UAlberta Convocation 2014
When Dana Wylie crosses the Jubilee stage to receive her BA music honours degree at the University of Alberta’s 2014 convocation ceremony this week, it will be one of the few times this past decade that the Edmonton-based singer songwriter has set foot on stage without an instrument in hand.
The singer-songwriter is a farm girl from Saskatchewan who came to Edmonton to study musical theatre at MacEwan in 1997. By 2003, Dana discovered what she really wanted to do was play music and see the world. For two years in Taiwan, she played constantly in jug bands, bluegrass bands, cover bands, jazz bands – before moving to England to form The Dana Wylie Band with Jez Hellard and Nye Parsons.
The Dana Wylie Band toured for five years straight, releasing three critically acclaimed albums.
In 2010, Dana returned to Edmonton and began studying music at the University of Alberta. At the completion of her BA degree, hot on the heels of the release of her fourth CD, The Sea and the Sky, and following her smokin’ gig at the Artery in May, I sat down with Dana to talk about the defining moments, on-stage and off, that led her to this point in her musical career.
~interview by Salena Kitteringham
Q: You have played all over the world, on every kind of stage. Tell us about your favourite gigs?
I’ve played in every kind of pub / bar / club that you can imagine. From the most atmospheric to the least. From the best live musical experience to the worst! Even before house concerts became this big thing, my band would often end of playing in people’s back yards and in their living rooms.
Dana Wylie and the Two Bob Orchestra live at Mike Tulley’s from Optickle Pictures on Vimeo
Taiwan is special because there are a lot of interesting venues, little pubs, restaurants and clubs that are sort of illegal establishments, that operate outside of what is is normally licensed. What that means is the atmosphere is amazing, because you are in some space where you could normally never have a pub. Everyone tends to know everyone. There was a place that I played every Tuesday for a few months and it would always be this very intimate crowd that I knew.
That can’t really exist in Canada because when all those official boxes are being ticked, it creates a sort of distance. You are here. The audience is there. Drinks are ordered over there. But inside the makeshift, little dives in Taiwan, all that gets mixed up. The people, the drinks, the music, it all kind of gets mixed up into one thing and it is conducive to really creative stuff.
I’ve also played the more conventional festival stages, some soft seaters and all that kind of stuff. Really every single place you could imagine taking out a guitar and singing songs, I’ve done that.
Q: You performed at a Secret Streetcar Concert last summer in Edmonton. Was that a unique experience?
Oh yeah! I am doing another one this summer.
Tad Hargrave came up with the idea to hold these little shows in the old streetcars that have been restored. As a performer, you arrive with the audience and you all get on the train together. The volunteer drivers from the Edmonton Radial Rail Society are dressed in these wonderful period uniforms and they drive you out to the middle of the High Level Bridge. They stop there and you play a 45 minute-set while everyone is just sitting on the train above the river. It is always timed so that right at the end of your set, there’s a really nice, dusky sunset just starting to happen.
Dana Wylie performing a Secret Streetcar concert in Edmonton, 2013. Photo by Peter Seal.
Then you go across to the other side. People can stretch their legs and then you all board the train again and stop in the middle again. By that time, the river is looking really great with these beautiful vintage lightbulbs in the train. You end up having a completely different atmosphere for that second set because the sky is different, the lighting is different, the water below is different.
On the way back, right at the end of the bridge, there’s a tunnel before you go through Old Strathcona. The train stops again and you play a song completely in the dark.
It was just a totally unique experience to the point that I didn’t even know what to expect myself! I hopped on the train with everybody else and I was like ‘do I play now when the train is going?’ And they said, ‘no, no, we’ll stop in the middle for you to play.’ It was just such a unique format. They came up with the idea and just started doing it and it is truly special.
Dana Wylie in concert on a Streetcar on the High Level Bridge, Edmonton. 2013. Photo by Peter Seal.
You started out in musical theatre, so how did you make your way more towards music than theatre?
I went to watch a couple of my theatre friends, who were also singer-songwriters, play a gig at a Second Cup and I was like:
“Oh my God. I want to do that. I could do that. I want to write songs!” It just came out of nowhere. I never had considered that before.
Around the same time, I started meeting and hanging out with a lot of musicians. I had been really tied to the theatre scene, because I moved here at 17 to go to theatre school, so my whole world was the theatre world I came to be a part of but once I graduated and was out in there in the real world, I started hanging out with musicians and I just started to feel like I was really one of them.
Q: How are theatre people and musicians the same and different?
They both are artsy types, so often a bit erratic and emotional. (laughs) But musicians, and this is a gross generalization, because people are people, but generally, musicians tend to be more laid back and I think that’s how I tend to be. I can get intense about stuff, for sure, but I just felt a connection, an intangible thing where these were my people. These are my folks. It was just like coming home.
With theatre everything tends to be a bit more in place. That’s often why certain actors are so good…they are a bit more uptight and on top of their game. Musicians hone their craft too but they can do it in different, more casual ways. They can do it around a campfire. Some musicians, that’s how they get awesome. They are at festivals all summer long and if they’re not onstage, they’re around the campfire, playing, playing, playing, for hours.
Q: Why did you decide to go back to school in 2010 to pursue a BA in Music at the U of A?
It was a decision made in a moment of panic. (laughs) I needed something to do but didn’t know what to do because my band that had been touring for years and years, we broke up. The way the band broke up was somewhat traumatic, as it often is, and we’d been touring and grinding along for so long.
All my bandmates were English, so they all went back to England and I was just sort of here in Edmonton. I had just found out that the University of Alberta had a really good Ethnomusicology program. I don’t think I even knew what ethnomusicology was at the time, but I knew I was getting into traditional folk music as a musician. So I just applied.
I thought that I might want to do a graduate degree in Ethnomusicology, but I didn’t have an undergraduate degree, so the BA seemed the best degree for me. I don’t play classical music, so to do a B Mus would be a stretch. I wanted to do the degree that would be the most valuable to me. And it has been. It has been perfect.
Music is what I love and know, so being required to do all the theory and history, all the way up, it has been so good. I love to geek out on all that music theory. Despite the sheer panic at the time of my application, I was right about about it. The important thing was for me to have something to put my passion into.
Q: Congratulations on winning the Alison White/Faculty of Arts Honors prize this year and on your acceptance to the graduate ethnomusicology program at the U of A. Has the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology been a source of inspiration to you?
Yes. That little enclave of the music department is really strong. The main point of contact for me with the CCE was the weekly meetings and presentations on Wednesdays at lunch. I even did a noon concert there.
Federico Spinetti was probably my first mentor at the University of Alberta because he was the honours advisor I met with before I even applied to come here. He had really good advice then and I ended up taking Introduction to World Music from him in my first semester. He was a really engaging professor…quite artsy and passionate. He’s a filmmaker, so he’s an artist on the inside and that comes out of him when he teaches. That got me fired up early on.
For more about Dana Wylie see her website: danawylie.com .
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