Play It Forward: Bernice's Robin Dann On Writing Music With A Sense Of Surprise | WCAI

Play It Forward: Bernice's Robin Dann On Writing Music With A Sense Of Surprise

Apr 29, 2020
Originally published on May 1, 2020 3:19 pm

Earlier this month, All Things Considered spoke to Glenn Copeland for Play It Forward, our ongoing musical chain of gratitude. Copeland spoke about experiencing widespread recognition for the first time in his 70s and his appreciation for Canadian jazz-pop band Bernice and its lead singer, Robin Dann.

"I am one of your down on my knees fans, out of a sense of awe," he said. "I just want to say, no matter what, don't stop. Don't stop writing. Your vision is extraordinary, and it's musically so exciting."

NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke to Robin Dann about how Glenn Copeland's career helps define a different model for success, how her formal jazz training informs her pop songwriting and about her gratitude for the genre-blending singer Georgia Anne Muldrow. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above and read on for highlights of the interview.

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Interview Highlights

On hearing Glenn Copeland praise Bernice and redefining success

That was really meaningful to hear, coming from Glenn. Glenn is pure joy and love and support. I'm not worthy, but I'm so flattered. It helps, you know, to hear a hero tell you to keep going.

I think any kind of alternate story to the formula [of success] that we are so attached to ... it's like a tonic to hear. And it just reminds me that anything is possible, success comes in many shapes and forms and life is surprising; and just to sort of step back and remember what it's all about, which is making music. My dream of success would be to be able to make music that I'm proud of with people that I love for the rest of my life.

On writing music with a sense of surprise

A big part of how we make music is by making each other laugh. For me, ["Glue" is] just a song about falling in love, so you can feel the spirit of that in the drums and the space and all the instruments, the way we arranged it. I went to the University of Toronto for jazz, and I think that was a real lesson in choosing the unexpected when it comes to writing songs.

On her choice for Play It Forward: Georgia Anne Muldrow

The first time I heard her voice, I just felt my whole body responding. My whole spirit and imagination. How do you describe her music? It's sort of funk; it's hip-hop; it's got so much jazz in it. It's really experimental. I think she's just very free, and she's just exploring constantly.

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I saw her perform at the Gladstone Hotel [in Toronto], I want to say in like 2005 or [2006]. There were probably only 30 people there. I met her in my mind, but she doesn't know who I am. [It was] just pure joy, basically. I was in heaven, standing right in front of the stage.

It's a lesson in making every show the best that you can make it. I've definitely been on tour and played shows to zero people and felt like, "Well this is an utter waste of time." Just to try to bring the joy that you feel when you make music with your bandmates, even in those situations, that'll make it worthwhile.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time for Play It Forward. It's a musical chain of gratitude where we talk to artists about their music and about the musicians they're thankful for. Last time, we spoke with Glenn Copeland. He's a musician who received little recognition for decades. Then a record collector in Japan unearthed his work and reintroduced Copeland's music to the world. Glenn is now in his 70s, and he told me he's grateful for the music of a young indie pop band called Bernice. I asked him what he would like to say to the lead singer, Robin Dann.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GLENN COPELAND: Robin, this is Glenn talking to you. I am one of your down-on-my-knees fans (laughter) out of a sense of, like, awe. And I just want to say, no matter what, don't stop. Don't stop writing. Don't stop writing. Your vision is extraordinary, and it's musically so exciting. That's it. Just do your thing. You're geniuses. Go for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S THE MOON")

BERNICE: (Singing) And we're sorry. But it was ours, too.

SHAPIRO: And we're joined now by Robin Dann, the lead singer of Bernice.

Hi there.

ROBIN DANN: Hi. I'm crying (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Oh, really?

DANN: Oh, yeah. I mean, that was really, really meaningful to hear coming from Glenn.

SHAPIRO: I mean, Glenn's been at this a lot longer than you have, and he's saying you're geniuses. So what's it like to hear that?

DANN: I mean, it's Glenn. Glenn is just pure joy and love and support and - I mean, I'm not worthy (laughter). It helps, you know, to hear a hero kind of tell you to keep going.

SHAPIRO: I mean, especially - Glenn's an artist who worked in relative obscurity for a long time. And you're early in your career. You haven't had the big breakout fame and success that many artists strive for. Does hearing Glenn talk about the journey that he went on give you a different perspective on where you are in your career?

DANN: Oh, absolutely. I think any kind of alternate story to the formula that we are so attached to of, you know, success - the younger, the better that you can get success - it's like a tonic to hear. And it just reminds me that, you know, anything's possible. Success is - comes in many shapes and forms, and life is surprising and just to sort of step back and remember what it's all about, which is making music.

SHAPIRO: I mean, what is your dream of success? Does it mean playing stadium shows, or does it mean something else?

DANN: (Laughter) Wow, that's a really difficult question. My dream of success, I would say, would be to be able to make music that I'm proud of with people that I love for the rest of my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLUE")

BERNICE: (Singing) South to walk and sit to sing. And sleeping bags and pillows tie your dreams down. Tie them to a depowered glue world. All in all...

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the first track on your new album. The song's called "Glue." And one of the things I love about this track is just how surprising the percussion is. It's like...

DANN: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Almost - it feels humorous.

DANN: Totally. Yeah, for sure. A big part of how we make music, I think, is by making each other laugh - like, seriously, like, lyrically and stuff. For me, it's just a song about falling in love, so you can sort of feel the spirit of that in the drums and the space and all the instruments the way we kind of arranged it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLUE")

BERNICE: (Singing) When you arrive, sun-soaked and breezy and alive, I can breathe.

SHAPIRO: Robin Dann, it's your turn to tell us someone who you are grateful for, a musician who you admire. Who do you want to pick?

DANN: I would love to pick Georgia Anne Muldrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSES")

GEORGIA ANNE MULDROW: (Singing) When I'm down, I just draw some roses.

DANN: The first time I heard her voice, I just felt my whole body responding, you know, my whole spirit and imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSES")

MULDROW: (Singing) So halfway through, I feel so much better.

DANN: I don't even know. It's one of those things. Like, how do you describe her music? It's sort of funk. It's hip-hop. It's got so much jazz in it. It's really experimental, so that word has - you know, what does that even mean?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, it seems that she, like you, is somebody who doesn't neatly fit into one box.

DANN: Yeah. Yeah, I think she's just very free, and she's just exploring constantly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LO MEIN")

MULDROW: (Vocalizing).

DANN: This is called "Lo Mein."

SHAPIRO: Cool.

DANN: And it was the first song that I really fell in love with.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LO MEIN")

MULDROW: (Singing) I don't want your sundance (ph), bells and whistles I don't need. Done with the forevers that never came to be.

SHAPIRO: Have you two ever met?

DANN: No, we've never met. I saw her perform at the Gladstone Hotel I want to say in, like - God, I don't know - 2005 or '06. There were probably only 30 people there.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

DANN: So I met her in my mind, but she doesn't know who I am.

SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about that night?

DANN: Just pure joy, basically. I was just, like, in heaven, standing right in front of the stage.

SHAPIRO: I'm just thinking, from her perspective, that night might have felt like, only 30 people showed up. It was a bust. But from the other side of the stage, here you are more than a decade later, remembering that as a singular night where you saw an artist who inspired you. Like, what a completely different narrative.

DANN: For sure. And it's a lesson in making every show the best that you can make it. I've definitely been on tour and played shows to zero people and felt like, well, this was an utter waste of time. But just to try to bring the joy that you feel when you make music with your bandmates, even in those kinds of situations - that'll - you know, that'll make it worthwhile.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to her next. So what would you like to say to Georgia Anne Muldrow?

DANN: Hi, Georgia. This is Robin speaking. I want to thank you for inspiring me with your freedom as a singer and as a musician and just thank you for putting the beautiful energy into the world that you are constantly putting out.

SHAPIRO: Robin Dann, thank you so much for talking with us about your music and your inspirations.

DANN: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: She's the lead singer of Bernice. And we'll talk to Georgia Anne Muldrow in the next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LO MEIN")

MULDROW: (Singing) Oh, it don't take much to please me. Your job is to remain you. I might sound detached or... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.