Sienna Dahlen is a Toronto-based singer-songwriter and teacher with a Master’s degree in jazz performance from the University of Toronto. She’s toured the world and has collaborated with a number of notable artists, including Karl Jannuska, Mads Baerentzen, and Wassim Soubra. She recently released her album Verglas?a set of original and innovative songs beautifully arranged and masterfully rendered?and will be performing at the Savoy du Métropolis as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival June 28 and 29. Recently she took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about how her art developed and where It’s taking her.
?Through the center of the night
Burst a voice so full of life
Primal whisper laced with pain
Bled right through the icy rain . . .?
from ?Verglas,? by Sienna Dahlen
Becoming a Songwriter
Sienna’s very first songwriting venture was a little tune called ?West Wind,? which she penned around the age of 14. But she didn’t start composing in earnest until she had finished her Bachelor’s degree in jazz at McGill.
?I was searching for my writing voice,? she says, ?one that could combine elements of jazz and popular music, among other styles. Immediately after hearing Jane Siberry that summer at the Montreal Jazz Festival, I experienced an epiphany and the creative juices began to flow. I was blown away by the beauty and uniqueness of her music and her voice. I haven’t looked back since.?
Developing as a Musician
Fortunately, by the time she arrived at this point Sienna had already developed advanced skills as a musician. Even before studying music at the university level, she’d spent years playing the alto sax and singing in choirs and later venturing into solo voice.
?Singing as a solo voice was a complete revelation for me. I had never explored melody in such a direct and meaningful way, and I have Laura Cardriver, my high school music teacher, to thank for that. Performing ?Freddy, My Love? in our production of Grease that year for my family and friends was exhilarating, to say the least! I should also add that my dad has been a big influence and we’ve always had a wonderful musical connection.?
Listening to Sienna’s amazing voice makes you wonder if She’s among the gifted few.
?I don’t have perfect pitch,? she humbly confesses. ?I have the gift of being able to sing, most of the time, perfectly in pitch, but I can’t identify the names of pitches without the aid of an instrument. My relative pitch is pretty good, though.?
The Elements of a Song Worth Singing
These days, unlike many jazz singers, Sienna doesn’t devote much time to interpreting standards. ?I don’t often sing music written by other people unless I’ve had a hand in writing it,? she points out. ?In the past, I used to sing a lot of standard jazz material, and ballads were always my weakness. I loved pouring myself into those luscious chords and melodies and still do from time to time! In general, though, I like to collaborate with people who challenge me in some way. I really appreciate composers who force me to think and perform outside of my comfort zone.
?Great music is great music. I actually don’t listen to jazz very much, though. I prefer to hear it live. My playlists include everyone from Bon Iver to Thom Yorke’s newest album. I always wanted to be a rock star, if the truth be known.?
The Joy of Collaboration
In 2011, Sienna participated in a creation residency in Patagonia, Argentina, presenting her music with the visual art of Nadine Bariteau. It was a fulfilling experience.
?For a moment I was able to wear the hat of a sound and performance artist rather than just a singer-songwriter. Collaborating with a visual artist and being surrounded by other artists working in differing mediums also provided much inspiration and guidance. The project that I created there taught me to hear the music of my environment in ways that I’d never explored previously.?
Back home, Karl Jannuska is her favourite musical collaborator: ?Not only is he one of my dearest, oldest friends, but we also love playing and writing music together, and we respect each other’s work immensely.?
Art of the Minimal
Sienna’s lyrics, in English or French, are beautifully crafted little codes, spare and poetic. Does this style of writing come naturally to her, or was it long in developing?
?With time, most artists are able to carve away that which no longer needs to be said or shown,? she says. ?Lyric writing is difficult to do well at the best of times, and the masters of that art can speak volumes in a short amount of space and sound.?
What conditions does she need in order to be able to keep on creating?
?Extended periods of silence,? she replies, ?foreign environments, and often some sort of drama in my life!?