“I always wanted to write a book,” Cooper says, “I was drawn to East of Eden and A Hundred Years of Solitude, those multi-generational family sagas where you see how one person’s life affects the family line.” At 19, he wrote two books, but both were lost in a cataclysmic hard drive crash. Instead of giving up, he turned to music. “I thought: why not do them as records? There could be a set of people, and we follow their bloodlines,” he says, “and instead of passing down genetic traits, we could pass down melodic patterns that mutate with each generation.”
The Jacksonville, Florida native embarked on a series of “Family Tree” albums, which trace the fantastical lives of a 19th century family, whose blood flows with special abilities that range from seeing spirits to bringing the dead back to life. Their secrets bind them together, a warm flame held against a harsh world. “When I started, I thought I would do three EPs, but it ran away with me. I didn’t know I was signing up for an eight-year project.” The latest installment, The Family Tree: The Leaves (March 2016), continues the narrative of the supernatural brood, offering a polished, textured sound entirely crafted by Cooper, who plays nearly all the instruments on the album. His DIY-ethic, which was forged in the early days with a four-track in his family’s back shed, has evolved into a lushly orchestrated album featuring his boyfriend, Josh Lee on strings.
“The first record, The Roots, starts the smallest. The lyrics were all verbal storytelling, and it focused on small sounds, a floor tom, an acoustic guitar, and a piano,” he says. “Then each record it would get more broad, and it’d expand. The second one, The Branches, was all about written letters, and the third, The Leaves, is more cinematic. It’s a time period of film and photographs.”
The album opener, “Secrets,” is a propulsive tune powered by energetic beats, skyward arching guitars and Cooper’s floating vocals, sharing the story of a little girl who revives deceased pets, and a boy who sees his ancestor’s ghosts in the basement. “The roots of folk music are dark. They just have nice melodies,” Cooper says about his own preternatural ability to make music that interlocks contrasting emotions, broadcasting uplifting anthems seeped in subtle melancholy. “Every song on the record starts from a different source,” he says. “I easily break a hundred tracks, layering and stacking, then it’s like whittling. I keep whittling it down to something listenable.” The spine of track “The Road To Nowhere” is an arpeggiated, Philip Glass-like string hook and a stutter-stepping drumbeat creating tight grooves that lay a foundation for Cooper’s voice to hover above, pairing his delicate vocals with the kinetic activity percolating underneath. On “Rivers in the Dust,” Cooper says, “It’s a dustbowl song, following two Okies pushing through to California. The first half [of the song] is all slow traveling, and the back half, where it gets more cloudy and shoegazey, represents a huge wave of dust.”
While the stories of Radical Face take place in an alternate reality, Cooper’s real life has been tumultuous. Growing up in an interracial family of 10 in the South, they dealt with racism firsthand. When he came out to his parents at 14, he was kicked out of his home and worked full time while going to high school. With a fractured family, Cooper found a home in music. “A lot of us got into music because we were outcasts in a southern town. A lot of friends let me stay on their couches if I needed. I joined five bands, some with instruments I didn’t know how to play. That’s how I learned everything I play now; by not wanting to be home. It’s a good crash course, though. Join a band as a drummer when you’ve got a show in three weeks and you learn quick.”
Cooper mostly put his childhood behind him, then what he calls his “strange and dark family history” re-emerged recently, drawing him into court cases involving religiously-fueled abuse. Then, unexpectedly, Cooper became a parent at 33, after adopting his niece. His recent challenges were impossible to divorce from his writing process, and for the first time, he has written directly autobiographical songs on The Leaves, like the slow-burning track “Bad Blood,” where he sings about his rocky childhood as the song culminates with explosive drums, and a solitary piano.
“It’s my life, but I wrap it in fiction,” he says. “I’ve always been guilty of using music as a therapy. Because with music, you can take something ugly or hard and can turn it into something pretty. You can force it to become something that it never intended.