“Oh my God is that the time? Wow. Oh my gosh. Bloody hell. Oh my God!”
Do you want me to stay here and wait for the photographer?
“Yeah okay. Argh!”
Cooly G is in a hurry, jumping out of her bedroom/recording studio and trundling down the stairs of her first floor flat in a South West London suburb. Her son finished school at three o’clock and although she only lives around the corner, it’s now quarter-past. The front door slams shut and I’m left to mind the fort.
If most interviews with musicians don’t end with an impromptu housesitting session, that’s probably because most musicians aren’t single mothers with two young kids. As Cooly G, she’s been responsible for some of the most exciting vocalised dance music to come out of London in the last few years, but as the woman behind the music, Merissa Campbell has had to balance her burgeoning exposure with the realities of motherhood.
In the past, the Brixton-born singer, producer and record label impresario has been somewhat reticent with regards to discussing this, preferring instead to let the music do the talking. The thing is, Campbell’s circumstances and Cooly G’s songs have always been deeply intertwined; the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Over the course of our time together, this becomes even clearer.
Still, I imagine the questions probably get really boring, even if they are unavoidable. “I don’t know how to answer them sometimes,” she admits, looking vaguely glum to be even discussing the subject. “You know, ‘What’s it like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry’ or whatever. I don’t really think about anyone else. I do feel like there is some sort of tension sometimes with me being a girl and everything and doing okay though, like people saying ‘How come she’s out there?’ But you know, I don’t know what to say.”
Later this month, the 32 year-old will release her second album, ‘Wait ‘Til Night’, on Steve Goodman’s Hyperdub label. New single ‘So Deep’ is a slice of dirty R&B, aided and abetted by Campbell’s deep, sensual vocals. Musically, the rest of the record is gorgeously seductive, moving closer to dark synthpop than the more frenetic dub house of her first full-length, 2012’s ‘Playin’ Me’. Lyrically, it’s outright sexual, with track titles like ‘Fuck with You’, ‘Your Sex’ and ‘Want’. You get the idea.
It’s all quite a contrast from the world of soiled nappies and bedtime stories. Campbell is making no apologies whatsoever. “Fucking hell, well yeah, single fucking mum and no fucking dick,” she laughs. “So yeah, it’s more like fantasies and stuff. I’ve been keeping myself to myself lately because I think I’ve just gone into things too quick, like obviously I’ve had two kids and their dads…”
She chooses her words carefully. “I can’t really complain about my son’s dad because he goes there every other couple of weeks and he knows his dad and everything. My daughter doesn’t know her dad though; he’s just not about. He ain’t trying to help or nothing. Where I thought that was supposed to be a proper relationship — even people around me thought, ‘Oh my God this is going to be good, it’s cool,’ — it ended up being just fucked up, so I thought, right, I’m gonna chill, not fuck around and just be a nun.”
The final slot on the album belongs to ‘Three of Us’. What might be misconstrued for some wistful imagining of a ménage à trois is actually a painful dissection of Campbell’s failed relationship with her daughter’s father and the subsequent emotional fallout. It’s the only song in which she directly references her son (Nas, 7) and daughter (Tate, 2).
“The reality after all that in the album of being so sexual and whatever is that, at the end of it, I’ve ended up on my own,” she explains. “It was the last track I recorded because I couldn’t get it out; it was so emotional just knowing that I was going to cut her dad out. At the start of the track it’s me, my ex and the baby and at the end it’s me, the baby and Nas; the three of us.”
The family moved out to the suburbs a few years ago for the sake of the children but it was Brixton where Campbell spent her own formative years. Having initially got into DJing at the age of seven by playing songs on her dad’s sound system at parties and weddings, the precocious pre-teen soon developed a voracious record collecting habit. By the time she was 17, she was producing songs of her own and eventually found herself a job teaching music production and sound engineering.
For the next seven years, Campbell trudged between her house and the studio where she was working, honing her craft. “Everyone in Brixton knew what I was doing,” she remembers. “Everyone just wanted me to go downhill to be honest though. Especially when I had my son, they all thought ‘Yep, that’s it, she’s gonna turn out like a piece of shit now.’ It just turned the other way, know what I mean?”
The turning point itself was ‘This Boy’, a fresh take on funky house that exploded across 2008 and 2009. Around the same time, Campbell — already a mother — stormed into the DJ booth at a club and harangued the DJ for not playing her song until he eventually acquiesced. “He played it and the whole of fucking Brixton went crazy. So I was like, you know what, I’m fucking doing this. I’m not getting a job,” she proudly recalls. “Then I put it in a Soho record shop and I just started seeing my name all over the Internet. I loved it.”
Hyperdub soon came calling and before long Cooly G was one of the hottest tickets in UK dance. Well, for most people anyway. Sexism reared its ugly head amongst a sizeable minority of fans who simply refused to believe that a female could possibly be responsible for producing some of the finest beats around. Sensing that direct action was needed to stem the tide, Campbell took to the Internet and streamed a live video in which viewers could watch her produce songs in real-time.
It’s a faintly ludicrous, unedifying scenario and not one you could imagine any of her male peers being involved in. On the other hand, if such gestures can be used to bluntly refute prejudiced beliefs around female production abilities once and for all, perhaps the end justifies the means. Certainly there can be no argument now that Cooly G is anything other than the real deal. Earlier in the year she performed a set on Boiler Room, nowadays seen as something of a watershed moment for any self-respecting DJ.
It’s a big deal, right? “For other people yeah,” she says, clearly nonplussed. “Everyone goes crazy. I was like…” Indifferent? “Well I’m more humble and oblivious to things. I just do it because I have to do it. I don’t really understand the whole hype thing; I’m just doing it and having fun. Maybe the kids are going to watch it after and be like, ‘Mummy’s DJing’ or something. I’m more into thinking of it like that!”
I get the feeling Campbell knows full well how valuable the Boiler Room exposure is, though. She set up her own label — Dub Organizer — in 2010, looking to promote her favourite deep house artists. She made sure to bring them along. There are plans afoot to release five EPs (“One after the other, early next year”).
Between the label, the music and the kids, it’s hard not to wonder how Cooly G ever sleeps. It turns out she doesn’t. Last month, attending the AIM Independent Music Awards in support of Hyperdub — who were up for (and won) an award in the Best Small Label category — she had a panic attack and collapsed of exhaustion. Her label mates were horrified, an ambulance was called and the Cooly G performance at Corsica Studios in London the following night was cancelled.
Worryingly, this wasn’t the first time. Campbell has been having stress-related blackouts for years. More alarming still is that until very recently, she’s done her best to hide these from her friends and family as part of a kind of wider emotional coping mechanism.
“I’m gonna cry,” she says, holding back the tears. “My friends, my family… they don’t even know what’s been going on. They didn’t know until the other day. I’ve been having them for years. Now my cousin’s on my case, saying how we need to sort it out and all that.”
Isn’t it time to slow things down a bit? “My dad’s always been saying to me, ‘You need to have friends, you need to socialise with people, you need to have someone to talk to,’” Campbell sighs. “I was always like, ‘Nah man, I don’t want no friends’ but now shit, you know what? I do. I had people around last Saturday and we laughed the whole night. The whole night! I haven’t laughed for fucking years. I’ve been missing this shit. But I needed to lock away from people as well though, because I needed to make music.”
I feel tired just listening to Cooly G’s plans for the next few months. Aside from the new album and running her own label, there are multiple video shoots in the works (“We’re going to do like Ruff Rider fucking skills”), gigs across the world (“I think I’m off to Japan”) and yet another new album (“I’ve got music to do, but I haven’t got around to it ‘cause I’ve been bare busy”). Oh and a radio show, plus the kids.
“I’m happier now though,” she insists. “The kids are happier that they can see me happier. Just getting their room done was the best feeling. I got the garden done – I decked it out with my friend – they’ve got a playhouse, slides. They can do all that now, then they can play PlayStation, they can read, the tutor comes… There’s loads of stuff for them to do now and they’re happy. That’s what matters.”