An Interview with Joys Dancer from Canadian Roots Band Raven She Hollers
Raven She Hollers is a group of three women who span generations and create music inspired and informed by a diversity of roots music. Joys Dancer, Nissa Shiell and Chandra Pederson blend their voices into warm harmonies that showcase both original songs and interpretations of great old time and folk music.
I talked to Joys Dancer about how the band came together, how they create music together and where they find inspiration to make new music.
Karl Magi: Tell me about how Raven She Hollers came together as a band.
Joys Dancer: I live in an intentional community/cooperative here in north central Saskatchewan. I was one of the original members of the community when it started in the early ‘70s and Nissa, one of my bandmates, is the daughter of one of the couples who was here from fairly near the beginning so she was raised here. She was one of my oldest daughter’s best friends. When she became an adult, Nissa and her partner chose to come live here as well. I’ve known her for most of her life. Chandra is the third member of the band and she and her family moved here ten years ago. We met her through a community shared agriculture group. We connected and went to a potluck supper at her house, we started to play music afterwards and it became evident that we needed to follow up on it. Our voices blended very well and our whole approach to music seemed to be very copasetic.
KM: How do you approach music as a group?
JD: Our approach to music in the band is to really honour each other’s place in the music, taste in music and what we each bring to the band. In our practices and in our performances, we take turns. We take turns with the songs we bring, with taking the lead and the other two members see how we can support that song in the best way. Our biggest passion is harmony and we get really excited about working on and working out harmonies. We want to find that sweet spot when our three voices blend and find the beautiful place that really solid harmony creates.
We do have similar tastes, but each of us brings something slightly different to the music. I’m the eldest and I come from a background of old time music. I play five string fretless banjo and that’s where my heart lies although I appreciate everything. Nissa’s biggest stylistic influences are blues, jazz and country. Chandra’s family plays old time music of all sorts. Each of us brings these influences to the table and we all write songs.
We all bring songs to the table. On our second album, two of the songs are songs that I wrote but Nissa takes the lead on one and Chandra takes the lead on the other. The person who writes the song, doesn’t always sing the song. We haven’t got there yet but we have talked about collaborating on writing, but its something that we want to explore.
KM: How does the process of song selection and development work for you as a band?
JD: We get together, we get in a huddle and one of us will bring a song. The person who brought the song will sing it and some songs just fall into place. For example, Nissa brought Columbus Stockade Blues to the table, so Chandra and I just started playing along with her. Everything fell into place at that point. The harmonies fell into place and it was easy. Some songs are just like that. One of the songs I wrote, Gonna Miss You, was a song that they were immediately able to pick up and find the harmonies when I sang it for them. We never had to fine tune it, it was all right there.
There are other songs that you really, really have to work on to the point of writing out the notation for harmonies. Some songs are a little more tricky to find the harmonies and work out the instrumentation, but we get into our huddle and we work on it. Sometimes we have to go through note by note to nail it and find that sweet spot. For me, my favourite part of the whole thing is the intense work we have to do sometimes. It’s hard work but we’re so full of joy when we finally hit it.
When there’s performances or recordings, we have our own sound equipment, so we work with the mics, record and listen back to it because it’s not always what we think it is. It has been a learning process through the recording of our two albums.
KM: Tell me more about your latest album Star Gaze.
JD: What we learned from our first album is that we thought we were ready to go into the studio and we weren’t. I suspect that’s a common discovery for bands. This time we really performed the songs a lot prior going into the studio, so it was a much smoother experience this time. Once we really got working on the album, we realized that there were songs that needed more work. We started out working on the most solid songs and it followed from there.
We have the very good fortune to work in the studio with our dear friend Liza Holder who lives a couple of hours from us and she has a studio in her house. I’ve known her since she was a little kid. She and Nissa were friends growing up. It has been wonderful to work with her. She has infinite patience and is very supportive.
We had four artists (Nissa, Sherron Burns, Oriol Dancer and Birgit Lessing) work on making a “cranky theatre” out of the song Darlin’ Corey from Star Gaze. A cranky theatre is a twenty foot long scroll of paper that the story of the song is painted on. The scroll is wound onto two wooden dowels that are part of this theatre. The proscenium for the theatre was made from an old metal suitcase that had an opening cut in it to make the stage. The story is cranked on the wooden dowels and the song is played. That’s another piece of what happened with this album and this song. Sherron Burns’ son Sam is just finishing up in film school and he’s made a video of Darlin’ Corey and the making of the cranky theatre.
KM: What are your views on the folk/roots music scene in Saskatchewan?
JD: I look at some of the young musicians in particular at this point in time. I think about the Northern Lights Bluegrass festival and the Ness Creek Music Festival and how many local bands are in the lineup each year. I feel like its really strong.
What I see in the scene in Saskatoon, which I’m more familiar with, that really warms me is the support that all the musicians give to each other. There’s a lack of competitiveness and a strong community among musicians. Close to twenty years ago, my daughter started up an open stage in Saskatoon. I think that open stage scene really gave an opportunity to a lot of bands to start out.
KM: What are your plans for the future with Raven She Hollers?
JD: I think we want to just keep playing which is the main thing. We want to keep recording. Both Nissa and Chandra have jobs and families, so we haven’t talked about going on any big tour scenario. We just want to keep playing as much as we can. At this point, we haven’t been seeking out gigs, they come to us. We play at music festivals, coffee houses, community events and senior’s centres in the area which has been a really good thing to do. We seem to keep having gigs and we talk about going after gigs a bit more, but what’s happening for us now seems to keep us busy!