By Zachary Schepis
Photo courtesy of Georgia Love.
Listening to White Poppy feels a bit like getting lost in a Technicolor dream cloud, perhaps akin to the cerebral experience one has after ingesting the flower the band is named after (if you’re into that sort of thing). No matter how you choose to look at it, one-woman-show Crystal Dorval has created a listening experience that manages to transcend genres and wash listeners in carefully sculpted layers of sound. After recently finishing a tour in support of her first full-length album, White Poppy, released in September, the Canadian singer-songwriter already has plans for future projects. BTR caught wind of Dorval at CMJ this year and decided to reach out to the young artist to talk about what exactly makes a White Poppy grow.
What is your background as a musician? How did White Poppy come about?
Well, it was a kind of a long and convoluted process to get to White Poppy, but… (laughs) basically I started playing music when I was fifteen, just playing guitar. I didn’t sing or write much. I was self-taught, so from the beginning it was an experimental approach, really just playing around. I started my first band in 2004, which was a collaborative kind of effort, and we played for about six years together – that was really my first experience touring and actually performing live, along with recording albums. After that project ended I began to focus doing everything on my own, which eventually led to White Poppy.
What are some of your biggest creative influences, musical or otherwise?
I’m a pretty sensitive person, so I’m often very observant of others, whether it’s what my friends are going through, or even complete strangers. I know it sounds general, but the human condition is what inspires me. Music and art are ways for me to deal with my responses to this shared existence. It’s my way of channeling all that I observe in others into an outlet of creative expression.
Musically, I enjoy listening to all kinds of different stuff. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of solo acoustic guitar arrangements, stuff that can kind of sit in the background and help me mellow out I guess. Lately it’s been a lot of Elizabeth Cotton, an old folk guitar player who invented her own style. I’ve been listening to her pretty much every morning (laughs).
But I go through a lot of phases with music. It was a lot of ambient stuff for a while, and I have a group of classics that I always end up going back to.
Tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind your most recent album, White Poppy. Were there any particular themes you were trying to touch upon?
Yeah, it’s quite a specific album actually. During the whole process of making it I was going through some mental health struggles and was doing a lot of self-exploration and healing. The music was definitely a part of my therapy, part of my healing and growing. So for me the themes on the album are about overcoming hardship and mental struggle.
How long were you going through this struggle?
Pretty much my whole early twenties. I just turned 27, and I’ve been working off and on with a lot of the material that’s on the album for the past three years. So most of it is inspired from that period of time in my life. I was joking around with someone recently about how it’s basically a “coming of age” project (laughs). But it actually is. It’s my first full-length album, and my first major accomplishment as a creative person. It sums up that whole stage of my struggle and development and has left me an adult. In a way I’m happy it’s done so I can move onto new things now with a grown perspective.
You have a blog on mental illness, has this ever factored into the struggle you were facing or served as a creative influence?
Totally. I started that project near the end of making the album, and the blog was like being on the other side of the struggle, by telling you about the things you can do to keep yourself feeling well – a lot of positive efforts. I was reviewing my older music, and a lot of it really has to do with well-being. So when I started to uncover the philosophy behind White Poppy I realized it was another piece of this. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it all made sense in this bigger picture where the blog was an extension of it, and the music an extension of it, so that it’s all ultimately connected. It infatuated me, and now it’s practically consuming me. As I get older I feel that I’m more and more focused in one area, and this happens to be the area that I’m exploring and researching a lot, where I feel the most interested. I see myself continuing down this path, into this exploration of the self, into mental illness and positive being.
You were talking before about the collective human experience being a big creative influence. How do you think this battle with mental influence that you and many others face relates to this human condition?
I’ve been thinking about that question a lot actually, and I think sometimes people who go through intense emotional struggles end up attaining a certain level of awareness: of the self and of others. It’s almost like an intuitive sensitivity to other people, to what they’re going through. It’s really a deep sense of compassion and understanding of what people have to face in their lives. I can’t say it’s absolutely true because I can’t speak for everyone, but I know it’s definitely a commonality with a lot of people I talk to who experience depression or other forms of mental health illnesses. And especially if those same people are also the creative type, they end up using their higher awareness of the world around them to express themselves.
Which is great, because music seems like a very intimate outlet to express that awareness.
Yeah, it’s the perfect thing. Being so sensitive, it sends me into a very detail-oriented state, where I can express these complicated ideas through layering sounds and structuring those feelings of intensity into something real.
Photo courtesy of Georgia Love.
On another note, as an instrumental the song Skygaze stands out from the other tracks on White Poppy. Do you see yourself going this route more in the future?
I think I’ll always end up bouncing back and forth – I just really like to make both. I was wondering what I want to work on next and I’ve got three totally different sounding albums playing in my head: an ambient album, another rock/pop kind of album, and an acoustic album. I don’t think I’ll ever just be doing one thing, but I’m hoping it will all fit under the blanket of White Poppy, that it will all make sense as a whole.
Are you leaning more towards one of the three albums than the others?
Right now I’m definitely leaning more towards an ambient record. I’m about to move in three days to Vancouver Island, which is where I’m originally from, and it’s where I’ll be hibernating in solitude on my family’s farm (laughs). I’ll be setting up everything to record when I get there and I could definitely see myself getting into that space and making really dreamy instrumental stuff. But we’ll see what happens! It feels like a dream – I’ve wanted to do it for so long, and I finally have the means to make it happen.
What about the recording process for White Poppy? How did you manage to get such spacey sounds in the studio?
I think a lot of the ambience, not the actual music but the noises that are in the songs, come from me initially recording onto cassette with a four-track. There’s a lot of natural noise that comes along with recording to tape, so you get a noisier canvas to start with. Also, I use a lot of effects pedals. I guess I’m drawn to it, I’m not exactly sure why, but I love reverb and delay. I purposely try to put layers of ambience in the songs, meshing all kinds of weird effects together and stacking them.
I recorded and produced the album myself, and when it was done I brought it to the Noise Floor, which is a recording studio, located in Vancouver at the time but recently moved to a smaller island. Jordan Koop put the finishing touches on everything, but otherwise it was all me.
With the name White Poppy inevitably the question of opiates arises. Do you use them, or have they ever aided in the songwriting process?
(Laughs). It’s funny because I actually didn’t even think about that until my friend pointed it out to me and I was like, oh yeah… the poppy flower. I actually never considered it; I picked the name due to a similar kind of theme, because the white poppy is a symbol of peace. But I find it very funny that it is also an opiate flower. I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve heard the feelings you get from the drug are very slow and lulling, which is funny because I imagine the music might almost in a sense mimic those feelings.
When I was a teenager I experimented with psychedelic drugs, but as an adult I can’t really deal with them anymore. I don’t even smoke weed, I can’t do any of that stuff now. That cheesy saying “music is my drug,” well it actually is and I’m fascinated by the concept of music and art as means of transporting you from your reality. Live music in particular can be especially hypnotic.
Is there anything particular you would like your audience to know about you?
A lot of my stuff is super serious; after all it deals with mental health, and that is definitely one aspect of me, but I’m also a very comedic person. A lot of my stuff is actually kind of tongue-in-cheek, and I can be pretty sarcastic. I hope that’s what comes across on my blog – the funny cartoons, it’s all a way for me to deal with it light-heartedly. Comedy can be a great way to tackle some of life’s biggest obstacles.
To hear more from White Poppy, stream and download the newest self-titled album in its entirety on Bandcamp, head to the band’s official Facebook page, or check out BTR’s own In the Den for live recordings of White Poppy performing at CMJ.