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A Dirty Dozen with DANA SIPOS – June 2021

| 29 June 2021 | Reply


According to a recent press release: “Victoria, BC-based artist Dana Sipos is set to release a new album, The Astral Plane, on June 25, 2021 via JUNO Award-nominated musician Miranda Mulholland’s label, Roaring Girl Records. For The Astral Plane, Sipos once again teamed up with experimental producer Sandro Perri and reunited with her accomplished studio band for the project, consisting of Thomas Hammerton (keys, piano, organ), Mark McIntyre (bass), Nick Zubeck (guitar), and Blake Howard (percussion), with guest appearances from Lydia Persaud (vocals) and Michael Davidson (vibraphone). To bring the new songs to life, the crew decamped to a large converted 1860s stone carriage house, The House of Miracles, in Cambridge, Ontario, in the summer of 2020. The result is an impeccably curated collection of sounds, anchored by Sipos’ haunting vocals and evocative lyrics.” We get Dana to discuss new music, influences, and more…

Photo credit: Chris Dufour

1. Tell us a little about your latest release.  What might a fan or listener not grab the first or second time they listen through?  Are there any hidden nuggets you put in the material or that only diehard fans might find?

This album is very near and dear to me. There were a lot of deeply personal moments and explorations, peeks behind the curtain of complex familial relationships and their ongoing reverberations. I hold memories up to the light and ask: “What is the contour of these memories in your body? How do they shape you?” I take the listener back to the old farmhouse at the corner of Green Lane and Cherry Ave in Beamsville, Ontario where my grandparents settled after surviving the Holocaust, escaping Communist Hungary and arriving in Canada to begin a new life. Imprints of memory, spaces between. I take the listener to the mythical hoodoos at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, on Stoney Nakoda Territory and explore this relationship between inherited trauma and the ecological crisis of our time. I go down to Australia and New Zealand in all their upside-down beauty and in the aftermath of the shootings in a Christchurch mosque. I ask the questions I’ve wanted to ask but can’t always find the words, so instead, I sing about them. What might not grab a listener the first time through is that these songs are meant to offer a glimmer of some shimmery hope. A listener may need to scratch below the surface of a song in some instances, but I guarantee it is there. As far as hidden nuggets, I snuck in a couple of tributes to some of my earliest musical influences that might not reveal themselves unless others are fans of those artists as well. (I’ll give you a hint; listen for Joni Mitchell in “Greenbelt” and Neil Young at the end of “Light Around the Body.”)

2. What got you into music, and can you tell us about the moment you realized you wanted to be a musician?

I grew up in a household where my mom was always singing and my older sisters were playing guitar. So naturally, I wanted to learn the guitar as well and was always singing as a kid. It wasn’t until I was about 17 or 18 that I started writing songs, but I was painfully shy to sing in front of other people at first. When I moved to Yellowknife, NT (I lived there in the summers throughout my undergrad and then moved there for a number of years), I experienced for the first time a very warm and supportive music community and some very cool performance opportunities early in my career. So I gained confidence and living in such a wild and beautiful place (northern lights and midnight sun, for example) was an excellent opportunity to stretch my songwriting muscles. I released two albums into the ether while working in Yellowknife and then went back to school to pursue an arts-focused Bachelor of Education. It was a fallback plan, if you will, and I then found myself teaching in downtown Toronto the following year, quite accidentally. It was so obvious that it wasn’t a good fit for me, and at the end of that year I literally ran away with the travelling circus on a tall ship (The Caravan Stage Company), and then went on to participate in my first music residency at the Banff Centre and to work on an album that I actually released with some presence and a team. Those were definitely “aha” moments where I realized I wanted to pursue music and a creative life and felt “seen” as a musician for the first time.

3. Building on that, is there a specific song, album, performer, or live show that guided your musical taste?

My earliest influences were definitely the folk musicians of the ’60s that I grew up listening to on my mom’s record player. Joni Mitchell really represented it all for me growing up; she had this incredible vocal range, was so experimental when it came to tuning and her instrumentation, and her songwriting was top-notch. So many songs on “Blue” and “Court and Spark” are my favourites to this day.

4. Who would be your main five musical influences?

Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Gillian Welch, Leonard Cohen, and Angel Olsen.

5. If you could call in any one collaborator to do a song with, who would it be, and why?

I feel quite fortunate that I’ve already had the opportunity to collaborate with one of my musical heroes, Mary Margaret O’Hara (see question #8). That’s a very difficult question, though, choosing only one! Out of so many influential musicians out there, I’ll choose Arthur Russell. He had such a freedom of expression, such an unhindered approach to his writing and performance that I really admire. I aim to feel unhindered in the process of writing and recording and generally do feel quite free, especially when surrounding myself with other like-minded and experimental musicians, but I feel like I am always striving to reach just a bit further.

6. How would you describe your music to someone who’d never listened to you before? What is the one comparison a reviewer or fan has made that made you cringe or you disagreed with?

Most often I get comparisons to Nick Drake, occasionally Natalie Merchant and others (Elephant Revival’s Bonnie Paine, First Aid Kit). I had one review lately that didn’t make me cringe necessarily, I just didn’t hear it – Dory Previn. It was a favourable review, but it’s just always fascinating to me when people will hear a musical “soul mate” of sorts in other musicians that I just don’t hear.

7. When your band is hanging out together, who cooks, who gets the drinks in, and who is first to crack out the acoustic guitars for a singalong?

Oh man! It feels like so very long since the band has had a chance to hang out together. To be honest, it sort of depends which tour or recording session we are referring to. I have a bit of a musical chairs/rotating cast of characters situation when it comes to band members, with some key players in recent years, which is great. Ben Hermann, a long-time collaborator and tour companion definitely does it all – gets the drinks, cooks, and cracks out the guitar. Nick Zubeck also gets the drinks in, and when I was touring with Abigail Lapell for some time, she would definitely get out the guitar. Although having “the band” is really a dream, getting to work and travel with a lot of different collaborators gives the songs an opportunity to have new life and energy continually breathed into them and means there’s never a dull moment on the road (just kidding, there are.)

8. When was the last time you were starstruck and who was it?

I had a pretty amazing moment – and I was very starstruck – when I met Mary Margaret O’Hara at a show. I had just returned from a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts where my friends and I were on a huge MMOH kick – in fact, one writer, Cecil Castellucci, and I had even written a song inspired by her. So the timing was cool, and I rambled on about the song we’d written for her, and she invited me to perform it at the annual St. Paddy’s Day show her family puts on at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. I ended up recording the song, “When the Body Breaks,” for my 2018 album Trick of the Light, and Mary Margaret came into the studio to perform as a guest vocalist on the track. It was incredible to watch her sing. I still get goosebumps thinking about it!

9. What is the best part of being a musician? If you could no longer be a musician for whatever reason, what would be your dream job?

The best part about being a musician is getting to travel and connect with people all over the world. I love it when an audience member will come up after a show and share how a particular song touched them for a very personal reason. Those rare moments that feel transcendental make the endless travel and “hurry up and wait” of touring so worth it.  Connecting with other musicians on stage, through songs and music, is also a huge perk; there is a very special quality to that sort of connection. Hmm, well, this year was definitely a good opportunity to reflect on what other jobs besides being a musician I could be! Being a beekeeper or working at an aviary or at a nature centre would be cool. Something where I could be outside, surrounded by beautiful creatures. A lot of fodder for songwriting, I bet.

10. What is one question you have always wanted an interviewer to ask – and what is the answer? Conversely, what question are you tired of answering?

These are tough questions! I do feel like questions have gotten more thoughtful over the years, and I really appreciate the sorts of questions that make you dig deeper. Questions that gently probe and encourage the songwriter to reveal more layers about a song and the process are great. I know that doesn’t specifically answer your question… but I’m going to reflect more about a question I’d like an interviewer to ask, and perhaps I’ll ask myself! The question I’m tired of is “when did you get started playing or singing or writing” – don’t get me wrong, that is an important starting point when getting to know a musician, but in some ways I feel like it’s the “how are you” of questions. 🙂

11. Looking back over your career, is there a single moment or situation you feel was a misstep or you would like to have a “do over,” even if it didn’t change your current situation?

In 2009, I represented the Northwest Territories in the first Great Canadian Song Quest, and I was “commissioned” to write a song about the Pingos in Tuktoyaktuk, NT. What a great challenge. It was pretty early in my career, and I remember finding myself at the Glenn Gould Theatre in Toronto with the amazing musicians representing the other provinces and territories and feeling so out of place, like any minute now someone was going to come and tell me I didn’t belong there. I still think the song is pretty interesting (titled “Time Before Bones”) but the production was quite… ambitious.  I remember listening to it a few years ago and definitely cringing. I’m not sure I’d classify it as a misstep, but I’d love the opportunity to re-do that song. It was still a great learning experience and opportunity, however challenging it can be to listen to older versions of ourselves.

12. If you could magically go back in time and be a part of the recording sessions for any one record in history, which would you choose – and what does that record mean to you?

I’m pretty fascinated by You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen. Even though part of me is inclined to say an album that was more lively and fun with a rollicking cast of characters, the fact that Leonard Cohen wrote and recorded this album when he was so close to death infuses such a holiness into it. What a strange gift to know that these are likely the last words you’ll be sharing with the world. I think it’d be fascinating to be a fly on the wall during Cohen’s writing process and being able to experience those transformations when you know you are at the end of your life.





Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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