The most honest transformations start small.
They creep up through an accumulation of subtle shifts, a fluid expansion reaching further and further upward. There are moments of awkward spurts or growing pains, moments where time is at a stand still. But one day things are different, all your memories and past selves and experiences coming together to form the present moment.
For Stefanie Blondal Johnson and Jodi Dunlop of Winnipeg rock outfit Mise en Scene, the changes have been slow and steady, the metamorphosis well worth the wait.
Hot off the heels of their sophomore full length, the two women have been through a lot together and the connection is felt throughout every project. Titled Still Life On Fire, the album is a burning holler, a swelling rumble indicative of the talented forces behind the monitors.
Johnson began writing the album while taking part in a musicians residency at the renowned Banff Arts Centre in the winter of 2014. Surrounded by mountains, snow and classical musicians prepping for auditions and Phd positions, the self taught singer and guitarist was suffering from a case of writers block. Participating in sharing circles with artists who follow sheet music like scripture didn’t meld with Johnson’s intuitive creative process at first, but a month into the residency Dunlop, a drummer trained in the ways of DIY songwriting, flew down to visit.
“With songwriting, inspiration comes to you and you have to articulate that emotion and that feeling,” Johnson explains of desiring to create a cohesive, conceptual album. “We’re trying to crack the code of what we’re trying to say.”
Beginning with the expansive “Intro (Nothing)”, the album builds through layers of hard hitting percussion, powerful vocals and catchy riffs. By “True”, your head is bopping and you can’t even believe how you came from light, folky jams to driving, resonant rhythms. The progression takes its time and pulls you along with it.
Recorded in Winnipeg and produced by Montréal-based mastermind Mike Nash (who has worked with everyone from members of The Dears, Blue Rodeo and Ladies of the Canyon) the album is a full, sonic delight capturing a full portrayal of the band’s journey.
“It was the band and [Nash] making it together,” Johnson explains. “Our work together was effortless and mutual, everyone felt on the same page.”
Centred around the idea of coming to terms with being engaged and present in your own life, still following what drives you, the record builds from darkness to light, from silence to noise. It’s your life on fire.
“No matter how hard it gets or how easy it is to become a misanthrope in this world, there is still so much beauty and so much compassion,” Johnson states. “It’s about looking in the right places and making sure that you be your best self.”
Everything that Mise en Scene releases, whether it’s music videos or album art, are always stamped by their signature aesthetic. A background in visual arts helps.
Johnson, Dunlop and bassist Corey Hykawy have all pursued various artistic practices, “but there is this calling back to music, like tapping you on the shoulder,” Johnson expresses.
“I think it helps us feel more connected to our band and our music,” Dunlop says of being in control of the creative vision. “To me it’s half of our identity, it shows who you are.”
Gathering all of their polaroids, photos and memorabilia amassed while touring, the artwork for Still Life On Fire is a sun-soaked blur of forward motion, of eternal chasing.
Mise en Scene’s breakout album, Desire’s Despair (Pipe & Hat, 2012), was a rallying call that got the female forces noticed, and more importantly, heard. Produced by Howard Redekopp (Tegan & Sara), Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire) and Tony Berg (Beck), the album took them on a roller coaster of a career kick-off. It lived on the !earshot Top 50 national charts in Canada for weeks, received a 2014 Sirius XM Indies Award nomination, as well as touring across Canada, to infamous American music hubs such as SXSW, and to the prestigious Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona, Spain.
It was while playing at Canadian Music Week in Toronto that Mise en Scene was noticed by Dyllan Towle of Light Organ Records. Based in Vancouver, Light Organ Records represents Canadian talent with an independent edge, such as The Zolas and Mounties, a group featuring Hawksly Workman and members of Hot Hot Heat.
“Their performance is so refreshing in this genuine way,” Towle says. “When they're onstage performing their material it’s just this pure thing, it’s infectious and it comes through just as powerfully on the record.”
After going through a rotating cast of bassists while touring Desire’s Despair, they finally came across Hykawy. Shortly after Hykawy joined, the band also began performing with a second guitar, adding an even fuller sound to their cool-kid buzz. The result is Still Life On Fire, a record CBC Music calls “One of the most compelling albums you’ll hear this year”, and it couldn't have come a moment too soon. The energy is infectious, caged and ready.
“Still Life On Fire is the name of the album and that whole world…the songs, the band members, the album art, its a living thing,” Johnson says. “It’s not just the music. What is our intention. What do we want to say."