From Winnipeg, With Love: An Interview With Mise en Scene

I am not ashamed to say that I don’t know much about Winnipeg’s music scene. I have some knowledge about teams such as the NHL’s own Winnipeg Jets. For the sake of not bringing out the despair and disappointment with the team’s turbulent backstory, I will spare you, the readers, the details. Just know the story has a tumultuous backstory but does end on a positive note.  

What I did discover when looking for notes regarding the Winnipeg music scene was a documentary that is currently in development. The trailer that I took in began with vehicles driving past one another as the welcoming sign stands on the side of the road. Most of the promo focuses on the vigorous weather conditions that the locals face during the coldest times of the year; b-roll shots include snow blowing sidewalks, stalled cars needing to be jump-started, tractors pushing away the hills of snow that have fallen. The video then cuts to testimonials of individuals speaking about how to combat the frigid climate is by playing music. Whatever it’s solo or having a group session, the music scene has become a diamond in the rough. During the promo talking about how Winnipeg’s background that I saw featured Stef Johnson and Jodi Dunlop.

Together with Mise en Scene, the duo has dropped prominent albums such as Desire’s Despair and Still Life on Fire. Their latest effort Winnipeg, California follows their already rock-rooted, reverb-heavy signature sound, all while laying down a more focused vibe. The songs on Winnipeg offer up some of the most substantial work to date.  

You two met in art school. What became the lure to explore diving into starting the band?

Stef Johnson: Music flowed quite naturally from painting. Like sharing a canvas sharing a song felt the same way. Colour, lines, and composition choices were the same as rhythm, lyrics, and melody. We understand how to wrap around each other without suffocating each other creatively. We both knew we played music, and one day we decided to play instead of paint. It just happened so naturally since we are fluent in each other’s creative language. I wouldn’t say there was a lure; it was more like “what creative thing can we do next together,” and music just became our main thing. 

Having attended art school, do you find what you learned seeping into how you go about work with the band.  

Jodi Dunlop: Absolutely! We take all our photos, make all our merch, do all of the artwork, and create and edit our music videos. Art school has allowed us to develop that thick skin that is so important to have in the music industry. There’s nothing quite like getting your artwork ripped apart in a critique in front of your closest friends/peers. That happens a lot in music too. Good times.

What were some of the early influences that drew you into loving music?

SJ: I think everyone falls in love with music at some point in their lives. I fell in love with music very early. As a young child, I loved Elvis and the Beach Boys. As a pre-teen, I loved the Spice Girls and Hanson. I fell in love with Alanis and No Doubt at the beginning of high school then fell into classic rock HARD. I loved everything from Led Zeppelin to Leonard Cohen.

JD: I always felt a bit like an oddball in my small town, so naturally, I gravitated towards the weirdos in music. I loved Johnny Thunders, David Bowie, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Smiths, and The Cure…simultaneously, I played a lot of jazz music, so I often practiced along with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.

What could you tell me about the music scene in Winnipeg? Do you see a dense array of styles cemented?

SJ: I feel like Winnipeg has a very diverse music scene. We have every genre and lots of genre-bending artists. Lots of innovation, great songwriters, and salt of the earth people.

JD: The styles aren’t totally isolated from each other either! Often you’ll see a bill with a folk singer and a rock band on it. Winnipegger’s do not discriminate when it comes to genre.

I read that there was a sense of freedom when recording the new album. The focus was squarely on knowing what you do best and expanding on it. After releasing a few albums, what led you two to discover this mentality?

SJ: Lots happened personally and professionally in our lives that made us have to fight for our freedom in music and our business. During our darkest times, we realized that it’s Stef and Jodi at the end of the day and the beginning of every song, it’s Stef and Jodi. We learned that the confidence within us, our belief in each other, and the music was stronger than anything else. We had to be ourselves unapologetically, and that confidence gave us the freedom we never had before. 

What albums/artists do you two looked towards for any form of influence before writing and recording if any?

SJ: For Winnipeg, California, I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac and The War On Drugs. The writing process is a long one; it’s hard to remember every influence. I was listening to many grunge 90s alt at the time, and Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are always hanging out in my head.

JD: We listened to 90’s alternative/grunge bands and quite a few British guitar bands like The Jam and Modern English for inspiration in the studio.

The name of the album perfectly illustrates the sound of the tracks. Was the mix of grunge and sheen a priority from the start?

SJ: I think in naming the album, we realized that was our sound all along; it’s the best way to describe our sound. We’ve made a new genre: Winnipeg, California! Honestly, we’ve always been that way; grungy alleyways meet manicured boulevards. 

JD: It was pretty effortless because that’s just what we sound like naturally when we start playing together. I think it was more about embracing our sound and who we are as artists.

How do you go about writing the lyrics for your songs? Is it, for the most part, a collaborative effort?

SJ: I come up with the lyrics, but the song’s real essence doesn’t come together until we play the songs together. 

With the production of Winnipeg, California, you had duel producers. What did Eric Ratz and Dave Genn integrate that you haven’t had in previous efforts?

SJ: Their professionalism is second to none. They have worked with some of the best bands in Canada. Ratz and Genn understand Rock n Roll music. They understand guitars, so they understood how to work with Stef and Jodi’s essence, how we play our instruments, and how to build around what makes us special and unique. 

There was an extensive list of songs that you had prepped before going into the studio. How difficult was it for you to trim the list down to ten?

SJ: SO DIFFICULT. We wrote fifty, demoed twenty-five, and recorded ten. We knew which were the best songs, but the problem on our end was there were about fifteen, not ten. So we had the sad task of dropping some amazing songs. Even our producers were having trouble helping us pick!

What was the overall experience like putting the album together?

SJ: it was a long labour of love. Between Vancouver, Toronto, and Winnipeg, recording from February to August was a beautiful dream consisting of hard work and dedication. It was the best recording experience of our lives. We were recording the best music of our lives and working with the best people in the biz.  

JD: It was incredible. Every step of the way, we were learning, having fun, and doing our best work. We spent a lot of time at the karaoke bar, frequented what’s up hotdog, connected with many friends, went on a burger tour of Toronto, and accomplished SO much in the studio.

I listened to the debut episode of your podcast Conversation Ashtray and dug it a lot. What was the driving force for starting the show? Should we expect more episodes to come down soon?

SJ: YES! There will be more Conversation Ashtray coming your way! We put out our first episode as a teaser for fans alongside our single “Angel” to enjoy and we will be getting back to it with another nine episodes now that the album is out. Many people tell us to start a podcast because we are super chatty and outgoing. Jodi and I are very honest and upfront people who aren’t afraid to “go there” and we love talking and sharing our stories. So buckle up; there is more Conversation Ashtray coming your way!

JD: People cannot believe the type of experiences we’ve had!!! I feel like we’ve lived twenty lives already. We have so much to share, from terrifyingly devastating moments to super hilarious ones, to pure WTF’s. All in good fun.

I’m sure you are like many other artists and have been yearning to get back to being on the road. Have you felt any sadness or emptiness being unable to perform live, especially now that Winnipeg, California is out?

SJ: YES. It’s a devastating thing that’s happening to musicians right now. It’s like taking our wings away. It also feels confusing because usually, we would be on the road promoting the record but instead, it’s like “now what”?

JD: Ya, it’s been challenging.