Dana Gavanski and Rozi Plain Are Learning to Trust Themselves

The friends talk nerves, songwriting habits, and much more.

Rozi Plain is a London-based singer-songwriter; Dana Gavanski is a Canadian singer-songwriter, who is also based in London. Dana’s record When It Comes was just released last week on Flemish Eye, so to celebrate, the two friends sat down at the pub to chat about it, and more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Dana Gavanski: How do you prepare when you’re getting on stage? Do you have any kind of rituals?

Rozi Plain: Well, these days I do try and do some vocal exercises with Gerard [Black] because he is really great at doing them. 

Dana: I feel like you’ve told me about him before.

Rozi: He plays the synths in my band. He’s brilliant, he’s just such a master of his pipes that it’s a pleasure. And I never feel like a master of my pipes. But I don’t know, even if it doesn’t make any difference, it makes me feel prepared. I like to brush my teeth before I go on stage.

Dana: Fresh breath.

Rozi: Yeah. Often I get a thing where when I get really nervous, I get extremely tired. I think it’s just like a shut down nervous system — I get it when I drink a coffee sometimes as well. It’s just sort of this intense fatigue and I can barely keep my eyes open. And then it goes once we start playing, but it’s so insanely extreme.

Dana: Do you have that every time before a show?

Rozi: Well, not every time, but if I’m really nervous. It just feels so counterproductive because you want to be getting a little bit razzed, and I’m like, [groans]. 

Dana: [Laughs.] That’s so interesting. Your body is trying to preserve itself. How do you deal with nervousness?

Rozi: I don’t know, because it’s such a mystery beast. Sometimes it’s almost like you can have a lot of fun with your nerves.

Dana: It’s important, sometimes, being nervous. I think it shows that you really care, of course.

Rozi: Yeah. Or I remember someone saying something to me, that it’s OK to sort of address your nerves. You know, your voice is shaking, it is OK to just say, “Oh, I’m so nervous!” 

Dana: Like bring the attention to it. 

Rozi: Yes. But I don’t know, it’s such a mystery. Because sometimes it feels like you’ve got a handle on it, and even if you are nervous, you can just sort of be… Like this show we just did in Falmouth, I was pretty nervous. We haven’t played in a couple of years and we played a lot of new songs, and a few of them were a bit scrappy because we’ve never done them before. But I just really enjoyed it. But there are definitely times when you drop the ball a bit — you’re nervous and and you just can’t catch the thing well enough, and it’s a shame when you feel like that afterwards. Even though, very often other people don’t have that impression. You have that impression. I used to be so much more sort of apologetic after gigs, but I think there’s quite a lot of sort of smoke and mirrors — like if you just sort of behave like it was good, then everyone feels OK.

Dana: People don’t nitpick as much as you do. They don’t see like they don’t feel all the minute emotions that you’re feeling. 

Rozi: Yeah, yeah.

Dana: I always feel like such a nervous mess on stage. I mean, it’s less and less. Once I do a tour, after a few days, I think it’s great. You get used to it, or you get used to being nervous. You just kind of accept it, or you find a way to use it and just trust yourself. I think as long as I know that I can be present, and be in the moment and not think about what you’re doing… but that’s really hard to do, especially when you’re presenting new songs.

Rozi: Yeah. And it’s such a short little window of time! 

Dana: Yeah.

Rozi: What do you do before a show?

Dana:  I don’t necessarily have a really clear ritual. I like to drink some tea. I like to have some tequila, just to relax my nerves a bit. Do some vocal exercises — which I have to do more now, because of the vocal problems I’ve had. And just trying to get in my body, because I feel like when you’re nervous, you’re trying to get out of your body. You’re trying to kind of transcend yourself. But I think it’s really important just to remind yourself of your humanness. It’s kind of a thin line between being present and being elsewhere, and I think the stage really helps you go elsewhere. 

With the new songs, I think I’m exaggerating a bit more, and that helps me kind of go beyond myself. Hiding behind a guitar was what I’d always done for so long, and I think that made me nervous because the guitar was like my shield. But with a lot of the songs now, I’m trying to purposely expose myself, and just kind of flail. [Laughs.] 

Rozi: Because in a lot of the songs, you’re not playing the guitar.

Dana: Yeah. Well, I’m maybe playing it on the recording, but with a five piece, I can kind of just take the mic. I’ve never done that before. It kind of reminds me of karaoke in a way — just kind of like, what do I do with my hands? I need a touch something to center myself. 

Rozi: It’s finding different sort of comfort blankets. Like if I’ve ever played keyboards with someone on stage, I just find it such a bizarre position to be in, that you’re sort of standing by this thing. I always have this sense that you’re standing up against this thing and it’s like you haven’t got any trousers on underneath or something. It feels like this weird sort of exposing thing, and you’re just standing there in your pants.

Dana: [Laughs.] Yeah. Do you ever not play the guitar? Like do you ever just sing with a mic?

Rozi: No. I mean, I’ve done lots of just singing with other people, but no, I haven’t. But there is a song on the new album where there isn’t any guitar on it, so I’ve got no idea how we’ll ever be able to play it live. But if we do it, it might be me not doing anything apart from singing.

Dana: Does that excite you at all, or does it frighten you?

Rozi: Yeah, probably a bit of both. I don’t know. I’ll find something to do.

Dana: Do you write all your songs on guitar?

Rozi: Yeah, pretty much. 

Dana: Is it just you and a guitar, or do you go to Ableton or Logic?

Rozi: Yeah, I use Ableton. For this album, actually, I used Logic, because I bought Logic a couple of years ago. I’ve just always found Ableton loads easier, but now I understand loads more about Logic and I’m into it. But for just quick ding ding ding wanting to get something down, I’m just so savvy with the basic bit of Ableton that it’s just much quicker for me to do that. And I record lots of voice memos on my phone.

Dana: Yeah, voice memos are pretty essential.

Rozi: Yeah. Although sometimes I interrupt myself and think, Oh, I better record this on my phone in case I forget it. And I didn’t used to do that because I didn’t used to have a phone, and so maybe that means I sort of would have trusted more that I remembered.

Dana: Yeah, yeah. I feel like I remember reading something that Bjork said — she never records anything, she just relies on remembering, and if something is worth remembering, then she’ll keep it. I feel like so insecure about that. I have this obsessiveness about recording any kind of idea that I think is good right away, because I guess I don’t trust my mind enough. And I think that is even more so a thing now with how prominent technology is, just not trusting yourself.

Rozi: Yeah. But I guess so much of having a flipping phone is interrupting yourself all the time. I used to believe in more the sort of divine intervention of songwriting — stuff coming to you and it being this magical bit. And obviously, I still want that to happen. I want to create stuff in that way. But you can also take your craft really seriously, and that isn’t just divine intervention. It’s you sort of hammering it out, and you have to be willing to apply some more practical tools to it. I think I used to think, Oh, no, I can’t change things that I did. I didn’t want to come back to things.

Dana: You can’t edit out.

Rozi: Yeah. Or like I’d think, Oh, well, that was this moment where this thing happened, and you know, and although they are often the best bits, where the things happen, it’s really good to trust in your decision making to refine it and edit it. I probably used to think that I was disrespecting the integrity of whatever the first thing was or something. I think I understand how I work more now, which is constructing things over a longer period of time and. And I’m up for that. 

Dana: Do you feel like you have a method to songwriting? I always have this feeling whenever I’m about to write a song that I just don’t know how to write a song, and that I’m starting from a complete blank page. Because I feel like when I want to write something new, I don’t want it to be like anything I wrote before, so my mind is just blank. 

Rozi: But it’s like, the path to the new stuff is through the old habits though as well. 

Dana: It’s sort of like how to surprise yourself. Do you ever feel like picking up new instruments helps you, like writing on something different?

Rozi: Well, I think because I started playing the bass in This Is The Kit —and it really speaks to me, the bass — I actually, when I play the guitar, only play the four thick strings. I feel like that’s probably a lot from playing the bass.I got given this old synth a little while ago, and I do feel like there’s something really amazing about that. It’s so visual, a keyboard out in front of you. 

Dana: It’s very melodic.

Rozi: Yeah. And the fact that you can see everything in shapes, in a way maybe you can’t with the guitar. There’s definitely shapes I do all the time on the guitar — I’ve got my favorite shapes and my favorite tunings. But I feel like I appreciated recently how the visual aspect to it is this other way in. Or like how playing a wind instrument is one note at a time, and that feels really special. 

Dana: Yeah, totally. There’s something precious about it.

Rozi: Yeah. And how hugely vast that can be, what people can do with their one note at a time. And obviously it’s not one note.

Dana: I wrote “Indigo Highway” on the Grandmother Moog, which you can only play one note at a time. I found that really difficult at the beginning. It’s so simple, and it’s almost too reductive, you know? Yeah. But then I was able to write this song — literally it came out within seconds. I was just playing around, just playing E C E C E C, and then I just kind of hypnotized myself. You can get into a state of hypnosis by playing just very sensual sounds. And I wrote this song about my childhood, really, which is something that I’d always wanted to write about. I wasn’t planning on writing a song from my childhood — which is a really rare thing for me, for a song to just come out, and it came out like very innocently. And without any ego, really, because I was just trying to match the the simplicity of the instrument. I was able to reduce all the complicated feelings I had about my childhood into these notes, and in a way that I could have never done, maybe, playing a guitar. Because maybe when you do play chords and you’re trying to get into a rhythm that’s a little bit more defined, it can define you too much.

Rozi: Yeah, yeah.

Dana: So I’ve found playing on different instruments, especially when I don’t really know something very well, can help me write. On this new album I played a lot with this toy Casio. A lot of the songs came out of that, because I was kind of just following the melodies that I would find and playing around with the little knowledge I had. And so that kind of freed me up quite a lot. 

That kind of reminded me of PJ Harvey’s album White Chalk — she’s mainly a guitarist, and then she decided to write this album on an acoustic piano and it brought another dimension to her songwriting and inspired her in a different way. The way that I play guitar was starting to tire me, or it just didn’t excite me anymore. So when you approach a different instrument with different sounds, it can bring out new feelings that you didn’t know you had. 

Rozi: Yeah, you’re not just slipping into your reliable habits.

Dana Gavanski is a singer/songwriter currently residing in London.