Bernice: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Soft indie R&B, in which the R stands for romanticized melancholy and the B stands for blissful memories.
File next to: Feist, Little Dragon, Juana Molina
Playing: Friday, November 13th @ the Monarch Tavern (12 Clinton St.) — Get your tickets here!

Bernice is “tenderness encapsulated, smoothnesses ebbing and flowing. A warm mauve light hums where butterfly kisses flutter and blush. Sink into a silk pillow forever and stare bleary-eyed toward the underwater sun. Turn the subtle corners of jazz, drink the ambrosia of crystalline voice, lend your heart to this experience.”

Robin, Bernice is your creation, and it seems that you work closely with the infinitely talented Thom Gill. Are the other members of this group permanent fixtures, or is there more of a rotating roster of players performing with you on stage?

Robin Dann: Thom and I have been playing together for more than a decade now! I met him, and also our bass player, Dan, at U of T. Felicity, Colin and Phil joined the group a little later, but yes, all are permanent fixtures. I feel as though in them I’ve found a really easy and transparent communication, and making music with these people specifically is a hugely important part of my life. Because everyone is involved in other bands and also their own projects, sometimes Bernice will play in smaller formats, like our show last week at Burdock as a four-piece, and for this Wavelength show Josh Cole will be joining us on bass because Dan is in Europe with his trio Myriad3.

Where does the name Bernice come from?

Bernice was my maternal grandmother’s name, although she spelled it Berniece — not as nice-looking on the page, I thought… Our Instagram and other social media stuff uses “saintberenice,” referencing the name’s long history (Egyptian queen, 1st century saint, constellation) — I just like to think that a person, and the name they have, is connected to an infinite number of people who have come before them, and that their physical but also gestural and emotional identities are just today’s version of that ancient life. So.

Your music could be described as amorphous and composed of deep-rooted emotional longing. Can you speak a little bit about your sound? Specifically, is there anything you do to distill your music down to such a unique sound? Further, what types of music or artists influence your approach to songwriting?

We play games a lot, we make up songs together, we try to find sounds that make us laugh & feel inspired. That informs our sound as a band, maybe more than any specific other musician or other band… While working on our new album, our friend Matt Smith has been playing us a lot of South African pop music (he’s South African) and also some of his own long-form choral compositions. That’s been inspiring. I’m personally inspired lately by songwriters like Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station), Judee Sill (we just played a tribute to her last week), Ruth Garbus, Sibylle Baier. I love their emotional restraint and their surprising forms.

Your lyrics are very poetic and seem to capture the softness of the human condition. What influences the content of your lyrics? Can you point to any specific artists, personal experiences, or other things that influence your lyrics?

Thank you! I find that words and sentences pop up from all sorts of places. Lately I’ve been reading some books by Tove Jansson — Moominpappa’s Memoirs, and a book of short stories called The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. I really, really love the way she combines words and creates imagery. That will likely come through in a lyric somehow! Another recent experience that informed a new song called “Passenger Plane”: I was just biking along Dundas and looking up at a plane flying behind a cloud. It looked both bright because of the moon, and spooky. I thought, maybe that is something I can write about.

I once saw Bernice perform at Pop Montreal in 2014, and I found that it was an amazing performance, rich in emotive sounds and dynamics. I really felt entranced for that moment. After that night, I immediately listened to your music online and I found the recordings to be just as rich and layered. Would you say that your recording process and live performances are similar, or are some leaps taken between the two in presenting your music to an audience?

I’d say we have a pretty similar approach both in studio and live, the main difference being that in the studio, we have endless possibilities in terms of production, which can feel really creative; live, we have our own unpredictable natures, as musicians and people, to keep us on our toes while playing songs together.

What has been a highlight of your musical career with Bernice?

Ooh. We’ve played some really special shows while touring with Devon Sproule — this summer we played Summer’s End on Grand Manan, looking out at the ocean with mist literally pouring into the stage, looking out at some deeply chill people lighting fires and sitting in the grass…

Another musical project of yours that I really enjoy is Bliss Gloss. It’s a small project, so I haven’t really been able to find a significant online presence. So is that still an ongoing project? What other things have you been working on?

Bliss Gloss has an album! Jean Martin at Barnyard Records is mixing it for us and it sounds insane. We’re excited. Who knows when it’ll materialize, but we intend to make a very colourful scene when it does. I’ve lately been singing and collaborating with some great people: Ben Gunning, Devon Sproule, Ben Hermann, writing some choral music for a friend’s play, infrequently performing with a very small and quiet group called ASMR Buds. 🙂

Does Bernice have any new music to be released in the near future?

Yes!! 🙂 🙂

— Interview by Mike Pereira