Interview: Dani Strong

Although this website is mainly dedicated to Australian artists, occasionally an exception is made – especially if the exception is Canadian (mainly due to the fact that I spent a year living in Canada and came to have a great appreciation for Canadian music). Dani Strong is a singer-songwriter from British Columbia who recently released her second album, Undefined, which has influences from several musical genres and is rich and satisfying collection of songs.

The first thing to notice about the album is Strong’s wonderful voice – although surprisingly she says, ‘I never meant to be a singer. I picked up a guitar. I was actually a wind instrument, brass instrument player for a long time, but I played guitar the whole time and I really wanted to be a ripping guitar player. I really wanted to just shred on the guitar.’

She laughs. ‘But I was awful! I just sucked at guitar, but I didn’t give up. And so in high school I just kept playing guitar.’

She also grew up playing piano, saying, it ‘was my all-time favourite instrument. I’ve never taken lessons, but I definitely do 95 per cent of my writing on piano. But guitar I was just learning and it was easier to sing along to help me learn the guitar. So I would just sing along. And then I started a little band, a three-piece band in high school, and I would sing because the guys wouldn’t sing. And then I remember somebody was talking – I think they complimented me on my voice, “Oh, you’re such a good singer”, and I said, “Oh, I’m a guitar player.” And that happened a couple times. And finally my bass player walked up to me and said, “Dani, you’re a singer.” I said, “No! No!” That was kind of a long way of saying that I’ve never really made it a focus, although I am a vocal coach now. So I do a lot of work with singing, but I really just wanted to be a guitar player.’

Given the range of instruments she plays, perhaps she unconsciously started turn her voice into an instrument – a suggestion that she says makes sense.

‘You’re just always around music,’ says Strong. ‘With those wind instruments too, and learning jazz and big band and classical, pitch and notes and notation are just such a huge part. So I think perhaps I just got used to that kind of thing.

‘My best friend that I actually lived with in high school, she was the singer – she just was amazing. So I would play guitar for her and sing harmony for her. And so I didn’t want to be in the spotlight. I just wanted to listen to Candice sing. And then she passed away when I was in first-year university. I think I did go pretty hard after Candice passed away – Oh, that’s it. I need to make it for her. You know? I think that could have been what pushed me into really, really singing once Candice died. And then once I started singing and really using that instrument, I started loving it. So maybe it was Candice that gave it to me.’

Although Strong didn’t initially see herself as a singer, she says she actually doesn’t have a problem being a front person in a band.

‘It’s funny because my show is half comedy routine,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I love being the show – because I’m actually an introvert, which normally shocks people – but I love being on stage with my boys. I love playing with my band. I love making these songs that I wrote on my guitar or my piano, bringing it to a stage into a crowd and watching them react and watching the boys and I just smiling on stage. There’s nothing like that. That is my happiest moment, playing live or being in studio. Those are my two favourite things in the world.’

Strong started writing songs when she was twelve and ‘I literally have not stopped,’ she says. ‘I started writing and I wrote hard and they were awful. They were terrible. But it took over my life. the moment that I learned those first three chords, that was it. It was just writing from there on out. And that was because probably because I couldn’t read music, so I had to write it. I had to write the songs because I couldn’t read the songs I wanted to sing, so I decided to write my own.’

Strong has a songwriting experience that not many can share – one of her songs was passed off by another artist as their own, with Strong finding out well after the fact. Still, she says of the episode, ‘That kick-started everything for me, absolutely. Everything.

‘Basically, I was ready to give up music a hundred per cent because it just wasn’t working out. At that point we had two kids and had a health scare with one of them. And I say “we” because my husband is in my band. And prior to me – he’s ten years older than me – he was in a band bigger than I’ve ever been in. So music was what we were and because of the kids we just had to think about people other than ourselves. “Maybe it’s time to just give up” really is kind of where we’re at. We even signed real estate papers. We signed on the Thursday – the Monday I woke up and it was like a real Facebook thing.

‘It was 2015, in January. I had an email from a producer of a television show in Florida in America, basically saying that they had a contestant on their TV show that was passing off my music as theirs … I didn’t really look into it. I just was, like, whatever. You get so many things when you’re a musician, obviously the algorithms of the internet find you. So I can’t tell you how many times I would get emails that would say, ‘I’m from this TV show” or “I’m this licensing company and if you just give us $300 we can make you a star.” So I kind of giggled. And I did forward it to my producer saying, “Ha ha, check this out”.

‘Then I opened my Facebook, like we do, our morning routine, and I had a message in my inbox from this random woman I had never met. She had found me on Facebook and sent me a private message and said that she was a manager and one of her artists was passing off my music as well. I could tell that this woman was desperate and obviously didn’t want to be involved in what was looking like a lawsuit. So I thought that was kind of crazy.

‘Right as I read that my producer called me and said, “Dani, this is legit. Did you look into it?” He had gone on the website for the show and literally there was a photo of one of the contestants and then you could click to hear the song. The show was called Do I Have a Hit Song? You could click her song. And not only was it my song, it was me singing it!’ she says, laughing. ‘It was our recording! It was so crazy. And I just was laughing. I thought, Oh my goodness, that’s really wild

‘I posted a “Ha ha ha check out this broad who did this” and I just sloughed it off and said, “Check out this chick on this TV show. Crazy, eh?” Then basically that was the moment when my longtime supporters and fans and friends … Googled this woman and found that she had done way more, way more than that show with my song. She was selling it everywhere, on iTunes, on Google Play. She had submitted it to so many things. I have a Dropbox file filled with over a hundred screenshots of the things that people were sending me. So it got scary. I actually turtled a bit.

‘I remember I had a show that night. It was a Tuesday and I had a show and I was actually scared to go to it because I didn’t know where she was, I didn’t know who she was. I knew that she was Canadian, but I had already heard on YouTube an interview that she had done, like a radio interview where they played my song. And in the interview they asked her, “Oh, it’s such a beautiful song. What did you write it about?” And she said that she wrote it for the family of a child that died. So this family totally thought that this girl that they obviously know wrote this song for their child that did pass away.

‘It was just this wild, crazy rabbit hole that I wasn’t really stoked about being part of. But in the end it changed my life because all of a sudden – it’s unfortunate, but I had a story, right? All of a sudden my phone was ringing off the hook with publicists from LA and New York … So I ended up asking my friend who manages Finger Eleven, I just said, “I need help. I don’t know what to do.” He said, “Dani, you’ve never put out a record before. Why don’t you record some of those songs you’ve been writing for the past ten years? Now’s the time.” And I said, “Oh my gosh, that makes so much sense.” So we did what we had to do. We got a loan against the house, made a record and it went number one on its release day. And I’ve never looked back since. It was basically the sign – music defines me and I can’t give it up.’

Strong adds, ‘It wasn’t easy. I made it sound like, “I made a record and it went number one.” It was iTunes number one, which to me was still the biggest thing ever, but it’s not like it paid for anything. But it’s been a long journey and it’s not just my journey, as I said. My husband had to be on board and the family had to be on board and we all decided that this is what we want to do. Music is obviously what [Strong’s husband] Grant does and it’s what I do. And it’s how we met – he played on my first record. We have to do it! However that looks. We could either do it the hard way, or we can just really keep trying real hard and keep putting out a good product and hope the universe provides. And so far we’re doing okay.’

One of Strong’s songs, ‘Not Right Now’ – from the new album – was featured in the film Hometown Holiday. When asked how that came about, Strong says, laughing, ‘Well, first of all, it’s a Christmas movie and I love Christmas.

‘It was really cool. And it wasn’t just a small part either. They played like the whole song while a couple was dancing at a wedding and they let the whole song play, and they actually played another song off that record, the last song on the record, which wasn’t even out at the time, for the entire credits. So that just was amazing. And it really blew my mind.

‘So basically I ‘sent’ my song, digitally sent my song to the digital stores, iTunes and Apple and Spotify, and all those big guys had my record, but it wasn’t released yet. So it’s just sitting there waiting for release date. And while they had it, they had all the song information entered into their system. All of a sudden I kept having all these Shazams popping up for the other song, “Holding Out for Love”, and I thought, How on God’s green earth are people Shazamming this song? It’s not even out yet! And then finally it clicked – Oh, it’s in the Christmas movie. And so it was really cool because I had actual non-direct data of people hearing this song and liking it enough to Shazam it off the credits of a movie. To me, that’s a great sign, either they hated it so much that they thought, Who the heck is this girl? Or they liked it enough … I always love looking at Shazam stats because there’s a reason people are pulling their phones out to find out what song that is.’

Given that Strong writes songs steadily, choosing which songs appear on an album can’t be an easy process, and she says, ‘I don’t know how we choose. I talk about my producer a lot. I hate saying just “producer” because he’s a good friend. I always want Dan to really like the song as well, because the producer has so much to do with what it’s going to sound like in the end. So I want him to love it as much as I do, because he’s going to be really giving it its wings. So a lot of the time I’ll see how he reacts to a song, as well as my husband and the band.

‘For example, on this record, there’s a song called “Bug in the Bed” and I wasn’t going to put it on the record because I was already really pushing my luck as far as like being one genre,’ she says, laughing. ‘And just as a songwriter that’s a challenge. I called the record Undefined for that very reason, but I felt like I might’ve been going a little too far with that song “Bug in the Bed”. And it was literally the night that I was sending it out I texted Dan and I said, “Do you think we should put ‘Bug on the Bed’?” Because we’d already recorded it. I have a few other songs that aren’t on the record that I’ve invested in the recording. And I knew that we all loved this song. Dan said, “Yeah, just put it on! I love that song!” So it snuck in, in the final hour.

‘So I never really know how to choose. That’s actually a flaw maybe, or I’ll just call it a challenge. I don’t know how to work the genre thing. I’m terrible at it.’

When it comes to her songwriting process, Strong says that, actually, she doesn’t have one.

‘That probably doesn’t shock you!’ she says with a laugh.

Usually, though, she says, the music comes before the lyrics.

‘I’ll just be playing piano. And then I will start singing a melody with no words. And I really make it hard for myself because if I really like the music – which I did today, it was just really something really fun, very Sara Bareilles type vibe today. I started singing the melody that I wanted, that I felt really complemented the music. But then this is where I corner myself. I’m so stringent with myself that I have to write lyrics to fit the exact amount of syllables I used for the melody!

‘There are some pretty powerful lyrics on my record, there are songs like “Not Right Now”, but then you get songs like “Bug in the Bed” where I was fitting words to syllables. I had some pretty darn good fun on that song. I thought, Oh, well I’m already into this one. I’m just going to roll with it. I don’t even know what it’s about anymore. We’re just going to keep throwing words in with the right amount of sounds.

Like all musicians, Strong’s year hasn’t turned out as she planned – for one thing, she had to cancel the tour she’d organised to support the release of Undefined. While it might seem as though she’d have had more time to write, she says, ‘Actually, I didn’t do much writing.

‘I wrote [album track] “Wild Summer” in February, mind you, and then released it in March. So that was very quick, that was just a really fun song that happened. I don’t know why I didn’t do writing. Everybody has asked that. I did do a lot of work. A lot of us ended up just scrounging to make do. I had to do a lot of other stuff to not lose our house, to be very honest. Writing was really not at all the top of my list.

‘It’s starting to happen now. Things are slowing down right now. The record’s finally out, I just shot a video and today was the first time when I sat down and I felt like I started something really kind of nice. So it was a weird year man, cancelled the tour and then just kind of hung out with the family.’

In terms of rescheduling the tour, planning to cross Canada on tour is not unlike crossing Australia – both of them countries with vast amounts of space between towns and cities.

‘I don’t think people do it, honestly,’ says Strong. ‘I don’t think they do it enough. I’ve crossed this country, at least from Ontario to here, I’ve done it six times now in the past five years. People in America don’t have a clue at how vast [it is]. So for me to go to a big store, Chapters even, or Indigo, I have to go to Calgary, Alberta. That’s the closest one to me. And that is a four-hour drive. And we have a pretty big-sized town – 25 000 people – just down the road. My town is 8000. But, you know, in America, if you drive four hours, you’re going to hit so many towns in that time. Even in Ontario, in Southern Ontario, if you drive four hours, you could take you two days to tour the amount of towns it would that it would take to drive four hours through, if that makes any sense. Whereas here a tour is … It’s just forever, this driving, and it was a lot of work to plan them too, because you have to line it up properly. And you’re so far and the drives are just so long in some of the areas of Canada that the planning is really important. And then you have to worry about weather – are the roads even open due to snow? It sounds like the typical stereotype for sure,’ she ends with a laugh.

Strong says she would love to visit Australia one day, and was introduced to the music of Missy Higgins and Kasey Chambers by her Australian best friend. The one thing she’s worried about is our spiders – specifically, huntsmans. But hopefully that won’t deter her and she’ll make the great trip south as soon as borders and pandemics allow. In the meantime, Undefined is available to Australian listeners on the usual platforms.

https://www.danistrong.com