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Begonia x Matea Calvin Lee Joseph 19

On the Rise

07 December 2022, 10:30

The process of self-reflection helped Canadian singer Begonia find the story for her forthcoming record Powder Blue.

Touted as one of Canada’s most extraordinary voices, Winnipeg singer-songwriter Alexa Dirks has spent over a decade of her life on the road and playing with bands.

When the pandemic forced her to cut short an album tour in 2020, she returned home, finding herself with more time and space than ever before.

Dirks calls into our chat from a snowy scene on Canada’s West Coast where she’s back on tour in support of her forthcoming record Powder Blue. “I haven’t been home for much more than a week or two at a time since March,” she says.

Growing up in Winnipeg as part of the church, her mother was a bank teller and her father worked as a visual artist, but she’s quick to highlight that her upbringing was still a conservative one. “I grew up far more religious than I am now. I’m a bit disillusioned by the church at this point, but I grew up in that whole mode, singing in church and my first foray on stage was with praise and worship bands,” she says.

As she and her peers turned eighteen, they began to lose interest in religion and started to find acceptance in Winnipeg’s local music scene, swapping church stages for bar rooms. Dirks formed friendships and found herself following music, playing in a covers band and exploring her voice. “It’s a pretty tight-knit community. You see the same people around,” she says. “I learnt how to sing doing other people’s music, doing covers and trying things out.”

She briefly auditioned for Canadian Idol, thinking it could be a good route into the industry, but didn’t make it past the early selections. “It was a good learning experience for me that actually there are other ways to do this. I was glad to fall on my ass,” she says.

Her ambition still strong, the turning point in her career came when she was offered the chance to sing with a group of established local musicians who were forming a new project. They had experience, contacts within the industry and even a showcase booked in LA. “I was given this ultimatum to join this new band of people that have been established within my community, or stay in Winnipeg with this bar band who were my best friends who I came up in music with but didn’t really see past a certain ceiling,” she explains. “I was nineteen and I chose this unknown adventure, and that was a huge breaking point for me.”

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Choosing the new path, Dirks joined the folk-pop group Chic Gamine. They were together for eight years. “At the time, it felt like one of the biggest decisions of my entire life,” she says. “Do I stay at home and build with this band that I don’t know what the fuck is going to happen? Or there’s this opportunity to do the thing that I wanted to do.”

Playing as part of the group gave Dirks the experience of touring, playing festivals in the UK and Europe, as well as arts and culture showcases as far afield as Alaska. It also eventually gave her insight into the music industry as a whole. “I was the youngest and least experienced so I was taken along for the ride while everyone else was handling the nitty gritty of budgets and the business,” she says. “Slowly but surely I started to grow up in that band, getting a crash course in the industry.”

The band released their third and final album in 2015, before deciding to call it a day. “It imploded,” says Dirks. “It was the kind of thing where we all looked at each other one day, metaphorically speaking, and were like, we still want to be friends so we should probably end this now.”

Instead of taking time out to recentre and consider her experience, Dirks dived straight back into making music, organising writing sessions in Winnipeg, the stage name Begonia already present in her mind. “I jumped right in. All of us had our different ways of grieving. It was a huge loss in my life. I just hit the ground running,” she says.

For Dirks, everything was leading up to the release of her debut solo album, 2019’s Fear, and the subsequent and expansive tour which would follow. But the world had other plans, and just days into her headline tour, the pandemic forced an about turn. “I finally put out this first record, this thing that felt like it was everything I had ever needed to say and then we’re supposed to go on this big tour, and we’re in New York City and I get a call from my manager to turn around and go home and we’re like, OK,” she says, shaking her head.

Dates and festivals were deferred over and over again until reality hit and there was nothing to do but cancel and accept the time out. “It really hit me in a way where I had to face some truths that I didn’t realise I was running from, that I was able to reflect on,” she says. “Like, OK, this is why you never want to stand still. This is very uncomfortable.”

Dirks’ manager booked her into therapy, and she used the enforced pause to work through everything from her experience within the church to her sexuality. “When I wrote the first album I thought, I’m saying everything, I’m really digging deep. In that time of reflection I’d listen to the record and be like, man I’ve barely scratched the surface,” she says. “I guess that’s the beauty of evolution as an artist. You can think that you’ve said everything you need to say and then years pass and you have more to say.”

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The result is forthcoming record Powder Blue, a riptide of emotional expression and dynamic production through which Dirks processes her journey of self-discovery, all propelled into the world by her strident, arresting vocals. First taste “Right Here” is a wonky diaristic pop jangle that explodes into playful chorus, while new single “Cold Night” finds Dirks in a more stark and reflective mood, still unpicking a relationship from her twenties. Working with Matt

Schellenberg and Matt Peters from the band Royal Canoe, they stitched together chopped up vocal samples in a nod to Billie Eilsh, Dirks riffing over her own melodic sighs.

Dirks reflects on her new creations with a considered calm. “If I like the song I’m not going to overthink it, I was just going by feeling,” she says. “I was in real time going through a lot of purging and laying everything out and naming things. I’m still in that headspace too, but I feel way healthier.”

Powder Blue is released on 24 February 2023 via Birthday Cake Records

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