You might remember Seattle surf-pop troupe Tacocat from the “#SharkGate” crisis of 2014, a hashtag that sprung to life after Katy Perry used a dancing shark in her Superbowl halftime show performance that highly resembled a shark in Tacocat’s video for “Crimson Wave.” There are a million other reasons Tacocat should be on your radar, though – for example, their impossibly catchy melodies, smart, sassy riffs and unashamedly honest lyrics that explore modern women’s issues without holding back. We chat with singer and lyricist Emily Nokes about working in music journalism, writing songs about candy and her take on the best songs ever written.
Emily, you work/have worked as a music editor at a Seattle paper in addition to playing in Tacocat. How much does working in music journalism inspire and inform your songwriting, and in what ways?
I was actually working in the paper’s graphic design department (I went to school for graphic design) when I was asked to interview for the music editor position! I think that since journalism was not my professional goal – and that I had been writing songs for years before I started that job – I was actually able to keep those parts of my life fairly separate.
There are definitely those moments, though, when so much of your job is to assess music, that you can’t help but turn the microscope on yourself, like, “I wonder what a music writer, or anyone, would think about this new song we just wrote?” After creating music just for the fun of it, it’s an interesting moment when you realize other people are listening and perhaps trying to connect some dots that you weren’t necessarily asking them to connect. But you can’t focus on what other people are going to think, or at least I can’t – that’s when you panic and your creativity shuts down!
I suppose one correlation to my songwriting has been the sheer amount of music that passed through my ears and eyes during my three years as music editor (I “retired” nearly a year ago). The more music you listen to and see live, the more your brain automatically files that away to perhaps think about when writing your own songs. Like, “I think we should have a fake ending! I decided I like fake endings!” Or, “We should shout something in the beginning of this song—I love when bands do that!”
What’s your typical songwriting process?
I have several little notebooks where I jot down ideas, snippets of conversations, words or phrases I like, and possible lines for songs. When it’s time to start making new music, my bandmates usually get together and hash together instrumental ideas that they’ll show me via phone recording or practice jam. I then just start thinking about melodies and seeing if any of the lyrics fit, keeping the feeling of the music versus the feeling of the lyrics in mind, though I don’t mind (and sometimes prefer) sad-sounding music paired with silly lyrics or upbeat music paired with darker lyrics. It’s a fun little jigsaw puzzle for each song! Sometimes it snaps together right away, sometimes you have to tinker with it for weeks.
How long have you been writing songs? Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? What was it?
I’ve been writing “songs” since I was a little kid I guess, dressing up with my younger sister and putting on “plays” for our family and neighborhood. Maybe those weren’t songs as much as shouting a few rhymes over and over or pretending I knew how to play keyboard? The first song song I ever wrote I believe was the Tacocat song “Peeps” – a ridiculously simple tune about my love of the Easter candy!
What’s the most difficult thing about songwriting?
Hitting the sweet spot between humorous (and not being too “joke-band” jokey) and thoughtful (without being too boring, self-serious, or eye-rolly) and then making sure the melody and rhythm work! That, and finding new ways to express ideas via rhyme or semi-rhyme without using words that are too simple or too obvious or too pretentious.
On Lost Time, you candidly tackle a slew of women’s issues in a sharp and empowering way. Do a lot of these lyrics come from personal experience, or do you also take on issues you see other women dealing with?
When it comes to the women’s issues songs, the lyrics usually come from my personal experiences and/or the experiences of my bandmates, but I know that a lot of those struggles/observations/situations are also shared with many, many other women.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Ari Up, Neil Diamond, Joe Genaro, Fiona Apple, Missy Elliott, David Bowie, Prince, Poly Styrene, David Byrne…I could go on and on and on.
Which song are you the most proud of on this album?
I really love the song “Talk.” The lyrics and melody are a bit more indigo than our previous neon. I remember taking long walks and humming it incessantly and then being really nervous to finally bring the melody and lyrics to practice the first time we ever played it together as a band. I think the feelings translated, though!
Which song on this album was the most difficult for you to write?
I remember writing most of “Leisure Bee” and the last lines to “Plan A, Plan B” the morning of our last day of recording. Even if I have tons of lines written down, sometimes it’s just hard to get the music to gel with the lyrics, or to come up with a melody that ties them both together.
What’s been your proudest moment as a songwriter so far?
In the beginning, I remember being blown away that anyone knew the words to “UTI” and that they actually wanted to hear it and felt pro-female kinship there! To this day, the fact that anyone knows our songs or emails us to ask for the lyrics so they can sing along… that is the greatest feeling ever.
What’s the best song ever written and why?
I could never choose just one! It’s always changing! “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Go’s for its pure pop majesty that anyone can recognize. “The Ledge” by Fleetwood Mac because of its manic overflow of gleeful energy (you can basically hear the cocaine). “Flavor Crystals” by Suburban Lawn has the weirdest lyrics and infectious rhythm and mood. “Never Let Me Down Again” by Duran Duran is so moody and dark but really sweet underneath it all. “Admiral Alpert” by Paul McCartney because it’s several amazing nonsense songs woven into one big nonsense song. “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill because it’s wild, powerful, snotty, and catchy all in the same punk anthem. “Jerkin’ Back and Forth” by Devo is the best use of melody and keyboard solo—like most Devo songs, actually. “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats because I distinctly remember being 17 years old and sitting in a friend’s car in the parking lot of a gas station, stoned out of my mind, and this song came on the radio and I said, out loud, “This is the best song I have ever heard—it’s got everything you need in a song!”