Dorothea Paas

Dorothea Paas is one of Canada’s most gifted musicians

An interview with the Toronto singer following the release of her debut album Anything Can’t Happen.

With her debut full-length album Anything Can’t Happen, the Toronto singer and guitarist Dorothea Paas has emerged as one of this country’s most gifted musicians. Paas seems at home in each of what she described to me as the record’s “modes.” Her voice — not only her vocal range but, say, the way she expresses so much emotion in just her cadences — makes this possible. She moves with ease from fronting a rocking four-piece to gliding across an ambient-tinged ballad to almost psychedelically weaving through the last track’s discordance.

But maybe fragmenting the album like that does it an injustice. Paas’s arrangements are a large part of its brilliance, and each track seems to adeptly encapsulate all of these modes. And the songs feel like they could go anywhere at their outset, but as they fade out there’s a sense we’ve reached their only possible (and their most rewarding) conclusion.

What most moved me, and what really sets this record apart, is Paas’s songwriting. She has a unique ability to convey the ambivalence of emotions, somehow expressing in pithy sentences or unanswerable questions the ambiguities of self-perception or being in love or living in a city. Her songs are located in that elusive space somewhere between the universal and the personal.

As my enthusiasm betrays, I was excited to speak with Paas. Our conversation touched on the opportunities COVID took away, Toronto’s artistic communities and how she went about constructing her debut LP.

Brandon Kaufman: What’s it been like releasing a record during a pandemic?

Dorothea Paas: I think music and artists’ relationship to actually being a musician has been really complicated during the pandemic. There’s sadness and grief for a loss of this part of your life — and the kind of detachment from the interpersonal or physical element is hard. Working on music has felt sad in that sense, but ultimately I’m grateful that I’ve had something to anchor me.

I thought, I don’t know what it means to be a musician really any more, I don’t know what my future is, or if I’ll ever be able to do things the same way or if I’ll want to. But I had this project to focus on. I felt very lucky to have something tangible, something that requires my attention and work and will result in a finished product.

“Anything Can’t Happen” by Dorothea Paas

BK: Looking at it from the outside — your acting in Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 Feet or playing with U.S. Girls, for example — it seems as if you’re part of a really vibrant artistic community in Toronto.

DP: It’s interesting. The word “community” gets used frequently, but doesn’t always mean a lot. That’s something I think about often. I’ve started to think about it more as a scene, but not to assume I’m in this super altruistic thing — just that I have friends and peers that I respect, and I’m very honoured that they seem to respect me.

U.S. Girls is kind of like Broken Social Scene in the way that people say if you were a musician in Toronto from 2000 to whatever, you were probably in it. U.S. Girls is like a factory for musicians working in Toronto now. So you necessarily meet other people and work with them, and relationships are formed. But yeah, I like the idea of being not totally linked to one scene. I like floating around and meeting people all over the place. 

BK: That was so unfortunate to hear about the tour getting cancelled. I saw you in Toronto and Montreal playing with them and the band was so tight!

DP: I was so, so excited to be doing that. It’s been a really gradual acceptance process for me to realize the loss of that experience. Sometimes I’ll be in the car with a friend and a (U.S. Girls) song will come up on shuffle and I’ll get this out of body feeling like I’m in a different alternate universe where the shows went on. I’m glad we did that little recording session in New York and those three shows. But oh man, we would’ve been so good! I was ready to be a shredder.

BK: Listening to Anything Can’t Happen was, for me, a really emotional experience. You’re in my small canon of albums I’ve cried to!

DP: Is it twisted that that’s what I want? I don’t set out to make people cry, but I do like when they say they cried. It feels like a genuine and natural response that I feel honoured to be part of.

“Container” by Dorothea Paas

BK: As your debut full length, did you approach the record in a different way than your previous EPs?

DP: Big time, so different. I decided to do it more on my own instead of operating as a rock band. Two longtime friends from Kingston [where Paas went to school], Paul Saulnier and Liam Cole, play on the album, so there’s still very much a band feeling. But there was the distinction here of asserting myself as the decision-maker to move the project forward.

It’s been challenging at points. It’s hard with a band to have consensus! So just deciding on things like wanting to make it more produced, with more harmonies and overdubs, and giving the songs different treatments. I wanted to include something very sparse like the interlude, and also a pared down arrangement like “Frozen Window,” with just synth, guitar and bass.

So I think that really set the project apart for me, though it was overwhelming because I didn’t really know how to do that. I felt confused many times, but knowing lots of cool, talented and generous people and asking them to work on the project allowed it to come together slowly and piece-by-piece. Also, it’s the first time I’ve ever put anything out on a label, which has been the biggest change of all.

BK: How did that change things for you?

DP: It’s wild. It’s perfect timing for me. I wouldn’t change anything about how I’ve done the last 10 years as a musician. I’ve always been working jobs while playing, and my social life is very important to me. So I haven’t been, like, professionalizing in this huge way. I’ve slowly been building a body of work and developing intimate connections that feel organic.

Label stuff has really freaked me out, which is partly the reason I never tried to sign to any. But coming to a small label at this juncture feels perfect. It’s casting a broader net so more people can see what I’m doing. I think of it as a real mutual exchange with Telephone Explosion: I’m just an emerging artist, they’re an independent label that wants to help people find music. ■

For more about Dorothea Paas, please visit her website.

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