Interview: Vancorvid (electronic/modern classical)

Vancorvid is the project of Sharon Courtney, an Irish artist living currently in Toronto, a3243058261_16Canada.  Her music presents a truly unique blend of electronica, modern classical and then some.  Her new single, “Summon” was mixed by none other than the legendary Martin Bowes from Attrition with the remix version being done by Precious Child.  We’d like to thank her for her time in providing some of the richest answers of any interview we’ve ever done.

Note: For fans of Bjork and Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Vancorvid’s new single, “Summon” is available via Bandcamp now.

Can you talk about the new single, “Summon,” the video as well and how you hooked up with Precious Child to produce it?

“Summon” is something I’ve been working on for a while. It was originally conceived as the second track on my first EP, Hatch. The idea behind it is that about intentional recovery of your self and your mental health and strength. That at a certain point you know you can decide how you are going to recover. Are you merely going to survive, or are you going to take that opportunity to push towards the person you want to be? For me it was taking the Morrigan, an old Irish goddess, and calling to her for wisdom and strength. To say that the blight had passed, and to summon the crows back to Toronto.

The original track came together as a very dear friend, Locksley McLean, is an amazing cerceau performer, and got accepted into Necca in Vermont. It’s an unbelievable school before going to Cirque du Soleil. We had been  talking about a collaboration for ages, but knowing she had to leave soon lit a fire under me and I put together the track and arranged a shoot as quickly as I could. We shot the day after the show with Precious.

So I had never met Precious before, but Alia, also known as Subterranea, organised the show in Array Music and asked if I would open for Precious. I was crazy starstruck! It was the first time I played Summon in that show, before the shoot the next day. We ended up talking until six AM after the show, after which I had three hours of sleep before running to go rent lights for the shoot. It was an intense weekend! Precious offered to remix the track and ended up directing the video via WhatsApp, which I filmed in my apartment partly by myself, and partly with the assistance of a very talented photographer friend, Petra Nikolau. It’s been an amazing few months, I still can’t really believe it.

This is your second single and available via Bandcamp.  How does it differ from your first single, “Breathe.”

This track differs in a few ways. “Breathe” was originally written as as chorale in the style of Corelli, with a sort of claustrophobic feel – like you have to cut off your breathing, almost, and emphasizing how it feels to be so anxious you can’t breathe. I had a lot of anxiety around writing this, I needed pretty constant support for writing it, and I had a ton of help in terms of production from Adam Devecseri.

I wrote and recorded “Summon” in my apartment. Some of the lyrics were written while I was flying back from Ireland. I made the beats for this, I wanted it to feel immersive, this moment when you go into yourself and find strength. Strength that can feel like a sky black with beating wings. A freedom that can be claimed and all the fear that comes with it. It’s different because it has more layers in terms of lyrics, it’s denser. It has Irish lyrics, I sing as well as perform spoken word, and there’s different instrumentation. Breathe has broken pianos, it’s more organ-like, and Summon and the remix are much more violin-heavy. I want it to be a natural evolution of Summon. Because once you can breathe, what can you do next? You can speak. You can summon.

Where does the name Vancorvid come from?

It’s a name that evolved from something frivolous to something meaningful. The roots are in my full name – Sharon Victoria Courtney. When I started touring, I wanted to start a blog but didn’t want to be immediately searchable by my full name. I wanted my friends to find it. So I took my nickname, Shaz, and the fact that I was in a van, for Victoria, and the fact that I had to wear corsets all the time, and called it ShazVanCorset. Later I didn’t want to be associated with the corsets anymore, after being forced to wear them every  day for three months, so I changed to ShazVanCorvid. I like corvids – that’s the genus for crows, ravens, jays, a lot of passerine birds. I’m not sure what prompted that at that point in time.

Later on I had a really bad time in Toronto, after I messed up some visa preparation and nearly had to go home in a rush. The name came to me in November one night and I made a big rough painting about it. At the time I had a private Instagram account for shazvancorvid and it already had a lot of non-music posts on it, so I decided to set myself up as VANCORVID. I liked it because it was a nod to my heritage – Morrigan, the goddess I mentioned earlier, is the battle crow. She is independent and crows are the smartest birds. They’re family oriented and are associated with memory, death, the unknown. Crows are multifaceted symbols. They are messengers, tricksters, playful and intelligent. They are communicators above all, and fly directly in a world that is indirect. It’s a way of acknowledging my heritage and flying forward, and crows are universal, yet different everywhere. I like that. So I am of the corvids, and anybody who supports me is part of my slua – that’s Irish for horde. So VANCORVID could be from anywhere, be anyone.

Why the decision to move from Ireland to Toronto?

A few reasons. Some were more important at the time than they are now, and some seemed like vague ideas that became more important. One was I wanted a change, one was because I was in love at the time, one was because I wanted to see if I could do better elsewhere. I had a job that paid me but I wasn’t happy there at all, and I had been trying to make music and working in a gaming startup, but nobody pays for indie musicians in Ireland and the startup went down in flames.

What’s more, was that I wasn’t even making my own music, I was playing as part of other groups, which I loved, but I wanted to see what I could do myself, and I have a hard time saying no to collaborating with people. Also, I have a tech background and Toronto is good for that. As well as that, having been working with finances in the EU, I saw a lot of financial defaults and thought it mightn’t be a bad idea to see if I could push my career a bit further elsewhere.

You have a pretty interesting story regarding how you became interested in electronic music.  Can you elaborate?

So in February 2016 it was Family Day in Toronto. I was having a fairly dismal and solitary long weekend, no family here, boo hoo. So I decided to do laundry. Even that failed because I couldn’t use a dryer. Stick with me on this, it gets better. So I go up to my apartment, hanging dripping black wet things on all surfaces in high dudgeon, likely muttering to myself, when I heard sound outside, because I had my window open in mid-winter. It was coming from the park nearby where people perform sometimes, but it wasn’t like anything I’d heard before. So with curiosity/profound distaste for more laundry-related activities, I wandered out in laundry day clothes to find three guys. One on a laptop and keyboard with speakers all around him, one with a mike, one filming. Adam Dev on laptop, Kenneth on mike, Arly filming.

I sort of half-hovered, half-ran up to them and blurted out, “You guys are amazing, I don’t have any cash on me but can I buy you a coffee?” They were pretty nice to the nervy laundry lady accosting them and I booked it to the nearest Timmy’s.

I shuffle-jogged back with spilling coffee and icy streets to boot, pleasantly surprised to see them still there. They had been shut down by a local and the cops showed up, politely checked that they were done and moved on. They asked me to come jam with them once they found out I played music, I was telling them about playing violin. We ended up playing 3 open mics that night! They invited me into a Toronto musical family when I was pretty alone, so I’m very grateful for that. It changed the course of that year, without question.

What do you think the biggest surprise we might find about you in terms of musical influences?

Probably that the majority of them aren’t even goth artists? There’s a vast delta between what I listen to and what comes out when I write, which is pretty common. I grew up listening to opera and classical music, and was barely involved in anything electronic. My father lectures opera, ballet and classical  music, my mother is into country music, brother introduced me to classic rock and jazz. My uncles were Cureheads so I got some really nice vinyl of The Cure. I got into hip-hop when I moved to Toronto, of course.

I started playing in orchestras at around age ten and have continued consistently throughout, so I’ve played a huge amount of big orchestral music. I love punk and folk-punk, got to play with some amazing Irish punk artists like Chewing on Tinfoil and Stu Daly’s solo work (He’s a member of Chewy). I don’t actually know that much about traditional Irish music, in terms of listening or technique, but that is changing now that I’ve got to know some amazing artists – Clan Hannigan, for example.

Do you record and master everything on your own and what software/equipment do you use?

I record everything on my own – mastering I have yet to really master,  so for now I get as much help there as I can. I use Ableton 9 currently, and I record violin and vocals through a Scarlett solo. Fun fact, this track has air show in it. I was recording my vocals while the planes were whooshing by outside, and I liked it so much I kept it!

How important is ritual and spirituality to you in practice and inspiration for your work?

I would say it’s very important. Because most of creative work takes a ton of belief – belief in yourself, your time, your energy, your skill, and mostly believing you can be tenacious enough to finish the work. Small rituals can make a big difference. Even if it’s as simple as a certain smell, like making coffee, lighting a candle, burning palo santo wood, going for a run. These are all rituals to stop you getting in your own way. I try talk to the Morrigan, too, to ask for guidance, and pray there. I don’t always know exactly what I’m doing but I try to be respectful. I still have a lot to learn about old traditions, and even faith. I feel like it’s very easy to get disillusioned and disconnected and trying to connect all the parts of yourself alone is tough, but it can be easier connecting it to something bigger – i.e., to the music, and to an idea that is bigger than you. Putting it in context can enhance the connection.

Talk a bit about your path from classical training to touring Europe to abandoning the music degree to where you are now.

I didn’t abandon a music degree as such – I just cancelled my auditions last minute. I was too on the fence to pursue it sincerely, as it was not a direction I was entirely comfortable with. I studied a two-subject moderatorship of History and English in Trinity College Dublin, and was happy with it until I graduated into a recession and got fired from the first job I got in a printing place. I ended up working for an online history journal and then throwing my name into as many musical arenas as possible – doing freelance work, applying for everything, throwing things at the wall, essentially. I got asked to come along with a touring band for their European tour and thus began three months in a van.

During that time I got a pickup fitted to my old violin, had to learn something about live sound (did you know you can run an 8-piece band with amps on a couple of car batteries run through an inverter?) and decided that after that I wanted to go back and change my direction. I started to see music as something more viable, but I wanted to learn more tech. So I applied for a Master’s in Interactive Digital Media in Trinity again, as it contained elements of sound design, production gaming, design, coding, and a lot more. That’s where I made a GPS-triggered app as a group project called When Trinity Talks – I wrote the script recorded and mixed it. It was heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett and Imogen Heap, as well as ostranenie, or defamiliarisation. After that I worked with some punk and folk-punk groups, some grunge and started playing around with live sound. When I moved to Toronto I started studying composition with Jason Nett and Howard Goldbach, as well as Adam Golding for anarchist piano. When I met the guys earlier, I started getting more into production for purpose.

Are you involved in any side projects?  Other than the Greater Toronto Philharmonic?

I work sometimes with Doesn’t Matter, a hip-hop group I started with here. I also play with the Summerhill Orchestra and sometimes play corporate gigs, which is fun. Anything that keeps my hand in and allows me to gain experience in every side of the music industry. Right now I’m focused on anything that brings VANCORVID further. I tend to play with different acts like Subterranea but I’m trying to keep focus at the moment.

What plans do you have for the rest of 2018 and 2019?

I want to do a live recording this December, in a surprise location. I want to plan more showcases and open for artists I love. I have a video in the works for Breathe, but I also want to make some changes to it and re-release it, knowing what I know now. I have another music video idea for a release I want to put out in February, too. Overall I want to keep busy and up my output so that I can take that to the next level. Given how I didn’t know how this year was going to pan out at all, I’m not sure there’s a point to making defined plans. Life laughs at them.

Many years down the road after you have amassed a sizeable discography, a very distant relative locates a box in the attic of an old home.  Inside the box they find a Vancorvid album and something to play it on.  What do you want this person to know about your legacy simply from listening to your music?

I’ve never thought of it like that before. Mainly, that recovery and evolution is possible. I want them to know that you can fully immerse yourself in a feeling but that doesn’t mean you’ll asphyxiate there. That you can swim through an emotion, rather than be pinned down by it. That nothing is as fixed as pop structure implies. It’s insidious. Music is much more malleable than we tend to hear on a regular basis, music and poetry can be friends beyond lyrics, and there are be other secondary emotions that can be expressed through music. I want people to know what is possible with their lives, because I think that knowing something is possible is the first step, and I felt for a long time that I didn’t have an option to be more than I was, which was objectively false. If I can make other people feel that, then that is a legacy I can hold with peace.


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