Canadian garage-rock/pop band Mise en Scene is set to release its radiant and resonant second album, Still Life On Fire, June 30th via Light Organ Records in Canada and the US. Co-founders of Mise en Scene, Stefanie Blondal Johnson (songwriter, vocalist, guitarist) and Jodi Dunlop (drums), are joined by bassist Corey Hykawy and newest member, Dave Gagnon on lead guitar.
The band has been quite busy over the past few months, releasing lead single “Young Leo” and its video, premiering a risqué video for the rip-roaring “Closer” via Playboy (!), debuting melancholically wistful new tune “Guts/Glory” via Ghettoblaster, and revealing the vibrant “The Light In The Night” at The Big Takeover.
Stefanie takes some time out of the band’s current action-packed schedule to delve into the thematic and sonic details of the new album, the act’s musical past and evolving style, and what the (bright) future holds for Mise en Scene.
Northern Transmissions: Hello Stefanie! Nice to connect with you and find out more about you and Mise en Scene – right before the release of your second album, Still Life On Fire. What have preparations been like for its release?
Stefanie Blondal Johnson: The preparations have been intense but good! I’m so happy we have been able to release singles leading up to the release so people can listen to some of the album before it comes out.
NT: From what I understand, you and Jodi were friends first and then formed Mise en Scene. How has your friendship helped in the development of your music?
SBJ: Our friendship has always been one centered on creativity and expression so our music has always had a safe place to grow and develop into something honest and genuine. We don’t judge each other on how we put songs together and the stylistic choices we make, so the songs get to take on a life of their own; they become bigger than just us as individuals; they become something bigger than all of us together. We know we are stronger together than apart, so there is no ego in the creative process. We’re also good at creative problem-solving (thanks art school!), so we find it’s really easy to create together because our music and friendship is built on trust and understanding.
NT: You are also of the DIY school of learning, for the most part self-taught on guitar, drums, and singing – and songwriting! How easy, or difficult, was it to reach your current proficiency in playing guitar and drums?
SBJ: Jodi is a jazz-trained punk drummer. I’m the one who is self-taught. I taught myself how to play guitar and how to sing, but writing is something I’ve always been good at and have always done. I’ve always had a “book” since I was a kid where I wrote poetry and sketched in, so writing songs has always been a very natural approach (I also have a degree in English, so I continued to refine my writing skills after high school).
My guitar-playing and my voice have always influenced each other, so they grew together. More recently my guitar has become a support for my voice and the lyrics, but is also the driving rhythm and reverb distortion that has become our sound.
It’s hard to say what has influenced what at this point; as long as you are being creative, the pieces always find their place. I’ve never really thought about my current proficiency in any of the instruments. I’ve never let how easy or difficult playing an instrument to get in my way or affect my process. It’s all about the songs; if you don’t have the songs, you don’t have anything.
NT: Who is the songwriter in the band or do you share songwriting duties?
SBJ: I’m the main songwriter, but more recently we’ve been sitting down and creating songs together from the ground floor. Other times I’ve come to the band with a good skeleton (vocals, lyrics, chord progression, and some melodies) and the rest of the band works it out. I’m the main lyricist though; it’s weird to sing other people’s feelings and ideas for me. That has to come from the heart in order for me to feel I’m being honest and genuine in my performances.
NT: Who else is currently in the band?
SBJ: Corey! MY COCO! My rhythm, my bass, my main man! Corey’s been with us for a while now and was a part of creating and recording Still Life on Fire. We are very lucky to have such an awesome person with so much creativity working with Mise en Scene. We are also working with a lead guitarist, Dave, for our live performances and future recordings.
NT: From what I’ve read, it was hard to start creating Still Life On Fire. What was the spark that made it come together?
SBJ: It was hard to start creating Still Life on Fire because we were so busy touring around the world after the release of Desire’s Despair all those years ago. With all the whirlwind touring I found myself with writer’s block and had a hard time digesting all the experiences of touring and being in so many amazing different countries.
I had to figure out what I wanted to say on this album, that’s why I decided to do a musician’s residency at the Banff Centre; I needed to get out of my home environment and lock myself in a cabin in the mountains and write for two months. That’s where most of Still Life on Fire was conceived. There wasn’t really a spark, as much as a complete outpour of emotions once I broke through the writer’s block. Two weeks into my residency, those flood gates opened, and it was hard for my hand to keep up with the thoughts in my head. I couldn’t write fast enough!
NT: You’ve said, and I’m paraphrasing, that your new album is your statement of intent. What do you mean by that and what is the overarching concept that lights up Still Life On Fire?
SBJ: The new album is definitely a statement of my headspace after everything I had been collecting and considering over the last two and a half years of heavy touring and international festivals. Most of what I was reflecting on was about the world around me, the pressures surrounding it, and the fight to find true meaning in one’s life.
The album has an emotional arc, beginning much darker in musical themes and lyrical content. It questions (sometimes bitterly) the world and our role in it and how fragmented we have become, in love and in the world. More angry and frustrated than anything, the album slowly grows into itself; realizing that complaining about the world around you does nothing. The album begins resolving itself when the title track of the album asks: “Is it still life on fire? Are you still living your life? Are you awake in your happiness?”
The songs following the title track are about love found, accepting some of the negative realities of life, learning about yourself, confronting yourself, and wanting to be on the side of light instead of the dark side. The album ends longing for the world to be better; to lead with positivity and light, not darkness and negativity. For me, through the ups and the downs, it’s “Still Life on Fire”, my life is still on fire, I’m alive and I’m awake.
NT: How much input did other people, like the producer or other musicians, have on the final product?
SBJ: We worked collaboratively with our amazing producer, Mike Nash (Montreal). We did pre-production with him, which was great because we were all able to get into the groove and the concept of the album before we stepped into the studio. Nash had just as much input as we did when we were in the studio. We fought for what was right for the song, not what was best for our egos. We trusted Nash with our songs, and Nash trusted us. It was a beautiful time working together.
NT: Why did you name the band Mise en Scene? Does it have to do with an affinity for the cinematic, dramatic, and or story-telling parts of the film realm?
SBJ: Jodi and I were both art school kids who studied photography; I also studied film and video, so naturally we understood the meaning of the term. It’s interesting how our music has this cinematic quality to it, but that wasn’t why we named ourselves that. To be honest, art always has been and will continue to be a big part of who we are as people and as a band; it was only fitting to us at the time that our band name represented something art-related and Mise en Scene was it.
NT: Speaking of which, do certain films influence the lyrics or atmosphere of specific songs?
SBJ: Right now I would say they do in a very indirect way. Having studied film theory and filmmaking intensely, I can’t deny that it must live within me somewhere. Our last album had a song called “Paris, Texas” which was directly influenced lyrically and musically by the film, but currently our influences are coming from improvised sessions together.
NT: You’ve been described with the tags indie rock/pop, alternative rock/pop, garage rock/pop, punk and riot grrrl. Do all these descriptors fit? Does it depend on the song?
SBJ: I think it depends on where you are coming from. I’m sure to some people we apply to all of those and to others; maybe none of them. It doesn’t bother me much to be categorized, however it is not something I concern myself with. I make an effort not to think about genre too much because I want to make sure that the music we make isn’t “influenced” by the subjective understanding and constantly changing nature of genre. I want the music to be free, always. Free in its content, in production, in performance. I always want to make sure we are free within our art, because if you aren’t then you lose your voice, your honesty, your message.
Energetically kicky and melodic “Closer” recalls The Muffs sonically and compositionally, and Hole and Bikini Kill vocally. Would you say those are some of your touchstone bands, or am I way off base here?
For me, those weren’t my influencers on that song, but I’m so happy to hear where it takes you. I’m much more interested in what art and music makes others feel than what I was actually feeling or “going for” when I was writing it. When a song is born, it has a life. You must let it grow up and live its life. The only thing that matters is what it means to you; intent is irrelevant.
NT: Do you have a favorite song off the album because of the lyrics or the sonics?
SBJ: The title track “Still Life on Fire.” I love what Nash did with the production and I love the chord progression on this song. It’s a beautiful song. I love getting lost in it during a performance.
NT: How has living in Winnipeg, Canada shaped you and your music? Did you create both LPs while residing in Canada?
SBJ: Yes, both LPs were created in Canada. Living in Winnipeg has shaped our music big-time. We live in a hyper-creative hub, with intense winters and seasons, and a healthy, thriving, growing music scene.
NT: You delivered your debut album, Desire’s Despair, in 2012. What has your musical trajectory been like from that record to your new one? Has your view on the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle called life changed or been refined over this time period?
SBJ: Oh yeah, our view on this thing called life is reflected clearly on Still Life on Fire. It’s definitely a timestamp on where we are in life, our opinions and feelings on the music industry, the world, love, relationships. This album is a reflection on the time spent traveling in this world as a musician. Our trajectory has been intense and steady. With the places we’ve been, the faces we’ve met, and the music we’ve heard around the world, our path to this new album has been an emotional and educational one.
NT: You received worldwide acclaim for Desire’s Despair and ended up touring across Canada – and Germany – and playing renowned SXSW in the US (this year), the Primavera Sound Festival in Spain, The Great Escape in England, and also a show in Paris. What was your experience playing the big fests and traveling to other countries?
SBJ: INTENSE, but as mentioned, educational. Jodi and I always check out all the major art galleries, and make sure we get to enjoy the countries and cities we are in. We’ve learnt so many things about the kindness of strangers, the reason why the masters of art are known as “the masters”, how universal music is, but most importantly how precious time is. Playing these big festivals is always a humbling experience. I’m always grateful to be playing amongst my contemporaries and the people who I look up to at these amazing festivals. Music has been one great big adventure for us; we are so lucky to be able to see the world through music.
NT: Will you be gigging in support of your new album?
Absolutely!!!!! The fun is just beginning! We can’t wait to get on the road and share our new album with the world. I can’t wait to get back overseas, to play our home country and go south.
Interview by Jen Dan