Vanessa Dee talks country/hardcore crossover, and building community one duet at a time
Photo: Corey Poluk
BY GREGORY ADAMS
While Heartache No. 2 is a new, Vancouver-based record label and show promotion company putting plenty of shine on the city’s underground country scene, it’s more broadly a hub where arts subcultures intersect (the promotion’s next concert, for instance, is for leather-bound Portland rockers Stainless).
Those contrasts have been bubbling through Heartache No. 2 co-founder Vanessa Dandurand since her youth, having come up listening to country classics from Patsy Cline and Roger Miller before parlaying into a punk-and-hardcore-heavy teendom. Eventually, she’d book bands and tend bar for some of the city’s sickest slamfests, though these days she’s most often helping host rustic-strum country events at Vancouver spots like the Heatley and the newly-opened Painted Ship. Despite the varying sonics, it’s all part of the same continuum.
“I just spent a lot of time feeling like I belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and I realize that’s fueled my drive to make something bigger than myself,” Vanessa explains to Gut Feeling of that crossover aesthetic, adding, “I want to make things feel possible for as many people around me as I can.”
Fittingly, Heartache No. 2’s earliest releases maintain that culture jam. Last year, on her Vanessa Dee and the Brightsides’ debut EP, Covers to Lose it To, she power-crooned through Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynn covers with a backing band named after an album from one of New York Hardcore’s earliest heavy-hitters; the act also reunites Vanessa with bassist Max Sample, with whom she’d bumped out a series of Northern Soul-inspired songs in the Ballantynes.
The Brightsides’ all-originals follow up, Loving Longing Leaving, pushes the outfit into the contemporary, while nevertheless toasting the greats through tear-in-your-beer balladry (“Missed You the Most”), hay bale struts (“No Matter Where”), and danger-seeking outlaw anthems (“She Dreams of Snakes”).
Speaking with Gut Feeling, Vanessa digs deep on developing her voice with the Brightsides, the sounds that instantly send her stagediving, and what's next for Heartache No. 2.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Since you launched the Brightsides with a pair of covers, what were the first country songs you recall singing along to as a kid, and what drew you to them?
I spent a lot of time alone as a kid, or under the watch of people much older than I was while my parents were running a business. A lot of time spent flipping through records or tape collections of people my grandparents' age, and watching Jeopardy on a shag carpet. At some point that I can’t narrow down to a specific instance, Patsy Cline was cemented into my head as the ultimate female voice, and she just never left.
One of my earliest memories of music period, though, is being really young — like four or five — and it’s Roger Miller’s voice singing “Not in Nottingham.” I’ve got a lot of weird vivid memories tied to Roger Miller songs, like tagging along with my mom to a Value Village out in the Valley, being there long enough to hear “King of the Road” two or three times. [He’s] kind of a soothing soundtrack to being young and beholden to the indecisiveness of others. I think there’s some absurdity and mania to his songs that demands attention in a childlike way that was, and is, immediately relatable. I also think that there is a complexity and a sense of humour that more recently, as a major influence on this record, challenged me to reimagine how melody and phrasing take up space.
My dad and I also used to dance around to Shania Twain in the living room. I was eight when The Woman in Me came out. We had just moved to Abbotsford from the Gulf Islands, and, man, it was playing fucking everywhere. I was having a really tough time with the move, not fitting in; all the families in our neighbourhood went to church, and we did not. But I remember “Any Man of Mine” playing in my parents' old Ford Tempo on the way home from buying coconut-scented body glitter from Walmart, and feeling like I had something to talk about at school the next day. Absolute pinnacle of a rural ‘90’s kid's angst.
My mom’s side of the family is where the love of classic country comes from, so I feel like that was always around: Glen Campbell, Tammy Wynette, old western movies. But there were also long periods of time where I didn’t feel a connection to it at all. I think there is that inevitability though, as a weird and lonely kid in a small town, to do a full speed 180 from your own imagined sources of otherness. I didn’t want to feel like a hick; I didn’t want to be the heir to a perceived weakness that I now understand as generational trauma centered around poverty and mental health. I understand the universality of those struggles now, regardless of backdrop, and the power of someone putting words to things you can’t say for yourself, especially as a woman.
I’ll hear lines in songs even now that my mom sang at me as a kid, I don’t even know if she realized she was doing it. She sang “Please Release Me” when I was throwing a tantrum; she sang “Make the World Go Away” when I didn’t want to get up for school. Another one that always sticks out in my head is “Dead Skunk In the Middle of the Road” by Loudon Wainwright III. What an insane song; it makes me laugh so hard every time I think about it. Maybe that means I really am a hick, but that’s ok.
There are some obvious parallels between the Brightsides and the Ballantynes — you’ve got Max Sample playing bass in both bands; everything has been recorded with Felix Fung at Little Red Sounds — but did you approach these songs any differently, from a performance perspective?
Initially, I was trying to replicate the dynamic of being in the Ballantynes, because it was the only one I knew. We were an active band for eight years, with no lineup changes — save for one sub on one tour. We did everything together; everything was equal. Even if I was singing lead, it felt like I had a buffer [from] truly being emotionally exposed. So, I was trying to get a band together to write with, and it just wasn’t happening.
But I had also started writing a lot, and quickly. Maybe even more than I had at the beginning of the Ballantynes. So, I shifted gears entirely and started looking at [the Brightsides] as a recording project. I started picking the session players, which felt really true to the way country music gets made. Especially while immersing myself in hours and hours of footage of artists I loved, hoping to see a little bit of myself in them. I also felt like that took the pressure off asking people to commit their time to my music instead of their own music; I had a lot of self-doubt around that. I’ve been very up front with everyone: I don’t have any expectations — you belong in the band, not to the band — but I will always give you first dibs on playing the parts you wrote live. Nearly everyone’s stuck around so far. Only one drummer change, and I feel like it only got better.
I think one moment in the process that lit a fire under me was my first really purposeful meeting with Felix, when I approached him to produce the session. I told him my goals and what I had in mind, and he said, “Well, that all sounds really well thought-out, and totally possible.” And that was really all I needed to not feel like I was just another person in this city talking about making a record.
In Ballantynes there were multiple songwriters. Often, we’d all have fragments that would be cobbled together, and it felt like finishing each other’s sentences. The big difference with this project is that every song starts from the lyrics and vocal melodies I wrote alone and then brought to the band — specifically Ian Badger, for these sessions. Everyone writes around how I sing it, and every song is a real story about a real thing, which makes me feel very, very naked. But that’s what I think people are connecting to: permission to be unapologetically vulnerable and still have a sense of humour about it.
When you first got involved in the local punk and hardcore community, how often was country music hangin’ around in your headphones?
I think my young rocker years kind of paralleled a wave of alt-country and rockabilly. I listened to Lucero a lot. Their album Tennessee just turned 20 last year, [and it’s] still probably one of my favourites of all time. I would spontaneously combust if I got to play with them.
I was also a die-hard AFI fan, which is how I fell in love with Tiger Army. I remember Nick 13 coming out on stage to Hank Williams’ “Angel of Death,” and feeling like I was hearing that song for the first time, [and] realizing how dark it actually was. Still one of my all-time favourite songs in any genre. I’ve sung it live a bunch of times, but not with the Brightsides.
Rockabilly almost ended up a dirty word, but I have a Tiger Army tattoo…it is what it is. I think the issue is that there will always be some malevolent characters that try to infiltrate subcultures, and one that is nostalgic for “simpler times” can be really susceptible to some dangerous ideologues. I had a friend recently lament the lack of any “western swing nights” in town, and I kind of put on my best Steve Zahn in The Oneders voice, like, “Got it, sounds like rockabilly,” while she vehemently asserted it was something else. So maybe that’s coming back in a new form; it just needs new blood.
Did you ever get to scream on a hardcore record, whether that was a solo spot or a big gang vocal pile-on?
I never have! I’ve been invited to, [and] the idea’s been tossed around more times than I can count. At one point a few years ago I had written a bunch of lyrics and song structures that I’d imagined as a hardcore EP, but, honestly, I just don’t think that’s what my voice sounds like when it comes out of my body.
I’ll still sing along live though. Live hardcore music is still my favourite thing in the world, and nothing touches it. I’m only a couple shots of Fireball away from stagediving for Comeback Kid at any given moment.
Something that came up in your recent interview with RANGE was that you named your band the Brightsides after your favourite Killing Time album. Given the chance to explore that connection further, what Killing Time track would benefit the most from an outlaw country treatment?
Aside from loving a good sing along, I feel like there are commonalities between the two genres when it comes to tradition, and letting folks know where you came from. I think solitude and exclusion breed the urge to fly a flag and see who’s friendly to it, whether you’re alone on the range or alone in a crowd.
Even naming a project after a Killing Time song or lyric feels like a nod within a nod to something. Now me and my little honky-tonk band have this funny bond with bands like Backtrack, All Out War, or Wisdom in Chains. It makes me feel weirdly safe.
If I gotta pick, I’m going with “Fools Die,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” or “Brightside” itself, but if you looked at the lyrics for almost every single track, they could easily be a country song if you had no other context. Lamenting what could have been; wanting to see the light; time healing wounds; feeling shackled to memories; warning others what’ll happen when they cross a line. Absolutely, universally, timelessly fucking human.
You’ve been helping build a country and western community around town, whether that’s booking shows at spots like the Heatley — and soon the Painted Ship – or you and Eugene Parkomenko starting up your Heartache No. 2 label. Who are some of the other local artists you’re psyched to be bolstering, either through a gig or an upcoming release?
Truthfully, there have been several hard-working segments of the country community in Vancouver for a long time. I’ve just found myself in the right place at the right time to be able to consciously give honky-tonk a home. That’s always been what’s right for the Heatley, I just leaned into it because it’s also what I love, and I’m lucky I get to be selfish in that way. I’m seeing more and more crossover between the groups over the joy of playing music together. And that’s what happens: the show ends, and everyone grabs a couple drinks and goes to wherever’s next to keep playing music together.
If I’m plugging people I think deserve eyes on them, the first call is coming from inside the house. I gotta say my bandmates Janky Bungag and Spank Williams are both massive talents in their own rights, and me and Eug are excited to be working with them on a split through the label later this spring. That’s not announced officially yet, but it’s also not a secret, so I don’t mind saying it out loud.
I think Chaya Harvey has to be one of the most devastating voices in town right now, just a beautiful person inside and out. She’s quickly become like my little sister, and I want everything she dreams of to come true for her.
I think Paul Watkins Jr. is going to be one to watch. He truly doesn’t believe it, but the kid is the genuine article.
I think it’s worth also giving credit to North Country Collective for everything they’ve done to propel the scene forward. I think a lot of folks were kind of shocked that I wasn’t releasing this record with them, which is honestly a compliment. If you’re on North Country, you check all the boxes. They’re my brothers and I love them, I just have a different, stranger, set of boxes.
There’s actually one more person I need to include in terms of local artists, and that’s Victoria Black. She’s been a rock for me in all of this, and the music she’s been making is really fucking good. I’d be a king-sized dingus if I didn’t show her some love.
Do you have any duets lined up with those folks?
Haha…all of them? I love duets. I love singing with my friends.
I just sang a cover of Summer Dean and Colter Wall’s “You’re Lucky She’s Lonely" with Janky at our release show. I love singing with him, I’d do that one or any song really anytime. Spank and I just talked about writing some songs together; I think we might have already, in a past life. Eric and I have plans to work on a track together, too. I’m so stoked about it.
I think it feeds your soul to sing with other people. I’m open to collaborating every chance I get. I mean, that’s what it’s all about, right? Getting to make cool stuff with your friends.