Looking beyond Yesterday – in conversation with Dana Gavanski

When talented singer-songwriter but self-confessed introvert Dana Gavanski lost her voice at a key stage of her fledgling career, it was a wonder that self-doubt didn’t conspire to sink her rise to indie fame.But like the Croatian sea organ heard on a life-affirming soundscape composition she recently made for national radio, it’s clear that Dana is made of sterner stuff than she suggests.

What’s more, this South London-based Canadian-Serb clearly has good people around her, near and far, seeing her through a stop-start couple of years due to the pandemic (she was holidaying in Serbia with partner and musical co-worker James Howard when the country closed its airports, leaving them unable to return at first) and big life moves.

Dana reveals of aptly-named second album, When It Comes, out on April 29th via Full Time Hobby (and set to be released in the US via Ba Da Bing Records and Flemish Eye in Canada), “In many ways this record feels like it is my first”.

She added, “When I could use my voice, I had to focus, so there is an urgency and greater emotional trajectory than before… it’s very connected to vocal presence, which extended into an existential questioning of my connection to music. It felt like a battle at times, which I frequently lost.”

Accordingly, Dana’s most vulnerable record to date is, “an ode to the voice as an instrument – its power, and how intricately it can deliver words to tug at, and tie knots in, every heartstring”.

I hear that, but feel the instrumentation, not least the LP’s electronic touches, adds something else again, carrying on where she recently left off.

Dana’s debut LP, 2020’s Yesterday Is Gone, and that year’s covers EP, Wind Songs (her cracking interpretation of King Crimson’s ‘I Talk to the Wind’ accompanied by Chic, Tim Hardin and Judee Sill covers, and a Macedonian folk song) were lauded for their intimacy, the first record tracing a timeline of her teenage years in Vancouver, a move to Montreal and visiting family homes for kitchen talks with her ‘Baka’ (grandma) in Serbia.

But while this LP started coming together in Montreal and was completed in Belgrade, it’s more of a London creation, while at the same time – as her label put it – ‘something altogether more atmospheric and widescreen’.

Dana explained, “Yesterday Is Gone consisted of straightforward pop songs, this album is about searching for something to excite me back into songwriting. It’s about finding the origins of my connection to music, that tenuous but stubborn and strong link – why it draws me and what if anything, I can learn from it.

“The album title has a heaviness to it but also a lightness, depending on your frame of mind. It’s about being open, and letting it come whatever it is, without judgement.”

She was at home when I called, recent spare time taken up by moves back and forth across town with husband James (Blue House, Fiction, Rozi Plain) to a new South London base.

Dana remains in New Cross for now though, prompting me to ask if there’s a flooded basement at her old or new property, one housing that sea organ heard on ‘The Rocks’, specially recorded for recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Cerys Matthews on BBC 6 Music.

“Mmm … yes, that’s where I did it. Ha! I guess that means you heard the sound-piece.”

Indeed, I was catching up on Cerys’ show and was pleased to hear you feature there.

“Oh, lovely! I had fun making that piece.”

In fact, Cerys tweeted at the weekend about the wonders of listening to Dana ‘humming along to the waves of the sea playing an organ (yes! a sea organ)’.

Tell me more about that composition … or are you going to keep it couched in mystery?

“Mystery is probably best! But Croatia is a special place to me.”

In fact, the mighty interweb tells me that sea organ is an architectural sound art object located in Zadar, Croatia, played by way of waves and tubes located beneath a set of large marble steps. Does that remind her of formative family holidays?

“Well, my mum’s partner is Croatian, she’s been with him more than 20 years. I only really started going to this place … not Zadar, that’s where the organ is, but I’ve been going to his island (home) since I was maybe … I don’t know, after about the 10-year mark, you start to forget whether it’s 15 or 17 or 18 years, but around when I was maybe 15 or 16.

“He had this really beautiful home that he built by hand, having bought the land when he made his first money from a sculpture he made, and it’s just a really beautiful island, and sometimes when you’re just surrounded by family … you need to get away somehow.”

That radio show’s escape theme reminded me of my past interviews with fellow Full Time Hobby act Erland Cooper, another kindred spirit also based in London but returning through his music to his Orkney roots. Is that how it works for Dana? After all, we all need a little escapism sometimes. Does music transport her elsewhere?

“It’s not usually that I need it. It was actually that Cerys was doing something around escape, so I came to it through that. I do get the concept of escape, and I think I do kind of deep down feel this need to escape when things just kind of start piling up …”

These last couple of harrowing years have been a good example of that.

“Oh my God, yeah, especially when it’s like non-stop these days, but music is actually not an escape that much for me. Sometimes it does get to that place, but you know, it’s actually a confrontation.”

Was this new LP largely written in the Camberwell house where you are now?

“Most of it, but the first song was the first track of the album …

Which is wonderful, by the way.

“Oh, have you heard the whole album? Cool.”

I have, playing it many times these last few days.

“Wow!”

Several songs have already made a huge impression, including that opener. An earworm in every good sense.

“Ah, that’s great. Thank you. I started that in Montreal, while I was waiting for my visa to come here, maybe a few months before this whole COVID thing happened in Europe. But a lot of it was written here, although ‘The Downfall’ was mostly written in Serbia.”

At the demo stage, this LP was largely about you and your toy Casiotone, I believe.

“Yeah, I was getting a little tired of my approach to the guitar. I ended up buying a Nord, but wanted to play with something else, so I wrote ‘Lisa’ on the Casio. ‘I Kiss the Night’ was guitar and Casio, but a lot of the songs kind of came between, like ‘Knowing to Trust’.

“I ended up buying a Moog and a Nord, and it’s interesting how instruments you’re not really used to, when they create new sounds, they can spark ideas and spark songs. Maybe they may not be able to do that again, but initially …  I wrote ‘Indigo Highway’ on the Moog, and you can only play one note at a time, so … ha! That was interesting.”

‘Indigo Highway’ is another of my early favourites, with its ‘Baba O’Riley’ keyboard, a real road song feel. Inspiring, and surely one to play with the windows or roof down.

“Yeah, that’s good. That’s where it’s supposed to feel like – endless, and eternal.”

So where’s Capitol K’s Total Refreshment Centre (TRC), the studio where yourself and James (the pair co-producing the songs together) recorded this album?

“In the Dalston Junction area, a little north of there. It’s great. A lovely space. Alabaster dePlume is based there, and I’ve got to meet a lot of really amazing musicians through that space.”

You may be aware of Mancunian jazz multi-instrumentalist DePlume, otherwise known as Gus Fairbairn, and Dana describes the TRC as “a special place, like a community centre”, adding, “It’s very understated but important to the people who come through it. It’s a rehearsal space, a recording studio, and there are a handful of music studios”.

And at the centre of it all was yourself and your beau, James.

“Definitely. He helped me demo the songs, flesh them out a bit. It was just us trying to figure out what all this meant, and I was having a lot of difficulties, because of voice issues. I lost my voice for about a year.”

I imagine that was really worrying.

“That was pretty bad. The worst was when I could sometimes speak, but it would hurt. And I often just didn’t accept it, which was my downfall. It was hard for me to accept that was happening. Plus, it was the pandemic and …”

That wouldn’t have made it easy, presenting yourself for treatment, to get yourself checked out.

“Well, it wasn’t the beginning of the pandemic. I had this problem around the end of August, early September (2020), and managed to get an ENT check. It’s only now I’m not thinking about it. It had been on my mind every day until maybe about a month ago. I was still having some problems, but now I’m okay.”

How long have you been London-based?

“Officially since the end of January 2020, but I came here first on October 1, 2019.”

Does it feel like home yet?

“Yeah, the idea of potentially getting my visa rejected … y’know … scares me. I’m married now, but don’t really feel in two years you can really get your roots down. But I have the cat, you know. Ha!”

If you’re surrounded by those you love, that’s a start, surely.

“Definitely. And I have such a great musical community here too. A really special place.”

I was going to mention that network, although I was struggling at the beginning to place a few influences …

“Oh yeah. That’s cool!”

In the past, you worked with Mike Lindsay from Tunng (also with Full Time Hobby, and who co-produced the first LP with Sam Gleason), someone I spoke to last year with Laura Marling about their LUMP project. I get that feeling of like minds with him, and guess he’s one you keep in touch with and bounce ideas off.

“I mostly bounce off with James, the person closest to me …”

She stops herself there, realising how that sounds, giggling somewhat …

“‘Bounce off with’? Ha! But Mike’s great. I’ve worked with him three separate times. Somebody I enjoy listening to, I really like his approach to music, and he’s just got a different thing – something I don’t have. I don’t know how to describe it, but it gives something to the music that I can’t give.”

That sounds a similar approach to how he works with Laura Marling. And in both cases, it works. That’s what matters.

“Well, he surprises me, but then also, we know how to talk very easily. He’s very down to earth, but also a bigger than life character. He’s both, and a really lovely person.”

When did you last get over to Canada?

“Not since … the last time was when I was applying for my visa to stay here. I’ve travelled a bit, but just not there.”

It seems that you’ve always stayed in touch with your roots though, be that in North America or with family in Belgrade.

“Yeah, Serbia, and Belgrade, and a small city called Aranđelovac, that’s where my family lives.”

Your father {Ogden Gavanski} has a successful career as a film producer, and I gather that’s where you felt you were heading. I guess something changed, perhaps realising you’ve got this wonderful voice and had something else to offer.

“Erm, I mean, I’ve always been really interested in music, but I am quite introverted, so it took me a while. I had my hand in a lot of different things throughout the years and discovered arthouse film in my late teens, then kind of become obsessed with it, fantasised about it.

“I went to a film school in Vancouver for about a year, but it was too expensive and just not really that good for me, so I just tried this out. Most of my friends in the beginning were involved in film and I still would love to, but I eventually ended up surrounded by a lot of musicians, then realised I got a little jealous, then realised, when I was like 25, I should try this.”

Your songs can be rather cinematic, so maybe you get the best of both worlds, creating soundscapes.

“Yeah, I’m trying to kind of create a world, wanting each song to be its own thing and a world that you enter.”

It’s now five years since debut EP, Spring Demos (Fox Food Records,2017). How do you feel you’ve changed as an artist over that period?

“Oh, my God, I’ve changed a lot. Also, I’ve heard a lot of music. I was very innocent then, very shy, didn’t really know how to assert myself. I was too easily frightened. It did take a lot of courage for me to even start playing music, because that was the last thing I would have done.

“It’s strange, for me it’s just been about slowly getting used to it, even though the whole pandemic kind of put a damper on that. All of a sudden, I felt totally out of practise.

“For me, I think it has a lot to do with not fearing the fool. I think my introversion is to do with just, yeah, putting myself out there. And I think music’s helped me a lot with accepting the consequences of showing things to people you wouldn’t otherwise have shown.”

I mentioned struggling to place influences, but there are a few leftfield artists I hear in your work. I also think you must have grown up with a lot of pop on the radio.

“Oh, totally!”

For instance, there’s a bit of the ‘70s pop majesty of quirky but mainstream artists like Paul McCartney or Gilbert O’Sullivan, through to Christine and the Queens and maybe Florence and the Machine, as well as former Full Time Hobby label-mates Smoke Fairies, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson …

“Mmm, that’s cool.”

I guess the bottom line is that it’s always interesting … and thankfully the (I’ll use that word again) quirky side of commercial.

“Yeah, I love pop but actually started off … I did listen to a lot of radio, you know, like R&B and pop, then I heard Joni Mitchell for the first time and her album, Blue, and then only listened to ‘60s and ‘70s music, mostly folk, until I was about 25.

“I didn’t listen to any contemporary music and didn’t know anything about anyone until when I was about 27 or 28. I was like, ‘Ooh, who are these people? What’s indie rock? I don’t know what that is.’

“Then I listened to a lot of the weirdo soundscape stuff Brian Eno did, then cell music. And I love Meredith Monk. I just think I’m such a slow learner and late bloomer. It takes me a long time to sit with something and realise where I need to go next.”

I didn’t pick Dana up on that reference at the time, but maybe there’s something in her casually referencing fellow Canadian and self-confessed introvert Ron Sexsmith there, with the title track from his 2011 LP.

‘But I’m a late bloomer, I’m a slow learner, And I’ve turned the record over, I’m a long player, My song is my saviour.’

Both of her long players so far start so strong, and I was listening back this week to the amazing ‘One by One’ opening the debut, for me – summing up what I suggested – somewhere between another son of Canada, Leonard Cohen and upstate New York’s Lana Del Rey …

“Yeah … cool!”

That introductory number was followed on Yesterday is Gone by her debut single, ‘Catch’, the record well and truly set up. And on this album, she kicks straight in – like a modern-day Nico – with the afore-mentioned ‘I Kiss the Night’, its ‘music box sweetness and twinkling piano melody’ just gorgeous, on a song of wondrous little hooks and chord structures. Like all perfect pop it doesn’t do you any good trying to work out what it is that makes it work so well. But it’s certainly beguiling.

“Yeah, like a worm that gets into your ear, and you have to kind of figure it out.”

Lead single, ‘Letting Go’, has rightly received a fair bit of traction, its electronic keyboard brooding fuzz a neat accompaniment to that lovely voice. And there’s so much scope across the nine tracks in total.

I mentioned Smoke Fairies before, and maybe mystical lullaby ‘Under the Sky’ prompted that, while ‘The Day Unfolds’ not only carries Dana’s trademark wonky electronica but also added sax touches …

“Ah, yeah, you know who that is? That’s Dan Leavers {Danalogue} from The Comet is Coming. He plays sax on there, we called him that day and he was one of the few people who just happened to be around.”

It reminds me of The Blockheads towards the end.

“Cool! Yeah, I was just kind of trying to be as in instinctive as possible, which was really hard because of the voice problems. But I just had to go with what I was able to do. Even though often I wanted to do more, but at the end of the day, if I wanted to write something and my voice just wasn’t working, I had to just accept what I had.”

There’s also the baroque Wurlitzer-like nursery rhyme of ‘Bend & Fall’, while – like her ‘autumnal hymnal’, ‘Lisa’ – ‘The Reaper’ is another fine example of a song containing a broody feel and providing a real slow-build, its strings grabbing me part-way in, taking us somewhere else I wasn’t expecting.

“Ha! Yeah, that’s my genius partner.”

Incidentally, of ‘Lisa’, we learn that it was one of the first, more fictional tracks written for the record, from the viewpoint of the sea, watching the protagonist pass by day after day, offering a metaphorical reflection on the natural world around us.

Dana adds, “We don’t realise we are surrounded by all this beauty; we’re shut up inside, rushing to get to work, buying books online without ever leaving home. It’s about focus, recognising what’s in front of you”.

Then there’s the closing song, the atmospheric ‘Knowing to Trust’. I don’t know if he’s on her radar, I ask, but I half-expected cult late Scottish poet Ivor Cutler’s voice to come in over the organ.

“Oh, that’s lovely! That would have been really beautiful. His voice is just … I don’t know a lot of his music, but I have a few songs that I really love of his.”

Maybe you should sample him next time.

“Yeah, definitely.”

Hopefully, this time around she’ll get to properly tour the album. Having previously toured with Porridge Radio, Damian Jurado and Chris Cohen, she managed a mini-tour of festivals and such like last time (eventually), but this should be her first headline tour, starting in Brighton on February 27th, carrying on via Scotland to mainland Europe, this time featuring an expanded five-piece line-up (including regular bandmates Dimitrios Ntontis, who also features on the new LP, and / composer/ filmmaker/ chanteuse Clémentine March).

“Yeah, this is the one that was supposed to happen last March.”

Does that mean you have a big, two-album set lined up for us this time, voice willing?

“Yeah, I’m really excited. We have a five-piece that we’re touring with. And maybe in London, we’ll have some violinist and maybe a saxophonist join us.”

I’m hoping to get along to the Deaf Institute, so bring them up to Manchester too.

“Ah, yeah. I’ll have to find somebody that can maybe join. We’ve all been really, really looking forward to it.”

And seeing as we mentioned Cerys Matthews early on, I should mention further support from BBC 6 Music, not least making debut LP Yesterday is Gone its album of the week, and from past sessions for Marc Riley, a big supporter.

“Ah, definitely. I’m very touched by their support, and we’ll be on Marc’s show early on February 22. He’s been such an awesome presence.”.

Dana Gavanski, with support from Naima Bock, visits Manchester’s Deaf Institute on Thursday, March 3. For details of that and other dates, visit her website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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1 Response to Looking beyond Yesterday – in conversation with Dana Gavanski

  1. Pingback: Small World, but you wouldn’t want to paint it – entering the sonic sphere of Metronomy with Joe Mount | writewyattuk

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