She’s a Rainbow

Elysa Gardner is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

“You made my eyes pink!”

Imani Coppola, who is being made up for a photo session in a Midtown Manhattan studio, leans forward in her chair and stares incredulously at her reflection in the mirror. The singer’s eyelids have indeed been painted to resemble two crescent-shaped scoops of raspberry sorbet under thin, arching, dark-chocolate brows.

At 19, Coppola has the sort of exotic, broad-featured good looks--owing to her African and Italian heritage (mother and father, respectively)--that invite such whimsical flourishes.

On the cover of her debut album, “Chupacabra,” her braided hair looks like two mating tarantulas. In the video for her first single, the tautly psychedelic “Legend of a Cowgirl,” which hit the Top 40 on the national pop charts within weeks of its release, she appears as a diner waitress, a biker chick and a vixen-like entertainer, with each costume more playful and brazen than the last.


“There’s a very campy, theatrical vibe going on with Imani,” says her manager, Scott McCracken. “Not only is she captivating musically, but she’s incredibly interesting to look at. She’s always got a different color wig on, and she’s always experimenting with makeup and all sorts of things. She’s very creative visually, which I can’t say for a lot of artists out there. And it ain’t manufactured--it’s what she does.”

The music on “Chupacabra” (whose title refers to Mexico’s mythical goat-sucking demon) is very much in keeping with this funky, fanciful spirit, blending pop, hip-hop, blues and jazz textures with a breezy sophistication that has led several critics to compare her to such acclaimed artists as De La Soul and Neneh Cherry.

In her review of the album in The Times last October, Natalie Nichols praised Coppola, “whose kitchen-sink blend of beats, guitars, violins, rapping and singing recalls Beck, Luscious Jackson and Garbage.”

It’s heady stuff for a young woman who had never even sung before a live audience when she was signed to Columbia Records in June, shortly after wrapping up her first year at the State University of New York at Purchase.

“I think I always knew I wanted to have a career in music,” says Coppola, a classically trained violinist and pianist who plays strings and keyboards on her album. “But I didn’t know I was gonna do it quite so soon.”

Still, Coppola’s quirky, sometimes spiritual, decidedly independent-minded lyrics clearly reveal a precocious artist. “Legend of a Cowgirl,” for instance, is on the surface an exuberant ode to women’s sexual freedom, blissfully detailing the adventures of a libertine who repeatedly loves men and leaves them.


“Pack my bags and mount my horse / I’m gonna ride on into the next town,” goes the buoyant refrain.

But beneath this shiny exterior, Coppola insists, “Cowgirl” is “not just about having sex and moving on. . . . It’s about being free--being your own person, having no one to answer to. I think that’s everybody’s fantasy, you know?”

When Coppola (no relation to director Francis Ford Coppola) discusses her work, she speaks with a dry nonchalance that poses a contrast to her bubbly artistic persona.

“The kind of person that I am, you wouldn’t expect my music to be, like, sunny,” she says. “I mean, when I would walk around my college campus, people would make comments like, ‘God, you look evil!’ and ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ”

Coppola laughs, suddenly giddy. “You write what you feel, so deep down inside, I must be happy. I guess I’m just lying to myself.”

Coppola was born and raised in suburban Long Island, the second-youngest of five children born to a couple of active amateur musicians. She started taking violin lessons at age 6, and began studying piano shortly afterward, although she eventually abandoned the keyboard (“My piano teacher died,” she explains) until high school.


“Ninth grade was an important year for me,” she says. “I became a hippie and started hanging out with this girl named Amanda, who was into music and being weird and great. That’s when I started taking piano again, and I also started singing and writing songs.”

When it comes to her specific musical influences at that time, though, Coppola seems a bit stumped.

“Everybody always asks me that, but I wasn’t aware of having influences. I mean, I didn’t really listen to the radio. I played classical music all the time, and because of my parents, I heard jazz and [expletive].”

But since Coppola’s older sister Mia was already a professional singer-songwriter with some contacts, the teenager knew she had the connections to tap into the pop music industry. So shortly after enrolling at Purchase as an orchestra major, she made some demo recordings and passed them on to Mia, who in turn gave them to her boyfriend, music publisher Ross Elliot. Elliot hooked Coppola up with producer Michael Mangini, noted for his work with the acclaimed hip-hop outfit Digable Planets. The studio work done by Coppola and Mangini soon sparked a record-company bidding war for the college freshman. (The situation hasn’t disrupted the family ties--Imani and Mia are currently roommates, and they are both handled by the same manager, McCracken, who says that several major labels are interested in Mia.)

“I fell in love with the demos [made by Coppola and Mangini],” says Will Botwin, executive vice president and general manager of Columbia, who in the past managed such artists as John Hiatt, Liz Phair and Rosanne Cash.

“They were full of charm and personality and creativity,” he adds. “And what struck me about Imani was that she wasn’t a music-industry person--she didn’t know that much about what’s on MTV or the radio. She had a perspective that was entirely fresh. . . . We’re sensitive to where she’s at in her life and her career, and we’re gonna try to build her into a successful artist who will be around for a long time.”


Coppola’s own long-term plans involve accumulating plenty of frequent-flyer miles. “I was born in the same town that I’ve lived in my whole life,” she says, “but I always pictured myself traveling. When I was 16, I actually did some touring with an orchestra; I went to South Africa and South America. That’s part of my reason. . . . So I can see the world.”

The singer says she also might try to resume her academic studies at some point, “after everything sort of calms down. I don’t know if I wanna go back to Purchase. I hated it there. Everybody was, like, so self-absorbed. And since I had no car, there was nothing to do, and I felt isolated. But I’d like to be back at school, surrounded by creative people.

“Of course, I wanna do this, too. . . . Writing songs is something I sort of have to do, or else I’ll go crazy. But it’s a very, very personal [process]. I have this studio at my house now, but I haven’t gotten any work done there yet because people are always around, and it’s almost embarrassing for me to write a song if someone’s in the other room. I’m shy in that way, I guess.”

Coppola feels less inhibited on stage, though. “Performing is what I enjoy most,” she insists. “Having fun and dressing up and being silly--I love that.”

According to McCracken, whose firm also manages the Fugees and Joan Osborne, Coppola is already a formidable live act.

“Last September, she performed for all the head [executives] of Columbia,” McCracken remembers. “It was a very jaded crowd, people who regularly hear the best of the best, and I was a little worried. But she came out and performed with such charisma that by the end, people were standing on their chairs whooping and hollering. She just blew everyone away.


“Then as the curtain closed, this little girl poked her head out in the most adorable way and said, ‘Thank you--this is the first time I’ve ever played live.’ For me, that was a looking glass onto what Imani would become down the road. She is clearly a star.”

At the moment, Coppola is busy developing her star potential, and indulging her wanderlust. After a short European tour, she’ll do a stint in Japan before returning home for a national tour in early spring.

“My life has changed a lot over the past year,” Coppola says, “and not just because I got a record deal. I moved out of my parents’ home, went to school, and made a lot of discoveries about myself. There’ve been some emotional difficulties.

“But I know this is what I want,” she reiterates, in a quietly determined voice. Then Coppola grins again, her impish face lighting up like a bulb on a Christmas tree, and turns to the photographer, ready to go to work.

Hear Imani Coppola

* Excerpts from Coppola’s album, “Chupacabra,” and other recent releases are available on The Times’ World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: