I met Sienna Dahlen on a hot summer night in Padua during her tour in Italy this past spring where she was promoting her latest album, Ice Age Paradise. She did an intimate showcase at Ca Sana but was disappointed that she hadn't had the chance to see Venice. She told the story of her father who fell in love with this unique place in the world and she sang a song called, Venezia which was written by her father and appears as a duet with him on Sienna's latest album.
Sienna Dahlen is a Juno award-winning vocalist. The Canadian artist is also a music educator, an instrumentalist and a composer of six albums of original folk and jazz music to date. Her last album, entitled Verglas received rave reviews and was signed to the longstanding Montreal jazz label, Justin Time Records. Sienna’s forthcoming album, Ice Age Paradise is set for world-wide release in September of 2016 and features a collection of new original compositions that were arranged by bassist, Andrew Downing for a 10-piece ensemble of incredible Toronto-based musicians.
Six albums of mostly original compositions and at last, this beautiful Ice Age Paradise. How did this album change your music? What are your main influences at the moment? It seems to me that the "jazz” in your work has been replaced by more original and personal inspirations.
Ice Age Paradise is my 6th album as a leader. I guess it's the most elaborate record to date as it involves ten musicians plus two guests, one of which happens to be my Dad, Laine Dahlen, the composer of the song, Venezia. Kevin Breit, an incredible Ontario-based guitarist, is the second guest. It is difficult for me to comment on how the music from its "core" has changed. I'm not one to really monitor such things. I simply accept that the songs, like myself, continue to evolve and develop over time according to the changes in my environment, in the world at large and hence, my interior existence. The music and I work in tandem. I lost my mother 3 years ago and several of the songs on the album were written in the months that followed her death so I suppose there's a melancholic aspect to the music that surfaces. In general though, I've always loved ballads and sad songs so that really hasn't changed. My main influences, both from a stylistic approach to writing as well as singing include: Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Patrick Watson, Nick Drake, kd lang, My Brightest Diamond, Jane Siberry and Ray Lamontagne, among others.
My take on "Jazz" in its purest traditional sound/sense of the word left the work that I tend to write a long time ago. What I learned about melody and form as a result of studying and performing jazz over the years however continues to appear in my music and is chanelled through more personal avenues. I enjoy working with rhythm sections, soloists, composers etc. that have also embraced the jazz tradition and their influences can be heard throughout the music on my albums.
Can you tell me something about the instruments you play as well as a little about the songs Cold and Si Je Pouvais?
I am primarily a vocalist but I also play piano and some guitar. When I was a teenager I played the alto saxophone. Cold is a song that I wrote about a partner that had betrayed me. Instead of going into great detail about that situation, I decided to write a more detached, "larger picture" kind of song using a three chord blues form with the “1” chord shifting between a major and a minor tonality (which essentially makes it a 4 chord blues!) That choice was meant to symbolize my confusion surrounding the incident and this person that I mistakenly thought I knew so well. "Si Je Pouvais" is a song about wishing I could go back to the day my mother died to tell her, one more time, just how much I loved and respected her. Ice Age Paradise is dedicated to her.
Nature, sky, the colours of Montreal and the mood of that town which now feels like home. Can you explain the attraction to these themes in your music?
I was born in Nelson, BC, a small town in the middle of a gorgeous valley in the Selkirk Mountain region of Canada. Nature is everywhere there. Happily, one cannot escape it. We moved to the northern community of Dawson Creek, BC when I was 3 years old and though the landscape changed quite drastically, the signs of nature were at the same luscious proximity. I grew up loving the smell of pine tress, the silkiness of lake water on my skin, wildflower-scented air, vast open skies, the northern lights, the rhythm of rolling hills and mountains as well as fields of wheat that stretched on forever. In terms of the weather and light versus darkness, I spent my youth living through bitterly cold temperatures in the winter and breezy, dry heat in the summer. In the wintertime we'd wake up for school in darkness and return home at the end of the day in the same situation. The summers were the opposite. The days seemed to never end. What we learn in our formative years never leaves us and I suppose it's for this reason that I continue to gravitate towards nature themes in my music. As for Montreal, I moved there for the first time when I was 21 years old. I experienced a wonderful culture shock! The romance of a city with a palpable history and a knack for beautiful architecture, people and a way of life spoke volumes to my still, very green and searching soul at that time. I loved the fact that until I learned French, I couldn't understand what people were saying to one another. The mystery of that reality encouraged the adventurer in me to delve deeper and eventually learn the language and embrace the culture. I fell in love with Montreal and the love affair lives on.
Music educator, musician/composer. How do you manage these two sides of your life?
With lots of lists and automatic phone reminders! In certain ways it is not an ideal way to live (if only we could create more time in our lives) but it does allow me to connect with and hopefully nurture, young developing musicians while honouring my own creative journey.
Your eyes is one of the tracks on Ice Age Paradise. In the song you talk about the cold weather as a metaphor linked to somebody you loved? The groove is a kind of tango and then there's a change of mood in the middle of the song which is really fascinating. Can you explain this?
Yes, Your Eyes was written after a nasty break-up. The ex-partner in question possesses a set of rather chilling eyes that just happened to pierce through me like a knife in the last hours of our relationship, hence the connection again to the cold temperatures. It wasn't a pretty scene! We had often talked about spirituality together and the Bridge section of the song acts as a flashback to the past with references to angels and stars and better times. Before too long, however, reality comes crashing back and the end of our story together in the song ensues.
Venezia was a wonderful discovery for me because I'm from Venice and it's amazing to hear a foreign person singing so passionately about the enchanting aspects of my city. What is the story behind this song?
I'm so glad that you connect with this song, Antonella. That means that the music did its job! As I mentioned earlier, my father, Laine Dahlen wrote Venezia 30 years ago after a trip to Italy where he was studying the traditional printmaking technique of Etching in Florence. In addition to being an incredible visual artist and art historian, my dad is also an amazing storyteller, songwriter, guitarist and singer. In the song, he compares Venice to a woman. He explores the romantic and mysterious tactile aspects of the city but also alludes to what could happen if the ocean were to rise up and swallow her. On another level, he refers to the bells of Venice and wonders, from a metaphorical standpoint, if the bells toll for him. In other words, he hopes that Venice will accept and fully embrace him. The reference to masks in the song was inspired by the famous 1700's-themed masquerade ball, which takes place in the city each year. For my dad, the masks and the veils symbolize the city itself in that we can only imagine what has gone on under the surface of Venice’s walls, canals and buildings. My dad has long been struck by the fact that Venetians were so resilient to war and influence from the outside and that Venice's existence on so many levels has stood the test of time. Finally, while my dad was leaving Venice, it began to rain heavily which was good timing as the tears were rolling down his face due to the sadness he felt from having to leave the city. In order to mask those tears, he put his head out the window of the car and let the rain drops mingle with the salty water pouring from his eyes.
You are doing quite a bit of touring for this new album. Will you be coming back to Europe and to Italy, and maybe to Venice? What does your schedule look like?
Yes, the promotion for the album began back in the spring of this year while I was playing shows in Switzerland and Italy. This fall will include shows in Canada and hopefully a return to Italy but for now, I don't have any dates planned. I need a European booking agent! I love playing in Europe and I have to say that some of the warmest audiences I've encountered have been in Italy. I really look forward to singing there again and I especially hope that I'll be able to somehow include Siena (and Venice) in my touring schedule!
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