I was lucky to see Bernice in the year before COVID, opening for Sandro Perri at the Tranzac, sometime late in 2019. My memory of the event is still quite vivid, being one of the last shows I attended before things went indefinitely remote.
It doesn’t take much digging to know that Robin and the group of friends that make up Bernice are some, dare I say, serious musicians who thrive precisely in not taking themselves so seriously. That’s more rare than one might think. It can be a welcome balm in an age of showy indie acts. To see Bernice play is like being invited into a greater conversation where everyone is given room and time to talk, listen, and even laugh.
It’s not just the jazz-informed interplay and improvisation from its members but in the patient, inviting nature in which they make their songs — stories and sounds that trickle past the margins of the performance itself and lend a personality to the room and even the relationship with its listeners. It’s music that feels distinctly honest and kind, something we all need a bit more of in these times.
Whether or not that accurately describes the beauty and impact of Bernice’s work, well, just listen to the recent single ‘Groove Elation’ and find out for yourself. Their new album ‘Eau De Bonjourno’ comes out March 5th on Telephone Explosion with another single set to drop soon.
In the meanime, Robin was generous enough to make us her own virtual mixtape and answered some questions. See that and the tracklist below!
I guess to start things off, how are you? What are you up to these days? Or, rather, how are you keeping yourself busy, happy, or healthy?
R: I am doing fine. Thanks for asking. It's winter, the classic perpetual grey of Toronto, and I'm spending time with my nephews as often as I can, doing yoga almost every day, watching The Bachelor and then obsessively listening to the Game of Roses podcast, making some music, feeling confused!
Your new record comes out so soon! I might ask some ham-fisted questions about that first. Like the title, Eau De Bonjourno — is there a story behind that?
R: We've been a band for ten years - with slightly changed membership - and most of us have known each other for longer than that. With that much time, as I'm sure people can relate to, languages emerge, ways of being together.
Last year we toured a lot and a coping mechanism that just sort of happened was that no matter how rough we were feeling, tired, cranky, homesick or fussy about finding the *right coffee* before our 10 hour drive across the rust belt or where have you, we'd emerge from our sleepy selves and smile our best smile at each other and say "bonjourno!" (or "bonjwerno" or "bunjurni to you!" etc etc). This helped.
And then while writing the album, I got obsessed with songs existing not as complete entities, or finished stories, but rather as these gathered collections of sound and meaning that sort of live inside a vessel (a room, a head, a show), while they're being listened to or played. I'm thinking of songs as a temporary and changing things.
We also wrote most of the album on the Toronto islands, surrounded by Lake Ontario. So, Eau de Bonjourno is a reference to water, to how language is fun to play with, and also it's an intentionally cheeky "hello" from us to anyone who cares to receive it.
Since it sounds like some kind of intriguing bottled perfume, could you tell what it might smell like? Any hints?
R: Haha — you'll have to wait and see! Or smell! But off the top of my head — notes of skunk, fresh laundry, toasted sesame and a carrot just pulled from the ground.
Your single ‘Groove Elation’ has a little spoken word sample in the first minute, I was curious where that might have come from. I could make out something in French about “cheveux blanc ... ma mère”?
R: Yes! Good ears. That's a sample Thom made of Colette Magny singing "Elle a les yeux bleus, les cheveux blancs, c'est ma mère".
On the new record, you worked with Shahzad Ismaily as producer. What was that like? How did it differ from working on previous records?
R: Gosh — working with Shahzad is difficult to describe because he works in subtle ways. I think Shahzad is at heart a performing musician, a multi instrumentalist and a brilliant improviser. As far as I can gather he stumbled into recording and production as an extension of his creative life, out of curiosity and the fact that he had this amazing accumulation of gear from years and years on the road finding deals on things he couldn't resist.
Being with him felt similar, as though he wasn't there to do a job because we hired him but because he was actually curious about each of us in the band, and our collective way of making music. And he sort of brushed against that from the control room, nudging us into takes and making decisions at just the right moments. Asking questions just to push our buttons or make us laugh, and inviting us to walk his daughter (he's an utterly devoted dad) to the park, taking us to a Russian spa in Manhattan at midnight.
So his technical ability as an actual engineer and producer sort of happen amidst the bond that he's looking to develop with each person, and his legendary sense of humour, and his perpetual, graceful momentum through life.
It’s been about three years since the last Bernice album, which was released on Arts & Crafts. Any personal growth or learnings from then or since that you can speak of that has maybe influenced this album? (Big question, I know.)
R: Oof, I've learned a lot! Respecting my pace is key, coming back to music, coming back to our community of musicians has been really important. Getting out of the future-past thought. We never intend for so much time to pass between releases.
I’m curious about the idea of location in relation to your music. I was reading past interviews tracing your history studying jazz at UofT, teaching English in Paris, a Master’s Program in London, courses on ethnomusicology, etc. I guess I wanted to know your thoughts behind how certain places and time have affected your songwriting or relationship with music…
R: A lot of my songs get written, or at least the important bits do, while I'm moving or doing something other than sitting at the desk: walking, biking, sleeping, washing dishes, listening to music. I feel as though my brain can loosen up, and that windows and doors to ideas open more freely when my physical body is otherwise occupied. I guess, for that reason, most of the songs I write are very tied to space and time!
But unlike some songwriters who have amazing recall for when a lyric occurred to them or when a certain chord landed, I often completely forget the writing process of a song once it enters the realm of the living - once I'm performing it, have recorded it, etc. I guess the songs travel with me and so their birth stories really lose interest / importance.
How about touring? Is that something you enjoy and would look forward to doing again? Any spots in particular you’d like to use that opportunity to go to or play at? (Or perhaps that’s just an insensitive / sore subject for artists these days! You tell me.)
R: Too sensitive :) Nah, honestly, touring is the pits and also the greatest. I'd be happy to never tour again, and also I can't wait to tour again. I don't care where we play, just that the people in the room want to be there — and that there are some people in the room :)
To finish off, we’re here in a new year — does that hold much significance for you? Any resolutions or anything like that? Let us know your thoughts or outlook for 2021.
R: I don't really feel any particular significance in the shifting of the year, that's too much weight to bear, but here's my outlook for today and the next day: Radical acceptance of my pace! Staying curious, checking in with my grandmothers more, telling everyone I love that I love them, seeking out new ways to help in my community that are in line with what I do best and what is needed.
Royal Wind Music Ensemble – Ascanio Trombetti, Diligam Te Domine
Mica Levy – Ride til we die
Genevieve Artadi – Living like I know I’m gonna die
Stella Chiweshe – Gomoriye
Coolhint – XS
Pantayo – Bronzé
Pyne (Alanna Stuart) – To Silver (Kiki Riddim)
A G Cook & Charli XCX – Cold (live at Pop Carol)
Kalbells – Hump the Beach
Brandy – Rather be
Wendy Eisenberg – Yellow Hand
Coolhint – Joy