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Tanya Davis is a Canadian poet, musician and singer-songwriter, who has released 3 albums to date and a book of poetry. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia with her cat Lou and has received a ton of recognition for her various performing art forms, which she describes as vulnerable, without walls and what helps her cope during difficult times. Her album, Gorgeous Morning, was nominated for the 2009 ECMA Female Recording of the Year, while her poetry won her the winning title twice at the CBC National Poetry Face-off. Tanya is also the Canadian Winner of the 2008 Mountain Stage NewSong contest. She has collaborated with filmmaker Andrea Dorfman on two video poems, “Art” and “How to Be Alone”, which have been featured at numerous film festivals, including The Vancouver Film Fest, The Worldwide Short Film Festival, and the VideoPoetry Festival (Berlin). The “How to Be Alone” short has received over 3 million views on YouTube to date. In our indepth interview, mindyourmind volunteer Erin talks to Tanya about being an artist and the honesty that art demands, about how to deal with isolation and loneliness, about one of her “soul friends”, her cat Lou and much more.
How did you come to work with Andrea Dorfman on your “How to Be Alone” and “Art” videos? The former has almost three million views! How has it changed your fan base?
Andrea and I are great friends, and have been for about 4 years now. We met originally to work on a video for one of my songs, "art", and at our first meeting over coffee we just got right into talking about life and the rest of it, so the friendship was solid and real from the beginning. We had been wanting to collaborate on another project together and decided to do a video poem. We had been talking about solitude and spending a lot of time alone, how important it was for our artistic practices and our respective sanity/mental health/wellness and so we decided to do it on that subject. It has expanded my fan base tremendously, given me fans from all over the world, also people who wouldn't have otherwise discovered me. It's been amazing in that sense.
When I listen to the track “Art” from Gorgeous Morning I can really relate to the lyrics defining art as both a passion and a struggle. Is that what you intended for the song to communicate?
That's exactly what I wanted to communicate; that's exactly what I was feeling, what I continue to feel, actually. I still play that song at a lot of my shows though it's over 5 years old at this point. I still grapple with all of those questions, the doubt and the fear and the uncertainty. I play that song to continuously reassure myself that I'm doing something worthwhile, even if I don't always rationally know that. My heart knows that.
Can you elaborate on what you mean in these last lyrics of your “Art” track? "I question the outcome of the outpouring of myself if I tell everyone my stories will this keep me healthy and well will it give me purpose, to this world some sort of service is it worth it, how can I tell"
Well, as an artist, or as the kind of artist I am, at least, I make myself very vulnerable. I pour myself out on stage, all of my secrets, my desires, my fears and doubts, my love, all of these true stories and uncertain observations. And it can be a bit depleting, to expose myself so much and give and give. Of course, I get a lot in return, but it's still challenging. And I also question the worthiness of pursuing art as a career, as a lifestyle. Does it help society, people, the world and all of our suffering? I like to think it does but there are always those days wherein I'm not sure, where I question if perhaps I'm living in a bubble and not helping the world enough. I want to feel purposeful in this life, and this is what I choose to do, what I think I'm good at and sometime I just want affirmation that this is enough, enough to do, enough to contribute.
Do you ever write a piece and question whether it’s too personal to share with your audience? How do you gauge that?
Oh, probably. But mostly I don't think anything is too personal. I want to connect with people and I don't feel I have anything to hide, nothing that shames me enough that I have to contain it within my walls. Maybe sometime I don't feel like discussing something but the reason for that would be more because of how I didn't want to offend anyone, or if the audience wasn't fitting to the subject matter. And it's not about censoring but about being strategic sometime, which I choose to do since this is, besides a passionate pursuit, also my job and I want to sustain it for a long time. So, for that reason, I may not play my song about one night stands if I'm doing a high school gig, or I may not sing a song about how my thoughts on religion if I'm playing at a church social. Ha. I actually don't play at a lot of (any) church socials, but you know what I mean. I plan my set lists accordingly. And I think that's okay and I don't feel like I'm compromising myself or my integrity to do that. But I don't think anything, in essence, is too personal to share.
Which do you tend to write first, the poetry or the music for your work?
Mostly I write lyrics first, words, poems. Once in awhile I'll be noodling around on my guitar and I find a melody or chord sequence that I like and then I'll sing nonsense words or la-la-la' until I figure out what that particular melody could represent, what that song could be about.
Which singers and/or poets inspire you?
Will Oldham, Ani Difranco, Jim Bryson, Catherine MacLellan, Rose Cousins, Jenn Grant, Sue Goyette, Alden Nolan, Shane Koyczan, K'Naan, Ben Gallagher, Papber Beat Scissors.
The black cat on your bed in the “How to be Alone” video isn’t the cat from the track Baby Lion, right? Which cats have you known and loved?
Lovely question! No, that cat is my guy, Lou. The cat from Baby Lion was Lou's brother, Henry. He died when he was very young. Lou is one of my soul friends! I could get real cat cheesy and crazy talking about how much I love cats. I could go on and on about Lou. Suffice it to say that I love him verrrrry much and I get a lot of joy from him. Cats are such great companions. I always had cats growing up, like Pom-Pom, the orange one. We had him for years. Me and my best friend got a cat together once named Bingle, which was an Australian term for 'sudden crash or upset'. It was a fitting name because sudden crashes and upsets happened a lot with him! I have loved a lot of cats, strangers on tours, cats on the sidewalk who flop over and let me pat them... cats cats everywhere.
In the “How To Be Alone” video, you turn loneliness into something not so lonely and even into something beautiful. What would you want to say to someone who is feeling isolated and perhaps not doing so well?
Isolation is really hard. I'm fortunate to have family I can call (they live in another province but we are still close) and good friends I can call on. I think that's important and valuable and I realize that not everyone has those options. Still, I would say to try to find somebody, at least one person, who is sort of like a guardian of your soul, who you can call or write to if you need to. Or even send a quick text message, like 'hi, i'm here. i'm lonely' and they can say, 'hi, hang in there. i love you'. or whatever. just to know someone out there thinks about you from time to time is good.
And, as important as that is to find ways to enjoy your solitude. Or maybe enjoy is the wrong word. I don't think we need to sugar coat everything, obviously life is hard and loneliness and isolation is hard. So I don't think we need to feel pressured to enjoy something that's not enjoyable. Maybe, more accurately, we can find a way to 'be there'. That expression is perhaps a bit clichéd these days, along the lines of 'live in the present' or 'the power of now'. But clichés becomes clichés for reasons. And I think being able to appreciate the present moment is one of the joys of life, a way to make life better, all around. It helps with overall contentment. So, personally, if I'm struggling against loneliness I can often trace a line back to the fact that I'm not happy with myself, my soul. And it's often not about changing something external, but, rather, internal. Peace of mind. I tend to be anxious and forward thinking, so it' good for me to sit still, to practice being patient and being here. I meditate. That helps. I started meditating around the time I wrote How to be Alone. Safe to say, it's changed me. It keeps changing me. I feel lonely and isolated a lot, like I am a lone wolf type person. And often I love that. And sometimes I don't. When I don't, I make myself do activities that I might be resisting but that are good for me anyway, like get some exercise, like go outside into the world, into nature, like go see a work of art, like read a book and connect with what's happening on the pages.
This is a long winded answer. But basically, try to connect with someone, or a group so you have a support network. Meanwhile, nurture yourself by digging into the solitude and getting things out of it that you can't get with other people. Like silence, like space, like peace and quiet and reflection. And pursue some hobbies.
Your art and various forms of self-expression seem to be positive outlets for you. Is there anything else that helps you cope through difficult times?
Art is the biggest thing. It helps me cope. I'm grateful for it. Also, my family and my friends. The art and music of other people. Books, both fictional stories and nonfiction. It helps me to read and be informed about what's happening in the world, so I can remember that I am not alone, that we are all connected and life is full of suffering and joy everywhere. I also read a lot of Buddhist dharma and that is a huge help for me, books on spirituality, in general. Mediation helps. Exercise and physical activity is a huge help! get out of the head and into the body! And sometime a good party helps, awkward and interesting conversations with strangers, something to take me out of the bubble of my life and see that the world is big and it's happening all the time, even when I am sitting in my room, feeling angsty and sad.
According to the bio section of your website, you recently received funding from The Canada Council for the Arts for a feature-length show! What can you tell us about it and just how excited should we be!?
It's true; the Canada Council generously funded me. So I wrote a lot of new poems. And strung them together into a loose format resembling a solo show. I still have lots of work to do on it though before it's ready to perform. So I'm keeping it under wraps a bit...
Do you have any words that you live by?
This, too, shall pass (who said that? I forget...)
Time and consistent effort (in relation to feeling patient about my work and success as an artist.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (the golden rule).
Be the change you wish to see in the world (Ghandi said that).
Love one another (lots of people said that). Life, for me, is about connection. I truly believe that. It's why I think I'm here. It's what's good and true.