By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In one way, of course, it’s been a suffocating year for artists. In another, an invitation to unusual breakout pathways of creativity.
“It feels like I’m holding my breath,” Chariz Faulmino sings in the Rebecca Merkley song Come Clean. “I’m drowning … I’m letting go … I’m breaking free.”
That song, which takes aim at the heart of the experience in all its contradictions, is part of the new “audio song cycle” Songs To No One, opening May 31 online. Billed as “an audio commentary on the human condition,” it’s the work of Dammitammy Productions, an indie collective of remarkable versatility — witness the array of stage musicals (Rivercity The Musical), plays (The Unsyncables, Bountiful, 5 South) , radio plays (CAMP!), a Christmas show (They Wanted To Do Chekhov), an evolving circus cabaret (Merk du Soleil) in its unclassifiable archive.
Dammitammy artistic director Merkley, musician/composer/arranger/playwright/ director/ producer, explains that Songs To No One is a sequel of sorts to Letters To No One. The prevailing idea of that filmed Dammitammy production, which played in March, was the stash, in everyone’s bottom drawer, of letters written but never sent. The cast provided their own letters, and they performed each other’s (unattributed) contributions.
“I had such a good time collaborating with artists … a magical experience, all created by the cast!” says Merkley “who knew northing about photography” when that project began.
Songs To No One is similarly collaborative. And this time Merkley, a great self-educator, learned audio-editing to make it happen. The cast all wrote poems, lyrics, or spoken word pieces, revealing something about their experience during the pandemic. And Merkley, a musician by trade before her theatre life began, “transformed them into songs,” something that comes naturally to her. “I’m always writing songs, and I just love doing it!”
She didn’t specify subject or theme. “I just said ‘write your truth, write something you want to say, something you don’t get to talk about’.” And lo and behold, a theme emerged: identity and the loss of that precious commodity — particularly acute for artists — in this mapless shut-down world of ours. “It happened magically,” and that warmed Merkley’s heart. “There’s no outlet for artists to be … themselves. It’s cool to know, it’s empowering, that we’re all part of this, that we’re in this together!”
There are seven songs in the piece, with poetry and spoken word between them. But Merkley, who played piano and keyboards and wrote all but two of the songs — Darrin Hagen wrote Finally I’ll Be OK and the bonus song Sing Me — doesn’t consider it “a full-on album.” She calls it instead “a theatre experience,” one in which imperfections of balance and acoustics (different microphone qualities, some cast members recorded at home) contribute to a sense of liveness, of real people performing. “Acting and storytelling come first.”
As recording engineer Shayne Ewasiuk puts it, “you just don’t get to hear the human voice much in professional recordings,” so meticulous re-buffed and polished as they are. COVID restrictions meant that each artist had a scant hour to record (“45 minutes plus sanitizing time,” as Merkley puts it). “It took the pressure off, and there’s something really special about it. Something that makes live live!”
Songs To No One
Theatre: Dammitammy Productions
Created by: composer/ editor/ creator Rebecca Merkley and the cast
Starring: Andrew Brostrom (guitar), Bret Jacobs, Carol Chu, Chariz Faulmino, Cameron Chapman, Jameela McNeil, Jasmine Khokhar, Maya Baker, Kristina Hunsziner, Sue Goberdhan, Sam O’Connor, Sammy Lowe, Vanessa Wilson, Will Smith (bass), Rebecca Merkley (piano, keyboards)
Running: from May 31, 7 p.m.