Interview – Dana Sipos

Photo Credit: Polina Teif

With an instrumentally Celtic reminiscence, a voice that sparks comparison to artists Natalie Merchant and Gillian Welsh, and songwriting prowess that lifts each song with an understated confidence, folk artist Dana Sipos is cementing her prominence in Canada’s music scene with her latest album release. Having launched her career in 2011, Sipos’s Trick of the Light has her paired this year with Canadian talents Mary Margaret O’Hara, Jesse Zubot, and experimental producer Sandro Perri. The result? A varied, poetic, and undeniably arresting final product.

First of all, thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us at Canadian Beats today. How do you feel now that Trick of the Light is finally on the brink of release?

Thank you! I’ve slowly been gearing up and am finally very excited to have this album (almost) out. It’s been a long process, we recorded it over a year ago and many of the songs are considerably older than that. I went through a phase where there was more dread and less excitement, I didn’t even open the boxes of albums and LPs when they first arrived! I just needed some more space. The logistics and administrative aspects of a release can be overwhelming. But now that I’ve been rehearsing with the band and probably just generally recovering from winter, I’m getting excited to share it. I feel really lucky to be have worked with each and every person who contributed to the album musically or otherwise. It was definitely a group project.

How was the experience of recording with producer Sandro Perri? Why is he hailed as such an experimental producer, and why did you feel he was the best fit to record Trick of the Light?

Sandro was awesome to work with. I have been a fan of his work for awhile – I love the Devon Sproule albums he’s produced, as well as lots of other beautiful albums (Lisa Bozikovic and Emily Millard, to name a few more). He was super laid back and easy going, not to mention had a brilliant way of making suggestions that would turn a song completely inside out in the best way. He operates outside the box and that’s what makes him a great producer, I think. We weren’t striving for perfection, just capturing authentic moments. My last producer, a good pal and great musician/producer Jordy Walker, based in Whitehorse, had recommended Sandro. And then the timing, budgeting and all the other moving parts and pieces aligned for us to work together.

How would you say your experience of working with Perri—as well as Mary Margaret O’Hara and violinist Jesse Zubot— compared to your previous recording experiences? Had you worked with any of them previously?

The recording process is so different each time, it’s hard to compare. The main reason why I think this recording experience was such a success is that we had a lot of fun in the studio – and miraculously, we finished the bed tracks ahead of schedule. We were all in a good groove and it felt very natural. Jesse has added his beautiful violin/fiddle to songs of mine in the past but has always sent tracks from afar. I had met Mary Margaret a few times and even sung with her at the St. Paddy’s Day event she puts on in Toronto. The experience of being in the studio with her, however, was really different and so cool. She had us turn off all the lights and she was settling in – her warm-ups alone were mesmerizing. We were all, ‘oh yes, keep it rolling.’ It was all gold.

Now, personally, “Blue Ridge” ended up being my favourite off the album due to its gorgeous lyricism, but is there a track off the album that you would consider one of your favourites?

Thank you! Blue Ridge is definitely packed with a lot of tales. It’s a bit of a toss-up, but I have to go with Lily in the Window. The funny thing is that I wasn’t even sure I personally wanted that song to make the cut! It’s another example of how Sandro and the amazing band (Nick Zubeck, Thomas Hammerton, Mark McIntyre and AJ Johnson) were able to help me transcend my original, perhaps somewhat stagnated vision of a song to get it fully realized – they helped me get out of my own way, essentially. I talk more about this in a later question, but Lily in the Window stems from my experience touring with an anarchist theatre company on a tall ship for six months and all its accompanying trials and joys. I love how the tune ended up super mellow, meditative and trance-like, one almost feels like they are out on the ocean being rocked very gently.

What was a song that ended up changing the most from the beginning of the writing process to the finished product, if any?

Tides. The way I play it live is in my usual finger-style picking with more jangle. As you’ll hear, Tides on the album almost sounds like a funeral dirge, in the most musical way possible. It’s really sparse and way more powerful this way, with some beautiful flute (Ryan Driver) making an appearance. It’s another example of Sandro’s awesome vision and approach.

As a songwriter, where do you draw inspiration from?

All the usual suspects! Mis-adventures, travels, family, my own experiences and stories and the experiences and stories others are willing to share. The natural world and landscapes have always been key players… the moon, the spring peepers, the backwoods, they’re always after me. I try to be a good listener and to pay attention…of course the more nuanced, the more subtle the observation and detail, the deeper you go, the better. I was at a songwriting residency at the Banff Centre last year and we had these awesome songwriting mentors from Nashville. Their advice was to choose ONE single, thing to focus on in a song. I realized that is a really powerful approach and almost the opposite of how a lot of my songs end up. There is often a lot going on.

My songwriting used to have somewhat more of a political bend to it, although for what whatever reason that hasn’t been the case lately. One tune on the album, however, When the Body Breaks, and its accompanying video made with amazing director Polina Teif, ended up feeling fairly political and charged, focusing on dignified representation of women, our bodies and our labour which often goes unacknowledged, over-sexualized or mis/under-represented. I’m really excited for that video to be released.

Along the same vein, I was immediately grabbed by your backstory of temporarily joining the circus, and I’m sure our readers will be as well. Could you expand on that story? Has that ever served as inspiration for any of your songs?

The Caravan Stage Company is a pretty magical collection of people spearheaded by Paul and Nans Kirby (for more backstory on the Caravan, they are featured in a great NFB documentary called Horse Drawn Magic highlighting their early days). I toured with them for six months up the eastern seaboard from Florida to upstate New York (we were meant to do some shows in Canada, but we weren’t allowed in – that’s another story). The touring company was 20 of us from all around the world living in triple bunk bed cabins on an old tall ship/river barge.   The audience watched from the port and the entire ship turned into the stage –  we would wrap the ship in a giant video scrim for projections, there were aerialists, giant puppets, really wild home-made set contraptions. The show itself was full on – it tackled slavery, indigenous issues, the surveillance state, American Imperialism and more, and we weren’t well received everywhere we went, that’s for sure (we got basically run out of one town in Virginia). Also, it was hurricane season down south. There were a lot of challenges and of course, I am extremely grateful for my time with the Caravan and continuously inspired by Paul and Nans’ continued dedication and commitment to their creative visions/lifestyle (they live on the boat full time). For the opening scene of each show, I zip lined from the soundboard on shore, over the audience, over the water, fought through the scrim and onto the boat. I would definitely have moments where I just marvelled, ‘yep, this is my job right now.’

As far as songs go, I wrote Lily in the Window aboard/about the Caravan. It also makes appearances and serves as inspiration for many others – notably Blue Ridge and Lighthouse Nights.

On top of that, I heard that you were a musical guest on the Jerry Springer podcast in 2017—may I ask how that came about?

Ah, Jerry! No paternity tests were involved in the taping of the podcast.

Some friends of mine run the amazing Folk School Coffee Parlor, which hosts shows, gives lessons, acts as a community hub for this cool little town of Ludlow, KY.  Jerry Springer flies in from his home in Florida every month to tape his podcast there because he somehow discovered the Folk School and fell in love with it and Ludlow.  I was on tour in the neighbourhood last winter and the musical guest had just fallen through so my friends asked me to be the last minute replacement. It was… strange and surreal and pretty hilarious. It’s a super liberal, Democratic, folk-music loving podcast but I was still waiting for a chair to whiz by my head or something equally dramatic.

So, now that we’ve established that not only is your new album fantastic, but you are a phenomenally interesting artist who I’m sure people would love to meet: Trick of the Light’s release party is being held on Tuesday, May 22nd at the Burdock in Toronto. What would you say to people who need a bit of extra encouragement to purchase their tickets?

Come to the show for the opening artist alone!  Dana Gavanski is a recent transplant from Montreal and a new, dear friend – she is a beautiful songwriter, musician and spirit and I know that she is going to blow people away.  Also – for the band! Rounding it out is a combination of old and new friends, some album players, some not, but we’ll really be bringing the full album to life for the release, which is a rare treat (for me!).

And finally, what would you like people to take away from listening to Trick of the Light?

It’s always the most meaningful when people can see themselves or loved ones in a song – when a song is able to transcend what it meant for me when I wrote it and make connections or translate into other experiences for people. And also an invitation (but mostly a reminder to myself) to always watch closer and listen deeper and keep a keen eye – things aren’t always as they appear and that’s usually where the beauty and truth is hidden. Does that sound cheesy? Perhaps. But still true, I think. 🙂

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