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)
Robin Dann is the vocalist and songwriter behind Toronto’s experimental jazz-pop group Bernice; Meg Remy is the Toronto-based musician and producer behind the experimental pop project U.S. Girls. The new Bernice record, Cruisin’, just came out on Telephone Explosion, so to celebrate, the two friends hopped on a Zoom call to catch up about it, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Robin Dann: Well, welcome home.
Meg Remy: Thank you. I got home on Sunday.
Robin: Oh, OK — it’s Thursday, so you’ve had a minute to get some sleeps in.
Meg: Yeah, kind of. With kids, you’re just back on the home schedule that’s really hectic too. But it went way better than we were planning for the boys. [Meg brought her twin two-year-old sons on tour.]
Robin: How was tour with the twins?
Meg: So much healthier.
Meg: Yeah. Just drinking way less and sleeping less and eating better, and actually going out in every city and going to parks, instead of sleeping ‘til the last minute when you can get a coffee and then get in the van.
Robin: That was my experience touring with Martha Wainwright and her two sons, since they were about 3 or 4 years old, and the older one is a few years older. We’d always be looking for places to go swimming, and nature walks, and making sure that we would eat — period. [Laughs.] That kind of stuff that you don’t think about when it’s just you.
Meg: Yeah. But the only part of it that was like tour was driving and then playing. We didn’t travel with the band, so we didn’t have the camaraderie and the jokes and the staying up after shows to debrief.
Robin: Yeah, you were just your family unit.
Meg: Yeah. It was very different. It didn’t feel like we were on tour at all. And it wasn’t until like we got home, and then Edwin [de Goeij] is showing us all these photos and stuff ,and it’s like, “Oh, right, you guys were on tour.” [Laughs.]
Robin: [Laughs.] But that felt like a good way to kind of compartmentalize it, in a way?
Meg: It had to be done that way. Just because kids are on a different schedule and need different things, and if something got hung up with them, the gear wasn’t hung up with us too then, you know? So the band was going to the venue and starting to set up, and then we would come in later. It worked, though. It’s totally possible. As we were pulling away on the first day to drive to Montreal, it was like, I can’t imagine them not being here right now and us having just said goodbye. We wanna be together.
And I think that they totally bloomed. Their vocabulary has gone through the roof. They loved meeting tons of new people, and they really didn’t mind driving. Everything was new and interesting to them. So it was good for them, too. And then we were all together, you know?
Robin: Yeah. What a beautiful thing.
Meg: We’ll do two more of these in the fall. And we know now this is the right length. So we’ll just see how it goes.
Robin: Well, I remember before you left, you were kind of talking about this tour as a trial run.
Meg: Yeah, for sure. We learned so many things, like that this is the right amount of time, and that I don’t need to bring so many books and toys. [Laughs.] We brought this whole bin of books that we were carting around, and they just picked their five favorite books and read those. Definitely learned with that.
Robin: That’s so awesome.
Meg: Yeah. We’ll see. That this is my life now is so strange to me. In all my years of touring, I never envisioned this at all. And early on in touring for me, touring was like oblivion. [It was] like a chance to perform to people you didn’t know, so you could be anything. And a chance to get real wasted and just touch the limits of yourself — and then leave, and not have to deal with a community of people the next day. You could just go and leave behind a trail of stories about yourself.
Robin: Yeah, it certainly feels like this kind of never-ending spiral of the present. I don’t know that I’m ever quite so in the moment as when I’m on tour. And I guess just traveling in general does that to you. But yeah, oblivion is a nice word for it too. I don’t know that I’ve ever, like toured in a rock star way, though. I’m very much an inner granny — my pals go raving and I climb into bed and kiss them off into the night. [Laughs.]
Meg: When did you start touring? What was your first time on the road?
Robin: I wasn’t really a teenage band person. My first tour was in, I want to say, 2012 or 2011. We went on tour with Devon Sproule in the UK and it was really lovely. We had a sprinter van. Do you know Devon Sproule, or her music?
Meg: I just know the name.
Robin: She’s one of the most deeply caring and kind and community-oriented people I know, and her touring really reflects that. We would sleep in houses of fans that just happened to be, like, rambling farmland with rabbits hopping around everywhere. She just generates that kind of experience in her touring. So my first exposure to touring was beautiful — very DIY and small shows and not making any money, but really lovely warm music experiences. And since then, we’ve done a lot of sloggy crappy touring, and some really lovely supported touring.
Meg: Have you toured on a bus?
Robin: Once, yeah, with Martha.
Meg: Do you like it?
Robin: Yeah, I do. I liked my little bunk zone. And I don’t think I foresee that in my future, though, unless I play with another big artist. I don’t think it’s going to happen for Bernice — I don’t really know what’s going to happen for Bernice. [Laughs.] We’re releasing an album tomorrow and I’m in this very weird mind frame about music and touring and performance in general, to be honest. But also really excited and hopeful.
Meg: Do you want to elaborate more on your mindset?
Robin: [Laughs.] Not really.
Meg: OK. Well, I mean, you saying “I don’t know what’s going to happen with Bernice” — you never could know. It’s not like previously you knew.
Robin: No, no. I guess what I maybe had before was a desire to say yes to a lot of the potential unknowns — yes to the crappy show, yes to the sort of busted tour, emailing a lot of people all the time and trying to get things happening. And now, I still care a lot about connecting with people, with musicians and audiences, but I don’t feel the same inner drive to hustle. So I’m just confronting that. I feel like the ecosystem of what I feel around me, and the music industry, is all wonked out now, post-COVID. Not to make this about COVID, but I don’t know. How do you feel, being on the heels of a bunch of touring?
Meg: Well, it’s not a bunch of touring, too. That’s something that’s different. This is as peeled back as I could get while still servicing the record. If this was some years ago, we would have just gotten off a month a month in Europe. So whatever changes have occurred in my life around this stuff, I’ve welcomed them. That pre- and post-COVID — I really wonder how different things are. I think definitely it’s different in terms of how much stuff is online and metrics based, and people just being pummeled with so much stuff that it’s impossible to hook any of your little treasure you made onto them.
Robin: They’re just like salmon blasting up stream, and you’re the bear trying to catch the fish.
Meg: So think, sure, that’s changed. But I think that something that is still true is just: the best results seem to come from doing it the way that you want to do it, not following industry standards. Or following them but having no faith in them, you know?
Robin: Yeah, for sure. I talked to John [Schouten] from Telephone Explosion, our label guy, and he really feels that way a lot, even with running a label. He’s like, “We can look at all of the ways that things are maybe more ‘difficult,’ but also ultimately what it’s doing is it’s setting us free.” I really love that as a way to live. And most days I can feel that way. Then I have days when I’m like…
Meg: “What am I doing?”
Robin: Dark and gloomy. [Laughs.]
Meg: Yeah, well, that’s totally normal. Forever making things and then deciding to share them, or deciding to try to eke out some repayment for yourself from it. But I feel fortified in just carrying on the way that I always have. And a big part of that is constantly monitoring what my expectations are and where they came from.What of it is a conditioning, that’s like an overall conditioning around commerce? Just all these terms that come from factories — like being “productive” and like all that stuff. That’s a factory floor term. I don’t need that in my body.
Meg: So I’ve found that when I’m having problems with the music industry, or getting down or whatever, it’s because I need to check myself. Because I can’t check them — they’re doing what they’ve been doing since they industrialized music, and that’s going to carry forth. The people that I work with, the majority of them who are on the industry side, I love. I love them as people and share great dinners with them and can talk about kids and philosophy and things. But also, we have totally different intentions. And knowing that I’m the only one that’s going to check myself — or has the ability to, because they’re not going to. They’re gonna check me to try to get me to do what they want me to do. [Laughs.]
Robin: Yeah, big time.
Meg: Yeah, it’s an interesting dynamic. But I find that’s missing a lot from the conversation around tech or device usage — you know, we’re like, “Oh, we’re caught in this thing. We’re all brainwashed and addicted.” And then it’s like, you’re the only one that can get you to put the phone down.
Meg: When I check myself and get real with myself about anything is when I’ve had the most relief. And not even clarity, because there’s never clarity—
Robin: Clarity is not the goal.
Meg: No. But I’m back in my body, I’m back in the basis of life that I was born in and will die in. Just all those basic things that all the shit gets us away from.
Robin: Yeah. I was just reading this essay this morning. The author is Levi Wilson, it’s called “The Myth of Self-Reliance.” It’s just basically talking about how there’s no such thing as “I,” there’s no such thing as not being connected to everything. You can’t plow through your life and only depend on yourself because you’re constantly depending on so many people and things around you. But he says, “I’m not only a body in the universe; I am also a universe embodied.”
Meg: Yeah. I think that’s why we’re all so fucked up, though. Because how do you hold that? [Laughs.]
Robin: Yeah. And meditation, where the whole philosophy of, “I am not my thoughts, and my thoughts are going to be coming and going and floating by” — it’s also like, well, who are those thoughts? Where are they coming from, and how do I go there? Usually for me, when I go there they sort of dissolve, because I realize there’s nothing there. It’s like a weird little ghost. And then I feel better. But nonetheless, they come raging back in all the time.
Meg: It seems to be about reps — the more you do it, the faster you get at it. When I used to have things crop up, I would shelter them —like the embers of them — and get them raging. Now I try to notice it and address, OK, how did this happen? What do I need to put out the embers? It seems to be about shortening the time between noticing and the action to try to address it.
Robin: Yeah. They’re like little mental interventions. What I sometimes do when I feel a little crappy monster kind of coming at me, I’m like, Oh, I like the way that the light is coming into my room right now. I just really try to blast that thought. And that’s been kind of working for me lately.
Meg: Sure. Well, there’s no thing that’s going to work on it a hundred percent of the time either.
Robin: No, no.
Meg: And that’s, I think, a hard pill to swallow, that life is supposed to be difficult. It’s extremely difficult, I think so that when death comes, you’re like, Yes. I’m ready for you.
Robin: [Laughs.] And we kind of have these blessed and privileged and easy lives, don’t we? In comparison to when we look at history.
Meg: Oh my god — warm water that comes out of a faucet. That my day doesn’t revolve around the schedule of fetching the water and heating it — I can’t imagine. And I do think about that every day, because I take a shower every day, and I like to sit in warm water and relax. Those thoughts do help. They’re like rooting thoughts, [taking] whatever issue you’re having and kind of juxtaposing it against something else.
Everyone that we just toured with hasn’t toured — well, Edwin’s done a bunch of touring. But everyone else hadn’t toured since before COVID, and everyone’s like, “Woah, coming back is weird.” And it is! Because tour is kind of a break from your regular mental state, or your regular life.You’re so present. It’s just, “OK, I have to get up. I have to get my bag. I need to get something to eat. Now I’m in the van. Now we have to load in.” Everything is really set up and there’s not much space. And there’s nothing you can really do for the road. “Oh, my taxes are at home, they need to be done. I can’t do them now.”
Robin: There was a tour where Felicity [Williams, Bernice vocalist] packed her shoe box of receipts into our van with the intention—
Meg: And she never did it, right?
Robin: [Laughs.] Never. That was, I think, a month long tour all around the States and Canada. And every day we would acknowledge it in the back as we were trying to fit all of our gear in, like, “Felicity!” But, yeah, you can’t do anything. You can barely read a book. I try to bring one sort of goal, like “I’m going to move my body every day.” That’s hard, I find, even.
Meg: I was just talking about when we toured in Europe, I think it was 2018 and I was like, “Every time we stop for gas, I’m going to exercise for 10 minutes.” Because this is dead time — no one’s doing anything, you’re always just, like, looking for a snack. It was the first stop and I got out of the van and I was doing jumping jacks, and then I just twisted my ankle so bad it swelled up and turned black.
Robin: [Laughs.] Oh no!
Meg: Of course, the one time I try to be proactive and do something for my body on tour, it just goes to shit.
Robin: You will not do that.
Meg: It’s always intentions on tour. But then you come back from tour, and it seems like however long you were gone, that much of your regular life then comes and smashes you at once. It’s like 12 days of real life and real thoughts and emotions. And then you’re a little bit out of service, because you just hadn’t been doing that, and you’re just like, Oh, fuck, the weight of real life.
Robin: Yeah. Well, I’m in the position these days of being the at-home spouse with the partner on tour. Phil’s been out with Andy Shauf so much this year, and when he comes home, truly he’s out of service — that’s a really good way of putting it — and it’s hard for me to not be that month smashing against him. Because I’m like, “You’re back! You gotta do this project and this thing and this thing, and I’m so happy to see you, and let’s cook and let’s do this.” And I just kind of have to let him sleep and give him space. I can understand how he’s feeling, so I have that empathy, bu, it’s hard to resist.
Meg: My dad used to travel for business — he was gone all the time — and while he was gone, we had our own thing going, our routine. Then he’d come and we’d always call it “reentry friction,” because it was like this grinding thing of, we had life going.
Robin: Yeah, “we were managing without you.”
Meg: And you had all these other experiences. I find that happens a lot when one person goes on tour or and the other doesn’t, or just you coming back to your community and people being like, “How was it?” And you’re just like—
Robin: “Good question.”
Meg: What’s wild is, there’s so many people that have to come back from tour and immediately go back to their jobs. You’ve gotta go serve brunch or whatever, and it’s just like, Fuck. You should be given as much time off as you were gone.
Robin: Although sometimes, personal reentry friction, having a task can be helpful. And if that’s making a hundred coffees — which used to be my world — in a way, that would ease the jet lag.
Meg: Because you’re having something else that’s a presence. “I’m here for these hours, I’m making these coffees, this is what I’m doing.” It’s what we like. We like to feel like we’re doing something, that we’re useful to others, and that we’re safe. The unknowns are as far away as possible.
Robin: And you are where you’re meant to be. There’s no doubt about it. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing right now.”
Meg: Which tour can be sometimes. That’s when it’s the best, when it really feels that way. And it’s often on stage. Then if it’s not working and you’re not sure this is where you’re supposed to be — I mean, I felt that a bit on this trip. We played in Chicago and we stayed at my mom’s house, and I came home after the show — she was still up and she had a great time at the show, and she was just like, “I can’t believe what a performer you are!” Saying all these very mom things. And I was like, “Yeah, but I’m so tired.” Like, I don’t know if I can keep doing this thing that I know I’m really good at, because I’m tired from doing it since I was 17 years old. It takes so much mental space doing all this.
That’s why I would always say this joke to Max where I’m just like, “I’m fucking just getting a job at the LCBO, because at least I’m going there and then I’m leaving it there. I’m not thinking about it at two in the morning when I’m waking up.
Robin: They’re hiring for the summer, Meg.
Meg: [Laughs.] I saw. I’m always so tempted.
Robin: Get yourself some benefits.
Meg: I think I just feel like I would love to free up some of this energy that I put towards all this thinking about this music, into thinking about other things I’m interested in.
Meg: Because now too with kids, I can’t do all of it. I can do kids, and then barely do the music thing. So then again, checking yourself — I can free up mental space if I check myself. It’s like clearing the cache. It’s like, don’t worry about that.
Are you going on tour? Do you have shows booked?
Robin: Not currently. But, TBC. I think we would like to tour, we’re just trying to find the right way to do it. We’re going to do something fun, whether it’s touring or little pocket residencies in places that we want to go live for a couple of weeks, and make some shows and some connections happen.
Meg: As a group, you could just say what’s your ideal situation and then create it, you know? Obviously you can’t achieve ideal, but there really are no rules.
Meg: It’s just like, if you’re willing for it to be something that unfolds over two years and being OK with that. Making new maps — or just burning the map in general.
Robin: Yeah. I think putting the map on some water and letting it float away, and then diving in and swimming around under the map, is what we’re going to try doing.