Toronto musician Misha Bower visited Eganville recently, and sat down for an interview to talk about her debut collection, Music for Uninvited Guests, songwriting, and smoking wildlife.
You’re a musician, a songwriter and a writer. Which, if any, takes precedence?
The impulse to write is strongest and most persistent, but I don’t think any take precedence officially. Different burners, same stove.
How is writing a short story different to writing a song lyric?
Writing a story takes longer. It’s solitary for longer. There is way more paper involved. Writing a song is out loud from start to finish, in the sense that how I sing a lyric during the song writing process will be meaningful to its presentation. Writing a story starts out loud, but the way I chirp to myself along the way is something I have to gradually relinquish as it nears completion (because the way I hear it in my head isn’t how it will be read).
A lot of your music has been done in collaboration with others, but writing is a solitary act. Was it hard to switch between the two?
I don’t think it was a switch – more like a re-balancing. I almost interpreted it as a switch, but it’s been way more rewarding and to avoid thinking in terms of strict alternatives – music or writing, solo or collaborative, one or the other. The book has launched with a series of music + literature events, most of which have included Matt Cully and I playing together as EONS – a huge privilege for me and useful exercise for him alongside the completion of his debut record, Arctic Radio. Recently, Neil Haverty, Matt and I have expanded the combo with a trio formation that includes our solo stuff (songs and stories), as well as re-arranged Bruce Peninsula songs. So yeah; no switching. Just a periodic and luxurious tweaking of forces!
Your reading events are also concert events, which might surprise some people. Is reading your work aloud a ‘performance’ for you?
Is there an intersection between prose and music? In terms of capturing the ‘music’ of people’s voices?
Definitely again! The music of a voice, the implications of a silence, the ongoing composition of a life, moments of wholeness and falling apart, fragile melody and tentative harmony, the passionate clamouring of “fuck you I love you,” or whatever.
Jon Claytor has illustrated the stories. How important was it to you to have images accompany the pieces, and did you have any say in what he produced?
The images – and specifically Jon Claytor images – were part of the vision from the start. I had told Jacob early on (Jacob Sheen, editor, designer and Cringles founder) that I wanted Jon’s drawings to bring out the book’s “inner ecosystem.” At the time, I wasn’t really sure what that was, but perhaps that framing of it is what led to us to deciding on “animals involved in human things” as the visual theme. Regardless, this was all the direction Jon needed to blow our minds with an unbelievably bang-on set of drawings.
The cover – the bear with the cigarette and the empty bottles – seems like both an iconic Canadian image and a parody of an iconic Canadian image. Can you tell me a little as to how you chose that for the cover?
Truthfully, a huge part of the decision was Jacob saying, “I want the bear.”
With all the images, Jon nailed the theme of SEARCHING. But the bear – with its big, beautiful tilted head – is a particularly relatable image. It’s also a killer Claytor moment of an unusual sense of meaning percolating from an innocent image.
Also, a smoking bear is funny.
There’s also an audio book in the works. Did you view that as a separate performance? Was it an odd experience to record your stories, especially many months after you had written them?
It was odd in places and natural in others. Certain stories I had already read a bunch of times throughout the course of performing them, whereas others I had never read aloud before. My friends Dan Goldman and Daniela Gesundheit (Snowblink) hosted the recording session – made tea, pressed buttons, stretched out on the floor and said nice things like, “I love being read to” – and their presence was the perfect amount of audience for the process. I wanted to be a pro for them, but also felt totally comfortable screwing up in their loving arms.
A lot of your characters gamble, and they don’t gamble well. Are you a poker player yourself?
No – and all the card players I know are quite good at gambling!
A lot of your characters are lost, both geographically and emotionally. Are they incapable of a “settled life” or is it a “settled life” beyond their understanding?
There are lots of ways to tackle this question.
Some of the characters seem to be experiencing disillusionment with the ideal of a settled life – the ideal of a life that is complete and unchanging. And maybe we kind of experience it along with them: longing for a moment of revelation, an ultimate answer, a ‘save the settings’ option on the best feeling ever – some kind of mechanism for turning fluctuating/baffling feelings and circumstances into something more straightforward and settled. I don’t think their longing is foolish, or that the pursuit of a settled life (however that is defined by the character) is naïve. But even with all the classic trimmings – a committed relationship, friends you can count on, house, job, strong sense of self – I don’t think a life is ever quite settled. Its alchemy is always getting tweaked, which is great when life is great and hard when life is hard.
The expression SETTLED LIFE is often associated with those classic trimmings I mentioned – a commitment to a certain way of life that many consider calm and covetable. But what a person does to FEEL SETTLED – to snatch moments of “stillness in the turning world” – might take a form that is obscure, infuriating to loved ones, and even self-destructive at times. Some of the characters don’t know why they feel they way they do, but they know how to make the feeling go away for a while. Perhaps we see their actions as a move in the opposite direction of a settled life (however that is defined by the reader), but what could be more settled than the rut you know…?
It seems to me that by the end of the collection, the reader has intruded on somebody else’s intimacy:
Are we the uninvited guests?
I don’t think so. To me, the title refers more to the uninvited guests of the mind. These guests can take lots of forms – fears, insecurities, memories, impulses, patterns of doing and thinking, etc. – and when they show up uninvited, they can suck on a person’s inner resources in much the same way an actual uninvited guest can eat all the food, drink all the booze, and just generally make you feel uncomfortable in your own home. With both types of guest, there’s the question of… what the hell do you do? How do you handle it? Do you call the cops or tell them they can sleep in your bed for as long they want? Do you kick them out or let them stay a while…?
What writers have influenced you the most?
The unpublished ones in my family/friend group/community/general vicinity most of the time.
Ditto for musicians?
Sit down with a coffee/tea and let this link lead the way: sappyfest.com
If you could pick just one band to recommend people listen to, who would it be?
If you could pick just one writer people read, who would it be?
Any advice for aspiring musicians and writers?
Set aside time to work on it. Then keep working on it. Then after that, keep working on it.
What writing/music project do you have in the works currently?
Matt, Neil and I are back in the Bruce Peninsula writing workshop. Tamara Lindeman and I have a couple tunes on deck for her exceptional Weather Station Duets series, which launched in Toronto in mid-February (and currently includes songs with Steve Lambke, Ian Kehoe and Dan Romano).
Finally, can you talk a little about the publishing process, how you found Cringles, and what are you working on at the moment?
Cringles is based in Toronto. It was started by Jacob Sheen, who also edited and designed the book. It is a first publication for both of us, and its completion involved calling upon our amazingly talented pals to lend their expertise in one way or another. We had it printed by Standard Form (founded by Alex Durlak), a company in Toronto that has become a go-to design and print option for many musicians and writers in our community. We have also been calling upon the marketing and web design side of Neil Haverty, who had the idea to bundle the book with a bonus music compilation. Basically, it was – and continues to be – a total DIW operation (Do It With-the-help-of-all-your-friends).
What I’m working on now is scrounging and storing: going through old notes, making new notes, planning for the next thing – just another squirrel with big cheeks.
My review of Music For Uninvited Guests is here