Bernice Are Finding Their Shape
Stream the Toronto experimental pop group's great Puff LP and read our Q&A
The roots of Bernice — an experimental pop group based in Toronto, led by vocalist/songwriter Robin Dann — already go back a while. They began playing together in the beginning of this decade and independently released a debut in 2011, followed by an EP in 2013. But a proper follow-up took some time to materialize.
It was time well spent. Last year, Bernice released their Puff EP — which landed on our list of the best EPs of 2017 — which preceded the announcement of a sister piece, their new album Puff LP: In the air without a shape.
Our first preview of the LP iteration of Puff was its opener “Glue” — a stunning, shape-shifting track that wound up being one of our favorite songs that week. It was a promising intro, and the rest of In the air without a shape is just as exciting. An album that rewards listening front to back, it’s a series of seemingly elusive compositions that become more logical the more you sink into them. Many of the songs on the album feel on the verge of breaking down at various points, all off-kilter rhythms and sputtering synths that then arrange themselves around each other as if a cloud taking on the clarity of a physical form. In the air without a shape, but willing one to develop.
It’s an alluring and frequently pretty collection. So we called Dann at her home in Toronto to talk about the some of the themes and processes behind Bernice’s new music. Below, read our Q&A and listen to a stream of the whole album ahead of its release this Friday.
STEREOGUM: The second half of your album’s title, In the air without a shape, came from a quote you found. What drew you to it?
ROBIN DANN: I was reading the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, the Italian author. They’re written from the perspective of a really young woman as she moves from childhood into adulthood, and they’re very, very introspective, I found. I really fell in love with her way of describing emotion from almost a cold and calculated perspective rather than a romantic perspective.
I don’t know particularly why that sentence spoke to me but I wrote it down when I read it, and it was sitting on my desk on a piece of paper for a long time, and when it came to put a name to the group of songs on the record, that phrase just kept coming back to me. I think the record is pretty autobiographical. The songs are about my own experiences, and I found that sentence rang true for me in terms of … how I often feel. [laughs] My own identity, anyway.
STEREOGUM: One of the things that was striking to me about the album is I feel like a lot of the songs start or develop in strange ways, almost as if you’re initially hearing these parts out of joint with each other and you’re sort of listening to the band coax the song into existence over the course of the track. What is the process of writing like for you?
DANN: For this last record, I had moved into a songwriting style where I would write the song on the computer using Ableton. I’m not a very good instrumentalist. I play piano, but I usually will write songs following my ear. So if I have a strong melodic or lyrical idea, then I tend bring it to the computer and flesh it out there with different MIDI instruments and a really crappy beat. I try to make a mood for it that I can bring to the band so it’s not just me bashing it out on the piano sounding horrible and they don’t really get an idea of what I mean. [laughs] In that sense, I brought them really finished compositions for these songs.
But we’re a band of people who all went to jazz school, so there is an instinct in everybody to improvise and explore and always be trying new sounds and parts for things, rather than more of a traditional … well, I don’t really know what it’s like to be in a band that does this, but I imagine some bands really rehearse and pin down the exact notes they’re going to play and the exact beat they’re going to use and once they find it they hone that in more and more until it’s this tight arrangement. Bernice is definitely not that. We often will change things live, reinterpret old songs so they feel fresh again. I think it is kind of like we’re finding the song. That you heard that is definitely true, especially because we did record these songs live and then overdubbed some edits.
STEREOGUM: So you all have jazz and experimental backgrounds. What’s the impulse behind coming from that and trying to bottle it up into something that, in the grand scheme of things, would be pop forms?
DANN: I can’t speak for the whole band, but for me … I think pop music is where I feel most honest as a musician. I’m happily influenced and informed by classical and jazz and all different types of music that I listen to, but it’s in a pop song … I think that’s what I really fell in love with as a kid, and how I learned to be a singer. By listening to R&B and pop singers and trying to sing like them, while I was going to my children’s choir rehearsals and singing secular and religious choral music. To me, I had to do the choir thing but my love of singing happened in pop music.
STEREOGUM: It sounds like the possibility of a more direct method of communication would be appealing, too.
DANN: Oh, for sure. All music can really touch me in my heart, but I think pop music has a real direct line to the emotional world.
STEREOGUM: The EP and LP partially share the name Puff, like a repetition locating them in this same chapter. You also revisited two songs, “David” and “St. Lucia,” for the album. What did you feel like you hadn’t gotten right the first time with those, or did you feel like you uncovered something new the second time?
DANN: Well, funnily enough, it’s almost like we released things backwards. The EP has the versions of those songs we produced with Shawn Everett. He sort of took the album versions and flipped them upside down, and we rearranged them and added new vibes. The ones on the record are the actual, original versions, if you will. Initially, I thought we were going to throw the old versions out because they weren’t feeling like they had the vitality of when we performed them live. There was something missing from them.
But in exploring them with Matt Smith, who engineered and co-produced the album with us, we did land on these versions of those two repeats that I really love, and I didn’t want them to fall into some sort of shelf for potential future B-side release. We had these 11 recordings, and some of them were repeats and some were produced by Shawn, and we were wondering how could we possibly make this into a logical release. It didn’t make sense to put it all on one record, because the stuff we produced with Shawn sounded quite different. So we divided it.
STEREOGUM: The press materials for Puff come with some notes from you, and in part of those you talk about “David” and how the name goes so far back, to Biblical times, and the idea that it has all this historical baggage. That’s some fairly conceptual territory for an ostensibly simple song title. Is that always how you think about lyrics in the process, or something you realize upon further reflection?
DANN: I do like to Google when I’m writing lyrics. [laughs] I like to use it as a tool for inspiration, in the way people use rhyming dictionaries or thesauruses. I think I literally read the Wikipedia article about the name David when I knew it was going to be that central character in the song. I had a strong feeling that the name represented a whole lot more than my random use of it. That made its way into the lyrics, how I call him the king. I recently wrote a song about a swan, and I started Googling swans and that became this whole thing in the song — just how they don’t sing until the day they die and they have their swan song.
STEREOGUM: If you look at how people have described Bernice, there’s a recurring set of adjectives, like calling the band “playful” or the lyrics being “innocent.” Is that a place you are trying to tap into or write from?
DANN: Yeah, for sure. I think play is a great way to put it. Ultimately, I never want to take anything too seriously, and that includes the music I make. I want it to feel, yeah, like it has curiosity. In lyrics, I usually try to amuse myself — not necessarily make myself laugh or anything, but I want the words to be fun to sing and fun to listen to also.
STEREOGUM: You mean in almost a tactile way?
DANN: Definitely. The images I choose, and even some of the ideas of the form of the songs — I think I’m satisfied by surprise and by unexpected events happening sonically, so I’ve gotten into a pattern of putting that into my songs.
STEREOGUM: I hear that idea on the album, like in its more airy or dreamy aspects. But I was thinking about how there’s also this aspect of electronics and controlling the compositions, sort of that point I was making earlier about wrangling these competing elements into song form. So what you said earlier about Ferrante’s novels was interesting to me, the bit about a cold and calculated way of relaying emotion. On an abstract level, it feels like a lot of your songs do something similar.
DANN: I wish I could write the song that told a story really clearly in the way that, say, a Joni Mitchell song works, where it’s just perfect. She’s using a lot of personal imagery, but it’s also just this universal truth that winds up shining through the song. I can’t do that. I’m not a good enough songwriter yet, or maybe ever, to be able to write a song like her. I gravitate towards metaphors and images to try and express more in a lyric. For me, it’s a little bit of a copout, what I’m doing, but then I think I’m also just coming up against myself and trying to write something that feels honest and feels good and that I’m going to want to sing and that I won’t be embarrassed by six months down the road. I would strive to be able to write a song that’s just transparent in its honesty.
STEREOGUM: You also described the album as autobiographical, so if there’s an interplay between that and these ciphers or something — is that because you’re not ready to put all of yourself out there in that way, or it’s what allows you to process it?
DANN: For sure, it helps me process it. And I kind of enjoy that the songs are interpreted in many different ways, I find, by the people who listen to them. Part of it is that I like to leave things a little bit open for people to create their own meaning, part of it is definitely a self-protective mechanism. I recognize I have a long way to go as a songwriter. It takes a lot of skill to write a song that has a clear story to it but then doesn’t sound just boring in its lyrical content. So, yeah … I’m going to keep working on that. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a bunch, but in the last few years there’s been this Toronto rock scene that became the subject of some buzz, with bands like Alvvays and Dilly Dally. Is there a different scene there that you feel a kinship with? I know you have the jazz history, but in terms of people putting out music in this amorphous indie world, are there artists you fit in with, or does it feel like you’re on an island?
DANN: One of the great things about Toronto is that there are so many different scenes happening all at the same time. That rock scene you mention — although I love Alvvays, and they’re so amazing, but I’ve never actually seen them play. I feel like I’m a member of this community … it’s like we are on an island but there’s so many other people on it, too, and there are many other islands and they’re all close enough to swim back and forth. There’s so much crossover that happens between the different scenes.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned your new song about swans — are you already prepping your next project?
DANN: I’ve been writing a lot. I spent a couple weeks just focusing on brand new material and we’re going to do some recording this summer and see what happens. I want to keep putting things out on a more regular basis now that we’ve begun working with Arts & Crafts. I want to keep the momentum going.
STEREOGUM: So it won’t be six years before full-lengths this time?
DANN: If it is … well, I don’t have the end of that sentence, but no. [laughs]
Puff LP: In the air without a shape is out 5/25 via Arts & Crafts.