Breaking through in the DC vogue scene with the House of Aviance before making a name for himself as a NYC nightlife entertainer who ultimately collaborated with (and later dramatically shunned by) the legendary Boy George, he has now come full circle as a recording artist on Aviance Records with a hit track… Coby Koehl has a life story to tell!
Coby, hello! Thanks for talking to us and congratulations on the success of your
single “Vogue is My Religion!” What’s the story behind the song?
Thank you so much for the kind words. I am super excited that the song has been received so beautifully around the world, I have never been prouder of a song that I’ve written as I am about “Vogue is My Religion.” The song was written the day I read about transgender teenager Islan Nettles who was brutally attacked in our hood, and few days later died from her injuries. I was heartbroken for her and her family. The first verse was written specifically for her, she inspired the lyrics “color creed and sexuality.” The message in this song is so powerful (to me) that I felt that I had to use my voice to inspire
Tell us about your experience recording it.
I was consumed with the melody and vocal arrangements, and recorded the vocals to a piano house track at a studio in the East Village. It took me 2 years to find the right musicians with whom I had great chemistry and who believed in the song. David Ohana Aviance and Adam Joseph turned this into a dream record for me. When you are passionate about something, challenges always arise. But I believed in this song as much
as I believe in myself, and finding it a home was challenging. I am happy I made the right decision with Aviance Records.
Your sound is very much associated with the vogue / ball scene in NYC. What is your
history with that genre? Are you part of the House of Aviance?
I am glad that you recognized the sound. That was intentional, an homage with an African Middle Eastern gospel twist, a melting pot of sounds and cultures. I grew up in DC in the mid to late 80’s, which is about the time I met Mother Juan, Kevin, Jean Philippe and Papa Joe Aviance. We hung out at clubs like Tracks, Kindergarten and the Fifth Column dancing, but “not being shady, just fierce.” I am not an Aviance, but feel very connected to the House, as it has been associated within my life and community for almost 30 years now.
I attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts for vocal music and theatre. Some dance department friends and I, underage, used to sneak into some Vogue balls at the Bachelors Mill and at the Townhouse. But New York really is the Vogueing capital of the world. We in DC so wanted to be as fierce as New York because we were so inspired, and now we live here.
How did you begin life as a dancer / singer / performer?
The way the story goes is that I sang before I spoke, according to my mother… may she RIP. I’ve been singing my whole life. As I mentioned earlier, I studied classical voice and theatre at the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts, alongside some major brilliant talents like comedian Dave Chappelle, actor Lamman Rucker, and singer songwriter Morley, just to name a few. Attending The Ellington School is the greatest thing I have ever done for myself.
I then moved to New York in 1993 with $200 bucks, starved and struggled with homelessness and unemployment. I so wanted to suffer for my art back then… it was so Madonna, yada yada yada. I sang in every shithole hovel club you can imagine, and even some of the good ones like Jackie 60, the Tunnel, Roses Turn and Don’t Tell Mama… and that was just in the 90s.I later formed a neo-soul gospel band, and got some incredible
gigs at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar, the Cutting Room, Metropolitan Room and the Triad.
I have paid my dues and honed this muthafuckin; craft. Basically, I sing because I love it! It is what keeps me going – my passion, my life, my purpose, my mission – and it’s the thing that gives me the most joy in the world.
What is it like being an artist on Aviance Records?
I feel that signing to Aviance Records was a great decision for this song. Mother Juan is a genius curator, whose skill of bringing the right people together is legendary. Juan has a brilliant ear and a great eye. Truthfully, Juan has believed in me for almost half of my life. He always pushed for me and rooted for me when nobody else would give me the time of day, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. We have history, a friendship and a common appreciation for Olivia Newton-John whom we both worship… so I could not be prouder to be on his label. He has watched me flourish.
Side note: Mother Juan was in the studio with me when I recorded my first record in a Brooklyn studio back in 1997 called “Contemplating,” so it’s a complete full circle moment for both of us.
Aviance Records is interested in how the artist feels about the final mix, and how the song is being handled and represented genuinely in a way that also represents the artist. Unfortunately, many labels do not care how the artist feels.
In addition, Juan introduced me to David Ohana, who is one of the best producers I have ever worked with in my entire life and I’ve worked with many people. He is a dream producer who plays instruments and reads music. His experience and musicality are very diverse; that is simply a rarity these days,: true musicianship. He will probably work on my full album, if I have any say in it. I think we all make a great fucking team – we love music, and we finally have the know-how and the experience. We know our shit.
Who are some of the people in New York City nightlife that have inspired you in this journey?
To me, Lady Bunny is the most genius person in New York: a brilliant writer, performer, DJ and dancer. Connie Girl, the sweetest, kindest soul I have ever known. Joey Arias, the genius – he’s the busiest singer in the world, yet made time to come to my show last February. Alvaro, the great artist, helped me choose the cover for my single. The House of Xtravaganza, Paul Alexander, Producer Barb Morrison – these are great inspirations to
me. True, real New York geniuses, true greatness, talented passionate people
with a purpose and drive who are still loving, kind and generous.
I remember my early days in New York seeing Lee Bowery, Grace Jones, Quentin Crisp, Marilyn Manson and Lady Kier walking down St. Marks on a weekly basis. Those days are gone, but I am proud to have witnessed them and to have been inspired and
touched by them all. I admire and love those people.
What, or who, excites you about dance music these days, as we say farewell to 2017?
VOGUE IS MY RELIGION, lol! Also, the magnificent B. Slade is one of the most underrated
geniuses we have around today; his voice is the eighth wonder of the world, his production skills, his lyrics, his visuals. He is also producing and writing for some great artists like Chaka Khan, Tisha Campbell and Angie Fisher (who has one of the greatest voices I have ever heard PERIOD! Check out her track “IRS”). Flawless, real sangers baby – none of this plastic Velveeta auto tune shit. Church sanging – my DC roots come shining through in my musical tastes and live performances.
Also, recently I came across a mind-blowing “Ra the Singer.” he’s a phenomenal singer songwriter that should be on everybody’s lips in New York, such a genius singer with an unstoppable stage presence and great songs. That’s a New York legend if I ever saw one! When do we start celebrating our own?
You have a rocky history with legendary New Wave artist Boy George. What exactly went down between you two, and where do you stand with him now?
George was my manager, and he was producing my album. I was scheduled to be his opening act on his “Up Close & Personal” European tour. My photos were in the tour books and everything. When it did not happen, naturally I was devastated. The one night that I did open for him in London, I brought down the house; it was one of the most surreal nights of my life being his opening act, singing a duet with him in front of a huge loving crowd… and it was pure magic. So when I was pulled out from the tour after a disagreement over a song choice for a television show, it was heartbreaking. In retrospect, seven or eight years later, the Boy George Experience was a magic carpet ride that ended too soon.
I experienced a great friendship with him. I was witness to what superstardom – its pitfalls and its after effects – are like. He was fascinating, open and brilliant. We loved each other, we laughed a lot. Imagine, I lived with him in his gorgeous house. We sang together, we cooked together, we laughed together, we cried together, we traveled together, we wrote songs together, we recorded together. He introduced me to Kylie Minogue, and took me to Philip Treacy’s legendary hat studio in London to meet the master himself, who then came to hear me sing at my show – it was pure magic. George took me to see my childhood idol Shirley Bassey, and to a Lady Gaga concert where we hung out with Naomi Campbell and her trillionaire gorgeous Russian boyfriend.
I can go on and on about the positive incredible magical times that I had from my Boy George experience; these are the magic moments, which I will cherish forever. They trump the one big fight at the end. We loved fast and hard, and fought even harder at the end when it all came crashing down like all great highs do. I will always have a deep personal connection to him, be it one-sided or no.
But let’s not whitewash or candy coat, because anyone who knows George and who has followed his incredible career knows he’s a true Gemini who gets into rows and feuds with people that he finds brilliant, sexy and threatening! Including Madonna, George Michael, Elton John, Pete Burns, Luther Vandross and Lady Gaga. I am honored to be included on that prestigious list of fabulosity.
I did enjoy a cover / re-working of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” that you
released back in 2014. You’ve sung that live with George. Are those his backup vocals on the track, too?
I sang “Walk on the Wild Side” in concert with George in London. I also did record an acoustic version of “Walk on the Wild Side” later on which George produced and John Themis played guitar on – but I sang all the backgrounds myself. It was never released, but it’s on YouTube and Soundcloud.
I also sang a Yoko Ono cover that I am proud of called “Death of Samantha” that George also produced, which her publicist Murray Chalmers sent to Yoko who told him she cried at the end. She then sent me a message telling me how much she loved it. George released his own identical version two years later. Some of the songs we worked on together are timeless, simple masterpieces, beautiful simple guitar and voice. It is a shame we did not release them, but they are available.
“Walk on the Wild Side” evokes a very different New York, one that still existed to an extent when you were first part of the scene here. What do you think about how things have changed in the city’s nightlife since?
As far as clubs and the New York nightlife goes, it is so different now from when I was coming up in the 80’s and 90’s. Now with the internet dating apps and YouTube, you can get laid, watch a movie and get drunk for under 10 bucks and never leave the house!
I think Drooliani was the killer of nightlife in New York City for sure (or was it Michael Alig?) I do see a lot of new up and coming talents, great DJs, singers and entertainers making waves; it is exciting to watch new artistic growth in our city.
Where are you located these days?
I live in glorious West Harlem. A melting pot of diversity and cultures. I love it.
Are there any other gigs / projects / dates you wanna plug, or is there anything
else you want to mention?
In New York, I gig at least four times a year with my band “The Blessins” and at the moment we are gearing up for the next single and promotional tour.
Okay, last question: What are your goals for the New Year?
Spread the message of “Vogue Is My Religion” which is: “We must pray for all mankind, not just our own.”