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Two Souls in Harmony, An Interview with Dala

After a seven month break, Dala reunites at the Mariposa Folk Festival and celebrates with a series of workshops and Sunday Mainstage. Dala, comprised of Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walther, were on hiatus because Amanda had a new baby boy and, in that time, Sheila also completed a French language intensive. The break allowed the duo to both percolate on topics, write music, while making sure to continue to foster their relationship, even if that just meant curling up and watching episodes of Arrested Development together.

Sheila masters an endearing delivery of sarcastic humor during their performances which balances Amanda’s genuine and gentle energy on stage. They are a harmonious pair in every sense of the word from their perfectly match singing voices to knowing when to finish one others sentences. When seeing them reunited on the Mariposa workshop stages, it is evident that no time has past. However, even though Sheila reveals that they were both nervous starting rehearsals again for Mariposa, they were able to pick up exactly where they left off, adding that the rest was good for their voices and they are now refreshed and excited to sing their own songs again.

Toronto girls, born and raised, Sheila and Amanda both see the Mariposa Festival as the perfect homecoming.  “[Music Festivals] are an idyllic atmosphere for music, ” Amanda states, “We’re really a community. A lot of the time, [Artists] are on their own for tour and you pass like ships in the night and you can’t exchange stories but in this setting you do. You take a step back and see the community you’re part of.”

Dala reflects on their early day as budding artists. Amanda went to OCAD University, lauded for their visual Art and Design programs, and met Artists that would soon comprise a local Arts Collective. It was made up of 15-20 Artists from the school as well as members in the Artistic community. They rented out Holy Joes, a cozy venue decorated with couches and suspended Christmas lights. Although Holy Joes no longer exists, Sheila notes that “it was an exciting time, [dancers, visual artists, musicians were] just finding their voice in their own medium.” The importance of debuting as Artists in such a inspiring and supportive atmosphere was important in Dala’s early career years. “We were the original Broken Social Scene,” Sheila jokes in her characteristic comedic drawl.

While Dala acknowledges they enjoyed those early days, they are both looking towards the future. “There is a freedom and excitement getting to know North America,” Amanda states and Sheila continues, “travel has been so exciting and eye opening. We try to create that excitement every night in the way we talk to each other and talk to the audience. So even if it’s a big room, we can make it feel like we’re right back at Holy Joes. Those early shows really set the tone for us.” Having the experience of speaking to their Artistic peers, Dala expands upon these skills whether it is a house concert or in front of thousands at a Music Festival.

Humor plays a large role in their performance since it is a tool that breaks the ice for themselves as well as the audience. “We want it to feel inclusive so that we’re breaking down that wall every night and make it feel like we’re just in someone’s living room,” states Amanda. “Sometimes we are in their living room,” says Sheila picking up on Amanda’s thought, “house concerts gets you right back to the essence of your act, chemistry as Artists, and your song. If you can’t deliver a song in the setting like that then, what is the song? If you strip it down to its scaffolding or skeleton and nothing is left then that says something. We try to write song we can play right up close.”

Dala had such a debut at their Guide to Aspiring Performers workshop at Mariposa where they sang a work by Amanda that is only weeks old entitled, Only You. “We try to put ourselves in situations like that for new songs. Just to get a sense of whether the song holds up to the standards we have set for ourselves,” says Amanda before clarifying what those standards are, “we want the song when we perform them to bring them into a moment of emotional authenticity. We want there to be ‘the moment’. If there is a point in the song where we coming out of it…” says Amanda “…on autopilot,” adds Sheila “…embarrassment or a lyric we can’t feel confident singing, then it has to go. Something has to change. We have to be 100% behind everything we’re saying. It’s why we don’t play a lot of our older songs because it takes us out of the show,” Amanda says while finishing the thought they seamlessly wove together.

Dala’s earlier albums from This Moment is a Flash (2005) to Best Day (2012) have matured in the female perspective of their songwriting narrative. “We’re continuing to grow as Artists. Hopefully we’re not regressing!” Sheila laughs before continuing, “for our writing, it’s a reaction to whatever we are going through. So it is born out of experiences of the time. We try to be honest. Songwriting is the most honest moment for me in my life.” Amanda supports Sheila by stating that showing vulnerability is never easy but they have become more comfortable in sharing those feelings and, as a result, they notice that these are the pieces that audiences connect with most. Honesty is at the heart of their songwriting approach. “If I am being pushed to write a song, it is difficult for a reason. It’s difficult if I don’t have the personal tools to deal with them so music is a way to deal with it,” reveals Sheila.  Amanda continues the flow of Sheila’s thought: “It’s always hard but you push yourself to be that honest because it’s always the next thing you’re not dealing with or talking about. The thing you’re afraid to do, that’s exactly what you need to do,” she states with resolve. Living life is a constant source of songwriting inspiration. “We’re like sponges soaking it all up. And it will come out in different ways,” says Amanda. Sheila describes the inspiration process to her: “Something consistently rising to the surface, above the white noise in your mind, after a few days you notice it and think I need to be writing about it or paying attention to it.” Amanda continues by noting that she is not as lyrical as Sheila but she finds the process more subconscious: “I find I go with the melody. I find my mouth reaching for certain words or sounds. I start with the sound that I hear in my head and then it turns into a word and after the fact I realize I am writing about something very current and personal. But it’s because my subconscious has led me there musically. It’s funny, [Sheila and I] often come from different directions,” she says with a smile after making that last statement.

“Is it frightening to be a vessel?” I ask.

“Totally! ” exclaims Sheila, “sometimes you’re writing and it’s an out of body experience. You are aware you are composing. You can feel end result before you get there. It’s like a magnet, you feel yourself being pulled towards it and it’s relentless. The process is so all consuming. When you finish it’s such a sense of relief, unburdened, and that it exists apart from you.” Amanda reveals: “I found the same thing as a visual artist. I’m sure it crosses over genres. You perceive things as a gut, physical feeling, you go for it and take it as far as it take you and you look act and go ‘oh, I have lots of issues about death or I need to work on my relationship with my mother!” she exclaims gently in surprise and Sheila laughs in assent.

Amanda suspects the connection that audiences have with their lyrics is because their songs deal with primal feelings: “Even if we’ve written a song about a specific moment, person, or experience, if we are being authentic, it is an emotion that is shared by other people. It’s really about shedding away the pretense and getting to the point of that feeling and emotion. We have had people connect to songs in very different ways than they were intended. The feelings are the same but we come from very different perspectives.” Sheila summates Amanda’s thought into a perfect lyric: “Feelings are the currency of emotion,” she says with a chuckle. Sheila continues in a more serious tone: “You have to be respecting of it too. The music is a part of the fabric of your own life. These songs that you carry like layers of yourself… you just say thank you.” and Amanda adds that there is a sense of honor in people allowing their music to be a part of their lives.

Even though Dala has its newest baby member, that doesn’t mean there is a slowing of momentum for the group. They just need to get baby a passport and they have tour dates to the US and Calgary in the Fall. As well, they note that they have both been writing a significant amount and they have enough material for a new record, hopefully to be recorded and released in the next two years. However, Amanda reveals the next album will have a touch of melancholia: “There’s some heartbreak, I’ve written a couple of songs about my family. Memories of my Grandmother. A song for my Mother. It’s about looking inward, at our families and where we come from.” Sheila manages to find the silver lining: “I’m excited! Back to blue! The essence of what we do hasn’t changed. It really comes down to the harmony. I’m so excited when I sing with Amanda. It’s something I can’t even put words to.” Amanda manages to find the words: “Harmony in every possible meaning of the word.”

Thanks for the Good Times Mariposa Folk Festival

As the sun sets on the Mariposa Folk Festival, I wonder where the three days have gone. Just the other day I was setting up camp with Twila next to grassy patch near a baseball diamond in Tudhope Park. I knew the festival culture was upon us when I could hear the quiet strumming of a few acoustic guitars at the campsite. A baby on a tarp playing with an array of plastic toys as his mother arranged the coolers and a metallic thud came from his father hammering in the tent pegs to secure their family sized tent. This site would be our temporary home for the weekend.

Lining up at the festival gate to get into the grounds for Mainstage, the sensation that was immediately prevalent was this sense of calm.

“What is going on?!” Twila asks me in disbelief.

There was no frenzied 7 AM color lottery to set up a tarp, no snaking lines out into the parking lot, just smiles from the festival volunteers and courteous patrons. A mini utopia created for a few days with great music, friendly people, sunshine, and a festival site bordered by the lake. There were also many activities for families with children. It was lovely to see children running around in their barefeet with woven wreaths in their hair, wading into the shallow waters of the lake to cool off, and and peeling off corkscrew segments of a Tornado Potato.

I felt calm in this idyllic atmosphere. I would often set up my chair under the shaded canopy of trees to work on my iPad while enjoying the breeze from the lake and the musical tinkering from children at the musical petting zoo. Every volunteer I met was so friendly, whether they were helping to sort through my compostable trash or find me areas with charging stations for my electronics. It felt like I could do no wrong as a guest. Not once was I told to vacate an area I shouldn’t be in or have my ID and bag checked at security. I was even allowed in the backstage performer area to work on my laptop because I was sporting a golden ticket wristband. It gives me a glimpse into a classless society and how it works when its community is united in this vision. All the staff, volunteers, vendors, artists, audience members – they’re all working together to produce something greater than themselves: a safe haven for music and people. Mitch Podoluk mentioned that Mariposa is his hometown festival and I can see why.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised at how quickly Twila and I were accepted into this community. All we brought with us on our 2.5 day commute was an open mind and memories of how other folk festivals function. My folk festival crowd survival instinct was subdued and attending Mariposa felt more like a vacation than anything else. There is a chill energy that comes from rolling out of a tent, successfully washing ones hair from a water bottle, grabbing a breakfast frittata from a foodtruck, and sauntering over to a workshop stage by 11 AM. I’m glad Mariposa has been able to return home to Orillia after being hosted at other locations throughout Ontario. Orillia has something really special and I’m glad I got to be a part of its world for the past few days.

Ukulele’s Unite!

Yesterday I built a ukulele. True story, I rose up from our tent in the social acoustic camping and built a uke. Well technically first thing I headed for a coffee. But second, I visited the folks a Wolfelele to discover the secrets of the luthier, and build my first ukulele.

There were many options to choose from: trilele, soprano, alto, tenor, or baritone. But I chose the soprano, small enough to be extremely portable but large enough to have four strings to strum for all my imagined car sing-a-long sessions (Winnipeg may seem like a longer drive for Sable than me).

Wolfelele visits many schools, teachers conventions and festivals; and they assured me that anyone can build and play a ukulele. So once you’ve selected the size of ukulele you want to build and purchased the kit they take you through the process step-by-step. By the end of it you will have glued enough pieces of wood together to satisfy even the most enthusiastically crafty of individuals. You also learn the importance of patience and precision.

The kit comes with pre-fab parts: front, back, three sides, neck, fret board, bridge, pegs and strings; and tiny laser cut guide marks. Working methodically you join the neck and front piece; then add the walls of the body to each other and then to the front. The back is then fastened to the rest and clamped gently to maintain constant but moderate pressure on the glue seams. By now you have a contraption that is beginning to resemble a recognizable instrument. Adding the bridge and fret board with screws (make sure the screw goes in straight and doesn’t twist sideways) the final step is to attach the 4 tuning pegs, with 2 microscopically tiny screws each. Each step requires the builder to apply the glue carefully and evenly followed by holding the joins together. Leaving lots of time to chat with those around. The whole process is clearly addictive, and the passion that the Wolfelele crew has for the instrument was obviously present as they rummaged through the boxes of supplies trading pun after pun about strings and frets.

About two hours later I had a nearly finished ukulele, tomorrow it’ll be strung (you don’t want to put too much tension on the instrument before the glue is completely set and dry), and when we get back to a Edmonton I will apply a couple of coats of varathane (sanding in between) to complete the finish.

I am now the proud owner of a beautiful instrument, I hope I can coax some equally beautiful tunes out of it in due course.

Winnipeg Folk Festival Camping

There is a community that exists beyond the Winnipeg Folk Festivals’s main site. Tucked away in the neighbouring groves, a sea of tent canopies emerge out of a clearing in the wood. The sound of guitar strumming and piano playing is heard, the earthy smell of barbeque smoke wafting from nearby campsites, and friendly campers beckoning patrons to take a seat at the grass table. This is the Festival Campground. There are two campgrounds run by the Winnipeg Folk Festival, one being the Festival Campground, housing 6000 campers, and the other being the Quiet Campground, home to 2000 campers during five day festival.

There is an unspoken social etiquette that exists amongst these campers that join annually to construct this peaceful temporary community. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is open to share. Everyone is taken care of by the collective community. It serves as an escape from reality, in addition to being an environment the fosters and encourages displays of creativity.

Camp sites display banners of personal art at their doorway, whether it be cardboard pop-outs of allegiance for Star War characters or the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. A grove of RV trailers are parked together at the back of the site, their own trailer grove, where individual personalities emerge with the display of RV art. A quick step into the wooded areas shows a dense network of woodland tent dwellers and suspended hammocks.

Larger pieces of infrastructure are also assembled by campers arriving at the campground – not because they were asked, but because they wanted to. Festival Communications Coordinator and camper, Kelly Romas reveals why she chooses to camp at the festival: “It’s magical how a community forms. [The campers] come. They set their tents up. They plan all year to build structure, to create art and animation… it just happens out of nowhere. We just provide the space facility and infrastructure.” Indeed, there is a working collaborative model between campers and Festival organizers. The Festival provides a blank campground canvas and the inhabitants join together to colour the site.

While the site is a mosaic of self-initiated Art initiatives, there are some traditional installations that return every year.

The Castle Boys assembled a Space Barn on site that is open to patrons open to having a jam sessions throughout the day. Evening programming showcases talents of fellow campers and a members are always welcome by walking through the open wall beams.

Popes Hill serves as a central evening meeting point for camp attendees. In fact, the Pope delivered an address there when he visited Birds Hill Provincial Park. Since the hill is still owned by the Catholic Church, the Winnipeg Folk Festival obtains permission to use the space every year and the hill remains an alcohol free zone. While the Hill is uninhabited in the day, it transforms into the evening into a blur of glowsticks illumination, the cacophony of drumming circles, open fire shows, and programmed events such as sing-alongs. The Popes Hill service continues well on into sunrise, fuelled by the energy of it congregation.

The Big Games exhibit is composed of large family game favourites such as Jenga, Scrabble, Guess Who, Backgammon, Connect Four, Battleship, Family Feud; ultimately, creating yet another avenue to interactive with your neighbours.

Free of the social confines and expectations of everyday life, the festival campground embodies the ideals of equality, peace, and transparency. It is a glimpse into a functioning, although temporary, unified society. I can see how campers beginning planning for next years’s Winnipeg Folk Festival camping experience as soon as this one ends, looking forward to the arrival of a community that will congregate once more.