Miel and D'Ari of the musical duo VILLAS invited us into their Prince Edward County farmhouse to discuss their music, their transition out of the city, and their non-profit program Dark Spark.
How did you guys meet?
M: Long answer. I was travelling in Northern Africa and I had a one-way ticket to a placement in Rwanda after graduating from school. I had basically written a couple of songs on my guitar. This was years ago, when I was doing more of a singer song-writer focus. I was always in this cafe in the middle of the Sahara desert and I get this email from a tour manager at the time who had heard some of my music online. He said I would love to introduce you to this person D’Ari from this other band, are you going to be in Toronto on September the 10th. I was in the Sahara desert and this is September the 5th! I was compelled to go so I told him I would be there.
D: Despite the fact that you were supposed to be travelling for a year.
M: Yes, this was an intuitive feeling, so I got off this plane and got brought backstage at this amphitheatre and D’Ari was actually the first person I met.
D: She was getting off the tour bus of Jack Johnson’s after playing him a few songs. Then like a week later I was going on a North American tour with an Australian artist named Xavier Red and in that week between meeting Miel and me leaving to tour, we demoed some music together - she gave me a demo CD - and I was really into the music so we got together to flush out ideas and sort of jam and co-create and she ended up, through a series of ridiculous events, on tour with my band at the time and Xavier Red. So that is how we got to know each other.
M: Yeah we were just in a band together on a North American tour.
D: Totally not like making out or anything, it was just all about music.
How long has this project been going on?
D: Good question. This is a very new project.
M: Yeah, I mean it was kind of something else before what it is now. We’ve both been working in some way on this project for like four plus years but it’s only kind of recently come out so I don't really know.
D: We both had our own very different projects and they were in their own genres and in their own realm. It was actually a great case study for arts funding because the reason we landed where we landed is because Miel had received a grant for a spoken word record from the Ontario arts school and we tried to do that at first with just no music.
M: Well, the stipulations for it was that you were not supposed to have any music involved with it and I called them up and was like I’m a musician too and I don’t know how to do this. They were like there’s a really fine line between spoken word and music so that’s fine and those early demos sort of evolved into what it is now - which is very different. Before it was sing-songwriter based sort of like Indie rock world and now we are writing with the producers and electronic music.
D: But the first producer relationship we ever developed where we went into the realm of electronic music was in attempt to put together the spoken word thing. So it started our relationship with someone who became a full-time collaborator on this project. This had nothing attached to it, it felt separate from the things we were pursuing artistically. We didn’t need it to earn us money, we didn’t need to promote it, it was just like making something for the sake of making something. It was through that process of diving into that that this new character and these new ideas started to develop. The person that was doing the production, who was giving us these pieces of music to do spoken word stuff over was also a huge pop producer - his favourite artist was Britney Spears. Which is funny, because that is the opposite side of the spectrum for us and where we came from. So it challenged us and opened our minds to a different realm. This project in many ways has become a response to not understanding what gets this Katy Perry/Britney Spears guy excited and how can we make pop, a genre of music that is about connecting with as many people as possible, that doesn’t make us want to saw our faces off. That we would also listen to with the standard we have as music fans. I personally became obsessed with that, like how can we make catchy music that is appealing but change the narrative so it’s not about the same thing that every other pop song is about. Sort of make it challenging in some ways. That’s how this project came to be. The reason, like Miel said, it’s been four years in the making is because the first few years of that we had no idea what it was going to be, what direction it was going, what our sound was. We were just creating things in this new paradigm and people just started to take interest.
So how long have you guys actually known each other?
M: About a decade.
E: And you’ve been making music this whole time?
M: Yeah, in many different genres.
D: In the beginning it was very much she had her own project and I would just sit there with a microphone and just listen to what she was working and offer criticism and feedback and vice versa. It was very much was kind of the spirit with which we entered into this project. It was her grant but I was kind of there helping to put it together. We have always worked that way, took interest in each other’s art right from the beginning.
Where does your musical backgrounds begin? Did you go to school for music?
M: Yeah it was just kind of something that evolved - I always sang in choirs and took piano lessons as a kid. Other than that, I am mostly self-taught.
D: I think Miel more than me is beyond just music, she is a writer. The first thing I noticed right away when I put on that demo tape for the first time, you know she has a beautiful voice and there is cool melodies and all that, but it was the narratives and the way she strings words together. Right from the get-go, and even today, to me you are like a writer first. We are talking like stacks of journals and books and ideas that go on for days, there is no shortage of material. Sometimes I feel like going back to it and looking at it for inspiration. On my side of things, I had a little bit more formal music training than Miel did. I was always a kid that always got what I needed, or felt that I needed and then stopped and moved on to the next thing. So I studied piano, guitar, and vocals formally but never took any one of those things through to formal mastery. I grew up in a very musical household and had a musical childhood. I had one musical parent and one that is not musical at all.
Have you guys always been based in the County?
M: No, we were in Toronto for a while, three years or so and then we moved here.
What inspired your move from Toronto?
M: It was really random. Friends of ours had bought a farm here and we came to a new year’s eve party here. At the time D’Ari was looking for a space to do pre-production for an album he was working on. So we rented this house - not this house, a different one - for the month of April and had the whole band up there. We all lived in this house for a month and felt what was rural living was all about. In the last week, D’Ari’s mom came to visit and we were driving around and found this power-sale abandoned farm house. There was no bathrooms or kitchen it was just floors and walls, mice were living in it. D’Ari’s mom said you guys should put in an offer. We were in our early 20s and we put an offer in, mostly as a joke. It turns out there was 9 other offers but we ended up getting it. So we were living in downtown Toronto and I was working as a breakfast waitress… I was like what the hell am I going to do out there!
D: One of the safety nets of putting in an offer on a house is that you can put conditions in, if the conditions aren't met you can retract the offer. So one of the conditions for us was financing - no one was going to finance us. We were not thinking about buying a house, we were not prepared to buy a house. There is a pattern of this throughout our history, but it just turned out that the person who owned the mortgage on the house had a private mortgage investment company. His brother had passed away and left him and his sister a bunch of money and they started a mortgage company with it. This guy’s brother is a Canadian hall-of-fame rock and roll guitar player. So he was sympathetic to musicians, he was like this is what my brother would have wanted. He said no we can make this happen, I like you guys, and it went from oh this would be a funny thing to try to like this could be our only shot to get in the game. There have been many things happen like that from the time we met. They just defy logic - just crazy illogical risks that work out or the stars aligning in a particular way, it happens all the time.
Has there been a change in the genre of your music since you moved out here?
M: Well, I mean we completely changed genres, changed absolutely everything. So, yes. I think the topics we write about are a lot different now. One of the things we realized moving out here is that you have to get very real with yourself when you are living rurally in isolation. You don’t have the same kind of community or distraction that you have in an urban environment. I think it lends itself to more space and clarity and in a lot of ways better mental of health, but in some ways worse mental health. For me personally, it brought out mental health issues that I had been struggling with already for a long time. It comes out in a more real way because there is nothing to distract you from it. Those themes started coming out more vividly in the music we were writing.
D: We were a couple that made fairly rootsy kind of singer/songwriter country, all acoustic instruments when we lived in the city but then when we actually moved out to the country we started creating very urban, digital work, like the opposite of our landscape. It’s kind of weird right, we moved out here and you'd think it would inspire country records and instead the whole texture, everything changed. Now it’s a very urban, digital sounding, modern thing even though we live in a 150 year old Loyalist farmhouse in the middle of nowhere (laughs). And the county wasn't always like it is now. I'm sure you've met cool and interesting people here and there are quite a few young people now, but it was not like this when we moved here. It was like “young family moves in surrounded by old white people that don’t want to talk to them,” and there was no winery down the street.
So you've seen a change in the county in the time that you've lived here?
D: Big time. I think when we moved here there were like definitely a few super cool, young, energetic people
M: Chrissy was here!
D: Yeah so there were definitely groups of people who were from here, left and went to school, travelled, and came back. And then there were also tons of people who are county through and through!There are so many awesome characters!
D: On our first day back in this house after we bought it, because we hadn't really been back here between putting in our offer and when we moved, it was suddenly summer and the grass was like 5 feet tall! Like you live in the city you think you know everything and you're tapped in, in touch, and progressive but when you move out here you realize there is a whole other set of wisdom that you know nothing about. So I didn’t know how to cut grass that tall! I've never had to do that before!
N: How do you cut grass that tall?
D: You get a bush hog!
N: What is that?!
D: Exactly. I said the same thing and now I know how to rig one up to a tractor and do it. It’s a big six foot long lawn mower blade that you pull behind a tractor and it can chop up young trees and waist tall grass! So that was a huge part of moving here, was figuring out how to adjust to it here.
E: Did you have any doubts in moments like that?
M: Oh I didn’t want to move here at all. When we got the house it was very much just a good exercise to go through and when we got the call I was like "fuck that," like what am I going to do out there. Like there were dead animals still in the house even.
E: You had to build the house completely?
M: Yeah, it was five years of renovations. In those first five years there were lots of challenges. I got pregnant unexpectedly and so we had a baby and living in a house while it was being renovated, there were tons of times where I thought, oh my god what have we done. But I mean ultimately once you're through it all, its great.
D: And we were lucky that the County continued to grow.
Every year there are more like minded people and artists moving out here and people starting businesses. I think the one thing that connects all of the people that drop their lives in another location and move here is a bit of insanity that we appreciate in people, you know, that willingness to take a risk and do something that's not comfortable or easy.
That's kind of a foundational quality of people that have moved here. It's nice because generally if you meet someone there is common ground. It's like well ok, we know you're crazy in a good way…
E: But we are too, so it's ok?
M & D: Yes, exactly.
Maybe you could tell us a little bit about your EP Medicine!
M: Well it’s a collection of songs. I don’t know, this album was kind of written a few times over. We've written a ton and scrapped a lot of it and wrote more. We will have a lot of stuff that will be coming out this year but the first EP was meant to sort of be an introduction to us as people, as a couple. We have a lot of alternative beliefs about what that means, what relationships mean, what family means, in addition to having a lot to say about mental illness and autonomy. I think it's our take on alternative pop music that not just bubblegum but has a lot of substance and meaning to the lyrics.
E: How long ago was it released?
M: Around 8 months ago.
E: Do you have anything lined up for the future?
M: Yeah we have a bunch of stuff! We have a full album of material that we're not quite sure how it's going to be released,if it's going to come out as another EP or a bunch of singles or a full album but we are in the planning stages of figuring that out.
D: That initial EP was us wanting to put something out there. I think that's part of the reason why we've taken our time in releasing the next part is that the first release was to create some back story. We wanted there to be something there so when someone is introduced to VILLAS, when they went and searched there would be stuff, it wouldn't be like “oh you've released one single and I like it a lot, what else is there,” which seems to happen quite a bit now. Who knows if that's the right call, but at the time we released that we were sitting on other material, so if you were to come to a VILLAS live show, you'd be hearing stuff from Medicine but you'd also be hearing the rest of the stuff we recorded in that era and soon you'll be hearing the stuff we're working on now and are about to take into the finishing stages.
How much of the music happens here in this house?
D: All of it has been written here, with the exception of little things, if we've been traveling. We're generally not far away from a microphone or a studio set up, so even if we are traveling we're traveling with gear, we're working all the time. It seems like there's never a moment where we're not working on something or finishing something. But also you just never know when that inspiration is going to strike. I've always been really good at recording everything, even when I don't have a set up. So all of Medicine and all of the things leading up to that, like Miel said we've thrown out two - three full length records of material in the process of figuring out in the pop context what are we, who are we, how does this work, what do we like. But it's all been for the most part tracked here, arranged here, a lot of the production done here, and written here for the most part. We mixed the record at the flagship studio for Universal Records in LA. It's a place called No Excuses which is another one of those serendipitous things that happened. M: So most of it's done here. We work out of our home studio the most.
What are the biggest challenges and advantages of where you're located?
M: I think the biggest positive is just having space. We've got a large house, we're able to have our own studio, we don't have to pay for parking, or anything like that. When we were in Toronto we had rent plus a rehearsal facility and parking and and and. So we can just kind of amalgamate all of those. The worst thing is definitely community. I find there's not a really thriving young artistic community here.
D: Well musically anyways.
M: At least similar to the art that we're creating. And even in visual arts it's not a very youthful artistic community. It's a lot of retirees, aside from Chrissy, Kyle, and a handful of others. So that's challenging. We really have to make trips to Toronto often just to try and network with people, to build that community up and meet producers and collaborators because they don't exist here.
D: Though we do rent our farm, if we're away we'll do air b&b here or we'll make it available and leave if we get a good renter. We've been lucky in that one of the music industry people that we know we met because they rented our house, and we connected and hung out throughout their rental and remained friends.
M: This place continues to surprise, nowadays you can go to a place like the Drake Devonshire and meet someone who's in from Toronto. We met our drummer at a BBQ here in the county. The label manager for Arts and Crafts, one of the most relevant labels in the country, just bought a house 10 minutes from here around the corner, so these people who are almost not accessible in the city are here on vacation and you run into them at the farmer's market and suddenly you're having dinner with them and that has happened a bunch of times. You just never know.
D: I think the growth of the county is a love hate thing. I think we love it but there are little things about it that are frustrating. It’s like when you go to your spot that used to be the spot that only you and a couple of friends knew about that you loved to hang out at and there's 20 cars there and a bunch of Toronto people drinking fancy beers. So that's disappearing but whatever! Overwhelmingly I think it's a great thing.
If you could collaborate with any artist, who would it be and why? Dead or alive.
D: Alive, I would say Damian Marley, because I'm Jamaican, and because one of the things I respect most about him is his ability to blend genres. So when I listen to his music I can feel classic Reggie, I can feel dance hall, I can feel hip hip, I can feel pop. I love that, and I also love how he's someone that has managed to stay relevant but also have a socially conscious message that doesn't feel like someone is shoving it in your face. It doesn't come across as preachy, it's just his brand, it's his thing. And also because I imagine it happening in Jamaica. (laughs)
M: I'm really into Rihanna these days. I appreciate her fierceness and badassery and I think she's making some of the strongest pop music out there right now. I haven't been a fan of any of her previous work, but she's in a phase that I really like right now.
D: The post “Bitch Better Have My Money” phase. Is that where you think it turned for you Miel?
M: Yeah I would say so. I also like Kanye a lot, as polarizing as he is, I think he's a genius and I think it would just be amazing to be in a state of collaboration with him. Probably infuriating as well but it would be an experience. In terms of vocalists I'd probably love to sing with Eva Cassidy. She's one of my favourite vocalists ever.
Do you have any specific routines that you follow to get yourselves in a writing mood?
M: I wish we did. Because we're running this not-for-profit as well, right now it's like we're trying to fit writing in every day but there's no rhyme or reason to anything. I certainly would love if we had more of a routine around it but it's just not always possible with life.
We'd love to hear about your not-for-profit.
M: It's called Dark Spark and it's transformative arts education basically. We run programming in schools across Canada using songwriting and recording. We've used our programming to teach standardized units of curriculum, we could go into a grade eight class and teach about water systems using songwriting and recording. So basically I'll teach a unit of curriculum, we teach them about songwriting, we break into groups, students write songs about whatever the concept is, and D’Ari sets up a mobile recording studio, records the students, mixes and masters them, and then we present the work to the community and the school. But in the past couple of years we've been running this project called Four Directions which works exclusively with Indigenous schools in Canada. We're going in and discussing the colonial history of Canada and the impact it's had on the students, their families, their communities and the country as a whole. I'll teach a unit on colonial history and the impact it's had and it's a real collaborative experience because then the community and the students inform us of the ways those things have impacted them and write really powerful songs about all kinds of things related to that very heavy topic.
D: It's cool because it's not just groups of students writing songs about how hard it is or how much it's messed their communities up, we get some of that but we also get very uplifting stuff about the ways of overcoming these things or things about the Indigenous experience in Canada that people would never think about or consider. It's very eye opening in that way. We've done this project going into these communities for four years, five years, and now since forming this non profit and organizing a little more and structuring things we're trying to improve on the quality of the material, the quality of the audio despite always having to record in the photocopy room in the school. So better video, better photos, better audio, and now our focus as an organization is to take all this material, the media, the stories, the songs and package that into a toolkit that can be used in non-Indigenous schools that can help teach colonial history from a First Nations perspective, with a dialogue led by Indigenous communities.
M: They are kind of like lesson plans where the crux of the lesson plan is one of these songs. A lot of these songs are incredible powerful. We had a group of boys at Quinte Mohawk School, here in Tyendinega write a song called Road Block, about missing and murdered Indigenous women and the impact it's had on them as youth and the fear associated with that. We might build a lesson plan around using that song. So grade eight students are then listening to other grade eight students educate them about things that don't impact them as kids in another community. And then there's all of the actual curriculum and historical context to back that song up. It involves multimedia and engagement in a different way. Also, today, their learning style is so different because everyone is used to screens and engagement is a real challenge that a lot of schools face.The province and the country have just kind of mandated that this material needs to be taught in schools with varying degrees of success. A lot of non-Indigenous schools are so terrified of teaching it.
D: Everyone is walking on eggshells right, like how does a white teacher in Rosedale Toronto, bring up this issue and feel confident, even if they want to? I’m sure there are many teachers that don't even want to deal with it but even if they're someone who cares about these issues. So we're focused on gathering all the materials and I think it's going to end up being more like a tech product, something that can be delivered digitally really really cheap and make available for all schools across the country and then building some kind of online community where all of these schools can communicate and check in on each other and view materials and try to create an ongoing dialogue between Federal schools, Indigenous schools, and every other school in the country. So that is sort of the large mission of this project centers around, but we also are kind of excited working with LGBTQ communities and Muslim youth. Our programming is really great for creating dialogue for understanding for the other.
M: We were hired by a school board in Ottawa last year to come in and work with different groups of refugee students that have recently come to Canada, and that was really powerful because these students were often paired with Indigenous youth or queer youth, and they were trying to come together to create a piece of art about unity and inclusion. There were just so many varying viewpointS but to see them all come together it was amazing. In this one school that was a Catholic school, the teacher was a lesbian, she was teaching religion, and in the group that I was working with there was two refugees who had recently come from Africa who spoke openly about how if somebody was gay in their community they were killed. That was their framework. In that same group there was a transgender kid who was just transitioning twelve years old, asking to be called by a different name, and identifying now as a man. And there were two Indigenous kids in this samegroup. They were all trying to write a song from one common perspective. You can just see the power of music because the one thing that they could all relate to is that they all loved music.
D: I think if you put that group together and handed them to a facilitator or teacher and said help them to find some common ground and figure this out, I don't know where you would even begin. But by the end they were able to find it and create something cool. And we still get surprises from the work. Something we never considered when working with refugees was that a lot of them are still learning english, and there are kids that struggle with certain sounds or syllables that they don't use in their first language. In the process of writing and recording there's a lot of repetition. So for example a kid that couldn't say the word “the,” from the process of going through the program and the word “the” being in some line that they're recording, through rehearsal and the recording they will say the word a hundred times or so without thinking about it. By the end of the experience, we come out of there 4 or 5 days later and their pronunciation and language skills had changed. Which is not something we'd pitched as being a benefit of our project, it's something we hadn't even thought of, but we're still surprised in how that experience can benefit them. But it also benefits us! We learn so much, and gain in the moment problem solving skills.
M: It helps us as songwriters too. In that span of two days we write five completed songs from a variety of perspectives and try to include everyone's voice but still have a good melody and good lyrical content.
D: We're not writing a song for VILLAS, we're helping to facilitate a songwriting project with these kids, and just helping a kid who isn't a songwriter, helping them to make little tweaks. The amount of their songs that get stuck in our heads! We're like man, why isn't it that easy for us! Why can't we sit down and write five songs in a day like these kids. The first thing that comes to them is always so catchy because they're not freaking out or being critical of themselves. It's like oh shit, maybe we should just be saying randomly the first thing and let it go. But we're hyper analytical. It's also nice to just do something that isn't the self promotion that is necessary for artists. So for us having an area to focus on that isn't that is a relief and heartwarming and challenging in a different way.
M: It also reminds us of why we started doing this in the first place, you see first hand how songwriting is a medium to create change in people's lives and as a method of expression. We're often in communities with a lot of extremely disadvantaged youth that don't have the resources or outlets to express the very difficult things they're experiencing in their lives. For me writing was always my outlet when I was younger which transitioned into songwriting so I think it's powerful to be a part of delivering a skill set that could help somebody ease whatever pain they're experiencing.
D: Yeah the challenge of having someone tell you we're going to do this, and they're like, “we're not going to do this, we're not singing, especially on camera, and we're not going to be able to write something,” and having them go through the whole process of taking on the challenge, hitting obstacles, overcoming them, figuring out how to make the product, even if someone isn't super interested in songwriting it's always a success and they always feel that they've accomplished something or created something. It's the reason why it always translates. And even the ones that don't participate, there are a few kids that sit on the sidelines, they witness this whole thing happening and they learn so much about each other.
Where did it all start from? Where did the initial idea for this program come from?
M: I got hired through Learning Through the Arts which is an organization facilitated through the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and they basically partner artists with classrooms to teach units of curriculum. It's just teaching in an arts based way. The first contract that I had was at Quinte Mohawk School. I was hired to teach a unit of history using music basically and through that one program I just thought this could be so much more powerful if we recorded it and took it further, so I got Dari involved and we created our own thing because we saw how powerful it could be. And luckily Quinte Mohawk had us back a bunch of times and then we kind of developed it to a point where we were able to branch out to other schools.
D: Again, not a thing we ever planned to do that now takes up a huge portion of our time.
N: That's pretty special, to find something that gives back.
M: Yeah and it's arts based, rooted in music but not, there's a lot of other skill sets that come into play, and it's fulfilling in a different way.
D: And we get to travel to places we would never otherwise get to see.
M: It's a special opportunity to get to connect with Indigenous peoples in Canada in remote communities that otherwise no body thinks of a reason to go there.