Warpaint’s Emily Kokal revisits her 16-year-old self for our Sweet 16 feature

The instrumental bond between bandmates Emily and Theresa was already in full effect by 1996

Theresa [Wayman, Warpaint guitarist] actually took this picture of me when I was 16, which is so cute. We were at high school, in Eugene, Oregon, and we had photography class together, and this was one of her graded photos. I don’t remember what grade she got for it, but the print made it into this glass case that was outside the class, so that’s something – it was mounted in the hallway.

Eugene is a really amazing city. There’s a really good university there; a really good architecture school. Nike was started there, and it’s a very liberal and progressive city. My mum moved me there when I was 10 to have a better education. Before that I went to five different elementary schools and I was a real gypsy kid, always moving, from Chino, California, where I was born, to all over the state and the Bay Area.

But 16 was a really pivotal point for me. I was really involved in community theatre. I loved to perform and sing, and I was getting into choreographing dances. I also started smoking pot, and that took me more into music, which was when I started playing guitar – I was transitioning into songwriting, and I was definitely lashing out for some independence at that point in my life. I was feeling a little restricted in my house, because that’s that point where you can start battling with your parents. It was 1996 and I started listening to Wu-Tang and Outkast and Portishead and trip-hop. Music started to blow my mind. It kind of felt like the end of my childhood.

At that time in my school, because it was really progressive in the arts, there were kids who’d write their own musicals. I remember I got together with a girl who played violin and a girl who played piano and we put together a three-part harmony of a Cat Stevens song. South Eugene is like that – yuppie-hippie, where parents are really involved in their kids’ lives and artists themselves or professors at the university. Even some of the jocks, who you’d think would be the antithesis of that world, would get involved with performances.

A big thing that happened then was that I was in a play and I got in trouble for cutting class, so as a punishment my mum took me out of the play. That play was a really big deal to me, and she fucked me over. I actually really appreciate that now, because due to being grounded I got more into doing things she really didn’t want me to do, and those things have helped me get to where I am today.

I rebelled, and I put all of my angst into playing the guitar and developing my own voice.

Theresa and I listened to a lot of Bjork back then, and Portishead, and amazing women singers who made me think these people are really saying something; this is what I want to do; I want to be me, I don’t want to play a character; and if I dance I want to dance in a video that I make, to my song. 

Most of the time I was with Theresa… and some of my friends. We’d be at her house or mine, and there were some really nice nature spots nearby, so we’d drive and listen to music. And there was Ginny’s house, which was the house that anybody could go to at any time – her parents would just be chilling out downstairs, and they didn’t care. Ginny had three CDs – ‘Van Morrison’, ‘Pharcyde’ and ‘Liquid Swords’ by GZA. We’d listen to those and jump on a trampoline.

Theresa and I were always walking around philosophising together. We walked home and to school together since we were eleven, and that friendship was a really big part of what was happening when I was 16. We were so aligned in the things that we wanted to do and the things we were interested in. We loved the same books, the same movies, the same music. We starting playing guitar at the same time, and then started playing a little bit together. So now that we’re in Warpaint together and tour the world… it’s someone who knows you so well, through puberty. And now she has an 11-year-old! That is a really wild journey.

The other day we spent the day off in Paris together, and we were walking around, and it’s so sweet sometimes to stop and appreciate that we’re having a day off together, alone. We both have chaotic home lives, but here we are having a day off in Paris, by ourselves. We designed it this way from that time in our lives. I think that our bond pushed us to really try for something.   

Emily Kokal was speaking to Stuart Stubbs

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