By now, everybody knows what the pandemic looks like: masks, on faces or on the sidewalk; kitchen tables transmogrifying into co-working spaces; hands cracked and red from sanitizer.
But what does the pandemic look like when musicians start putting pen to paper? And what will it sound like once those words and music are recorded? The Free Press reached out to Manitoba musicians to find out, and discovered some are leaning into the new state of the world for inspiration, while others are avoiding it altogether.
Ava Wray finds humour in pandemic life
Ava Wray had good reason to feel pessimistic. She lost her job. Her relationship ended. It seemed she was spending more time with cats than with people (though, admittedly, she sort of liked that). When it came to writing songs, it was hard to focus on anything but the implosion of her world and the world around her.
"So often, lyrics come from the events in our lives, but suddenly, nothing was happening," says the singer and guitarist, a member of local duo Bicycle Face and other projects. "So I had to look around and write about what was happening — right then."
From those dreary circumstances came Isolation Diary, a sharp song in which Wray manages to make fun of her situation without resorting to self-pity. It’s a matter-of-fact piece of music that’s highly specific but also universal, making great use of Wray’s warped guitar to illustrate the through-the-looking-glass feelings that come with the pandemic.
I’m finding that I am too often home
I’m finding myself too often alone
I had a job but jobs, they come and go
I had a special friend until he really got to know me
I had a dream ingesting certain herbs
I wrote a book, I’m not sure if you’ve heard
I wrote this song while living off of CERB
I think the world is paying me just to be absurd
They tell you that you’ll always get it wrong
If you don’t write the truths you knew all along
But I have so few facts to rely on
And I’m running out of cats on which to base my songs
My fear of missing out is overblown
When everybody’s in their rooms on their phones
My pessimism’s going unopposed
But I get a lot less stains on my clothes
John Baron’s emotions on display "In the Midst of Everything"
Winnipeg composer John Baron tells detailed stories without saying a word.
His latest release, In the Midst of Everything, an instrumental album centred on the piano, tells a story of stress, anxiety, longing and, ultimately, hope. It’s great music to actively listen to, or just to exist in.
Most of the album was written prior to the pandemic, with Baron reflecting on self-doubt and professional worries after developing tinnitus (a persistent ringing in the ears). But, owing to the time of its release, the songs hit the ear like they were meant to be heard now.
Tracks such as Meanderings and The Sound of No One Watching feel like acquainting yourself with a new world. Sunlight Market evokes emerging from a cocoon. And Social Queue feels like watching the clock, with each second ticking closer to wherever we’re headed next.
"(I released) this album without any lyrics at a time when people were looking for an escape, or an answer, or just a distraction," he says.
"The reactions I’ve gotten are, basically, this is a great thing to wake up to. It’s a great brain-clearer. An emotion-clearer," he adds. "I know that’s what it was for me."
JayWood looks inward, not outward, for inspiration
"It’s safe to say I haven’t uttered a single thing about COVID in any of the new music I’ve written," says JayWood’s Jeremy Haywood-Smith.
Instead, when the pandemic hit, Haywood-Smith, who creates funky music that’s both futuristic and a throwback, took a hard look in the mirror, analyzing the way he communicates with others and, just as importantly, with himself.
"I think I often find myself making the path to connection as hard as possible as a form of self-sabotage," Haywood-Smith says. That problem existed before COVID, he says. "I haven’t reached out to a lot of people, but at the same time, I don’t want to."
His unreleased song, Is It True (Dreams Pt. 3), sounds like a conversation with someone else, but Haywood-Smith says it’s an internal dialogue between who he is and who he wants to be — an idea that’s being refined each day as the pandemic goes on.
There’s no hiding place, out of space
I wanna see this in a new light, love,
Just don’t let wandering dreams hurt you.
I just hope that you can wait by
All this time is spent, now forget
How do we close out this distance now?
Whatever you want me to do for you,
If only you can decide
Dana Waldie finds her voice in a different language
St. Boniface singer Dana Waldie has been singing forever, but on her latest song, Que Toi, she’s doing it in French, and using her given name. (She used to perform under the moniker Haitia.)
"I decided it would be simpler this way," she says.
Que Toi, which Waldie translates as You’re the Only One, was recorded last summer and released on Dec. 31, and it’s the kind of song that deserves to be blasted at a New Year's Eve party.
"It’s about confusing emotions, but still loving the person in the end," she says.
The song isn’t directly about COVID-19, but Waldie says the pandemic emboldened her to release it. "It’s made me more fearless in my music, taking chances I wouldn’t have," she says. And given that it’s about "the only one," she says it has added layers because of the pandemic.
Listeners can definitely appreciate the chorus’s idea that one person can be someone’s whole world, especially at this moment.
Oh, quand tu danse
Il y a plus rien dans le monde
Oh, tu me met dans une transe
Il y a plus rien dans le monde
Spotify: Dana Waldie
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.