The last time I saw Bre McDaniel play her celestial folk music, it was in the jam-packed living room of a century-old, bright pink house that was candle lit and adorned with her art. Tomorrow she'll play the stunning, classic BC foresty beach at Concerts in Cates Park. When she's not finding beautiful, improvised stages across the city to play music on, she's busy going through all of the other behind-the-scenes work. Not just the writing and recording busy work, but also the soul searching, the digging up deeply rooted thoughts and emotions that flavour her art and music.
On a bright and very windy day in Gastown last week, I sat down with Bre (and Christine for a bit too) to get an idea of what she's been up to. I knew she'd just come out of the recording studio with Vancouver's Jordan Klassen as her producer, and that the first song off of that forthcoming record, “Tears of St Lawrence” had just come out and it is about the martyr & meteor shower, but I knew there had to be more to the story than that. Here's some of our conversation.
How long have you been working on the songs for?
The oldest one that I wrote, I actually played it at my first EP release show in February 2013. So, 2 years and a bit. But the rest are more recent. The newest one I only finished like a month before we recorded. Most of them, last year.
Did you get input from other people on the songs?
I accidentally co-wrote a couple of the songs. I never really tried to, I just write alone..
How did that happen?
I just struggled a lot. There's one song that I co-wrote with my brother. He's in These Kids Wear Crowns. So, one song he wrote the melody of the chorus of. I was just struggling with it, I started writing it when I was in Europe last year and I wrote a bunch of stuff that wasn't good. So I was like 'Brother! Help me!' So he made up a melody and some words, but I didn't like the words because he made it into a love song. So I said screw that and made up my own words. He jacked my melody and made up his own song and changed the arrangement, but there's still one guitar part that's the same melody. We're not going to sue each other!
There's another song with Stephanie Ratcliff, we collaborated on that. That song is called “Stardust” and she started writing it. She just had this idea, she had this inkling that there's something that I should write for it or I should be in it somewhere. So we kind of passed it back and forth and in the end I ended up writing more to it. It ended up fitting with the other songs - it's a starry, spacey song, and that was really cool. I didn't realize until later, and she's singing some backup vocals on the recording, but she totally released that song for me to do it. It was equally co-written, and that was amazing.
I didn't know it until after, but I had set aside time to just do song writing and not do other stuff... But I was in this rut, and I'd never had a song writing rut. I'm usually excessively inspired. She asked me to write and add whatever I wanted to that song. I was in this phase of being super critical and hating everything that I was making up and coming out so stuck. That song pulled me out of it because I really connected to it and got excited about it... It's a deep friendship song.
How did recording with Jordan go?
It was so good, it was the perfect fit for these songs specifically. In context of that, these songs are all thematic. The themes are celestial, kind of looking at different songs through different kinds of light. I wanted to work with him because he has that kind of fairy-ish textures and mix of acoustic with electronic. It went so well.
*...long off-topic chat about travelling & Europe...*
[Travelling] is honestly a big part of my setting goals for the future and my goals for music. A lot of them are to do with travel.,. it's not like 'I want to sell this many albums' or 'I want to play this exact concert,' it's more like, music can take you around the world. I want to explore that. I'd like to go to Euope next year.
I took a trip last year.... I don't know, why not Europe? Europe! I spent some time in Ireland, my dad's side is Irish. It was a bit of a family heritage exploration trip and I ended up finding long lost relatives and finding out that, yeah, it's a part of me, even though my family is 2 generations Canadian.
Another thing that I want to do, but it's too soon this year, is that I have a friend that lives in Berlin and I have a free trip to anywhere in the world.
My uncle... I did something for him and I didn't think he'd pay me anything but as a thank you –he has a million Airmiles– he said I could have a trip to anywhere I wanted to go. So, I have a friend who lives in Berlin, we went to Emily Carr together, we were both in illustration together. There's this huge children's book fair in Italy, in Bologna, and it's where all of the illustrators and writers to go pitch a book and get contracts and get published. I'm working on a children's book I still haven't finished. For my trip next year, I want to have my illustrations done... go there for free, pitch the book, but then also do some touring of music and double it as a music tour, art residency, travelling, getting my book help... but in the next while I'm focusing more on music.
Do you ever see a time when music, literature and art will overlap for you?
That would be fun. So far, art and music have been combined a lot, especially with my art collective. There's a song on this recording that came from the art collective –it's called the Open Book art collective- and we do shows based on novels. We just did The Idiot by Dostoyevsky and we did it at an Orthodox Church.
The first show that we did was based on this Swedish novelist. My piece was a recording of a song that I wrote and, long story short, I guess you could call it a sculpture, but I burned the book that we read because it had to do with the story. This guy is diagnosed with cancer but he burned a letter and never found out. It's called The Death of a Bee Keeper it's all about pain and suffering, it was the darkest book I've ever read. It's so heavy. That summer was 10 years since my mom passed away and so I was going through a different level of grieving that summer but it connected to the book. I wasn't actually there for the show, I was in Europe, but it was sort of a memorial type art piece about reflecting about grief and having an audio component – it's called “Spark.” That's why it's part of this collection of songs. It's a really dark, heavy song.
How did you describe your music before you made it?
It was pretty set out before we got to the studio – me and Jordan did a lot of pre-production for it. I had a lot of vision, but not the most vocabulary. I think I probably said like 'sparkly bits here' or 'this song dark and Radiohead and degraded' or things like that.
So, I realized this in the process that I describe things really visually and in stories. So I thought about textures and how I describe colours and images. This song “Chrysolite,” it's maybe the most ethereal sounding song. In the process I would say 'it should feel like you are walking into a clearing in this part,' and that's not a musical direction, but he could work with that. I describe things in story and in visual, like I write a lot. I'm gathering the vocabulary to sonically describe things... that's partly because of my interdisciplinary-ness.
Is there anything that you want people to know about the album?
I really feel convicted that this music is a gift. As much as I was really intentional and thoughtful about crafting it, and I allowed myself to immerse in the themes and editing and getting feedback and all of that, I really feel that I'm surprised about these songs. I didn't just make them, they are gifts and there's stories in them and there's a flow to them that... when I tried hard, the music didn't work out. This might sound vaguely spiritual or flowy but it worked best when I received it, continued to work with it and let the unknown continue to grow. I really feel affected by [the songs] even though they're mine. I don't know if that's weird, but I don't feel like they're all mine. I feel like they're something that I participated in and I hope that they're a gift to other people and they're not even really about me or me trying to construct some magical, ethereal world.
On a personal level, this year when I had time to write this music and other things that I was involved in, it was another level of permission to me as an artist. Even though I did go to art school and I am that girl with a messy mind who always wants to make stuff. But on a deeper level, this music is me realizing that I've also felt a lot of guilt about receiving creativity and spending all of the time. Part of this music is feeling that it's okay and I'm allowed, I'm free to do that. It has a place and there is space for it. The joy of making this music is that I go back and question, 'is there space for more music out there?' but honestly that's a part of that starry space theme, is standing in wonder of what will come, and the feeling that there's an excess of beauty and that there is room. So much of the music business feels cramped, but I want these songs to be a gift and I've been taking steps as if there is room. On my good days I think there is space. Those are some of the different things I want people to hear.
Bre McDaniel's album is called Light Pollution and it comes out this fall. Bre likes to release music during astronomical events, so check the sky for hints of when it's dropping. For now, check out "Tears of St. Lawrence" below.