Up and Coming Artist Series: Willem Cousineau
By Kate Ratner
Willem Cousineau, a senior at Masterman High School, is making his mark on Philadelphia’s young music scene. In addition to producing for his band Mystic Prize, Willem has just released his first solo album, “This City Belongs To You!”. “TCBTY!” features vocals from a collection of Philly musicians with a twist of Willem’s unique electronic-jazz sound. I sat down with Willem (over the phone) to discuss his career from early upbringings as a struggling fifth-grade violinist to his impressive new releases.
Tell me about when you got started with music. When did that happen for you?
I started to play the violin, way back in kindergarten, but I was awful. I was a laughingstock of the class, so I gave up when I got to fifth grade. And then I started playing guitar in, I think, eighth grade maybe seventh grade. And then I got started producing with Ableton in eighth grade. I was making stuff no one really would ever want to listen to until I met Mason McAvoy (Masterman High School ‘20), and started working with her so really like 2017... that’s when I really got into it.
Tell me about the musical projects before releasing “This City Belongs To You!”
So, Mystic Prize is really where most of my musical effort has gone… that's the band with me, Mason, and Yende Mangum (Masterman High School ‘20). Yende is the pianist and Mason is the singer/songwriter. They were in the grade above me at Masterman. I got started just producing and playing guitar with them… just trying to make a backdrop for something that Mason would like. And then I would send it to them. When there's something we'd like, we would meet to record everything for that. It definitely gave me a lot of practice because I would end up making 10 songs, and they would really only like one. For our last album, “Walking Songs”, I had a folder dedicated to anything I was trying... There were definitely at least 150 ideas that I had exported. And it's the same with this new album. I would start to just develop the ones that I liked and the other artists gravitated to.
What is the story of “This City Belongs To You!” and its process?
The idea for this album started a little bit before the last “Mystic Prize” album came out. I wanted to collaborate with a lot of people during this time apart. As a producer, I got to lean into the advantages of working remotely, which first feels like few and far between. I definitely prefer to work with people… I miss it a lot. Before [the pandemic], my room was a real congregation for “Mystic Prize” and the whole extended family of people who came through and added a piece to the album. For “TCBTY!”, I was able to kind of assert my presence on these songs. The original things I sent ended up sounding totally different. In the final product, I might change every other part around it. This album was always an idea that I had and some instrumentals on the songs go way back. Some of them are like very early recordings from years ago.
Did you write any of the vocals for “TCBTY!” or were you only producing?
I didn't write any vocals or any lyrics or anything. I would normally send the vocalists a ton of options, typically like 10 instrumentals, and just so that it could strike. Whatever struck the fancy I would normally say, you know, like, typically like 10 instrumentals and they’d choose whichever track struck their interest. I just had people like claiming the instrumentals, and then they would write whatever and send me their vocal or more instrumentals to add. Then I would mess with it further and often deviate from the original, which, and that's definitely something that I'm trying to make very clear. There are some pretty weird moments of this where you can see the way I tried to manipulate and change what someone had sent me.
I absolutely loved the promotional video you posted for “TCBTY!”! Did you make that yourself?
Thank you so much! Yeah, that's a video that I made. The song you hear [in the background] is not from the album - it's just a little thing for that video. For the visuals, I just went through my camera roll, and a good bunch of those photos are also from other people's camera rolls. I just spaced it all and finished it way before the album was done… I think in September.
What type of music do you usually try to create?
It's definitely hard to say what genre… I always have a hard time picking genres. When I upload the album, I'm going to use the genre title “electronic” only because it makes sense if I consider myself more of a producer than anything. I'd call “TCBTY!” a mix of electronic with some jazz and some R&B elements. I've really put it up to the listener to decide.
Has it ever been difficult to balance school and starting these projects in the midst of your high school career?
It's definitely been hard… there are a lot of ways that high school students are expected to measure the amount that they're doing. Especially at [Masterman] and a lot of schools in Philadelphia, there is a real tradition of thinking about how many clubs you've started or participated in. So at times, it feels like a little bit of a leap of faith because you don't hear many people including the amount of art that they make and release in their resumes. And maybe that’s for a good reason. I definitely have felt the fear of looking at my friends’ resumes on their college applications and feeling like “wow, there are a lot of things here in comparison to mine!” But then I remember, if you're trying to go somewhere musically the best thing you could have is music! Using my time to perform and work on music felt scary because it felt like trading something that looks good for something that's almost selfish. That's the hardest part. I don't really believe that it is selfish but definitely part of me had that feeling that I was making a trade-off.
What has been your favorite part about making music?
I think working on “TCBTY!” my favorite moment was seeing that someone had sent me a vocal part or whatever their contribution was, and I would get to race to my laptop and drag it in and see how it worked with what I had done. Then I could start to like mess with it and just explore how many possibilities there were. For some of these songs, there are maybe 12 versions that are pretty different… I just kept working on them over and over until something clicked and there was something really cool.
“This City Belongs To You!” is now live on all streaming platforms. Listen now!