Sitting Down with Bria While Counting Down the Days for Cuntry Covers Vol. 1's Release
I came across Bria without knowing a single thing about country music and what it represents. Upon hearing Green Rocky Road, I was pulled into a world which was meticulously crafted by Bria Salmena and Duncan Hay Jennings. It kept me hooked. Don't let the my country definition fool you though, classifying what they do and slapping a "country" sticker on it might be tempting yet Bria is a project that expands in various directions. Cuntry Covers Vol. 1 seamlessly drifts between classic country references and a new perspective of reimagining what country could sound like in a more exploratory way.
This is not Bria and Duncan's first rodeo together (excuse the country pun). The duo has worked in multiple projects before setting out to cover songs. Both have partaken in Orville Peck's touring band and FRIGS, a post-punk band whose 2018 album Basic Behaviour was longlisted for the 2018 Polaris Music Prize. Their palette is full with different experiences which can be heard from the way that they choose to pay homage to the six songs that they have chosen. Instead of covering the songs in a traditional way, the duo have incorporated their expertise that come from various other genres that they have experimented with in the past.
With Bria' Salmena's deep and rich vocals and the heavy yet refreshing instrumentals, each song gains a new life of their own. Instead of writing their own songs for this project, they decided on taking six songs that spoke to them in various ways. In a way, they have created a very intimate playlist. It's almost as if the songs procure a brand new deepness with their take as Bria Salmena adds in her own experiences, heartbreaks and stories on top of the already existing narrations through her intense and emotive voice.
With the way that it has been produced and made, It's an album that reflects the importance of collaboration, a value we need to to re-remember after the stillness of the previous year. I sat down with Bria Salmena and Duncan Hay Jennings to talk about Cuntry Covers Vol.1 and the world that laid behind the project.
Janset: Before anything else can you explain how this project came to be? How did you decide to form a duo together?
Bria: Well Duncan and I have been playing together in various projects for eleven years. We work together all the time, we're best friends and we also live together. The project kinda started in 2020 during the first quarantine. We were in both different areas of Toronto and I was listening to a lot of Marianne Faithfull and Linda Ronstadt who primarily record covers. At that time I also discovered Mistress Mary who we cover on the EP. I decided her song I don't Wanna Love Ya Now would be a very fun one to work on while we were bored at home so I messaged Duncan to see if he was interested. The next day he had sent the instrumental track with all the recording he had done on it. Afterwards we got the idea to keep going with it and I went up to the farm where Duncan was living at the time and we selected certain songs and tried things out. We didn't even had an idea about what to do with it, it was just very fun at the time. We had never explored covers that much in any of our projects that we had worked on so it happened very organically. By that time, we had finished six tracks and decided it would be a cool idea to have an EP out.
You were previously in FRIGS and you toured with Orville Peck. Do you think that working with so many diverse musicians contributed into this project?
Bria: Before working with Orville we were touring in a post-punk band which has a lot of connections with Orville Peck's world and they have definitely contributed to our musical identities. It also changed what we were listening to. We don't hold ourselves within anything.
Duncan: We had a pretty wild year with Orville and then everything came to a stand-still. I think a lot of these songs and the bases for it was definitely inspired by Orville and working with him as much as we did. We picked up on so many new musical ideas and sensibilities.
What particular effect these songs that you have chosen to cover have on you? How did you come up with this selection?
Bria: We tried a lot of songs actually. At the time, I was going through a turbulent time as I was ending a five year relationship so certain country heartbreak songs were very speaking to me. Those types of country songs seem to be more resonant with us as they have a great story. We never said "We have to try this one absolutely." It was whatever we were listening at the time or recently discovered.
Duncan: Even though all the songs we covered are not country songs, we felt like through what they expressed, they were. I think on the album we kind of play with what the definition of a country song can or should be. That was a very fun thing to explore for us.
That is exactly what I felt when I listened to your album. It doesn't sound stereotypically country but sounds more like what country can also be.
Bria: Yeah, we play with Orville Peck but beyond that we haven't really played country music before as we come from different musical backgrounds. If we hadn't decided to call the EP Cuntry Covers I don't know if it would be regarded the same way in the first place. Deciding on that title was also very funny. We don't take ourselves too seriously and we think the title represents that well, we're just doing music.
Your first release of Cuntry Covers was a luscious take on Green Rocky Road where you've paid homage to the Greenwich Village star Karen Dalton. Is keeping the original essence of the songs intact an important element to consider while your adding your own sound into each song? If so, how do you manage to balance it out with your unique sound?
Bria: There were certain things we wanted to maintain but we didn't want to create straight covers. I think it's quite boring. Most of these songs have become an homage in a way. We wanted to do our rendition of these songs which meant putting our identity onto them. In a lot of ways, it's honoring the tracks more. There are already a lot of wedding bands who do straight covers already.
Duncan: Yeah when we were sitting together, we'd usually pinpoint little moments and say "Let's recreate that or let's mimic that." but otherwise, making a good cover is offering a new perspective either sonically or by messing with the lyrics a little bit. However I also think that a good cover should have some winks to elements of the original as well.
You wear your influences on your sleeve with this album yet manage to create a whole new sound with your takes. How do you decide on the creative direction of each song that you choose to cover and what kind of sentiment you want it to transfer?
Duncan: Most of the songs came pretty naturally and we didn't think about it too much actually. With the exception of the Mistress Mary cover and Green Rocky Road, we would start the songs where Bria did the vocals which dictated the direction of the songs. With Fruits of My Labor, we had a very sparse initial performance of that. It was only a guitar, drums and vocals. It was all we had laid down. I basically took Bria's vocals as a cue to decide what could be done with that. The vocals are the story and the heart of it.
Bria: Duncan has to have a lot of credit here actually. He was able to come up with ideas where he suggested we changed the tuning or the instruments to expand what we had already so he did most of that work. When we were in FRIGS together, we worked in a similar way and I think that method of working starting from the vocals came into this project too.
The music video for Green Rocky Road radiates warmth where we see you with your friends, sharing a couple of beers, having what looks like intimate conversations. Do you think that the music video and the collaborative nature of it is an important element of the narration that you're going for?
Bria: Oh yeah absolutely, that is very important to us. That truly is what the project is about with Cuntry Covers. All of the recordings, all of the artworks are results of collaboration. We brought in friends to record on the tracks, take pictures or videos. They are people who are very close to us and we wanted to include them in this project. Half of that music video is Handy Cam footage. I had one and I took everywhere and I filmed everything. When I was filming that day, I never said "I should use this later for a music video." So what you're seeing is very genuine.
Duncan: I was watching the music video yesterday and at first I almost felt a bit weird. It felt very revealing and intimate. So it make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I feel good with that discomfort though, we truly put our relationships on display. That footage that we used is actually from the day we recorded Green Rocky Road.
Bria: It just came together so... I hate using that word but organically. People use it all the fucking time and I think it had lost its meaning but in our case it really was organic. We are letting people in our world and it feels very good. It is all true to our life.
Solange believes that the representation of the modernized Americana through popular country music and imagery is quite misleading. What does Americana respresent to you? What does it stand for?
Bria: This is an interesting question because in our conversations with our manager, publicist or label when we were talking about how we would put this EP out, the term Americana came up a lot and I don't really like that term. I don't love the genre of Americana music because it is very white and encompassing of a certain scene which is so specific. There are a lot of great artists but I think very few artists can break free from it. I think Americana is a strange genre that really holds people in, in a way that I don't think is very interesting. We don't really love that genre tag for us as we don't consider ourselves Americana musicians or Country musicians. We come in and out that world but we don't feel like we belong here.
Duncan: Country music and early Americana artists influenced our musical identities and we are embedded to that for a reason. We had a long conversation about having to tag your work for streaming sites. Americana was the one we really tried to avoid.
Bria: Because when you use that tag you can't take it off and we want to make music freely without constantly having the association with Americana music. It's a project called Cuntry Covers, we cover country songs but the songs that we write for this project are not Americana songs. We wanted to release this in its own entity that has little to do with a specific genre but more to do with our creative output, experiences we had at that time and our lived lives. We prefer the genre tag "alternative" because that is the genre tag we existed under.
Your approach makes me think of the time when Charli XCX tweeted "What the fuck is hyper pop?" when a music journalist genre tagged her music. I feel like even as a music writer, it gets difficult to stay away from those tags as it's an easier way to go. It is very boring to try to put labels on everything and I hate that but for a musician it should be even more irritable.
Bria: I think it has more to do with algorithms. They do that because keywords work that why we try to be very conscious on what words we use as we release our music. As you said, people will say whatever the fuck they want and other journalists will read it saying "Okay, well that must be correct." and write their own articles, it is very funny.
You’ve said that you wanted to twist the narrative of a strongly patriarchal way of seeing the country scene through your album by making a asmall contribution. How do you think country music can evolve into a more inclusive and diverse one?
Bria: I think it's through visibility. There are better artists who have been making better contributions. There has been some artists who have broken through the mainstream representations of country music and make minority artists visible. It's still something that'll take quite a bit of time because it's not just about a style of music but it's about a style of music of the culture it encapsulates. There are gatekeepers who are picking out the things that they want out from that culture because it will make money and appeal to more people. Us calling our EP Cuntry Covers without an o is our "contribution" to that. We wrote this whole statement where we explained why we called it Cuntry covers thinking that people were going to ask questions. They haven't and apparently its not that big of a deal which is something that I love but also we want to talk about it! That wasn't something necessarily conscious but it represents how we feel about our place in country music.
What was the most exciting thing about working on this album was so far? Was it working together between two best friends ?
Bria: Honestly yeah! We had other people coming and contributing, Jamie working with us too. It allowed us to dig deeper into our years of working together and channel that really well. How everything came together was very exciting too. A week later the recording, we decided to have a photoshoot which became the artwork for the album. Even that shoot was such a fun experience. It was such a positive thing. Our good photographer friends did really well capturing what this project was for us. It was like a domino effect, everything happened so freely. It all came together so easily.
Listen to Bria here:
Artwork: Beyza Çelikmen