Bre McDaniel sets a table for all on her debut album HOWL

Vancouver Weekly interview with Bre McDaniel

Photo by Jared Korb

The natural sounds of frogs, birds, wind, and waves find their way onto Vancouver singer-songwriter Bre McDaniel’s full-length debut, HOWL. On her independently released album, out since October 26, field recordings she sourced from coastal B.C. and even her own backyard animate images of fauna, flora, and the elements on an otherwise pop and folk-forward affair.

“I like to think conceptually, and how even the way things are recorded can reflect something about the concept and the lyrics,” she tells Vancouver Weekly over the phone.

HOWL contains obvious references to Allen Ginsberg, from the album’s title, the theme of preserving wilderness in the face of humans’ relentless, bloody pursuit of profits, and the track, “Allen Ginsberg’s Song.” HOWL contains obscurer references, too. “Ava” is named after one of her toddler nieces. The track, a 16-second interlude, features Ava explaining why she wants to be a wolf: because they go in the forest and walk around. Her answer is unfiltered and funky, as children are.

“For Olga” is a gift to McDaniel’s grandmother, who passed away during the recording of HOWL. In fact, McDaniel has dedicated HOWL to her.

“It goes along with the idea of acknowledging women’s voices and learning about my own heritage,” McDaniel says of her decision to include names of women from multiple generations of her family. “My grandmother really influenced my mother a lot, who is where the music comes from in my family; my mother was a musician her whole life and passed away also. I’ve realized more how much my grandmother was in her.”

“Cill Dara’s Light” refers to the Irish saint Brigid of Kildare. The light is a prayer torch that dates back to pre-Christian times. Scholars estimate that up until the sixteenth century, when monasteries were suppressed, her nuns kept the flame alight. The flame has been relit since 1993.

Photo by Timothy Silva

“I felt that tied in with the theme about women tending to a certain fire,” McDaniel says, summarizing the song’s significance.

HOWL’s themes of stewardship, the continuation of lineage, and female power can all be summed up by a lyric from “The Militant Mothers of Raymur.” In 1971, the Militant Mothers of Raymur, a group of Strathcona women, demanded a safe crossing for the hundreds of children who had to cross railway tracks in their neighbourhood on their way to school. The Mothers camped on the tracks, blockading them until an overpass was constructed that same year.

“If you need a change, you’re gonna have to stand in the middle of the tracks. Sometimes, you gotta make demands,” McDaniel sings.

When asked if she feels there is a lyric that sums up HOWL, McDaniel offers a passage from “Sanctuaries”: “Sanctuary, she keeps on giving. She’s still got enough room for you.”

She says this song is “talking about voices and a seat at the table for women or otherwise or listening to what we need to listen to in nature and learn from and care for … Even though I chose to work with women, or I’m speaking about these topics, there is room for these conversations, and there is room for all these diverse voices and learning. It’s not about shutting anyone out or right and wrong.”

Photo by Yiya Yin

Instead, it is about the fact that there are important voices to listen to and to be heard.

“I want to do a lot of listening to before I share, so that my voice is more grounded when I am invited to share.”

For HOWL, McDaniel enlisted an all-female-identifying crew, from musicians to engineers. Some names were old friends, like Jenny Banai, who played violin on the album and has toured with McDaniel. Many of the album’s other contributors were all new to her and required research to discover.

“I knew lots of guys I could work with, but I wanted to find out who’s out there.”

She came upon great talents, such as drummer Jen Foster, but others, like session guitarist Sophie Heppell, were more difficult to find.

“But that was the fun of it, like who will I find that I maybe just wouldn’t look for before?”

One might assume working with an all-female-identifying crew changes the creative dynamic and workflow, but McDaniel says otherwise.

“I think anyone you invite in will bring a different dynamic, whoever they are. I mean, I still felt intimidated by the other women because they’re all so talented … the last people I worked with were so great, it’s not about not working with men. It’s more about just what would happen if I did it this way … It was a great experience, and I don’t think that’s ‘cause it was only women, but it was wonderful. It was its own thing.”

Bre McDaniel roughs it alone at a stripped and intimate show at Park Sound Studio in North Vancouver this Saturday, November 24.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu