When Shaun Fleming, also known as Diane Coffee, took a trip back to their former town of Bloomington, Indiana, during the pandemic, the memories flooded back. People, places, and random moments in time began playing out in their thoughts, and stories were sewn together on the fourth Diane Coffee album With People (Polyvinyl Record Co.).
Working with former Foxygen bandmate and producer Jonathan Rado (The Killers, Weyes Blood), Fleming began writing through the stories ruminating on childhood—from growing up in Agoura Hills, California, and later settling in Bloomington during their Foxygen days—remembering the person they never met, a girl named “Corrina from Colina,” to citing middle-school tormentors on “Bullied,” and the more mod-pop story of a drama-ridden teenage love on “Forecast,” featuring Deep Sea Diver singer Jessica Dobson. In Bloomington is also where Fleming met their partner, which influenced the more affectionate ode of “Forever You and I,” while “Song For David” is in remembrance of Fleming’s beloved dog.
With People moves around some of Fleming’s more orchestrated stories to date and extracts their most intimate remnants. “This is the first time I’ve done something so personal,” they say. “I wanted to pull back the veil and share myself through these stories. These are a lot of the moments that shaped me, [but] the stories are thematically universal as well.”
Relinquishing some control over how everything “had to” play out during recording, Fleming left the demos sparse and open to interpretation than on past records to give Rado the appropriate space to produce.
“I really wanted to leave as much room for Rado to produce as possible,” says Fleming. “We wanted it to feel organic and in the moment, and to mirror the album’s lyrical honesty. It kept revealing things about me personally, and the pacing of the sessions kept things fun, fresh, and open.”
Throughout With People, the people, places, and moments—past and present—were always part of Fleming’s DNA.
“Each one of these songs became a story about a certain person in my life who shaped me,” says Fleming. “It was almost like my way of being with these people. It was a way to not be necessarily alone in isolation.”
Now back in Los Angeles, Fleming shared some of the stories behind the songs, escaping the bubble of Agoura and why they’re feeling more Shaun than Diane.
American Songwriter: As With People started piecing together, who were some of the people you found yourself reflecting on, and how did the lockdown impact the songs you ended up writing?
Diane Coffee: Everything was new with the exception of the final track, “Song For David,” which was an older song that got reworked for this record. Everything else came out of the isolation that was the pandemic. The beginning of the lockout was fine. I’m kind of a homebody as it stands, but everyone reached that point when living with themselves, or whoever they happen to be living with, became a little unbearable, and they wanted to start reaching out to people—maybe high school friends and family that you haven’t talked to in a while. I found myself doing the same thing. There were a lot of people that I reached out to, and there are more people than just these 10 that shaped my life, but the melodies and the songs just spoke to those particular people. I was reaching out to people who I hadn’t talked to in a long time, and I started finding myself digging back through these memories of my childhood and where I grew up, and it turned out that each one of these songs became a story about a certain person in my life who shaped me. It was almost like my way of being with these people. It was a way to not be necessarily alone in isolation.
AS: Thinking back to your debut My Friend Fish (2013) to With People, do songs still come to you in the same way now?
DC: I’ve always been melody-driven, and a lot of my inspiration, musically, can come from a new instrument that I’ve picked up at the moment. At that point, drums were this kind of new thing for me, so that whole record [My Friend Fish] was drums first, and it was cool and very groove-forward. On Internet Arms (2019), I wanted to try something that was very synth-forward. I’d never made a synth-pop record and didn’t really know how to approach it, but playing around with synthesizers was something new for me. For this one, I really wanted to lean heavily on the lyrical content. Obviously, I have lyrics to all my songs, but I never really took them as seriously as I did with this record. I never thought of myself as a poet, but one of the reasons why I gravitated towards music is because I had things that I really wanted to say, and maybe didn’t have the words for it. And with music, you have a two-side approach where you have lyrics, but then you also have the music, which allows you to say the things that you can’t really vocalize or put into words. For With People, I wanted to push myself to really find the words before the music.
AS: It sounds like With People was a form of therapy in a way since you had to get some of these stories out of your system. Then you open with one specific person: Corrina. Who is “Corrina From Colina.”
DC: This album was my therapist. I was like ‘let’s get this out.’
Corrina. In middle school, there was someone who we heard was transferring into our school. Agoura Hills, where I grew up was a very small town, very suburbs, easy-going, so we felt removed. This person Corrina was transferring in from an elementary school from Colina, which was in the Valley, which is only a 20-minute drive from Agoura, but for us, it was like, “oh, she’s coming in from the valley—a valley girl, cool.” We wanted to meet her, so we threw this party to try to meet this really cool person. We had a little fire in the backyard. We were just little kids playing with fire essentially, and someone found a gas can and dumped the gas on this fire pit and it ignited the entire backyard. The whole time I was waiting to meet this person, they had come right as the fire was starting, so I never even met Corrina. I don’t think I’ve ever really known who she was. It’s a crazy memory from a crazy time. I think my brother knows who Corrina is, and I’m curious if this song will be the reason that I finally meet her.
AS: In “The Great Escape,” you sing Well I wanna leave this town / Everything about it keeps on dragging me down / And I might just drown / But I’m looking for a lifeline, hoping that somebody’s around. Was this about someone in particular from Agoura Hills?
DC: That is actually about a friend of mine, Sarah, who was a year or two my section and she was always talking about getting out of Agoura because it was this little bubble. Anyone from Agoura knows about the bubble. It just feels like you can’t get out. I don’t think she even attended the graduation ceremony. She grabbed her diploma, and as soon as school was done she packed up and moved to San Francisco, which was like a world away for us. I thought that was just so cool. She got out of the one-horse town. She didn’t even go that far, but it was a world away. I remember taking this road trip, and it was the first time I had gotten out of Agoura on my own. It was my first like, proper road trip with my friend Spencer, listening to classic rock along the way. I finally got to see San Francisco, which was the craziest city that I’d ever seen, and I didn’t dress properly. I was wearing this see-thru shirt, and it was super windy and cold up there, but it was great. It was one of my first regal solo adventures.
AS: Now that these songs are out of your system, what kinds of stories are you gravitating towards now?
DC: This is personally my favorite record I’ve ever made. It really did help me feel more confident in my lyrical writing. I’m definitely still exploring that, and I’m always writing. I nearly have another full record already.
This record sonically harkens back to some of the stylings that were even pre-Diane Coffee, more folky and a little less glam, pulling the facade down for the first time and really showing who I am as a person, maybe the Shaun more than the Diane.
Photo: Cara Robbins / Chromatic PR