Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Lonesome Nomad: Dana Sipos’ Journey to Her New Record

The singer/songwriter's latest release is the result of an epic voyage across North America and back.

The image on the cover of Dana Sipos’ new album Roll up the Night Sky shows the singer standing beneath the vast semi-dome of a Port Hope, Ont. bandstand. She looks tiny, alone with her mandolin in front of a backdrop painted like a starry sky. Taken during a bicycle-propelled tour of Ontario, the photo is an apt choice for the nomadic Yellowknifer’s third release: she’s on the road, there’s the night sky – special to all northerners – and there’s a melancholy to the shot, a melancholy that pervades the album.

“I think I’m definitely a minor-key kind of person, with major-key elements,” she says with a subdued laugh, sitting at the dining room table of the house she’s staying in while visiting Yellowknife between touring dates. “I think there’s like two songs in a major key on the whole album.”

The 31-year-old singer/songwriter has been in and out of Yellowknife since leaving for teacher’s college in 2011. And though she still considers it home, in recent years she’s spent most of her time on the move, touring Canada and the U.S. and working Roll Up the Night Sky, which was released in April on the Nashville record label Muddy Roots, in various places around the country.

‘Shadows’ – Dana Sipos, from the new album. Shot in Yellowknife and directed by Jay Bulckaert and Wade Carpenter

The album was born during a musicians’ retreat at the Banff Centre in the fall of 2013. The retreat was initially meant to last two weeks, but six weeks on and Sipos was still there, with an album’s worth of songs – some new and some old ones polished up in preparation for the studio. She’d been in touch with Whitehorse producer and multi-instrumentalist Jordy Walker, and after Banff the two headed to Walker’s cabin outside of Ottawa with a couple of other musician to begin recording.

“It was fairly rustic, in the middle of nowhere… And it was November, so the snow was up to the windows and it was really cold. We went out there for about a week and it was really nice to have that time just to be figuring things out, didn’t have those restrictions of in and out of the studio, just living together for this short time in this very creative bubble.”

After laying the bed tracks at the cabin, she spent the next few months recording at several home-based studios in Montreal, including one owned by Arcade Fire’s Richard Parry. Parry himself isn’t on the album, but the liner notes of Roll Up the Night Sky show a who’s who of the Montreal music scene: John Tielli of CLARK the Band and Michael Feuerstack of Wooden Stars, among others.

“Jordy knew all these amazing musicians in Montreal, so that was a really fun process. Then I essentially ran away with the circus for six months.”

With the album mostly done, Sipos joined a theatre company called Caravan Stage Company which – unexpectedly – operates from the deck of a 90-foot tall ship: “There’s aerialists and big puppets at the top of the mast, the whole ship turns into a stage and the audience comes to port and watches. The way the show opened, me and some other characters ziplined from the sound booth onto the ship, and I’d have moments like, ‘This is my job right now?!’

She spent the next six months sailing from Florida to New York, stopping in ports along the East Coast for a week at time to perform and communicate with Jordie and other musicians back in Montreal who were recording the final tracks and starting to mix the album. “It was a terrible challenge of trying to send mixes back and forth. The internet service was literally dependent on the wind sometimes… Whenever I could get to port and download the files then I would just listen and send back comments.”

When the album was finished, Sipos and Walker approached the Muddy Roots label about releasing it. She’d played a showcase in their room at the Folk Alliance Conference in Kansas City the previous year, and despite the label being mostly “hardcore Americana, like punky folk and roots in blues,” they signed her. She retained complete artistic control over the album, but the label has been something of a godsend in managing mundane things like manufacturing and paying for a publicist

So far the album – densely instrumental, atmospheric, and quite distinct from her earlier works – has been getting very positive reviews. (One reviewer mentioned her in the same breath as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan as one of “the artists who are taking us on journeys of not just their lives but of others, connecting the listener with the protagonists of their stories and making them feel empathy for them or to be them.”) Sipos considers it her most accomplished work to date. That said she’s eager to start working on new things: “Recording an album is a snapshot of where you are in time or over a period of time. The funny thing too, I don’t necessarily want to hang around with these songs that much more. I’ve spent the time with them, I’ve brought them to life, recorded and now released them, and now I’m writing new songs and I’d like to be singing these new songs.”

Sipos will be playing at the Old Town Glassworks on June 25. Doors are 8 pm, show starts 8:30. $10 cover and albums available for sale. Alcohol will be served by YKARCC.