'Winnipeg, California' Looks You In The Eyes With A Smile: Mise En Scene's Stef Johnson Introduces Their New Album

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[Cover photo credit to Annelie Rosencrantz]

Canadian duo Stef Johnson and Jodi Dunlop of Mise en Scene are releasing their new album, Winnipeg, California, this Friday October 9th via Light Organ Records. It's an album that springs from a time of tremendous creativity that, thankfully, got time in the studio and even time to make some videos before the pandemic hit. Now, the upbeat attitude and dreamy soul of the intentionally rough-edged music makes for a great distraction from hard times and Mise en Scene's videos convey a lot of the same attitude with a winning sense of authenticity. 

Stef Johnson previously joined us on Tower's Instagram Live show, which you can still watch right here, but she also spoke with Tower's PULSE! about where she and Jodi Dunlop, quite literally, come from, and how that all informs their sounds, goals, and experiences as musicians. You can also check out their new single and video below for "Unsolicited Advice" which arrived today!

Hannah Means-Shannon: I’m really excited about your new album. I’ve enjoyed it so much. I’m really glad you’re releasing it right now. Have you and Jodi been riding things out in Winnipeg?

Stef Johnson: Jodi’s in Winnipeg, but I’m actually even more remote. I’m in a town called Gimli, like in The Lord of the Rings. That’s what it’s called. Gimli’s actually the capitol of New Iceland, one of the largest Icelandic settlements outside of Iceland.

HMS: That’s crazy!

SJ: Jodi actually grew up here, and my Dad grew up here. We’re both half Icelandic. It’s only 45 minutes from the city, to the North, on one of the biggest lakes in Canada. It’s a huge fishing town. I’ve been up here the whole time during the pandemic, which has been great for me. It’s kind of business as usual, I just don’t go to the grocery store as often. It’s very serene and you’re constantly in nature. I’m able to focus on my art here, which is why I moved out here.

Now we’re releasing stuff, but I’m not really in a songwriting mode right now. I feel like I don’t have much to say because I’m absorbing so much right now. I’m so glad we have stuff to push out right now, because I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a band that was supposed to go into the studio right now, but couldn’t.

I feel like right now, music has to be stronger than ever, though. You can’t just write a shitty song, and put in all the trendy words, and just expect everyone to fall in love with it.

HMS: I agree. I think there’s a real spotlight on music right now. We need some substance.

SJ: It needs to come from a very real place right now because people are feeling very real things. Especially in North America, we’re so privileged. We don’t really deal with war on our soil. Now that this is happening, we realize we’re not invincible for the first time ever. It’s been a really interesting return to the basics of life.

My grandparents are farmers, and this is like going back to their way of living. I think music has to come from a really authentic place right now, and be a craft right now. It needs to lift people up and take them out of things or address and heal things. I think our music definitely helps bring people out of our current situation. Our whole album is up-beat, a celebration. It definitely looks you in the eyes with a smile. That’s a lot what Jodi and I are like.

HMS: Do you think the record reflects specific aspects of your personality? How would you describe that?

SJ: We’re both really upbeat and fun and we are really confident, but we’re kind of Punks sometimes. We’re very sensitive and we’re very sincere. We’re not very good at lying. We say whatever comes into our heads.

HMS: I would say there’s very little pretentiousness or affectation in your music.

SJ: Yes. Exactly. It’s not something we have to try to do, but that’s how we are natural. When it comes to the lyrics, I went to a songwriting residency for a month in Alberta, and I ended up writing 18 Country songs. But as soon as I got back from that, I wanted to write for the record, and then we had a waterfall of songs. I think we wrote about 50 songs then, and we only demoed 25 of them, and then we kept 10 for the record. It came from a hugely creative time for me and for us, as a band. The saddest thing is that there were a few really good ones that didn’t make it!

HMS: I was going to ask about that!

SJ: It wasn’t a matter of removing the worst ones. It was more about rounding the album out. We wanted some Rock, Punk, Pop, Garage, Ballads. We put together an eclectic records to take you on an emotional journey, so we had to cut some songs. I think about them all the time! I want to get back into the studio and do those.

HMS: Yes, think about where and how you can release those, whether as an EP or another album.

SJ: That’s what I really want to do since touring isn’t going to be a thing. I really miss playing more than I thought I would. Being at the venue and playing is fun, but touring is a nightmare.

HMS: I do take that seriously, but it makes me laugh.

SJ: It’s just hard. Getting there, touring in Canada, you’re driving really long distances. We’ve toured in Europe, the UK, and the USA, and that’s a lot easier. In Canada, it’s 6 to 8 hours between places, so you’re out late, you’re up early, and exhausted waiting to play. But I do miss playing. But without playing, it’s about content right now. It’s crazy to think about recording again already.

Based on when and how we wrote the record, though, it does remind us, now, of simpler times. We want to make people smile and laugh and feel something. I can’t really write slow, sad songs, so I can’t really help with pandemic depression, but I hope this music helps people on their runs and when they are gardening. Or helps them let some steam off and dance. The music is energetic and lush, and that’s how I want to make people feel—alive.

HMS: That’s a great goal to have right now. I think the title of the album and the cover are very much a statement of identity in their own way. Does the title of the album have anything to do with the fact that when you abbreviate Winnipeg, Canada, it looks like “Winnipeg, CA”?

SJ: Well, that kind of works with it. This album title has so many layers to it. It started when we were doing demos for this. Jodi and I almost always like to put the title as a lyric in a song. We started joking when we were doing demos that we should just tell people that Winnipeg is the California of Canada and see if anyone notices. It was a huge joke because we were in a studio, in a hut, in the dead of winter, and it was freezing outside. But also, everyone always talks about California as this amazing place, but Winnipeg has this strange relationship with Hollywood. It gets mentioned a lot. It’s always a shit hole that people go to in film and TV.

But Winnipeg is grungy, but it’s also, in my opinion, the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll for Canada. Neil Young came out of there from high school. The Guess Who, Burton Cummings of Crash Test Dummies. All these amazing bands have come out of Winnipeg. But people don’t realize how much history we have here. So this title is a teasing joke that’s kind of like “Paris, Texas”. It’s a funny, spiralling joke. It makes you think, “What is that??”

But also, more metaphorically speaking, in the sound of our record, we are that. We are gritty and grungy and up-front, honest, salt-of-the-earth people, but don’t fuck with them. We’re sparkly, upbeat, enthusiastic, and we have nice production on the record. So the record actually sounds like Winnipeg, California. I’ve known that was the title of the record since the first demo. It’s been fun growing with it, knowing that.

HMS: Oh, wow, did it shape the songs, then? Since you knew what the title would be?

SJ: Definitely. When I wrote “Dollar Dreams”, I thought, “This is Winnipeg, California”. It’s like Pixies and Hole, but there’s shimmering tambourine and harmonies.

And actually, I saw this Dollar Store once that had “99 Cent Dreams” written on it.

HMS: What the what? That was real?? That’s like the best lyric in that song.

SJ: It was called 99 Cent Dreams. I thought it was amazing, so I thought, “Dollar Dreams” and I knew I’d write a song called that someday.

HMS: That’s a very haunting song. I don’t know if everyone would respond the same way, but I’ve certainly lived in out of the way places. These places are wonderful, and as you say elsewhere, that video is a love letter to a place. But there’s this feeling you can have like you’re waiting for something to happen to you, and then when it does, there’s an element of feeling like you don’t have any control over it, but there’s also an element of consent, because internally, you’re thinking, “Please let something happen to me.” It’s weird.

SJ: Yes! Oh my god. That’s exactly it. There’s this idea of “Dollar Dreams”, wondering, “Are they a dime a dozen? Or are these dreams that we are supposed to have?” The title of the song is in the same sentence. It’s saying that in Winnipeg, California, this can happen anywhere.

It’s also that, as Canadian musicians, there’s a lot of pressure to go to LA. And there’s this idea that if we don’t go there, nothing will happen for us. Which is just not true. There is a lot of music there, but I just don’t need to do that. I don’t have that in me. I probably couldn’t write there. I’d probably start caring way too much about how I look. [Laughs]

HMS: Of course, there’s plenty of music there, but there are other places to do that. It sounds like Winnipeg has that, too.

SJ: I’ve traveled all over, and I’ve been to a lot of cities, but even Toronto is not appealing to me. I guess what it is, for me, is that I don’t feel the need to leave. There are a lot of people who feel like they have to leave Winnipeg to be worth anything, and I resent that. It’s the same thing as saying, “Because I’m a woman, I can’t do something.”, when you say, “Because I’m from Winnipeg, I can’t do something.”

HMS: The pandemic is really highlighting that it’s about releasing, it’s about being active online, it’s about using your resources, rather than location when it comes to being a musician. It’s about ingenuity and connecting with fans.

SJ: Totally. That’s also why I’m really pumped to release this record.

HMS: When were you in LA to film the video for “Angel”?

SJ: That was before the pandemic. We were in LA for that, and we were actually in a really bad car accident there just after arriving. We were fine, but it was rough. We did a cute little video in LA. In “Dollar Dreams”, there’s the Garbage Hill sign, so we knew we wanted to do the Hollywood Hills sign, too. It’s the same thing.

HMS: I was going to ask you if “Garbage Hill” was real...

SJ: Oh, yes it’s real!

HMS: It does feel like those videos relate to each other. Great planning on that.

SJ: It totally works. So, Garbage Hill used to literally be a garbage dump, but now it’s a hill where people walk and take their dogs. Then, mysteriously, someone put up the sign “Garbage Hill” and everyone thought it was the best thing ever. The city took it down, then there was outrage, so they put it back up. It overlooks our modest little skyline. It’s so Winnipeg, it’s ridiculous.

HMS: Is there anything else you’d like to say to introduce the album, since it’s arriving soon?

SJ: I truly believe this is a record full of hits, and you’re going to be surprised by every song that comes on. There are so many different energies and vibes on it. I am so proud of it. I’m excited for everyone to hear the whole thing.

1 comment

  • frank gaumot

    Wow ! what great sound , ill look for their cd

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