'It Took A Lot of Breaking Things Down': Dana Gavanski on Finding Her Musical Voice

Dana Gavanski is an artist who stands at the crossroads of Folk, Pop, and a style uniquely her own. Embracing elements of minimalism, she crafted her first real album with the recently released Yesterday is Gone. But she soon followed that significant task with an exploration of cover songs reinterpreted in ways that were meaningful to her with Wind Songs, soon to be released.

The directness with which Gavanski often speaks of her experiences struggling to overcome her own internal resistances to making music is not only refreshing, but helpful. It illustrates to fans and fellow musicians that the path to personal achievements are not uniform, and suggests the incredibly important role of curiosity in finding one's way.

Dana Gavanski joined Tower's PULSE! for an interview about the creation and release of Yesterday is Gone and the foundations for Wind Songs, and she also gave us a well-rounded view of her musical journey so far.

Hannah Means-Shannon: First of all, congratulations on your new albums, and I’m so glad you were able to complete those and get them all out during all this. I imagine you were able to get it all recorded before lockdown started.

Dana Gavanski: Yes, we had booked maybe a week of recording before the pandemic became serious at all. Before it became real, at the beginning of March. One of the songs on the covers album we had to rerecord because it was not my own enough. We wanted to make it more unique, because the song was so particular. So we ended up recording that version in our own studio.

HMS: That’s a special origin story.

DG: Many of the songs are more classic sounding, but there’s one by this [secret] artist who I love and I needed to be invented enough.

HMS: That’s a whole question to approach when doing covers, and something that’s not easy, I’m sure. I heard the cover for “I Talk to the Wind” and thought that sounded really cool. What made you decide to cover that song? And I think there was a charity connection for that one?

DG: Yes, that one came out on Bandcamp, so whatever I made on that one went to Black Health Alliance, which is based in Toronto. I was happy to donate that money. That song was really fun to sing. We started to play that song in November last year on tour, and it’s been a song I’ve known for maybe 12 years, when I discovered King Crimson. When I was first buying albums, I heard about it from a friend of mine, and this song always spoke to me.

When we performed that song on tour, I liked the way we would play it, with just me and my guitarist, and he would sing the verses with me. It was quite nice.

HMS: It’s a great modern folk feel, with a lot of warmth to it. Was it hard for you to choose the other songs to go on the covers album, or did you already kind of have a set of songs that you were fond of?

DG: Yes, I had a whole bunch of other songs that I was into. I wanted to have an excuse to do even more with them. There are so many songs that I wanted to interpret and a reason to explore. You can do it on your own, but the incentive is stronger if there’s an album. And I got to play with a band, so there was a lot more creativity involved than if I had just played them on my own. It helped revive my excitement for music, since I had started to get a little overwhelmed by what direction that I wanted to go next, or how I wanted to write. It helped to focus on songs that I knew I really liked and respected. It was a question of how to honor them or dishonor them.

In the making of this album, there’s a high sense of reverence for the songs.

HMS: Is this a little pantheon of music that you think is great?

DG: Yes. It’s not necessarily representative of me, musically. These aren’t necessarily the songs that make up my musical world. There’s so much more out there, but it’s what I had been excited about in the last five months or so. It was really nice to get back into the studio.

HMS: It sounds like an almost meditative thing to do after creating so much of your own music for Yesterday is Gone.

DG: Totally. It helped remind me what sounds I liked and what I want to do or not do on my next album. Sometimes when you finish a song, and it doesn’t even matter whether it’s a song that’s going to be on your next album, or one that you just perform, it’s nice to get it out of your system.

HMS: To jump into Yesterday is Gone, I saw the video for the song “Yesterday is Gone” and I thought it was really great. I loved the colors so much. The bright orange and the green. And the settings are so interesting. Do you think that video reflects things about your personality, or was it just a cool idea?

DG: I spent my early 20s, for about 7 years, living in Montreal. Living there you often take the subways, and you have some amazing subways there. They were all created in a kind of 60s brutalist, almost Pop, style. I always had a love of that, especially coming from socialist Serbia, though I wasn’t born there. I love brutalist sculpture.

HMS: I feel like the architecture in the video is big, but not as big as some brutalist architecture is. The human form, in the video, still holds a place in that setting.

DG: Yes, it’s quite close up so you don’t really see the bigness of the space. Actually, I felt super uncomfortable dancing in front of all the subway goers, going to and from work. We had to find a time to film between the rush hours. From what I understood, we weren’t really allowed to be filming in there without a tripod, but nobody said anything. It was a really fun and refreshing video to make, to just get over it. I’m very introverted, but also secretly extroverted, so it was a good way to align with that part of myself. I have a desire to be more performative in my overall music identity.

HMS: Yes. I think the video has a little bit of a dialog with music tradition, particularly in the colors and presentation. It reminded me of the time when Rock became Pop, at that turning point. Where you have these singers who are folksy, on the edge of Rock, but who become figures, whether identities or personas.

DG: Yes. Cool. Actually, it was negative 32 degrees outside, but not cold in the metro!

HMS: Oh wow! I wouldn’t have known from the video. Was working on Yesterday is Gone as an album the first time you worked with more than a couple of collaborators?

DG: It’s my first real album, really. Before that I had released a collection of songs called Spring Demos, that were very folky, and the first songs that I wrote. Then this album was me going into a professional studio for the first time, and playing with a percussionist for the first time. And also having the support of my EP label, Full Time Hobby. I generally really enjoyed it. Whereas now, it’s kind of scary, to have one album out and think of what’s next.

HMS: It must be like pushing through a door into a new space, and wondering where you are.

DG: Totally. I feel like I never what I am doing, but that can be a good thing, because then you can make something that has never existed.

HMS: And, of course, the secret of getting older is that no one knows what they are doing. We think the people we look up to know what they are doing, but they don’t.

DG: Yes, it’s packaged that way.

HMS: It’s a retrospective perspective.

DG: We are all trying to keep it together all the time, so it helps to have something to look up to, to have idols. Otherwise, you’d be constantly panicked.

HMS: Yeah, absolutely. We naturally create these narratives and look to these guiding lights because we need that. But the insider perspective would be very different.

To ask a kind of bigger question, I read that your family are creative, that your father makes films and your mother is an artist. What made you think that music was a viable art field to pursue? You probably had a sense of a number of options in what you might do creatively.

DG: Well, it didn’t seem viable to me! [Laughs] It was like a curse, a total curse. I’ve always secretly wanted to be a singer as a child, but I had an insane amount of insecurity. I would always just hide. I’d try, and I’d have the desire, and I’d want to sing, but then I’d just get so scared that I’d cower. It took a really long time for me to come to terms with it, to sing and to write music. I had walls built around the belief that I could do anything like that.

I tried, from many angles, to enter music somehow, but they were all unreal somehow. I had tried to do this around the age of 17 or 18, but I couldn’t really get into it. I picked up a guitar at 25 and I tried again. I knew a lot of musicians suddenly and I got jealous of them, thinking, “I should be doing this.” I don’t think there was a point where I thought, “I am a musician.”, but I slowly started working my way up, taking lessons and things.

HMS: That’s interesting that you had to approach it from a number of angles before it worked. That feels relatable.

DG: It took a lot of breaking things down, like self-denial. I only started writing music recently, when I was 26, but I often feel like an impersonator, though I’m now 30. Many people in music have been playing since age 8, or age 16, so some of this was overcoming this ageism we have toward creativity.

HMS: Oh, yes. I totally agree on that.

DG: I’m actually really surprised that I made any music at all.

HMS: So in that earlier period, you were performing songs that you liked by other people, and doing live performance?

DG: Around age 26, I found a sweet little hippie café in Montreal that served vegan food, and everyone that came was really loving. And that’s why I started to sing in front of the public. I think one of my first paid gig was for a corporate Christmas party. I had been performing at a Unitarian Church that my step-mom went to, and was invited to perform at the Christmas party. I just sang all these covers, and it was fairly awkward.

HMS: That’s so brave! That’s the thing, it’s hard to decide if discomfort is a good or bad thing.

DG: Yeah, it’s just the discomfort of being watched. It’s something that I knew if I wanted to play music I would have to accept. But taking control of how people see you is something that I’ve been thinking about. How to be more than just this innocent Folk singer.

HMS: That’s an interesting thing about “gaze” though. Like are you accepting the gaze of the world or are you shaping the gaze, in a more passive or active way. And that’s really interesting.

DG: Yes, and it moves between those two things constantly, and it’s a more interesting thing, I think, when you get to play with that dynamic.

HMS: Do you think, as a musician or as a person, you’re more of an optimist or more of a wary person?

DG: It depends. Politically, I think I’m secretly quite pessimistic, even though I think optimism is needed. I have mood swings, so when I’m excited by something I’m optimistic, but when I start thinking about myself too much, there’s pessimism. I don’t think I fall into just one category. “Moody” is more accurate. Somewhere in between.

HMS: How do you think you’re handling all the change we are dealing with right now? Do you think it has affected you, in terms of your daily life?

DG: In the beginning, it was very sad and very weird, just reading the news all the time. It wasn’t very conducive creatively, at least for me. But neither is being too happy!

HMS: That’s a good point. Happiness can be very distracting.

DG: Then I thought, “Oh, this is the perfect time to write music.”, but then that felt kind of wrong, too. But then my partner and I got here, and I had my little music space, and things have been pretty good. But there’s a haze of, “What’s next?”

HMS: Oh, yes, it’s that haze of mind fog about all the information coming in from the world. A lot of people react to the time we have on our hands to create, but I can also see how having that time forced on you, rather than it being a matter of choice, might not be conducive either.

DG: Yes, especially if there’s no form to it, or if you’re stuck in one space.

HMS: Do you have a particular feeling about minimalism in music, or is that more something that’s typical of starting out and learning how to build music?

DG: I think it’s the mix of both, trying to essentialize things. I try to hear what’s in my head. I do really like certain lines that stand out, and not too much. Like the Pop or more Indie, or Alternative Pop music I like is quite minimal in many ways. When I started playing, I just really loved voice and guitar, and I loved the simplicity of it, or the eternalness of it. I only really started listening to contemporary Pop music a few years ago. I listened to music from before the 80s. I’ve been very slow with learning and consuming, I think. I like to sit with a certain album for a while and listen to the same song again and again.

So minimalism is a mix between the limitations of my mind and wanting to hear things precisely, in a way, and intentionally doing it.

HMS: I think those musicians would love the fact that you sit with their albums and spend time with them, listening and thinking about it. That’s kind of the ideal, though it’s less and less common.

DG: Yes, we all grew up with fast consumerism. I started listening to albums in full around age 18.

HMS: I have a lot of strange gaps in my musical knowledge because I always got it through my siblings and my friends, took recommendations and took their music. Now I have to piece things together a little more.

DG: Sometimes you hear something new that totally refreshes your ears. It’s hard to imagine how much music exists out there that you haven’t heard that you would love.

HMS: A friend of mine uses the word “discovery”. That sense of finding a new world that’s going to be your next big obsession that you didn’t know existed. Tower Records was somewhat known for that, allowing people to discover things.

DG: My boyfriend was telling me that he got his first record at Tower Records in Singapore, when he was 7. It was some boy band, but his friend came with him, and his dad said that they could each pick one, but then had to listen to them, back to back, when they got home. And his friend picked Marilyn Manson.

HMS: I can remember the first CD that I bought, rather than just borrowing from other people, and it was from Tower Records in New York, an early Radiohead album.

Regarding live events, I saw online that you had been playing at a kind of larger venue in February, maybe in Rome?

DG: The Damien Jurado shows. There were between 400 and 800 people every night. That was the biggest audience I had played to.

HMS: Were the audience receptive to new music?

DG: They were. I got a lot of sweet comments, and it was really fun to do. I went to a lot of European towns I had never been to. That’s the coolest thing about touring, if you have the time, to check out new cities and walk.

HMS: Yes, to get new influences.

We have a Tower Records motto, “No Music, No Life” and “Know Music, Know Life”. What do you think of those mottos and how might they apply to your life?

DG: Music has given me so much joy for life that I haven’t really felt otherwise. I think those two interpretations are interlinked. There’s so much you can learn that you don’t even realize. I’ve never been a hyper-social person, so music has often played the role of interlocutor. It’s a way in which I can receive the pain of someone or share my pain. I like talking, but I don’t often search out people to listen to me. Music has always been there for me. I feel like I could say a lot about it, but it’s been the most beautiful thing to me.

HMS: I like what you said about how you can learn things through music without even realizing it. I think music can teach a lot of emotional intelligence, helping you realize things about other people and about yourself.

DG: Absolutely. Often, people put a lot of effort into writing songs. It takes a lot of life to live to write a song. It takes a lot to write, at least for me, and I really appreciate that gift, to be able to rejoice, cry, or meditate, through music.

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