When we first heard Dana Sipos live last summer at the Home County Music and Art Festival in London, ON, we knew this was an artist on whom we’d be keeping an eye. Her new album, “Trick of the Light,” just released last month, not only demonstrates her versatility, her amazing singing, and her delicate fingerstyle guitar, but also adds some new sonic complexity to her already extensive palette.
With production by Sandro Perri, “Trick of the Light” is a gorgeous collection of songs, sometimes exquisitely fragile, sometimes angry, sometimes veering into the territory of experimental modern music, but always captivating. Dana has that unique gift of creating lyrics that are simultaneously picturesque (in an impressionist way) and concrete; the first two songs on the project, “Lean Times” and “Blue Ridge,” amply demonstrate this.
“Shenandoah” provides both the midpoint and the aperture of the album, providing a song surprisingly close to rock, with a driving drumbeat and a haunting string arrangement. As I note below, on first hearing “When the Body Breaks” (which also features Mary Margaret O’Hara’s vocals), I was strongly reminded of opera singer Barbara Hannigan’s recent “Crazy Girl Crazy” album, which opens with similar vocal stylings – this song, more than any other on the album, wins my admiration for bravery in experimentation, with O’Hara’s keening cleverly paired with trumpet.
This is a compelling album that doesn’t compromise – a rarity in this day and age. Dana has created a project that will reward listeners with new revelations on repeated listens; I can’t wait to hear how these songs evolve as she takes them on the road. Highly recommended.
We’re so pleased that Dana took some time to talk to us about the album.
This is your first project in association with Roaring Girl Records – how would you describe how signing with a label (and this label specifically) has impacted you?
I have been a fan of Roaring Girl Records and the amazing work that Miranda does for several years. I released my last album on a bluegrass/punk/Americana label based in Nashville, which was a bit of a strange fit but also cool to be a part of a totally new community of folks. It was time to move on from that label and Roaring Girl felt like the perfect fit for Trick of the Light. Having the support of a label and being a part of its larger community is invaluable. Roaring Girl has an amazing crew of artists with the right balance of commonalities and diversity that I feel honoured to be a part of, not to mention a great team and a very forward thinking vision.
We first heard “Blue Ridge” at the Home County Music and Art Festival; at that point (July 2017) was most of the album written? How did the writing for this album evolve?
Oh yes – The album was recorded in April 2017! Time can be funny and a bit fickle and recording an album is a snapshot in time. I have already spent lots of time with the majority of these songs – the experiences that led me to them and the songs themselves. Some are written over the course of several months – Lily in the Window, for example, chronicles my six month tour on a tall ship with an anarchist theatre company. Other songs write themselves in a moment – Do You Good was written in the cab ride home after a show with the main character on warm summer night in Seattle. In the years since I released my last album I was touring full time, so of course there are various locations, different characters and lots of travel that compromise the album – but I also like to think that there are elements of stillness and slower motion amidst all that movement.
You worked with Sandro Perri on this project – what influence did he have on the finished project?
Sandro was really great to work with. He is able to take a song and in really subtle yet powerful ways turn it inside out, all the while keeping its essence intact. We talked about how studio albums have become this thing of perfection, pitch perfected and auto tuned in ways that folk music was never intended to sound, and how much beauty and character there are in the flaws, in the authentic moments. A big change from my last albums is that I don’t play guitar on several songs. At first I found that notion a bit strange, but those ended up being my favourite songs on the album – there was so much more room, as you note in the next question, for the additional palette of sound.
Having heard you live with just fingerstyle guitar (and I use the word ‘just’ only meaning your having no band that day – your guitar is certainly more than ample accompaniment!), as I listened through the album my first thought was ‘orchestral/chamber,’ in the sense that your guitar feels like one layer together with strings, flute (or recorder?), and other instruments. How does this additional palette of sound affect how you write?
That’s exactly it!…the guitar is just one layer on the multi-layered sonic palette on the album. To be honest, it hasn’t affected how I’ve written in the past, but I already see it influencing new songs. I’m trying to be more mindful of stretching out, leaving space and breathing room. I’m interested in experimenting with that sensibility more, writing on instruments that will lend themselves to a roomier disposition.
When I first heard “When the Body Breaks,” the additional vocal stylings (are those Mary Margaret O’Hara’s contribution?) reminded me strongly of the first track on Barbara Hannigan’s recent “Crazy Girl Crazy” project… how did you arrive at that particular sound, for that particular song?
That particular sound is all Mary Margaret… that’s the only way! Even her warm-ups in the studio were mesmerizing and completely unique. This song was written with Mary Margaret in mind with a friend during a residency at the Banff Centre. I met her not long after and shared the song and she invited me to perform it at the St. Paddy’s day even she puts on in Toronto. When time came for the album, I went out on a limb to see if she’d be involved and she was so gracious and kind and excited about it. Her contribution to the song is so powerful, of course!
One of your non-musical interests is alternative building; can you talk a bit about that, and how it contributes to your music (if at all)?
I wish I had a fuller and more current answer to this question! Many (many) years ago I worked on a farm focusing on cob and straw-bale building and other alternative building techniques. It is definitely a dream to build a home like that one day, but it has been on the way back burner for a long time. Perhaps next time we check in!
You have a pretty significant list of live dates coming up over the next few months – I always wonder what it’s like to spend weeks/months (even years) working on new material, releasing it into the wild, and then performing it live… how that feels, how songs might evolve once you begin performing them for others. What do you look forward to the most over the next few months?
New audiences and environments help keep a song that you perform over and over again feel ‘young again,’ so to speak. The energy exchange between you and the audience is imperative. Playing the same songs with different musicians on tour also help songs evolve and shift and I really enjoy that dynamic element.
I’m looking forward to heading back to the Maritimes in June, which has become a home away from home, and I’ll be sharing some dates with Halifax-based Devarrow. In the fall, my good friend, touring partner and label-mate Ben Hermann and I will be returning to Germany and also doing a two-week tour in Russia. That will be a first. There are some great festivals lined up in the summer – especially in August! 😉