Explore the World of Rot with Bernice and Kalbells

The experimental pop bands dive deep on how their trash collecting hobbies influence their songwriting, and much more.

Robin Dann is the vocalist and songwriter behind Toronto’s experimental jazz-pop group Bernice; Angelica Bess and Kalmia Traver are two-fourths of the Brooklyn-based indie-pop band Kalbells. Bernice’s Eau De Bonjourno is out this Friday via Telephone Explosion, and Kalbells’ sophomore album Max Heart will be released March 26 via NNA Tapes — to celebrate, the three hopped on a video call to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Robin Dann: So, welcome, my friends.

Angelica Bess: Hey, guys. You guys have all really cute backgrounds. 

Robin: Thanks. Angie, you’re in a cool spot, too.

Angelica: Yeah, I’m just pacing around the prop house right now, where I work. We have a whole shelf full of thrones, and all of the boom boxes and the phones are all lined up, so it’s like a junk room, but a very well organized, tasteful junk room — in ol’ Bushwick, Brooklyn, on the ugliest street, I think, in the city. Have you ever walked down that street, Kal? It is, like, depressing. 

Kalmia Traver: Meserole? 

Angelica: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Kalmia: Yeah, it’s horrible. 

Angelica: It’s just, like, factories, and every day it’s like a new weird smell coming from some building. 

Kalmia: There’s the holding ground for the trash a few blocks away. Our friends live there and every night it’s just like, beep beep beep beep. Just big trucks of trash coming and going.

Robin: I have a good friend who lives right by a glue factory — like, horse processing… 

Angelica: Ooooh.

Robin: When they’re making the glue it smells like — I think it’s the deathiest smell I’ve ever smelled, aside from, like, an actual dying animal. It’s really, really weird too — like, you kind of want to keep smelling it just because of how strange it is. It’s like your instinct, like your inner ape wants to keep it in the nose to explore it. But it’s bad.

Kalmia: The profound sense of being with discomfort.

Robin: Exactly. What is your least favorite smell?

Kalmia: I was going to say, now let’s all go around and say the most deathiest smell you’ve ever smelled. [Laughs.]

Angelica: It depends on what I ate… But I’ve definitely given off some pretty deathy smells from my own body.

Kalmia: No way. Nothing you emit couldn’t have a place in my heart. 

Angelica: [Laughs.] That’s the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me. 

OK, there’s this one smell that I smell on this block and it’s just, like, artificial spices. It gives me a nauseating headache, like that migraine headache that makes you want to vomit sometimes. Which is unfortunate, because I love spices — like, I’m a Latin girl, I’m from the Caribbean, I love spice. But the artificial spice and the combination of the other spice at the factory — I get off the train I’m just like, [Retches]. I can’t. So that’s another reason why I don’t enjoy that walk to work. What’s yours?

Kalmia: I was thinking about it — a few years ago, I got this crock pot to make sauerkraut. I made it successfully a few times, and then I didn’t. I remember that starting sauerkraut on a full moon is good or something, and if you set the mood around the house and have a positive vibe. This one day, I was making sauerkraut but I was really pissed off and I was in a horrible mood — I was like, Agh, fuck, chopping all these daikon radishes. In the back of my mind I was like, I wonder if this is going to negatively affect the sauerkraut. And then it did. I totally had all the units wrong — you leave it for a few days, and then you put it in the fridge, but in my mind I was like, You leave it for a few months and then you put it in the fridge. [Laughs.]

Angelica: Oh, god. 

Kalmia: There were multiple species of maggots. 

Angelica: Maggots are so fascinating to me. Remember when we found that animal carcass on the beach a while back, Kal?

Kalmia: Yeah. 

Angelica: It was a bird, it was a heron, and we lifted it up just like, “We just wanna see it!” And just all these maggots were having this, like, rave underneath its wing. It was so disgusting — and beautiful, at the same time. It was like a car accident, I couldn’t look away.

Robin: As a kid, any time I would find rotting or dead things on the beach, all I wanted to do was get in there and pick them up and see them. And everyone would be like, “Don’t touch the jellyfish!” But the desire was so strong to just, like, explore that world of rot. I feel like it’s really deep in us, and it’s an important urge to respect. There’s ways to do it safely and to be able to just see, literally, the underbelly of existence and how it’s beautiful. 

Angelica: And what oxygen does to things over time. Rotting is just time and change.

Kalmia: Imagine a world without decomposers.

Angelica: We’d have no room.

Robin: We’d be buried. 

Angelica: There’s this lyric in the roof, in Ruth Garbus’s “Strash,” where she’s like, “[Rooted] in the stand covering our ancient plastic toys” — I always think about that imagery. Like, imagine digging up in the ground and just finding all of your toys, like how they just never change over time. Is that satisfying or is that sad? She’s definitely describing like a desire, but at the same time, it’s like… Wow, yep. Plastic, not going anywhere.

Robin: There’s something insanely beautiful I find about plastic garbage on the beach, or in any like rural setting.

Angelica: Yeah, beach glass!

Robin: I like collecting all the different kinds of plastic that are now just like weird shapes, and you can’t really tell what they used to be. It’s like a similar thing, it’s a similar urge to get it, and get it in a pile and look at it. But it is really insane to imagine, like, all the toothbrushes that have ever been made — they’re all still here! They’re still on this planet. 

Kalmia: I have this book that my dad gave me about crows and ravens and corvids. There’s a whole section of it where the people who wrote the book adopted a raven that had fallen off a cliff in New Hampshire and was injured, a baby. So they rehabilitated it because that’s what they do. Ravens are such social species — it was, like, in their family, like they had really profound relationship with this little raven. Their intention was to get it to be able to survive in the wild. So over its adolescence, it would go on longer and longer journeys and always come back. But it was obsessed with, like what you’re talking about, just shiny little things, and it would collect these huge piles of chunks of plastic, and it would always steal their keys. They’d go to it’s little lair and they would find their keys and be like, “OK, now I can go to the grocery store.” [Laughs.] Sometimes when I’m on the beach, like you Robin, I love collecting the little plastic stuff. And I’m like, Is this bad of me? Or, somehow, Is this materialistic? And then I just think about that raven and I’m like, No, it’s fine

Robin: Yeah, it’s so natural.

Angelica: Yeah. I think it’s important to collect things that interest you, because then you just kind of have this bundle of history and knowledge. I don’t know, I just think it’s fun to collect buttons, or just like, “I have a jar of nails,” or something like that.

Robin: You mean like fingernails? 

Angelica: Yeah. My friend has a jar of his of his belly button lint over the course of, like, 20 years. It’s so foul. But he’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been collecting this bellybutton since like ‘96.” I’m like, “Bro, that’s crazy and fascinating at the same time.”

Robin: That’s like Ren & Stimpy. I can’t remember if it was Ren or Stimpy, it might have been Stimpy collected his toothpaste spit in a jar for a long time, and then I think it came to life or something. I loved that.

Angelica: That show was so insane. It was, like, beyond us. It went right over our heads. They were just kind of this cool existential duo that knew what was up. I loved when they zoomed in — they liked to zoom in on things that were gross, like if something like was stinky and it was coming from Ren or Stimpy’s butt it would zoom. It would just be like prickly, stinky, and, like, the foghorn sample — you would just be like, “Yup, that’s nasty!” [Laughs.]

Robin: Do you guys think that this idea of gathering and collecting — how does that relate to songs for y’alls? Because for me, it’s pretty connected.

Kalmia: Totally. It’s like that curation urge to be like, These things look good next to each other.

Angelica: And certain lyrics and words and syllables — you’re just forming the perfect sounding line that’s easy to hear and also fun for you to sing. So you’re collecting all of these variables that you want to make — not the perfect lyric… 

Robin: For me, when I hear it — and I hear it in both of your songs a lot, and other people’s songs too — when I write, it’s like, OK, this is good, this is OK, this is OK, it’s OK. And then I have an idea of some combination of words or melody, or I find the right chord and I’m like, Guh! It’s like a little vibration feeling that I’m like, This is it, this is it. There’s no question anymore. You know what I mean?

Kalmia: How do you write lyrics, Robin? 

Robin: Well, I always write them at the same time as the melody.

Angelica: Ugh, good for you! That’s awesome. You’ve got two things out of the way.

Robin: Well, no — it all has to happen kind of at the same time. It can feel like pretty unbearable because I can’t get ahead of myself on one of the other parts of the song before I can figure out the rest of it. But I find usually like a portion of it will sort of tumble out, and then I have to obsess over figuring out the rest of it. Like once I’ve got verse one, then I’m like, OK, now I have this little formula package and I need to go create it again and again if I’m going to turn this into a pop song. Which can get pressure-y, because then I feel the need to stick to a general sameness in verse two and verse three. That can be tricky. 

But yeah, I guess I write lyrics by just trying to open my brain up. I’ll surround myself with stuff that I can look at, and have, like, a billion tabs open that I’m reading about things to sort of just explore realms of words that I don’t have currently inside my imagination, and try to make that turn into a cohesive thought. What about you, Kal?

Kalmia: You’re talking about the second verse, like that process — that to me has been something that is deeply terrifying for many years, the second verse.

Writing a second verse is like saying, “OK, I did something cool that deserves to be repeated.” I was something I wouldn’t allow myself. Like I couldn’t allow myself that kind of self-confidence, so I would just have all these one minute songs. 

I think that the second verse process, or the finishing process, has been a thing I’ve been exploring more this year and last year. Like finishing Max Heart, and just being like, OK, I’m going to commit today, and  instead of writing a song, I’m going to finish this song today. Because we all did that Song-A-Day challenge together last year. I love having the discipline structure of needing to do something every day, so I was experimenting this year with doing the same process, but with a finishing. It’s cool — it grants me so much power to even start a song, and once I know I can finish it I’m like, Alright! It’s been a pretty healing thing to really do that with intention.

Robin: Do you have a way in? I’m so curious, because I have a really hard time with finishing songs, and for me it’s kind of about finding ways into the work that are the hardest for me.

Kalmia: This is really funny and silly, but there’s a certain way that, like, playful consonants and using current language — like a Chris Weisman style of writing, [where] instead of trying to say something literary that makes sense, I just say something that feels really good on in my mouth. Like, “bibbity boppity, shoopity shoppity” — if I have a couple minutes of making those sounds, usually some cool words will come that will lead me down a good path.

Robin: For sure. When I probably eight or nine, and my older brother was 12, he was really into Beck. I remember he would write poems and I thought they were like the best things I had ever read. I was like, “How do you write a song? Like, how do you write lyrics?” And he was like, “It’s easy. You just put a bunch of words that don’t make any sense next to each other, and that’s lyrics.” And he had learned that from Beck, I think. So I think that’s actually the largest songwriting lesson that I’ve ever incorporated — lik, don’t say things that make sense, and then you could make it make sense.

Angelica: Yeah, with the melody. I totally am with you with that. I was listening to Ariana Grande’s new record, which is really good. She likes to rhyme with the same word, and I’m totally OK with that. Like, she does it multiple times. There’s this one lyric where she’s like, “Staying off my phone trying to disconnect it/Then I’m gonna do some yoga to try to stay connected.” And I was like, Yeah! [Laughs.] 

Robin: That’s like an imperfect rhyme, or something? Is that what they call it? Like, they don’t, like, legally rhyme, but they do. 

You guys both do that too, in terms of breaking rules or whatever. Kal, I’ve been obsessed with “Pickles” over the last few days. I just love the line where you’re just like, [sings] “Naked, naked, naked, naked” — you just say naked over and over again, and that is the perfect lyric for that moment.

Angelica: And also, that’s like a relatable line. Like, you know, “Naked, naked, naked.” Yep. [Laughs.]

Robin: And then, what’s the line? I can never make out what you say after that. 

Kalmia: Oh, it’s like, “Yada boom and bap” — that’s one of those things I was just talking about!

Robin: Amazing. Oh, my god. 

Kalmia: Then it’s like — there’s two things it could be: “Here’s a chance to own my crack,” or “oh my crap.” It’s kind of a similar meaning. But there’s this Czech feminist filmmaker in the 1960s [who made] this movie [Věra Chytilová’s Fruits of Paradise] that’s her retelling of Adam and Eve, and it’s so cool and beautiful. There’s this one point where she’s walking through this amazing landscape, and she finds this little canyon and there’s a shot of her just laying at the bottom of the canyon, like in these two walls, and she’s just naked. That’s what I was thinking about. There’s something about being at the bottom of a thing, and just being there, to me, that’s evocative. 

Robin: Gotta love a crack. 

Angelica: Own your crack, baby.

Kalmia: It’s like the Japanese art of when things crack, and you fill it. 

Robin: Yeah, you repair it and you make [the cracks] visible so you can always see how it was broken before, but now it’s even more beautiful. 

Kalmia: Like wabi-sabi.

Robin: To bring us back to the world of music — Kal, you have a band called Kalbells, and you’re putting an album out called Max Heart on March 26. And Angelica, you have a project called Body Language and you put your record out. I can’t believe that I just discovered it, I feel like I have so much to explore. I was like, Oh, this is a brand new band! And then, no, I looked you up and you’ve been putting music out for a decade. [Laughs.]

Angelica: Yeah, we’ve been around for a while. We actually finished the record maybe like two, going on three years now. So it was just a matter of time. We were like, “OK, we gotta get this out.” But yeah, it happens and you just keep writing in between, and then somehow in the middle of it, you’re like, Oh, right, people want to know what we’ve been doing. [Laughs.] We were active for a significant time, and then, you know, we grew up and there’s babies in the band now. So there’s just other priorities that a couple of the members have now. 

The last record was really fun. It was just like a combination of everything we’ve ever loved, in terms of, like, of black music — R&B, house. Just kind of groovin’. Like, every song is just like a vibe or a groove, or just reminds you of the ‘90s. [Laughs.]

Robin: I was singing along this morning, and I think Phil [Melanson, member of Bernice] was saying that it was reminding him of ‘90s Janet at one point.

Angelica: That’s great! That’s the idea. My dad likes to reminisce about the time when I told him I wanted to be Janet Jackson when I was four.

Robin: You knew! How does it feel to to be on the brink of release, Kal?

Kalmia: I just really, really wish we could be together as a band. But we’re making it happen, and we’ve made it happen all year. We were able to make two music videos, like very Covid-safely. I was just saying this to someone the other day, how I feel like since we’ve existed as a band, I’ll go all week being like, “Oh, life is alright, you know, I’m glad to be alive,” and then I’ll get to band practice and be like, “Life is fucking awesome!” [Laughs.] That medicine space of being together is definitely like a cherry on top of everything. So I’m really excited about this album, I love writing music and everything, but I’m just also so excited about where we can go from here as a band to keep centering more and more our collaboration. Because it’s one thing to write music, and we all love it, but the thing that we have as a band is darn magic. I’m excited that Max Heart has everyone’s voices on it in some way or another. More of that!

Angelica: Yeah, just reestablishing the musicianship of the band — there’s just so much that we are lacking right now because we’re so far apart. The communication is a little sparse, but when we’re together, we get so much done. It’s definitely been tricky.

Kalmia: Yeah. I think when we’re all just around our instruments, like with our fingertips there and the mic set up, there’s such a sense of power. Even though we’re friends too, and hanging out as friends is fun! But when we’re in that focused workshop zone, it’s special. 

Angelica: And your record, Miss Robin!

Kalmia: Yeah, it’s also coming out really soon. How do you feel being on the brink of release? 

Robin: I feel like everything you said I’ll just copy and paste. My band is my best friends and my musical world — they’re really my soul mates, and when we’re together making music, that’s all there is really. That’s life. 

We all live in Toronto — actually, Dan [Fortin] moved to Hamilton last year, which is like an hour outside of Toronto. But, yeah, it’s been hard and we haven’t really been communicating in a way that we normally would. But we made a fun, weird video. I feel like it’s a really similar story — the experience of making that video was very, very special for me, and I think it kind of manifests into the video. You can see the happiness coming across. We’ve got some release plans, we’re going to do a pretaped from afar, patch-working it together variety type show. It’s going to be really fun.

Angelica: I can’t wait to see that, that’s sounds so dope.

Robin: I cannot fathom trying to play a virtual show. Some friends of mine who are putting records out right now are really trying to make that happen, and I just couldn’t. I just don’t have the emotional stamina for it or something. 

Angelica: I’m really curious to see how everyone is releasing content from all angles, because we have so many limitations now. We made a couple of music videos last year, and I just put out one. So it’s just kind of like, this is what we can do. What else can we work with?

Robin: Yeah. And the world is really with us, I think — no matter what level of professionalism or sheen it has, or lack of. That’s what I love, too — the more honest a person can be, the more I’m going to love it. Like take away all the pretense of being fancy.

Angelica: I’m hoping that we can continue this whole experience, this vibe — that we can transition that into the music industry. Let’s be more communal. This really stripped down our egos a lot, as artists, and we’ve been reaching out in ways that I don’t think we would if we weren’t stuck in our homes. Reaching out to other artists, reconnecting with fans — I think we can incorporate that into the music industry a little bit more now.

Robin: Yeah. One of my questions for you guys was, do you think about the future? And if so, how do you see it unfolding? Do you want to keep putting out albums and touring them? Or do you see an alternate version of the future?

Angelica: I definitely see people getting more expressive on video and finding other art mediums outside of music. I definitely miss performing and playing shows, but I just love seeing other artists just being themselves.

Kalmia: It feels like an explosion of creativity this year. Like the floodgates have just burst. Like on TikTok — so many people are like, “Ah, screw it, I’m such an entertaining person to myself, I’m just going to entertain myself right now and then like, have millions of followers.” I’m having a hard time finding language for it, but the gaze that I am having on TikTok is something of deep wonder. I know that there’s probably sides that aren’t healthy, but I just can’t help but see this explosion of creativity and people granting themselves permission to just let it flow.

Angelica: And sharing knowledge! Like sharing information and insight and just, like, being in your face, like, “I’m gonna tell you how to do this thing that we’ve all been talking about,” and you’re just like, “Yes! And I don’t have to read it!” I mean, I love reading things, but sometimes you just want someone that’s in your face like, ‘Hey, remember that thing that’s been bothering us? I found this hack and I’m gonna show you…” And it’s free!

Kalmia: It’s making me think about micro stuff, too, with interpersonal relationships, and what I feel like this time has ushered in. It’s like, we don’t want to fake it anymore. We just want to say exactly how it is, and be and dance exactly how we feel, and remove these layers of pretense from our interactions. It’s kind of like that personal-becomes-political thing. I just feel like we’re all educating each other and getting educated in all the different ways, in all the different areas and mediums and genres and disciplines. That’s what the internet is now. It’s just to see what’s possible in the world.

(Photo Credit: left, Colin Medley)

Toronto’s Bernice have always been subject to their own distinct rhythms. Releasing their first album in 2011 then waiting seven years for the release of their sophomore LP, and another four until the release of their 2021 album Eau De Bonjourno, each release from the Robin Dann-led band feels like a missive from another world, and one that arrives precisely when it was supposed to, independent of any external pressures or expectations. Despite their periodic disappearances, Bernice’s albums have reliably provoked waves of startled excitement from both the press and their fellow musicians, with high praise coming from outlets like Pitchfork, NPR, Stereogum and the New York Times, and legendary artists like Beverly Glenn-Copeland, who described himself as “a down on my knees fan” of the band, saying “the vision is extraordinary and it’s musically so exciting.

In April, Bernice released their fourth LP Cruisin’ on Telephone Explosion Records.

(Photo Credit: Colin Medley)