Casey Mecija Aims To Write Dreams, Not Songs
One of the busiest artists in Toronto find time to pursue a solo career that hopes to transcend music.
Casey Mecija has a ridiculous amount of work on her plate at the moment. Last September, the Toronto-based musician was hired as the host of CBC’s The Doc Project, a weekly show on Radio One that showcases some of the best Canadian radio documentaries made by employees and freelancers at the network. She’s also one year deep into a PhD at University of Toronto, focusing on Women & Gender Studies. And to make matters even more complicated, Mecija has just released her first solo album, Psychic Materials, all on her own. So when she picks up the phone and says she’s in the middle of watching a video from 1993 of people raving at Fantazia, she can’t help but see the irony.
“I’m watching a video of the day after a rave in 1993, somewhere in England and it’s really funny,” she admits with a laugh. “They just start filming these people in the parking lot who are leaving and still really high. It’s very entertaining! So yes, I am pretty busy. But I apparently have enough time to watch this raver video on the internet!”
Mecija is very active in almost every aspect of the arts. Besides radio and music, she is also an award-winning filmmaker, whose short film My Father, Francis won the WIFT-T Award at the 2013 Reel Asian Film Festival. She is also heavily involved with her community, dedicating her time to arts education programs like Girls Rock Camp, Clutch (a free program for young Filipina women), Friends in Bellwoods (compilation and concert series that raised money for the Daily Bread Food Bank) and The AMY Project (“Artists Mentoring Youth”). But Mecija is best known as a member of Toronto chamber pop collective, Ohbijou, who found considerable success after forming in the mid-2000s with three critically acclaimed albums, two of which were released in Europe through the Bella Union label (Beach House, Father John Misty, the Flaming Lips). After Ohbijou went on an indefinite hiatus back in 2013, Mecija slowly assembled music of her own that became Psychic Materials. Though there are similarities between her previous work and this new collection of songs, but Psychic Materialsis a much deeper, personal side to her songwriting. A hazy, mesmeric co-production by Mecija, engineer/producer Marcel Ramagnano and DIANA’s Kieran Adams, she describes it as “pieces of dreams about queerness, memory, diaspora, history and love.”
Noisey: Ohbijou went on hiatus a few years ago. When did you realize you wanted to record a solo album?
Casey Mecija: I always kind of flirted with the idea of doing everything myself at one point after Ohbijou ended. I didn’t take the idea seriously until last summer because Ohbijou had ended and because I was in between employment I thought it was a good time to sit down and materialize these songs I had been slowly piecing together. So it just came together in the summer of 2015. And I didn’t have any preconceived schedule for it or a preconceived idea of where it would go. I just wanted to do a project that I was at the helm of aesthetically, visually and musically any way that I wanted.
So this came together pretty quickly then.
Mmm hmm. I was recording demos after Ohbijou ended, and a lot of those ideas ended up on the record. But it was slowly pieced together in different ways after we went on hiatus. But during the summer of 2015 was when a bunch of my friends came together to play the instruments that I don’t. That’s when I was like, “Oh gosh, this is actually something I’m going to see through.”
There are quite a few members of Ohbijou on the record. Did you always plan to have them involved? Or was it just a matter of needing certain players to add something to the music?
I didn’t always plan to have them involved, I just think they’re some of my favourite players. My sister [Jenny Mecija] plays strings, and Anissa [Hart] and Jenny are so much a part of how I’ve come to imagine arranging strings and how I hear strings that there’s no point in foreclosing musical relationships that I’ve worked on for so long. And they’re always so generous in providing their talents in anything I imagine. They were just people I wanted to work with and because they’re my friends it was relatively easy to do.
Musically, what do you see as the biggest difference between Psychic Materials and Ohbijou?
I think the album is a new chapter for me, and an opportunity to resituate myself as a writer and a musician. So I wrote the album myself and decided to release it independently, and have been in control of how the album came together musically and aesthetically without any compromise. This is exactly what I wanted to make. But I thrive on collaboration and a lot of the elements on the album are collaborative. This is just a different kind of collaboration than Ohbijou. In the band there were five or six voices that were integral to putting the music together and creating that sound. For this album it was just my imagination, and I’m proud of it because of that.
How has it been going from being part of this collective to a solo artist?
I think it’s just different. With Ohbijou we really tried to establish a method of communicating and writing together. That was as democratic as it could get with so many people. With this project I get responses a lot faster, because I don’t have to ask myself. I do miss always being so closely affiliated to my band members. Having them be a part of my everyday life in such important ways. With this project I don’t have that but it means I have these new opportunities to forge relationships with different people and to experiment with different players. It will be an entirely different story with this project because I don’t have time to tour it, and it’s a very different project in that way. I never imagined sitting in a van doing what I did with Ohbijou for this project.
Why did you choose to release this album on your own?
I think just releasing it independently was important because I wanted to do it on my timeline, aesthetically the way I wanted to. I wanted to cut through all of the tape that prevents projects from being what they intend to be. And I wanted to somehow prove to myself that I can see something from its beginning through to its end. When I first started recording the music I visualized them in a certain way, and to have that be the end result is something I am very proud of.
How challenging has it been?
It’s hard because in Ohbijou we were lucky to have a lot of support—financially, the labels provided support. We didn’t have to find the money to record in a studio. And that was an incredible privilege we had in that band. But for this project I had to fund a lot of it out of my own pocket. I had to make sure the people I was working with were being compensated in ways that are fair to people working in the arts and culture sector. That was a challenge, but something that was negotiated with, bartered with and involved creative exchanges that made it possible.
“Condo City” feels like a dig at Toronto’s skyline. What message are you trying to get across on that song?
It’s funny because I live in a condo! [Laughs] I understand condos as a result of a growing population in this city. It’s the consequence of rich people getting richer, and poor people getting poorer, and housing becoming too expensive, and the only place some people can afford is a condo. It’s not a dig at condos, because it’s just a consequence of where our world is at, it’s a product of capitalism. I just think that what they symbolize can feel bleak.
It made me think of that Final Fantasy song, “This Lamb Sells Condos.”
Well who can possibly afford a house? Especially with the work that we do. That’s not to say that you can’t build a community in a condo. There was a garage sale here, even though there aren’t any garages. People took photos of their items for sale and met in the community room. So those were incredible acts of creativity. It can feel bleak but there is much hope that can occur in that bleakness.
This album is as much a visual project as it is an aural project. Tell me why it’s important for you to combine the two?
Music holds a very cinematic aspect. I think when I was dreaming up these songs, images and words have always been paired together in some way. I wanted to offer the listener a different entry point in how they experience my music and lyrics. I’ve released records before that have been heard in different places, but I just wanted to do something else. I haven’t seen a website that looks like my website, and that’s exciting to me. I got to collaborate with artists that I think are very important in our city. Artists that are trying to push how we can visual music in different ways.
You are performing a show at the AGO featuring GIFs by Sammy Rawal, which are also up on your website. Tell me about the GIFs. Why do you like that medium?
I like how they pause on a moment. When we started to produce the GIFs and Sammy started sending them to me, I got lost in the repetition of the movement and the image. It really causes you to pause on a moment that is so aesthetically compelling, and that’s what I love about them. You may not find them as compelling if they were moving in different frames at quick speeds, but because they slow down and pay attention to certain images, but I think it offers a reprieve for our brains, which are constantly switching screens and websites.
What can you tell me about the painting on the cover?
My sister Jenny did it. She was a part of the recording process, and she’s one of my closest friends, so I just asked her to try and visualize the description of the record and that’s what came out. And it really works! It’s so pretty. It’s funny because when she sent it I thought, “Oh! Huh, that’s great!” There were some modifications on colours, because there were certain colours I was more compelled by. So she added more mustard yellow and some orange, but it’s pretty much how it turned out.
The painting is very dreamlike.
Yeah, I think that dreams are difficult to discern with any confidence. Once you get close to thinking what they’re about they change shape and meaning and form, and I think that’s what the album cover does in some ways.
January 29 – Hillside Inside at St. George’s Church, Guelph, ON (with Basia Bulat)
February 4 – First Thursday at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.