating to do that because the lyrics don’t fit what you were hearing originally, and you get attached to what it sounded like and then none of the lyrics — so I’m trying to just at least have some lyrical ideas going into it that I can start my noodles with that. If that makes sense.
Dominic: Yeah. I feel like I listened to — speaking of Caroline Polachek — this interview with her a long time ago, and she said she’ll just write total filler lyrics and then will spend so long because it has to be this exact rhythm. And it’ll take her so long to write the actual lyrics because she’s trying to fit it literally.
sadie: I’ll do that. Did you watch the Beatles documentary?
Dominic: The one that Peter Jackson made?
sadie: I forget who made it.
Dominic: It’s like nine hours long?
sadie: Yes, you did. It’s so good. But when they’re trying to write, “Something in the way she moves,” when they didn’t know, “Attracts me like no other lover.” And they’re like, “na, na, na, cauliflower” – they know what it’s supposed to sound like, but they cannot figure out the lyrics. Universal process. You know the melody, you know the rhythm but you cannot figure out what words should go there.
Dominic: Have you heard that crazy story about Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way?”
Dominic: Max Martin, who is Swedish. Evil genius.
sadie: Oh, his thing is it doesn’t matter — the lyrical content, it just has to be bland.
Dominic: Yeah. So he writes a song, and he writes the lyrics for it and it’s complete gibberish. And this is the song that exists today. It doesn’t really mean anything. There are lines in it that don’t make sense. And then they rewrote the lyrics so that it had more of a theme and there was more of a story, and they listened back and it’s just not as good as the gibberish version.
sadie: Literally, Max Martin’s whole philosophy is the lyrics should not stand out or compete with the melody. It should be one with the melody. So many of his genius songs when you listen to them — I feel like that happens in a lot of big pop music — you’re like, this actually doesn’t make sense. Charli does that too.
Dominic: Yeah but then she’ll also just have these beautifully simplistic, poetic lyrics that I don’t have the attitude or confidence to present this same silly line in the way that she does. But when she delivers it, that’s the most profound thing that’s ever been said.
sadie: I get that. Yeah, totally. Now I’m trying to think of the lyrics to the Backstreet Boys song. [Sings.] It kind of makes sense though.
Dominic: “I want it that way.” What do they want that way?
sadie: Yeah. When you actually think about it, it’s like, what?
Dominic: Yeah, it sounds like a McDonald’s commercial, or Burger King.
sadie: But, “You are my fire/the one desire.”
Dominic: That doesn’t mean anything.
sadie: “We are two worlds apart/can’t reach to your heart” — that doesn’t make any sense. When you say that, “I want it that way,” really actually makes no sense. But it doesn’t matter.
Dominic: Speaking of producers, how did you get started producing? Why did you start producing music — what compelled you?
sadie: I always have played music and I grew up playing classical piano and then I was in rock bands in college.
Dominic: And then where did you go to college again?
Dominic: OK, cool. And did you front rock bands?
Dominic: OK, cool.
sadie: This girl who made music under, actually, her name was Faith Harding, and now I can’t remember what her stage name was, but she was an electronic producer. I went to a bunch of her shows and I was just so inspired. Basically I was like, OK, I’m going to teach myself Ableton. I think it was around the time that [Grimes’s] Oblivion came out, so I got very into the idea of producing music and just started. When I was at Wesleyan, we had access to Lynda.com — I don’t know if you guys have ever used it, but it’s just basically this resource like JStor, but for video tutorials of any technological thing you could ask for. So I just started watching all these Lynda videos. I actually started with Logic and then I switched to Ableton and just started producing in my bedroom.
Dominic: It’s so interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently with TikTok. I see all of these people on there doing these short little tutorials — I see kids in high school and they’re really young kids who are whizzes at these programs. When I was learning how to produce that stuff, there was YouTube in my mid 20s, but having access to that stuff in high school was — it seemed so far away. I feel like no one I knew was really doing that stuff. But now it feels like there’s a plethora of resources available.
sadie: I also feel like kids are just more fluent in technology. The way that some people can make TikToks — I literally cannot figure out how to edit a TikTok. It is so fucking complicated.
Dominic: I mean, it is an annoying interface. You’re on your phone and you’re working on these tiny little motions and movements.
sadie: But these kids are professionals. It’s crazy.
Dominic: Yeah, it’s pretty wild.
sadie: I recently heard someone say, the easy way to figure out if you’re a millennial or Gen Z, if you’re cusp, is that millennials watch TikToks and enjoy them, but they can’t actually really make them. And Gen Zs are really good at making them. That’s the distinguishing factor.
Dominic: It’s like a native thing where they know all the small things to do that make it better somehow. I don’t know.
sadie: Totally. Yeah.
Dominic: Do you feel like you’re a cusp or more a millennial?
sadie: I’m definitely a cusp. Well, I mean, I was ‘94. Is that? I don’t know.
Dominic: I think that’s definitely millennial. But in that weird—
sadie: It’s in the limbo zone.
Dominic: The limbo zone, yeah. Do you not like making TikToks?
sadie: I hate it.
Dominic: Yeah, it’s the worst.
sadie: I’m trying to be more playful, because you gotta do it.
Dominic: Well, I think we can wrap this up.
sadie: It was a pleasure chatting.
Dominic: A pleasure chatting. Talk again immediately after this.
(Photo Credit: right, Bo Chapli)