The second coming of Begonia COVID crushed the victory lap for her debut, but new album 'Powder Blue' sets a higher standard

A room full of Elvises, decked out in their Graceland best, waited at the bar of the Royal George Hotel for the biggest diva in Winnipeg’s musical galaxy.

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A room full of Elvises, decked out in their Graceland best, waited at the bar of the Royal George Hotel for the biggest diva in Winnipeg’s musical galaxy.

Satin, stars and sideburns abounded. The bedazzled jackets, with collars popped ear-high, undoubtedly drew attention in Transcona. Gold-rimmed sunglasses reflected the lights of the idle VLTs, where untold thousands of dollars have been won, lost, celebrated and mourned.

“She was running a few minutes late, I guess,” remembers Marnie Lee Mackintosh, who has been paying tribute to the king since 1977, the year he died. “We didn’t mind.”

Elvii don’t wait for just anybody, but there they were at the Royal George last summer, sipping Tim Hortons coffee, eating muffins, and killing time before Begonia arrived to begin shooting a music video for a nuptial pop ballad called Married by Elvis.

But Begonia didn’t arrive. Alexa Dirks did. She entered at a rushed pace, said a quick and kind hello, and then disappeared for a few minutes to do some final preparations for the shoot. When she returned, she was Begonia by way of Memphis, Tenn., hair poofed up into an orange pompadour, wearing a shimmering white suit bedecked with tassels underlying a chevron-shaped neckline.

“The attention was on her from the moment she came into the room,” says Mackintosh, the lone female Elvis Tribute Artist (ETA) onsite. “She gave me the impression that she would be quite good on Broadway.”

The cameras started rolling, and Begonia and the Elvii got into character: their voices bellowed and their hips started swaying. They sang karaoke and pulled at the limbs of the one-armed bandits. “It was very Viva Las Vegas,” says Mackintosh, who hadn’t listened to Begonia’s music before.

They went to the White House, a famed downtown mansion, where Begonia sat at a grand piano, leading the Presleys in a choral rendition of Unchained Melody.

As a veteran ETA, Mackintosh has spent more time than most trying to understand which qualities make someone not just an entertainer, but an artist.

“Elvis was always himself. He performed the way he wanted to perform, and he looked the way he wanted to look,” she says. “Like every entertainer, he was told how to do things, and there were times where he strayed from himself, but he always did what came naturally to him.”

Mackintosh is not saying Begonia is Elvis; neither am I. But what both of us are saying is what Mackintosh says next. “When you look at them, they grab you.”

When performers like Elvis or Begonia take the stage, even in a room full of loud talkers and shrieking fans, they make you feel like they are singing directly to you. It is magical, and it sounds flowery, but it is not a stretch.

The connection that certain performers manage to forge with their fans, especially in the social media era, is often described as parasocial, with the stars unaware of their gravity and reach. That isn’t the case with Begonia, and it wasn’t the case with Elvis Presley: the connection flows in both directions.

Two weeks before the world shut down, in February 2020, Begonia did something remarkable: on five consecutive nights, she sold out concerts at the West End Cultural Centre.

Playing her Polaris Prize-longlisted debut album, Fear, Begonia enjoyed the fruits of a decade of her labour.

It was a crowning achievement for one of the most dynamic pop artists to emerge from Winnipeg, and it was the prelude to what should have been the most consequential tour of her solo career.

After the West End stand, she went on to play packed clubs in Minneapolis and Chicago, both important markets, and was on her way with her band to perform in New York City when her phone rang. On the other end was her manager, Stu Anderson, who was already there. You know what happened next.

“I called her and I had to say, ‘You have to turn around,’” recalls Anderson, who runs Begonia’s label, Birthday Cake, and has managed her solo career since 2016, when the Begonia project began. “We had over a year’s worth of plans around the album — tours, festivals — and that was suddenly just over.”

A touring musician since the age of 19, with groups such as the New Lightweights, Little Boy Boom, and the Juno-winning Chic Gamine, Dirks was not used to being in one place for a long time. Stationary is not an accurate word to describe her.

Neither is solitary: wherever she goes, she is encircled by a group of artists and collaborators — a glam squad, her band, her management team, her family, and dozens of friends. In Anderson’s words, she has gathered a collection of “creative freaks” to bring her visions to life.

“The road is where I feel the most in control of my routine, because I see my schedule, I know when we’re showing up at a venue, and I find a place to carve out my little zone. There’s this predictability,” Begonia says. “But then I get home. And that’s when the silence kicks in.”

In the quiet, Dirks didn’t know what to do with herself. Her career was always built around remote work, but not like this. Not in true isolation. Not actually solo. Not scared of people. OK, maybe a little bit scared of people, but who isn’t?

This was different. It was more, and it was too much.

“At the beginning of lockdowns, I found myself not wanting to be perceived at all,” she tells me at her dining room table, drinking a green smoothie and water out of a glass shaped like a cowboy boot.

“And that was something that was new for me. I started out on the positive train, like, ‘We don’t know how long it’s going to last.’”

“At the beginning of lockdowns, I found myself not wanting to be perceived at all… And that was something that was new for me.”–Begonia

She went live on Instagram, trying to recapture the emotions of the tour she had lost, into which she had invested years of time and a lot of money. But a few weeks passed, and she could not get out of bed.

“What else did you do?” I ask.

“Other than crying?” she laughs. “I was doom-scrolling, calling my mom every day.” Like a lot of people, she and her partner Seth Woodyard, who designs her sets and is one of her closest creative collaborators, bought a Nintendo Switch.

Later, she started watching Vanderpump Rules, a reality show “about sexy singles working at a West Hollywood restaurant.”

“I was trying to escape with thoughts like, ‘Oh my gosh, are Katie and Schwartz going to be together forever?’”

“I was sitting there with cyclical thoughts, because I did not have a single thing to do. There was nothing to work on, there was no plan, and I wasn’t ready to put my energy into writing,” she recalls.

“There were so many memes going around like, ‘I can’t wait to see what the artists are going to do with this time.’ And I was like, ‘F—- you. I’m going to be depressed.’ Like, let’s see what you do! Show me your best sourdough, bitch! I took it as a personal affront.”

She slips into a British accent. “People were saying, ‘Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague.’ I was just like, ‘Cool. My mental health is the worst it has ever been.’”

People in her circle noticed and were concerned. With a personality as effervescent as Dirks’, it can be easy to perceive that everything is fine and dandy.

But any armour she put up was as transparent as Saran wrap. She went on long walks alone to nowhere. We all remember how that felt.

She started to refer to a room on her second floor as “the depression room.” “Do you want to see it?” she asks. Inside, piles of clothes spill out of half-packed suitcases, with accidentally stolen hotel room-keys serving as a reminder of the places she used to go.

Her manager suggested seeing a therapist, something Dirks had not been doing but which she had coverage for through the label.

“I realized through therapy that I had so much work to do,” she says, wearing a blue beret.

“It allowed me to see that this was a part of me. I had been running away from certain sides of my mental health for a long time, medicating in different ways. And then my therapist was like, ‘Maybe you could go on actual medication.’”

Shortly after, an alarm rings on Dirks’ phone. It’s time to take her antidepressants. I ask her which kind she’s on. We high five, because we’re taking the same one.

Before starting to take more active care of her mental health, there was a pesky rodent living inside Dirks’ brain, she says.

“I feel like from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, there is a hamster running on a wheel with a list of the things I need to do, and I am constantly trying to catch up that hamster,” she says. “When I watch reality TV, the hamster stops, because he’s interested as well.”

The hamster is still inside, but the mental-health care helped slow it down. “It really helped me become better friends with the hamster instead of hating him.”

Once the hamster slowed down, Begonia was able to speed up. The built-up energy that was suspended in time when the pandemic began slowly began to release itself through music, and when it came time to write, Dirks looked backward and became enamored by a muted colour she found inexplicably beautiful.

During those darkest, coldest days at her house — with its pink front hall and purple living room, and the painting of tropical fish above the breakfast nook — Dirks would sit on her West End porch.

“I was staring out into the abyss, and I kept coming back to the calmness of powder blue.”

She’s heard of synesthesia, a condition where sensory stimuli, like sound or taste, can be interpreted and perceived through other sensory organs and pathways. Lemons can taste like the colour orange; a certain musical note can feel soft. She says she doesn’t have it. But colour is everywhere in her world, and Powder Blue was a natural title for her latest album, out Friday from Birthday Cake.

Powder Blue, she says, is more of an emotion than a visual idea. It reminds her of her baby blanket, the colour of the Virgin Mary’s shawl, a chlorine-filled hotel pool, Elvis in the 1970s, and the wallpaper in her childhood bedroom. It’s a muted nostalgia, she says, tinged with sensuality and comfort and outlined in a fine ink.

The album, which Dirks co-wrote and produced with deadmen, the now-LA-based production duo of Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg (Royal Canoe), is a record that manages to exceed the creative peaks Begonia reached on Fear.

The production is lush and bursting, while also allowing Begonia’s miraculous vocal range to float gently above it like a butterfly on a breeze. It was more than worth the wait.

The first track, Chasing Every Sunrise, begins with no noise other than Begonia’s warm incantations for its first 30 seconds. It is a literal example of an isolated vocal: she wrote the opening lyric — “I like to walk the whole way home in silence” — while doing just that, during the first weeks of COVID isolation.

Committing those syllables to paper was one of the first creative impulses she had after her world and ours came grinding to a halt.

After the a cappella, her voice is joined by a swooning orchestra, occupied throughout the album with violin, cello, French horn, oboe, trombone and baritone sax. It is a testament to Begonia’s voice, and her lyrics, that she is still the undisputed star of the show.

Throughout the album, she wrestles with ideas of heaven, loss, self-image, sexuality, bullies and trolls. She talks of the costumes we wear like a cape, and the scars that we hide like a secret. She is singing straight from her diary, and she is not editing herself to be more relatable. It’s all right there in her lyrics.

As an artist, Begonia is exactly who she tells her fans that she is as a human being.

Nearly three years after they lined up to meet their idol at the West End Cultural Centre, 23-year-olds Mykayla Klassen and Willow Froese stand in the cold waiting to meet her again.

They aren’t alone: a queue of about 40 is assembled behind them, waiting to get inside the Low Life Barrel House to hear Powder Blue with Begonia herself. It’s 7:50 p.m., with 10 minutes to go before the third and final sold-out listening party of the day.

“I think it was 2017 when we first heard her,” Klassen says. “We were walking across the field and we heard this voice, and we were like, ‘Who is that?’ And this guy walks by and says, very bluntly, ‘That’s Begonia.’ As if we should know. We were 17. And then we went over to listen and we were like, ‘Oh my god. OK. His reaction was valid. Everybody should know who this is.’”

“We’ve gone to all of her Winnipeg shows since,” says Froese. “We went to her last concert before the pandemic. It was the last thing we had to hang on to.”

To walk into the venue is to take a peek into Begonia’s hamster-wheel mind. Atop pink pedestals are ceramic cats wearing necklaces made of stringed lights. An entire wall is covered with what looks like aluminum foil — the background from a recent music video. Pink clouds hang. Hoagies are being served.

There’s a cake with the album portrait of Begonia printed on it. Dirks’ partner, Woodyard, cuts it into slices; local singer Ami Cheon gets to eat the slice with Begonia’s face.

Her glam squad — makeup artist Rachel Lynne Jones, hairstylist Kitty Bernes, costume designer Emily Woodman, and photographer Calvin Joseph — is nearby just in case. Her management team, along with Chloe Chafe and Andrew Eastman of Synonym Art Consultation, who together planned the event, keep an eye on everything.

After a prolonged engagement, “it was like a wedding,” says Bernes.

As fans file in, they sit down and get ready to listen, taking a moment beforehand to reflect on the star, who has yet to emerge from wherever she’s hiding.

“She’s an entertainer, but also a storyteller,” says Paula Rutledge.

“She knows what she wants, and she f—-ing rocks it,” adds Keri Latimer, of the local folk duo Leaf Rapids. “I worship this woman.”

“We double-worship her,” Rutledge replies.

“I feel that Begonia is almost a drag persona to who Alexa Dirks is,” says Gaston Lopez Ficher. “She’s very appealing to the LGBTQ+ community because she speaks to being your truest self.”

“I feel that Begonia is almost a drag persona to who Alexa Dirks is… She’s very appealing to the LGBTQ+ community because she speaks to being your truest self.”–Gaston Lopez Ficher

A few minutes pass, and then the woman of the hour arrives, wearing a blue organza puff dress, embroidered with pearls, and black patent leather shoes with silver buckles. The packed room explodes into applause and laughter as Dirks becomes Begonia, grabbing the microphone and saying hello.

She does a few minutes of impromptu standup comedy. “I haven’t peed since 11 a.m.,” she says. Everyone giggles, but she’s probably not kidding.

After the chorus of laughter subsides, Begonia politely asks everyone to be quiet, and then, together, they all listen to what she has to say.

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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