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In the dimly lit side stage of an empty Burton Cummings Theatre, singer-songwriter Alexa Dirks is transforming into Begonia.
The ruffled collar of her outfit, which can only be described as clown princess chic, spews glitter into the air every time she moves in her seat; she’s a physical talker, excitedly waving her expertly manicured claws around while discussing an upcoming scene in a music video she is about to film, as her glam squad does touch-ups on her overstated makeup and hair.
"On a scale of one to wild, what am I at this point?" Dirks asks director Ryan Steel.
"Like, a seven or eight," he replies.
"Woah, that’s pretty wild," Dirks says with a laugh.
A few minutes later, she is centre stage in front of a red velvet wall; the playback kicks in and Dirks begins to sing along with the track, pacing back and forth to a thumping beat while chanting the intensely personal lyrics of Fear, the title track of her debut full-length, which was released Friday.
Suddenly, she turns to face the camera head-on, hands in the air, belting her song to the rafters.
Fear is gritty and raw and traverses new territory for Dirks, but while it feels like a stand-alone track sonically, it’s a window into the album’s recurring themes and overflowing emotion.
"When we finished writing the song Fear and putting the tracklist together, it became such a standout emotion for me, a climactic part of the record and part of my songwriting life, really," Dirks explains during an interview at her West End home a few weeks before the album release.
"It felt like, ‘OK, that’s the punctuation of this.’ That tension of feeling like you’re not good enough, feeling afraid to start this project in the first place and all the barriers I’ve put up for myself and some that have been put up in front of me," she says.
"It felt when that song was written, it was this release of all these anxieties and all this emotion — that’s what I want to convey. There’s definitely some really sad moments on this record, and there’s some moments of joy and elation. It’s definitely a spectrum, but I feel like that song became the song where I let out all those emotions, good and bad."
Fear has been a long time coming in more ways than one. The record itself has been in the can for more than a year, but on an even broader scale, it’s a coming out of sorts for the 32-year-old Winnipegger, who is finally presenting herself as a thoughtful, self-aware solo artist after grinding it out as a member of various bands in the local scene for more than a decade.
The title Fear is a loaded one ("Yeah, it is, I guess. I’m a loaded person; I’m a loaded baked potato on a good day," Dirks jokes) but the theme wasn’t predetermined. She went into the writing and recording process with a crack team of co-writers and producers — including longtime collaborators Matt Schellenberg and Matt Peters of local pop band Royal Canoe (whom she fondly refers to as ‘the Matts’) and Montreal’s Marcus Paquin, who has worked with hugely popular bands such as Arcade Fire and the National — armed with a notebook full of ideas ready to be moulded into something more cohesive.
“One thing I love is that Alexa knows what she likes. And maybe even more than that, she knows what she doesn’t like. She’s not afraid, and I think that’s what’s great about our relationship with her; she’s not afraid to shut down some things hard and fast." — Album collaborator Matt Peters
"When I started making the record, I didn’t know what the throughline would be; I didn’t have a concept. The songs became the throughline," Dirks says, adding that though the tracks were co-written, the lyrics and tone were her own, culled from journal entries and personal experiences. "It’s not necessarily a concept record, but fear became the throughline for a lot of those songs."
Fear is as nuanced an album lyrically as it is sonically. Among the melodic influences from soul, pop, gospel, blues and folk, Dirks’s words illustrate high highs full of confidence and sass and low lows that latch onto heartbreak and deep personal struggle. While it’s easy to get lost in the production and boppiness of a lot of the album’s 12 tracks, it’s Dirks’s sensibilities as a candid, genuine storyteller that really make Fear something to behold.
Dirks is heading out on tour for much of the rest of 2019, but will be playing a pair of local album release shows, Feb. 27 and 28, at the West End Cultural Centre.
Tickets were released Friday morning and both shows sold out within a few hours. A third show may be added; visit wecc.ca for up-to-date information.
"One thing I love is that Alexa knows what she likes," her collaborator Peters says. "And maybe even more than that, she knows what she doesn’t like. She’s not afraid, and I think that’s what’s great about our relationship with her; she’s not afraid to shut down some things hard and fast.
"There are times when I think that Matt (Schellenberg) and I can be analytical or conceptual or very intentional and deliberate, and the other end of the spectrum — and I think Alexa would agree with this — Alexa is a very emotional musician and her connections to creative ideas are very emotional. And I don’t mean that there’s something lesser about that, I mean that there is something much more beautiful about the way she thinks about music."
Schellenberg adds: "I’ve never met somebody that, like, truth is absolutely important, there’s not a single millimetre for bulls--t. I think people will listen to the album and think, ‘I got a window into something that was fully naked and authentic.’"
As we speak, Dirks puts on a record, pulling something specific from her sizable vinyl collection to soundtrack our interview. On a nearby shelf sits a collection of various tchotchkes; among the clown figurines and muppets and small ceramic bowls sits a Juno Award, the one she won with Chic Gamine in 2009, somehow both out in the open for all to see, but also barely noticeable.
In the next room, a massive maypole — designed by Dirks’s partner of five years and sometimes artistic collaborator, Seth Woodyard — from the previous week’s album-trailer video shoot leans up against a vibrant purple wall, too tall to be contained fully upright.
This is a space shared by Alexa and Begonia, but the distinction between the two is becoming less and less obvious by the day.
"I wanted to come up with a name that could encompass a project, not like, ‘This is just me,’" Dirks says of the moniker. "I wanted to have a bit of a distance from that vulnerability, too. I appreciated the idea, because I had been in bands for so long, of having a bit of an arm’s length from it being entirely myself.
"But now, as it happens, it is entirely me: it’s just an amplified version of me, I guess. The line has become blurred between where that persona and myself start and end."
The first time Katie Dirks knew her youngest daughter was destined to be a singer was at an elementary school Christmas concert. The 10-year-old had been given a solo, the song Light a Candle; for both Alexa and her family, it was a true "ah-ha" moment.
"That’s the first time I realized she was... better than all the other kids," Katie says with a laughs. "It was heart-stopping. She was born with a gift, and her stage presence, too, is what she was born with."
Not long after that, Alexa told her parents she wanted to pursue a career in music.
Alexa was about 14 when she got her first band experience, as part of a backing group for Christian worship leader Jon Buller. She was brought in as an additional vocalist to the already-formed trio of guitarist Joey Landreth, bassist Meg Dolovich and drummer Ryan Voth. Her arrival didn’t go over well.
Singer-songwriter Landreth recalls Buller introducing the Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute student to the rest of the group; they were not enthusiastic.
"We were like, ‘Nah, we don’t need an extra singer,’" recalls Landreth, laughing. "But Alexa is now one of the many people I turn to when I can’t finish a song and I need help; when something is good but I can’t quite get it all the way there, she’s one of the very first people that I call. She collaborated on a bunch of the songs on the first Bros. Landreth record."
After Buller moved away from Winnipeg, Landreth says the quartet "stopped doing the churchy stuff" and formed Little Boy Boom, which was the catalyst for every other musical collaboration in Dirks’s early career.
It was at one of Little Boy Boom’s regular Wednesday-night shows at Hooligan’s Neighbourhood Pub (now the Handsome Daughter) that two members of then-unformed francophone R&B band Chic Gamine, Ariane Jean and Annik Bremault, first approached Dirks to join their project, which would end up winning them a Juno and edging Dirks into the national spotlight.
Though no one in her family is or was a professional musician — her father, Ray, is the curator of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery; Katie recently retired after more than 40 years at CIBC — Dirks grew up with a level of parental support any music or theatre kid would be lucky to have.
Katie and Ray Dirks are the kind of parents who attended every Hooligan’s gig, the kind who bake cookies to send out on tour, the kind who keep a "wall of honour" in their North Kildonan home covered with old band posters, the kind who don’t stifle creativity in favour of a more stable occupation.
Alexa Dirks was part of several bands before branching out on her own as Begonia. Here's a brief timeline, as recounted by Dirks, of some of those groups.
BSc — First bar band I was in was called BSc, which was Bachelors of Science. I was the female to come in on it and it was the first time I ever played in bars (laughs). I auditioned to be part of it but that didn’t last long; we’re still pals if we see each other around, though. I would basically sit on the side of the stage and they’d say “All right, come up, it’s your turn,” and I’d go up and sing Grandma’s Hands or something like that and then run off and wait until they’d call me up again.
Little Boy Boom (R&B/funk/blues) – This was effectively the first band that I was ever in that was meaningful to me in that way, that I put everything into it and was like, “This is going to be the thing for me!” and that was with (guitarist) Joey Landreth, (bassist) Meg Dolovich and (drummer) Ryan Voth.
Chic Gamine (R&B/jazz/roots) — Little Boy Boom was playing Wednesdays at Hooligan's Neighbourhood Pub, and a couple of the Chic Gamine ladies were in a band, Madrigaïa, and that band was coming to a close and they wanted to start a new project, and I guess they had heard of me. I was a child, essentially, and they came to those bar gigs, a couple of them, and were just kind of watching me in the back and seeing if they thought I would be a good fit and asked me to join their new project. I was in that band for eight years.
New Lightweights (pop/roots/country) – During Chic Gamine I also had a side project with (guitarist) Ariel Posen and Ryan Voth called the New Lightweights.
Courier News (pop) — Also during that time, in tandem, I started a project with (Royal Canoe's) Matt Schellenberg called Courier News. We only played a couple times; it was a band, but we would mostly just record together and that was what started that partnership that grew into what Begonia is, in a way. I remember a time in my life I would invite people to shows and they would be like, “You’re in 10,000 bands.” I would also moonlight with other bands and pick up gigs.
Middle of Nowhere (alt-folk/Americana) — That was a more recent side project, but we don’t really play out that often, so it’s not necessarily like we’re in a band. I mean we are, but we don’t really do too much.
They constantly encouraged Alexa to be herself, and visibly burst with pride when speaking of their daughter’s accomplishments.
"When you’re Begonia, it has to be what she wants, and she’s going to make this happen…" Katie says. "It may not go the way others think it should, but she has to follow what’s important for her.
"That can be perceived sometimes, especially with women, to be aggressive or pushy or a diva, and I think that word gets a bad rap. She’s worked really hard to get to where she is right now."
"She couldn’t do anything else, though, as hard as it is. She couldn’t not be this," adds her sister, Lauren Thomas, three years Alexa’s senior and mom to Alexa’s three nieces and nephews.
"When we tell people we are her family, we always feel so so proud, like we’re a part of something special too, because of our relationship with her.
"When we were younger, and as her career was starting to take off I was jealous of her, but I can honestly say now that I have nothing but love, respect and admiration for her," Thomas says. "This is what she was born to do."
Dirks was part of local Juno-winning roots/R&B/jazz group Chic Gamine for eight years. Almost immediately after the band announced its dissolution, she jumped headfirst into Begonia, not knowing what exactly she hoped to accomplish with the project and whether it would be a "me thing or a band thing."
Schellenberg was at her side then, too, ready to co-write the songs that would evolve into her first five-song EP as Begonia, 2017’s Lady in Mind. Though brief, it showed Dirks’s true skill set in a way that had never been seen before; she presented as a confident solo artist and a commanding, booming vocalist willing to take risks when it came to genre and style.
Critical reception was outstanding. American public radio network NPR added Begonia to its list of 10 Artists You Need to Know in 2017 and her single Juniper hit No. 1 on the CBC Radio 2 Top 20, with outlets such as Vice’s music site Noisey naming her one of the most extraordinary voices in the country.
All that buzz also landed her notable performance opportunities, including a tour with fellow Canadian songstress (and now close friend) Serena Ryder.
"She’s just a great human being — she cares about people and you can really tell that she cares about people..." the Stompa singer says. "She means what she’s saying when she’s singing it, and she’s the same person off-stage that she is onstage, and she’s dynamic and inspiring.
"I just have sparkles everywhere for a month after I got off tour with her; she is basically the sparkle queen of the universe in every way," adds Ryder, who insists she doesn’t see herself as a mentor for Dirks, just a pal who has been down this part of her career path already.
"I think she knows her emotions are her guide and she has very powerful, strong intuition, and when she is still enough to hear it, that’s when things fit together. I think that’s the reason the record has taken the time it has taken — and that it’s also become the beautiful thing it has become — because she has that wisdom of knowing her emotions are her guiding system."
“I’ve never met somebody that, like, truth is absolutely important, there’s not a single millimetre for bulls‐t. I think people will listen to the album and think, ‘I got a window into something that was fully naked and authentic.’” — Album collaborator Matt Schellenberg
Dirks’s former Chic Gamine bandmate Jean agrees. Even in the early days of their musical work together, she says, Dirks exhibited a wisdom beyond her years as both a person and a songwriter.
"She just had a certain understanding about how to write a song, musically and lyrically," says Jean, who calls herself one of Dirks’s biggest fans.
"She’s got a huge personality and she always had that, but in the context of the group, she kind of had to tone it down sometimes and give space to other people," Jean says. "So it’s nice to see her take over and have those liberties and be able to make those artistic choices she always had to be careful about making, and dress the way she wants… it’s so cool. She’s just a powerhouse on so many levels."
As with any big change, there have been some growing pains. The lack of down time between Chic Gamine and Begonia left Dirks without much opportunity to process the end of what was a very important, all-encompassing part of her life. She wasn’t, and sometimes still isn’t, used to being the sole decision-maker.
Despite her years in the industry, she found even familiar tasks, such as leading rehearsals, more daunting when approaching them on her own.
"I would become ill, and it’s like, I’ve been to 10,000 rehearsals in my life, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but when starting Begonia it felt like this wild new thing," Dirks says.
"Now, three years later, I feel a lot more empowered in my decision-making for the most part, but I’m still sometimes like…is anyone going to tell me if they like purple or blue for this shirt? It all comes down to me, from the tiny inconsequential decisions to the really huge decisions, which is a double-edged sword; it’s super-empowering to not have to wait and to do whatever I want, but then sometimes it’s a bit lonely too."
Less than a week before Fear’s release, Dirks is hosting a trio of listening parties at the Tallest Poppy.
On the street in front of the restaurant is the maypole — once tilted over in her living room, now standing bright and tall on Sherbrook Street, acting as a Begonia beacon.
Inside, the tables and chairs make way for an open floor; artificial flowers cover a throne on stage and Dirks stands quietly at the back of the room, behind a bar covered in pink fabric, watching friends, family and fans mingle.
As the gentle hum of album opener The Other Side subtly leaks through the speakers, Dirks ducks down for a minute to collect herself.
"I can’t watch them listen," she half-laughs, before popping up to take selfies with whoever asks for one.
As the album progresses, the audience sits on the floor, elementary-school assembly-style, and a collection of local drag performers takes turns presenting stunning lip-sync numbers to a handful of tracks; later, a four-woman dance group interprets two songs with their movements.
Dirks watches the whole thing from the doorway, crying.
“I always felt a bit of an outsider growing up, and I pretended that I didn’t feel like that... I would definitely go through dark moments, but I feel like now I’m getting all these people coming up to me and telling me their stories of different moments they’ve been through. I didn’t realize just by simply telling my stories as honestly as I could I would connect with people in that way." — Alexa Dirks
Eventually she takes the stage to sing two emotional slow jams that appear further along on the album. All eyes are glued on her — and now some of them are welling up, too.
The community of fans that surrounds Dirks is a special and loyal one, and the support she receives from both the drag and the LGBTTQ+ communities is something she holds especially close to her heart.
"I feel really lucky, I feel very thankful," Dirks says, tearing up.
"I’m very touched and I feel like my fans in this city are all so cool. I feel very lucky to get the personal messages that I receive and the people that are touched by what I do — I never anticipated that, necessarily.
"I always felt a bit of an outsider growing up, and I pretended that I didn’t feel like that... I would definitely go through dark moments, but I feel like now I’m getting all these people coming up to me and telling me their stories of different moments they’ve been through. I didn’t realize just by simply telling my stories as honestly as I could I would connect with people in that way.
"I know music has such a power for me, and just to understand that I can be part of that conversation is all that I would ever want... I just feel so motivated by that love and that support; it really empowers me in a huge way and I hope I can then empower others in that same way."
Ray Dirks says his daughter has always been fiercely protective of people she cares about, and devoted to protecting those more vulnerable than herself.
"It’s important that for all her craziness, which is absolutely her, she is a very serious, honest person of integrity who stands beside — and if necessary to protect them, in front of — marginalized people, and behind them when they need it," Ray says. "And she is very passionate about that."
The singer feels lucky, too, to call Winnipeg home and be part of an artistic community she considers empowering, endlessly collaborative and full of folks ready to bring their best selves to whatever project they’re working on. There’s no better evidence of that than the creation and roll-out of Fear, which, in addition to the extra hands on deck for writing and production, also harnessed the talents of creative local companies such as Synonym Arts Consultation and BNB Studios on the visual side.
The release process has been overwhelming, but Dirks isn’t new to the game. She knows now is the time to really dig in, feel all the feels and not allow the overscheduled, overworked reality to negate the magic happening right in front of her.
"Sometimes in this industry, you’re told to work so hard; it’s not that cute to take time off," she says. "Now more than ever people talk about self-care in a new way, but something that’s being fed to you all the time is, ‘What’s new? What are you making? What are you doing?’ and I feel like I’m there right now, in a way that I embrace…
"Yes, I’m working hard and yes, I have to keep my head down, but I want to be able to take in that moment of all those people there and my music finally being out there in that way. I want to take a deep breath, I want to appreciate this, I really want to take this in and not wish it away or be working on the next thing…
"I want to appreciate and be thankful for what’s happening right now."
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @NireRabel
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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Updated on Saturday, September 14, 2019 at 8:47 AM CDT: Corrects band name in sidebar