Arts & Life, Music

Mise en Scene gets personal

Mise en Scene’s hard-hitting drummer, Jodi Dunlop, pulled her car up a few minutes ago, but she’s fumbling around for the right keys. She apologizes for being disorganized and walks to the door of the band’s jamspace at 318 Ross Ave. in The Exchange, and starts entering keycodes. None of them work.

“I’m sorry, I’m gonna have to call Stef. None of these codes are working.”

After a quick phone call and a new keycode, she starts up the many flights of stairs to the space, with a warning.

“These stairs are really rickety. A little while ago we had a party with a bunch of skaters and I think I fell down the stairs like, five times.”

She opens the door to the space, and it’s pretty massive – filled with all sorts of equipment, instruments, assorted junk, and even an out-of-service-looking old arcade game. She sits down in what looks like the “living room” on an old car seat, surrounded by a record player and a foosball table.

Soon, Stefanie Johnson, the indie pop duo’s smoky-voiced singer and guitarist shows up. She’s coming straight from the airport, and doesn’t waste any time getting to work.

“I have to string my guitar while we do this. I hope that’s okay,” Johnson says, and starts twisting the pegs on a tan-coloured semi-hollowbody.

The band’s debut full-length, Desire’s Despair, is a force to be reckoned with. The sounds run the gamut from straight-up power pop rockers to ‘60s girl group numbers and even the country-inflected “Paris, Texas,” one of the album’s standout tunes. The record has been getting its just deserts, garnering glowing reviews from critics locally and nationally.

But media attention is a double-edged sword – like a reviewer from Victoria saying they’ve missed the mark on country music, even though the only real country inluence comes out on “Paris, Texas.” Dunlop says one of the biggest annoyances is when its obvious the writer hasn’t spent any time with the record.

Johnson adds that the notion of the “overnight success” has also bothered her.

“When people are like, “wow, you guys really came out of nowhere!” It bugs me sometimes ‘cause it’s like, wow. You really have no understanding about how much work goes into this. You just don’t realize, do you?”

It’s unfair to be sure. They’ve put in their time touring and hitting up festivals and conferences, and finished off Desire’s Despair in Banff with four different producers: Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire), Tony Berg (Beck), Howard Redekopp (New Pornographers), and Ron Obvious.

Working with four producers could easily make for a fractured record – different ideas, different sounds, different relationships. But that’s not the case. The band credits Bilerman’s mixing with the cohesiveness of sound on the record.

The quality of who they were working with made a big impact in the studio.

“It’s kind of like, should I trust these people who’ve made some of the greatest albums in the world?” Dunlop says. “Or should I throw my opinion in there, because it’s our work? In the end, they’ve worked with so many people that they know how to take what you want and put their stamp on it.”

The subject matter on Desire’s Despair is just as heavy as its moniker. Johnson drives home the fact that all of it – the words, the performance, the feeling they put into it – is built on a foundation of personal experiences.

“Those were all life events that happened,” Johnson explains. “It’s all ex-boyfriends, or ex-lovers, or friends, or yourself. And you’re just feeling let down and you’re pissed off and sick and tired of being disappointed, and you are disappointed, and you’re wondering, ‘is it my expectations? Is this person being an asshole, or am I just being a douche?’”

“You question yourself, and I guess in that sense it’s also really revealing of the things we’ve been through as a band.”

The process, though, is a necessary catharsis – a way to push those emotions out into something powerful and revealing.

“Why do people listen to music?,” Johnson asks. “On one level, yeah, it’s great. But it helps you get through shit. I remember being upset and listening to “Coney Island Baby” by Lou Reed. I don’t know why. I like that song, but there’s so much melancholy in it I just had to listen to it all the time.”

Johnson adds that listening to and making music creates an emotional connection between listener and artist.

“I don’t feel alone in the world. I feel that obviously there are other people going through this. So as a writer I kind of take on that responsibility a little bit. They’re all personal experiences, of course, but they’re universal, because everyone goes through it. And it’s important that the artist cares about that.”

Johnson and Dunlop make it clear that they’re not writing music for anyone but themselves. But if there is a message onDesire’s Despair, Johnson sums it up simply and personally.

“Just go do your thing. Like the guy, don’t like the guy, get mad at the guy. But stand behind yourself. Stop giving yourself a hard time.”

It’s obvious from watching them together that Johnson and Dunlop’s relationship runs deep, and that’s the core of the band – whatever happens, they’re still two friends making music.

“We’ve never gotten into a fight over a song,” Dunlop says. “We always find a way to make it work.”

Then she turns to Johnson.

“I couldn’t do it without you and you couldn’t do it without me, and I think we both know that. I’m never gonna be able to find someone like Stef to play in a band with me to get this sound, and [she’s] never gonna be able to find someone to help make [her] songs the way that they are.”

“We’re the yin to each other’s yang in the creative world,” Johnson adds.

Mise en Scene hosts their Desire’s Despair release party at the West End Cultural Centre on Dec. 1. For $20, you get a copy of the album and entrance to the show. The Noble Thiefs open.

Mise en Scene’s video for “Hey Velvet”

Matt Williams is a writer and musician with a decent fantasy football team. Follow him on Twitter @WaterInHell .

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