A few weeks ago, I was offered the chance to hear Winona Wilde’s latest album, “Wasted Time.” I am so, so very glad that I grabbed this opportunity – this fabulous set of songs has been my companion now for several commutes and workdays and I’ve cherished every chance I’ve had to listen to it.
There are many terrific songwriters in the world. There are also many fabulous storytellers. Some artists have both gifts at their disposal – and Noosa Al-Sarraj, who makes music as Winona Wilde, is one of those few. This child of Iraqi parents, who learned to love country music courtesy of her childhood nanny, has put together an amazing set of songs (and stories) on “Wasted Time” that explore the boundaries of Americana and country music. From the harrowing tale of date rape in “The Night That Joel Got Shot,” to Noosa’s sharp critique of the world in which women have to make music in “Chick Singer,” these are songs that are not only beautifully crafted musically but also fully engage the mind lyrically.
If you want an escapist music experience (and let’s be honest, we all occasionally do), this is probably not the right album for that mood. But if you enjoy songs that will touch your heart, make you think, and give you a chance to reflect on things you may see but not notice, this is one of the best albums you could choose.
I’m so glad that Noosa took the time to answer some of my questions about this terrific album (which is available from her website from 6 October).
This album takes you in a musical direction that’s very stripped-down, very focused on the stories you tell. (The style reminds me of a cross between Steph Cameron and Allison Moorer – both artists I admire.) Besides the inspiration of your nanny (who apparently loved country music), what else drew you to style this project in this particular way?
Wow I really love Steph Cameron and i will have to check out Allison Moorer! Thank you.
I certainly modeled my production style in this instance after Steph Cameron’s “Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady” which my friend Scott Cook lent to me one time when we were on tour together, it blew my mind. And I also got an opportunity to sneak-peek “Daybreak Over Jackson Street” immediately before going into John Dinsmore’s studio myself, and it further strengthened my resolve. I wouldn’t have to have trumpet duets and tuba bass lines like the last album, which was fun, but I’ve been touring mostly solo or sometimes duo with other songwriters for the last 4 years. I wanted to finally create an honest, sparse sound. but I must say, my main muse for this project was Amelia Curran’s Juno-winning “Hunter Hunter,” I think it is a masterpiece so I studied the textures and arrangements, and ebb and flow of instrumentation throughout that album. I remember thinking when I heard that, Wow, you can DO that? My friend Kaia Kater’s “9-pin” was also an inspiration, she really rocks the sparse voice + instrument vibe on that record.
I’ve listened to “The Night That Joel Got Shot” several times now, and each time the thought that comes to me is that we can often choose not to be formed by certain experiences, but we so often give them power over us anyway. Was there a specific incident that inspired this particular song, or did the story come to you as an expression of an idea?
Thank you so much. This recording is the most precious thing i have ever created and so I thank you for your thorough appreciation of it! I wanted to give a voice to the experiences that (it feels like) every woman has had with sexual assault in this patriarchal supremacy, and over the last few years i have really noticed woman speaking up and out about how common experiences of degradation, humiliation and violence have peppered their existence. It was an extra challenge to describe the escalation of events leading to the murder because I specifically wanted it to be about a date-rape, a situation in which trust is established at first. I must have written 30-40 drafts of the middle verses, the challenge was to embed the ‘red-flags’ of Joel’s personality within the regular vibe of a college date.
The recent media circus about Brock Turner and the unnamed 4-page victim letter was what gave me the courage to finally let this song out into the world. In her letter, which is incredible and everybody should read it, she does mention her cardigan. a yellow one in that instance, i believe it was. I thought— surely this is a sign. And i got to work finishing and recording and performing this intense story.
I love “Chick Singer” for itself, and I also love it because it speaks to the lives of a lot of us who aren’t singers… who are women in a historically male profession, or just don’t fit into the round hole in which everyone wants to place us. Is “Chick Singer” a picture of where the music business is now for women, do you believe, or have you seen some change in the time you’ve been a professional musician?
That’s great that you see it as being applicable across the board! I have worked in a few male-dominated fields, the most obvious example being my time in the legal profession and as a litigator. In one job I was taken aside by the only women lawyers and instructed to de-girlify myself, so to speak. I didn’t need much help since I have always been a little rough around the edges, but in my office-job days, especially since I never did the traditionally female administrative jobs, I have found a lot of resistance not only with men but with the older women who have had to adopt a patriarchal attitude to survive. While i don’t blame them for their adaptive behaviour, I do resent the work opportunities that were ruined for me by the patriarchal feminine who felt like they had to keep me in line.
Things kind of feel like they are changing in the music world. I was in my first band when i was 17 and i’m now 34, and a lot of why i waited so long to make records was just the overpowering nature of men in the studio, who always have felt like they could do a better job than I could, when in reality the 10-odd times I tried recording during my twenties, every single attempt at letting a producer have his way resulted in terrible, terrible, just terrible quality recordings. I am grateful that i met Nathan Tinkham in the Yukon when I was living there, he produced my very first album ‘Wild North’ (released just as Noosa) and I took it from there.
Lots more women and girls are daring to let themselves have the spotlight, and I am kind of starting to find myself in a bit of a mentorship position. All those years sleeping alone in my rickety vehicles for the sake of songs, and I did not ever think that would happen…
I will still cheerfully advise a sound-person not to call me sweetie, and skillfully side-step the inevitable pouting, manbaby response, and play my songs and do my thing on stage, but it’s a pain in the butt.
Sticking with “Chick Singer” for a bit longer, there’s been a lot of conversation in the media lately about the struggles that even well established musicians experience doing music full time. You’ve mentioned in other articles that it’s been challenging; do you have some thoughts about structural, legal, or other changes that would improve the playing field for you and your colleagues?
I don’t think there is an even playing field. I think there are some older, well-respected music industry people, men and women, who subconsciously disbelieve in young women accomplishing anything of value. I do believe that my mission here on earth is to prove them wrong. I have noticed that many of the professional music organizations in Canada are very open to receiving criticism of prejudicial or dishonest conduct of their members, however—there does not seem to be any kind of anti-discrimination/harassment guidelines in place.
I have been present when a physically large male festival director swore and nearly hit a female critic of his all-male, all-white booking practices, and there is one older industry gentleman in particular that makes a point of ignoring me even when i greet him by name. The game is changing, whether we have structures or rules in place or not, and i get the sense that the ‘big boys’ are feeling a little bit cross about it.
A lot of your lyrics could just as easily read as short stories… in addition to the country music in your past, is a love of literature lurking there too?
Oh my heavens yes. When i was a young kid i often played alone, and my favourite GAME was to read one book per day! I had a huge collection! that is before my parents realized that you could go to a library for free (one of the little details of being an immigrant, nobody tells you the most obvious things). I also studied literature during my undergrad, I rolled around in it I bathed in it. Thank you for seeing my songs as stories. thank you!
For those folks who are lucky enough to get the chance to see you on tour in the next few months, what can they expect?
They can expect a slightly more mature version of who I have been. Solo, maybe duo, maybe with a band, but always a lot of talking. Don’t you dare tell me to shut up and play the song! Ahh these days its mostly listening rooms and people who actually want me around tho, So i am looking forward to sharing my work. As always, I just want to connect, and feel everybody’s feelings and have them feel mine.
Selected Tour Dates:
11.21 :: The White Eagle :: Portland, OR
11.22 :: The Green Frog :: Bellingham, WA
11.23 :: Wise Hall Lounge :: Vancouver, BC
11.24 :: Ceatani House Studio :: Vernon, BC
11.25 :: Coddiwomple Sessions :: Nelson, BC
11.29 :: Warming Room :: Minneapolis, MN
11.30 :: Fromagerie Elgin :: Sudbury, ON
12.1 :: Live! on Elgin :: Ottawa, ON
12.2 :: Burdock :: Toronto, ON
12.3 :: House Concert :: Peterborough, ON