THE CANARY SPEAKS
AN INTERVIEW WITH CASEY DIENEL
“Music, the greatest good that mortals know,
And all of heaven we have below.”
JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719)
There are several impressive and astonishing traits on Casey Dienel’s debut album, Wind-Up Canary (2006): the outpouring poetry that fills her witty lyrics, the often surreal imagery of her story-telling, the vivacity and humour of her piano playing, the sweetness of her bird-like singing, and most of all the fact that she recorded this audacious set of songs when she was barely 20 years old. Such an outburst of talent from a youngster may remind us of Fiona Apple, who gave birth to Tidal when stills in her teens, gaining widespread mainstream attention for the “Criminal” video and skyrocketed throught the charts to end up selling millions of copies of her debut. In Dienel’s case, her entrance into the music world was much more discreet and low-key, with no sign of explosive pop stardom or mass-media spotlights. Which does not mean that her album doesn’t deserve attention and acclaim as a lasting work of art.
An unique blend of lyricism and melancholia emanates from her music, which may be compared with the work of other gifted singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Ani DiFranco, Regina Spektor, Nellie McKay or Tori Amos. After her first-born baby, baptized with a birdie’s name, she has released two full-albums with her new project, White Hinterland: Phylactery Factory (2008) and Kairos (2010). Hinterland’s music is far more experimental in comparison with the piano-driven ballads of her early years. Background electronic beats set the mood for White Hinterland’s strange and impressionistic landscapes, thay may well remind one of Björk, Radiohead in the post-Kid A era, or even some trip-hop artists such as Portishead or Goldfrapp. In the following interview from the Wind-Up Canary era, Casey Dienel reveals a lot about her life’s path, her influences (including in movies and literature), her composition process, among other themes. Let’s trip through the open windows of her chest and peep inside the mind of an intriguing and mesmerizing artist.
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Q: It’s easy to notice, when listening to your lyrics, you frequently use lots of fictitious characters, in a way that reminds me a little bit of the songwriting method of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, differences put aside… Frankie and Anette, Doctor Monroe, Baby James: where do all your characters come from? Are they pure products of your imagination or are they constructed with parts of the people you know (maybe some of them are actual people?). What are they: alter-egos, imaginary friends, perhaps phantoms…? Talk a little bit about this “children” of yours!
CASEY: I think characters stem from a database of daily personal observations—things I notice in people I love or people I don’t know. They also tend to derive themselves from events or places, I think a lot of times when I’m writing about one person I’m actually writing about many people at once. But I’m not very sure of where they come from—sometimes certain characters are immediately visualized, others need time to percolate and materialize out of the fog of my memory. I try not to overanalyze it, for fear that one day those visions could just disappear. I don’t know if you’re referring to them as children because I have in the past—but it would be an apt comparion. I get attached to them in such a fashion that it’s hard for me to pick them apart myself. I just try to raise them so they stand upright on their own, and give them as much as I can before they’re released out amongst the world.
Q: I’ve read somewhere your “confession” that you grew with your “nose buried in the books” – i guess that’s where you got your great talent with words! I guess one the greatest qualities in your music is that it has a “literary flavour”, i can regard it almost as declamation of poetry… Would you say literature is even more dear to you than music? And which of the greatest lyricists would you say you admire the most? Do you read a lot of poetry and has some favorite poets you could describe as inspirations?
CASEY: These are some extensive questions! I think literature is the highest form of the fine arts, and in my opinion, the most challenging to harness. I have long held a deep admiration for the way words are strung together. In writing, you have no senses to create images or characters or stories—you have only your wits to evoke emotions and visuals. It’s like alchemy, the true meaning of “making something out of nothing.” I wouldn’t say my songs were particularly ‘literary,’ but I do spend a good portion of my time on lyrics, trying to create images that are immediately visual to the listener, even if it’s something or someone they aren’t familiar with. Other lyricists that can transport me to another time and place are probably Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, but also I think, in more simple terms, the Beatles. Cohen and Dylan use details without being arbitrary, to further paint the picture—all the while making incredible melodies and song structures. Lennon & McCartney could take simple language and revive them with a whole new sense of meaning…I think Beatles songs are so classic because the lyrics are so honest, and allow the melodies to carry the songs. Sometimes songs just need to be songs—and it pays to be cautious of what the song is saying to you, instead of trying to jam it full with exotic words or phrases.
As for poets, I have a bit of an addiction when it comes to poetry chapbooks… gosh, I think my favorite is Frank O’Hara, although I’ve been going through a big thing with Gertrude Stein, and a friend of mine just gave me some James Tate to leaf through. I think what interests me right now is the syntactical rhythms created by placing certain vowels/consants/syllables side by side.
Q: We’ve read you began playing the piano at 4 and you were already writing songs and lyrics around the age of 10 – and that’s quite impressive that you’ve released an album like “Wind-UpCanary” in your early 20s! Were you considered a “special child” that developed incredible talents in an very early age? Did your parents played a great role in directing you towards music classes and stuff or was it your own early love for music that led you to begin playing so young?
CASEY: If I was a “special child” I never knew it. I do think I was probably a touch of a “know-it-all,” but my parents raised my sister and I to be very self-deprecating and humble about things like art—and I was definetely not a prodigy, and worse, I’ve always been pretty shy. So I wouldn’t talk about my interests much—I think songwriting is like any kind of craft that one cultivates in privacy. I’ve always been kind of secretive. I went in to lessons of my own volition when I was 4 — I was really attracted to the piano and the guitar, but the guitar was too big for a 4-year-old! And since then I guess I’ve always been pretty self-motivated about music, in part because I am doing it for myself, and not so much for an audience. The audience part is one of the last things I think about when it comes to making music.
Q: As for plans for the future, is music a long-term project for you? Do you intend to record dozens of albums and have a decades-long carrer?
CASEY: Yikes! So many big questions. Music I think is something so intrinsic to how I go about my life day to day, that as of this moment I see no reason why I won’t be making songs well into old age. But time sometimes has other plans in mind, and I don’t have any aspirations to pick a bone with time. My hope is that I’m able to keep doing this, and keep asking myself the tough & scary questions. I don’t really have any concrete expectations—landmarks of success, and such. I just make sure to ask myself as I go along “are you happy?” If I end up an old lady working in a library in Maine with a small vegetable garden, I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Q: Now a more philosophical question, maybe kind of tough to answer: in some of your lyrics I can sense some kind of “anguish”, maybe, about the passage of time, perhaps the fact that joy seems to be always ephemeral. Like when you sing “as soon as we’re used to one season it moves / and that’s all we can count on”. Or in the great verse from “Better in Manhattan” that goes: “Paradise is a place you visit and not a place to live”. Or even in the sad little ending of “Fat Old Man”: “nothing changes when you’re gone, it keeps moving on…”. Do you really perceive the world as an “ocean of impermanence”, so to speak?
CASEY: Hmm. Well, I wouldn’t say I feel any sense of “anguish” about mortality. Mortality is our truth as humans, and I think that truth liberates us from being just ‘happy’ or ‘sad.’ We’re complex machines, and often feel both of these emotions all at once, sometimes one more than the other, but I find it nearly impossible to truly separate them. I don’t like to dissect song meanings for listeners—in part because I’m truly curious to see how others interpret them! I put them out there in hopes that they become more than just songs of mine. But I think that even though time reminds us more often than not who is in charge, there’s a good reason why we mark it with birthdays and holidays and festivals and seasons, etc. The transformation of the world is beautiful, even if it isn’t permanent.
Q: I’ve read somewhere one critic (at Pitchfork) calling your lyrics “clever nonsense” – if i remember well, you were also compared to Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. Does that bother you? Are all your lyrics and verses “filled with meaning”, even tough some of them may be clear only to you, or do you believe there’s a lot of word-play in them and that you use words like “toys”? Is there really some clever nonsense here and there, now and then?
CASEY: I wonder sometimes if it is the writer’s responsibility to make everything clear to the reader—or if a bit of nebulous matter is healthy, and reminds us to think for ourselves. Generally speaking, I fall into the latter category. I don’t mind being disoriented if it makes me question things—and I think as a culture, we ought to be a lot more suspicious of the things people do or say. I don’t know if that sounds cynical—but I think it’s healthy to question something before you digest it and file it away into your mental encyclopedia. We owe it to our psyche! I would suggest everyone to question anything I say, even what I’m writing write now. What do I know?
So is it “clever nonsense?” In the past, I think there was much more arbitrary language—things coming together just because I enjoyed how they sound or felt in my mouth. Now I try to reconcile that pleasure with something more cohesive. In my experience, a song can be about many many different things at once. I write topically, but also kind of kaleidoscopically. So I always know what the song is about, and that’s all that matters to me, even if it’s about three disparate events, people, or places that if listed on a page, in my my mind connect to form a fuller picture. It would be far too much of a waste of time, energy, and peace of mind to get bent out of shape of people’s interpretation of my songs—I’ve learned not to take it too personally. As long I know my intentions, I feel fine.
Q: Which are the 5 records, 5 movies and 5 books you’d take to a desert island to spend the rest of your life with?
2. Bob Dylan—Live at Albert Hall ’65
3. Joni Mitchell—Blue
4. Debussy String Quartet
5. Thelonious Monk- Monk’s Time
1. Five Easy Pieces (I just saw it for the first time, and I don’t think I could ever tire of it! It seems simple at first, but it’s just filled with complexity at its core.)
2. Harold and Maude
3. any silent shorts of Buster Keaton (to be played with the Monk record in conjunction)
4. Annie Hall
5. My Fair Lady
1. Beneath the Wheel by Herman Hesse
2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
4. The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass
5. Chez Panisse Cooking by Alice Walters (I know it sounds crazy, but I love to read about food almost as much as I enjoy eating it! This cookbook is a classic.)
Q: Even tough it can’t be said you write “autobiografical songs” (in the way Fiona Apple does, for example), I really feel as if i could get to know you quite well after listening to the record several times. Do you think that’s an illusion or could this songs really be a kind of “gateway to your soul”, a little hole in the doorlock through which we can get a glimpse of who you really are?
CASEY: I tend to shy away from confessionalism—something about it doesn’t suit my personality well. I don’t feel like an open book, perhaps, and also I’m not terribly fascinating as a person. My day to day life is (not so) shockingly mundane. My songs are covertly autobiographical, if anything, but I would hesitate to say that there are any conclusions about me as a person to be drawn after listening to them. I suppose I’m not really the person to ask about this sort of thing, but I don’t know if it’s ever possible to truly KNOW an artist through their art.
Q: I was curious to know about the repercussion of your music outside the USA… in which countries would you say the public’s response was more intense and gratifying? And have you ever played live abroad?
CASEY: I’m pretty oblivious to all of the international response. I haven’t played abroad yet, except for Canada, although I look forward to doing that in the future. I haven’t really looked into how to go about all of that yet, but I think for the next record I’d like to begin going overseas. I get some very nice e-mails from Scandinavia, and of course, Brazil! It makes me wonder how people find out about all of these different artists! I feel like my record collection tapped out in 1979, and I never know who anyone new is, though I probably should. I don’t really even listen to CDs! Everything’s on vinyl for me. I live in the Middle Ages!
I have no idea how I feel about the future—just so long as things happen organically, I’m happy. I’m in no rush to get to “the next level” or whatever that is… I don’t even know what that is. I have never really felt too romanced by the music industry. I respect its necessity when it comes to making my art into a career—but beyond that I find it all to be a bit overrated, and that’s part of why I surround myself with people outside of it. Maybe I could afford to be more ambitious, but I think I’m a lot more concerned with the songs themselves and being a happy and balanced person. I’m not opposed to a wider audience or being able to support myself through music, as opposed to working the barista jobs, etc. I guess I try not to concentrate to much on that stuff—if it happens, it happens. I just don’t want to spend my 20s rushing around to the point that I can’t enjoy my friends, family, and day to day life. I see no point. Celebrity isn’t nearly as valuable to me as the three aforementioned items. It may sound corny, but it’s true!
Q: Sometimes i think you artists may get angry with interviewers who dosn’t ask what you wanted to answer. So i’ll propose a little foolish game: pose yourself a question and answer it!
Q: When do you feel most inspired and happy to be alive?
A: First thing in the morning at daybreak—the light makes me want to get up and sing. It’s unadulterated light–new and a bit unsure of itself, and casts itself on everything so it all looks like you’re seeing the world for the first time. It makes me fall in love all over again.
Wind-Up Canary (2006) [FULL ALBUM]
01) Doctor Monroe (4:34)
02) Everything (3:04)
03) Baby James (3:27)
04) Cabin Fever (5:23)
05) Frankie and Annette (3:13)
06) The Coffee Beanery (4:54)
07) Old Man (3:34)
08) Stationary (4:02)
09) Tundra (5:19)
10) All Or Nothing (3:58)
11) The La La Song (4:06)