Five Questions With… Sheenah Ko
A member of Besnard Lakes and an in-demand keyboardist for hire, she releases her debut solo full-length on Friday. Here she discusses her approach on the new record, its favourite songs, her chameleonic musical personality, goals in the wake of COVID-19, and a favourite European tour story.
By Jason Schneider
Best known as one of the core members of Montreal-based indie darlings Besnard Lakes, and as the touring keyboardist for Bedouin Soundclash, Sheenah Ko’s experience over the years has helped her develop a brand of synth-pop that’s a fearless amalgam of many styles. That’s the best way to describe her full-length debut album Nowhere In Time, out March 27, eight pieces that run the gamut between effusive, upbeat, 1980s-inspired pop, to more atmospheric and trance-y instrumentals.
In many ways, it’s the culmination of a journey that began when Ko moved to Montreal from Saskatchewan in her twenties with the goal of exploring her creative potential more intensively. Her proficiency as an improviser and ability to adapt to any musical situation led to gigs as a side musician for a number of top acts, and after nearly a decade of working for others and gleaning the benefits of seeing the world on tour, Ko decided to uncork the wellspring of her own music in early 2018 with the EP, Free.
Gaining confidence from that experience, which saw her earn a number of festival appearances and prestigious opening slots for the likes of Ex Eye and European avant-garde pop-stars Liima/Eftertklang, she returned to the studio later in 2018 to start recording Nowhere In Time at Latraque Studios in Montreal with producer/engineer Navet Confit.
Ko’s remarkable versatility has not only made her one of Montreal’s most in-demand keyboard players but is one of the reasons why her songwriting technique is very much an improvised stream of consciousness, where the many years of performing a diverse array of music blends together to form her signature sound.
What makes Nowhere In Time stand apart from your previous solo work?
It’s a bit more fun and light-hearted than my first EP. I was feeling much more positive and happy in my life, and therefore, wanted to compose music that reflected that. I was also spending a lot of time reflecting, and spending tons of time travelling solo, seeing the world, and developing a new relationship with myself. I think these moments of reflection and coming to peace with myself and the world can be heard in the more ambient pieces, like the title track and Heartbeat. I also sing about some major life lessons, like in See You, where I was learning the importance of rediscovering my inner child, and how it is such an important step of growing up and accepting who you truly are.
What songs on the record are you most proud of and why?
I think the two singles, Wrap Me Up and See You, are some of the best songs I’ve written so far, and they seem to have made an interesting impact on certain individuals. It means a ton to me when I receive emails from listeners telling me how my music speaks to them—people who have connected with the music, and who are sharing stories with me about being in difficult situations that aren’t fully serving them, and how my songs are encouraging a change and motivation. It’s kind of interesting when you think of your music as almost therapy for others, but it makes sense because these songs were written as therapy for myself. I find it incredible that some people are connecting with the songs and messages that way because I don’t write my songs in a way that is super clear. I leave them pretty open to interpretation, like an artist does with a painting. But the feelings, vibes and intent are all there, so it’s up to a listener to understand those underlying layers, without it being too obvious.
You've collaborated with a wide variety of artists. How do you approach each project?
I enjoy being a bit of a chameleon, adjusting to one completely different band to the next. I moved and travelled around a lot and had to adjust to such different social environments and cultures so that’s helped in different musical situations—just adjusting to the sound and “culture” of each band. Sometimes it comes very naturally, and other times, it is a challenge, especially if it’s music I’m not super accustomed to. But it’s fun because I then start to listen to more music in that world, and fully immerse myself in a scene I may not have understood before. Every single band presents a learning opportunity, and it is super fun to play in such a wide variety of musical styles. I love all music, so I don’t like to limit myself to one particular genre, and there are fun challenges in everything. You learn a lot from diving into other people’s worlds.
What are some of your goals for the coming year?
After releasing Nowhere In Time, I plan on releasing its remixed version later this summer, and I’ve already begun writing the next record. With the COVID-19 pandemic going on right now, I’ve lost a lot of the paid touring work, but I’m trying to look at it positively as a moment where I now have so much free time to compose and work on new songs. I think this will be a very interesting time for creativity, and seeing how people adjust and utilize the virtual world in terms of sharing music and playing shows online. I’ll be making some fun videos and I might try to organize some form of a live video performance over the next couple of weeks. We will organize some proper launch shows once people can feel safe and good enough to go out and fully enjoy.
What's your best touring story?
I was touring Europe with The Besnard Lakes in 2016 and our last show was in Vienna, Austria. Rather than going home with the band, I decided to extend my trip by a week and enjoy Vienna before heading to Berlin and then home. While we were driving through the Austrian mountains on our way to Vienna, I remember telling the band how I was excited about spending some time in Vienna, but what I really wanted to do was be outside the city, climbing one of these mountains.
We did a great show that night, and the next morning I said goodbye to my bandmates and then moved into my Viennese apartment. As I was exploring the city, I stopped at a cafe to check my email and there was a message from a fellow who was at the show. It was a very endearing message letting me know how much the concert moved him. I wrote back to him and thanked him for sharing this with me, and then I told him I was sticking around in Vienna and asked him if he had any suggestions. He wrote back right away and said he was at a restaurant, which turned out to be right next door to where I was, so we decided to meet there.
We ended up getting along really well. He was a graphic artist who had coincidentally done work for mutual friends like Half Moon Run. He was someone who I would totally hang out with back home. He took me around the town, showed me a bit of history and stories about Vienna, and we joining some of his friends at a bar for drinks. He and a friend started talking about going for a hike on a mountain the next day, and asked me to come along. I couldn’t believe it, what were the chances?
The next morning I was sitting in an adorable European sports car riding out of the city to climb a mountain. Now, it’s important to note that I’m afraid of heights and usually this would be very difficult, but for some reason, all of those fears went away because I just knew I was supposed to be there. We spent the next eight hours climbing the mountain, using harnesses and hooks along the way to the top and then playing in the snow in our t-shirts. After making it down, we celebrated by jumping into the pristine clear waters of the Viennese rivers. We had all conquered some fears that day, and it felt so amazing.
I was so grateful to be there with them; they became good friends that week. I actually couldn’t leave Vienna when I was supposed to, and ended up prolonging my stay there. There were a lot of important lessons that I learned during that trip, the biggest of all was “letting go.” I specifically remember having a moment in the sunlight where I made a wish to the sun, and the wish was for everything to happen the way it was supposed to happen.
It felt like from that moment I was surrendering myself to the universe and completely putting my faith and trust in it. Ever since then, my life just hasn’t been the same, and I’ve just put a lot of faith in my intuition and have greatly reduced unnecessary expectations. Life is all about riding the wave, and I think especially when life throws its surprising curveballs—such as this pandemic—all you can do is ride that wave, stay positive, and try to see what good things will result from this.