For the self-professed shy girls behind Winnipeg band Virgo Rising, the internet has always been a safe haven.
The trio — made up of vocalist Emily Sinclair and multi-instrumentalist sisters Lauren and Jenna Wittmann — met at a party and struck up a friendship over Instagram. In 2018, after some tentative direct messaging, they took the connection offline and started playing music together.
"We would see Emily’s super-awesome covers that she would post, and we aren’t the strongest singers, and we were like, ‘Emily’s cool, let’s just see if she would ever want to be in a band,’" says Lauren, 23, who also owns Corydon Avenue gift shop Riley Grae. "We were so shy and awkward."
At the time, the sisters were taking music lessons and jamming with each other, while Emily was trying to make it on her own as a solo act. By joining forces, they’ve unlocked a dreamy new galaxy of creativity, drawing inspiration from collaborative songwriting and shared experiences.
"It was what I’ve been waiting for for years," Emily, 19, says. "One of us will come up with a 30-second song, whether it be instrumental or with vocals, and we send it to each other and talk about all the things we like about it then we’ll go to band practice and try and finish it… and a lot of it is improv; we really like what we do in the moment and then we have to scramble to remember what we just did."
While the pandemic has put a damper on in-person collaboration — the bandmates aren’t in each other’s bubbles at the moment — they have been making new music from afar. Earlier this month, Virgo Rising released its debut EP, Sixteenth Sapphire.
"We haven’t practised together in, like, a year," Jenna, 20, says. "But it was nice that we were working on the EP during that time because it was still something to do together."
The six-track album is a collection of sleepy, contemplative pop songs about growing up and "just being a young woman and making dumb decisions and doing things that make us happy and doing things that make us cry," Emily says. "We didn’t write (the album) as a concept in itself; we just found the songs we were writing all connected to really similar themes."
The album was recorded last summer at House of Wonders — a label and studio run by Adam Fuhr of local band Yes We Mystic — but many of the songs feel as if they’re from another lifetime. Between school, work and socializing, so much of the band’s coming-of-age trajectory has been thrown off-course by the pandemic.
"I wish we could do a Sixteenth Sapphire Part 2: Pandemic Edition — it’s a whole different feeling," Sinclair says with a laugh.
The EP’s title is a reference to the sapphire ring Sinclair received from her mother on her 16th birthday. The family heirloom has been on her finger through thick and thin, a durable gem that has become a metaphor for the group members’ enduring friendship. The ring is also featured on the album’s cover art.
Virgo Rising’s first release has been met with glowing reviews from Canadian music critics — a gratifying if somewhat surreal experience.
"We feel really supported and liked, which is cool," says Jenna.
"It’s weird to see other people analyze your work," Lauren adds. "I learned new things about what the songs we made mean from reading other people’s (interpretations)."
With no concerts, virtual or otherwise, lined up to mark the album’s release, data from streaming services, such as Spotify, have been the band’s only barometer for success.
"It’s hard to remember that it’s real and that there’s people that are hearing it," Lauren says. "Numbers is all we have."
At the same time, the internet has helped fill the void between the artists and their audience.
"When I’m in front of, you know, 20 or 30 friends at the Good Will, I can feed off their energy and… watch them sway in the crowd to lyrics I wrote and songs we wrote together," Sinclair says. "It’s so nice when you open up Instagram and see someone who has said, ‘I just listened to your whole album and it’s changed me’ — stuff like that feels really good."
Sixteenth Sapphire is available on streaming platforms and cassette tape at houseofwonders.online.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.