Kelly Ruth (Photo: Joseph Visser)
When asked about Winnipeg’s experimental music scene, I trip over my words. It’s as if my enthusiasm can be stopped only by the roots of the terrifying, twisted trees that spend half the year frozen, along with the people who live there, at the bottom of the Red River Valley. Not all of my experience is good: I used to co-run a DIY space in Winnipeg, and barely anyone came out to weird shows — whether the booking was Fletcher Pratt or Grimes — but it was the first place I ever screamed live in front of a mic, and the first place a rando ever approached me to say my band reminded him of Swans (hey, buddy).
The small community that does exist there has crept into the fabric of my identity. Part of this is because I’ve realized that while there are some great dudes making and releasing experimental music in Winnipeg, the city is a home base to some of the most inspiring women producing esoteric, boundary pushing contemporary sound that I’ve ever admired and met.
This isn’t about Winnipeg being a friendly place to female musicians by a long shot: when the former Negative Space venue made a one-woman-on-the-bill-per-booking policy (your line-up can’t get booked unless there’s at least one woman in one of the bands), local dudes were not happy. (“Durr, where are we going to find a girl?”) The isolated city is, on the other hand, a known breeding ground for strange art, and a relative safe space to try out your new project where you spend five minutes moaning under a keyboard and call it a Britney Spears cover (guilty/not linking).
These six women listed below are people I’ve come across as a fan, musician, and/or ex-venue owner who has only lived in Winnipeg a very short amount of the past 10 years. There are tons more amazing women in music in Winnipeg — huge shout out to Winnipeg/Toronto-based Shelagh Pizey-Allen, Not Enough Fest’s Kara Passey, new transplant Joanne Pollock (whom I just met), and brilliant thinker/musician Bronwen Garand-Sheridan — so if you want to share others, link me their stuff right now, especially if it’s kinda scary.
Here are six Winnipeg women in experimental music whose talent and vision have become more or less mythological to me.
The first time I saw crys cole she was in a tiny Chinatown gallery performing with contact mics, a sheet of glass, and little else. A frequent collaborator with the likes of Oren Ambarchi, Keith Rowe, and many more, she tours the world performing delicate music that focuses on, as she hints to me, “texture, ambiguity between sound sources, everyday objects and sounds, imperfections, and ‘mistakes.’” cole’s newest release is the sand/layna LP on Black Truffle, and this fall she’ll appear in Canada at the Vancouver New Music Festival and the Tone Deaf Festival in Kingston. cole also plays as part of Ora Clementi, and is director of the Send + Receive Festival, Winnipeg’s biggest and best fest for experimental music and sound art.
Lover of Lynchian thrift-shop party gowns and one of the country’s most captivating soloists, Julia Ryckman’s Slattern is a quintessential Winnipeg phenomenon — her slow creeper of a cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” (sorry for the MySpace link, we’re going deep Winnipeg now) is essential Canadiana to prairie weirdos, yet she releases an EP, as tells me, “every 5 years or so.” Her last was 2010’s 12” split with Lipstickface. (You’re listening to that Isaak cover right now and your heart is breaking.) Ryckman tells me recording of her new album Only Sea and Islands Now is almost finished, and while Slattern has played New Orleans, Austin, and Montreal, the project has never actually toured, and as an artist she’s currently focusing on the world of video. Ryckman formerly fronted This Hisses (who did tour a bit), and is one half of duo Triunfo Do Gato with (the) Rob Vilar: all their recordings are currently hidden in a basement, Winnipeg style. You’re listening to that Isaak cover again. That’s OK.
Visual and textile artist Kelly Ruth is doing the unthinkable — making me want to move back to Winnipeg. Ruth has built an instrument out of a weaving loom, contact mics, and loop pedals to create tactile industrial music on this literal industrial device. Her newest project, Civvie, with Alex Eastley on bassoon and Natanielle Felicitas on cello, formed in 2014. Ruth is a former member of Cantor Dust.
Since I was a tiny teen, I’ve been watching Candice at the mic, often screaming, always overpowering. An ex-member of doom, experimental, crust, and punk groups including Grimhorse, Talon, Kato, and Skunk, Sea Wizard, her latest project is Rosa Reaper (one of the most perfect band names in Canadian music right now). Solo, Candice takes her background in punk and doom to choral, minimalist territories wandered in the dead of night. She performs behind backlit curtain, looping and manipulating vocal experimentations, and plans to release a new tape at fall’s Send + Receive Fest in Winnipeg. She has never, ever toured.
A frequent collaborator with Candice MH (ex-Talon and Grimhorse), cellist and bassist Doreen Girard is another doom mainstay. She is currently a member of the experimental group Burden with Caitlin Hutchison and Shelagh Pizey-Allen. Girard explains the project to me in simple terms, because this isn’t weird at all: “Shelagh was given a piano and took it apart. We lay the guts of the piano on the floor and work on the strings and soundboard with a variety of tools and amplify the soundboard with one contact mic.” This is Winnipeg. Burden is currently on haitus while Pizey-Allen is in Toronto to study, but Girard also plays in Sphagnum and Ceremonial Shrouds.
Experimental filmmaker and artist Irene Bindi performs with one of Winnipeg’s most mysterious groups: the ever name-changing Blind Squab (or Deaf Squab), as well as Double Hook. Currently working as a duo, she and her partner Aston Coles build their own strange instruments by hand and “don’t tour,” she tells me, “or make recordings as a general rule.” Originally from London, ON, she and Coles both credit London’s Nihilist Spasm Band, Canada’s — and perhaps the world’s — first noise band, with opening their eyes to noise and homemade instruments. The duo apparently moved to Winnipeg because they like watching birds (hence, Squab).