VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today we’re featuring Bernice, the Toronto experimental pop project of Robin Dann. Their EP Puff is in the Vinyl Me, Please store right now, and you can read below for an interview with Robin about their unique recording process, Dann’s musical peers, and her observational writing influences.
When “St. Lucia,” the first single on Puff, premiered on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 in November of last year, it was accompanied by a sparse and stunning animated video. Forms move nonlinearly, with compromised gravity; they’re from another dimension, but one you’ve visited in a dream—undeniably fantastical, yet undeniably human.
The 5 tracks on Puff aren’t unlike the world in the “St. Lucia” video. Bernice observes humanity and the world around it with x-ray vision, but instead of glowing white skeletons beneath the skin, Dann sees pastel specters and skeletal flora that disseminate into indiscernible bursts of color. Puff is terrestrial through a visionary lens, honesty in a way you’ve never encountered it.
VMP: You’ve got an EP coming out! Having already recorded two albums, how was the recording process different with Puff?
We wanted record as a band live in a room, rather than the first album that we made that was very much a studio project with lots of pieces being recorded at different times. So we started off all together, in a studio playing live off the floor and recording it to tape. But the songs that are on the EP we brought to Shawn Everett in LA and through the lens of his production, they don’t sound as live anymore. So it’s kind of a mixture of the band playing in a room and then us working with Shawn.
The tracks on this record don’t necessarily have a super live sound to them. What made you decide to record in a way that resembles a live show?
We’d been playing lots of shows, workshopping these songs together, and arranging the new songs I’d written together. So it just felt natural to kind of go and start from that place, from that performance sound that was so important to us, and then decide how to convert that into a record after. Some of them we didn’t touch that much at all; they really just sound like us playing them. It just felt logical, really.
We have 11 songs that were all part of the same sessions, and four out of the five on the EP are very much produced by Shawn. The rest sound super live, and those ones will be coming out later. So it was a bit of a dilemma to figure out how to release them, but I’m excited to put out this chunk together, because they really do feel like they belong together. The next batch of songs will sound more like a band in a room, you know?
Everyone in the band is, at heart, an improvisor. I think I’m always trying to write pop songs; I’m not trying to be weird or experimental, but the harmonies my ears are drawn to, and the ultimate arrangements we make with the band will definitely stretch into that freaky experimentation just because it’s fun, and it feels musical, and it feels honest.
What did your writing process look like on this album?
A lot of the songs on this record I started to write during or soon after a masters program I did in London where I started to really dive into working with Ableton. Before that I had just sort of sat down at a piano and written a song, but with a lot of these I’d make a very fully-formed demo on the computer—so I’d make the bass part, a weird beat, record a bunch of vocals, play a bunch of crappy Ableton synth—and then bring that track to the band and show it to them so we could extract the most import parts of the song and almost rearrange it for the band. So I guess the writing process for this record was me on the computer, writing with Ableton.
Are there any artists or albums you listened to while you were writing recording that inspired Puff?
I think I was inspired, to be honest, by my fellow students at school. It was more of a friend-inspiration; some of my friends were really deep into production at the time, so that inspired me to jump into it. I also discovered Jessie Ware when I was living in London, and I really liked her first tracks she was releasing.
Actually, yesterday I went to lunch at a friends house—I’m in Montreal right now—and she played me a song from the Thom Yorke album The Eraser and said “This makes me think of your song!” and I was like, “uh oh” (laughs). And I’d listened to that record a lot when it first came out, and now that I listen to it, I think there’s probably a direct influence there to the song he was referencing, eventhough it came out years earlier. But in terms of the whole album, I’m not sure if there’s one specific band we can really align ourselves with.
What about non-musical influences?
When I first started diving into these songs, I was reading a lot about biophilia and different philosophers that speak to being in the world what your sense of reality is, your sense of self. Like Heidegger—that sounds super academic, but I was interested in that a lot, actually. That and walking around and pulling inspiration and influences from conversations I would be having with people. It’s more of an observational type of writing for me lyrically, rather than writing about really deeply personal experiences.
Pop and experimental, as genres, are seem like relative opposites, but this EP really seems to balance the two effectively. Was this something you were aware of while making the record?
It’s kind of something I’m conscious of, but I think it has a lot to do with the people I play music with too. Everyone in the band is kind of, at heart, an improvisor. I think I’m always trying to write pop songs; I’m not trying to be weird or experimental, but the harmonies my ears are drawn to, and the ultimate arrangements we make with the band will definitely stretch into that freaky experimentation just because it’s fun, and it feels musical, and it feels honest.
In the track premiere for “St. Lucia” Stereogum referred to Bernice as your “experimental pop alter ego,” is that how you view Bernice?
That could be accurate. I felt pretty strongly about not using my own name, so maybe it’s more about what I didn’t want, rather than me crafting this character on stage. Because I’m definitely not being anyone other than myself, but it seems like something separate from my own life, for sure, so it was nice to draw that line and call it something else.
Bernice was my grandmother’s name actually—my mom’s mom—who I never knew, so I don’t really have a strong personal association with the name, but it still relates to who I am, my identity.
As a bonus, we had Robin make a Spotify playlist. Here that is: