In the first part of our exclusive interview (for a UK publication) Canadian singer-songwriter Che Aimee Dorval talks to us about growing up in the Vancouver music scene, finding her confidence and singing with Devin Townsend for the first time.
Che Aimee Dorval will have come to people’s attention last year as the main collaborator of Canadian heavy metal maestro Devin Townsend on his “space-country” experiment Casualties of Cool. After a record-breaking PledgeMusic campaign which raised more than 500% of its target the resulting self-titled album received rave reviews. It was followed by a trio of shows, debuting at The Levellers-run Beautiful Days festival in Devon. The band then put on a highly-acclaimed performance at London’s Union Chapel and a final one in Helsinki, Finland. After that Devin returned to his “day job” as leader of the Devin Townsend Project. That left Che to concentrate on her own solo career.
Che sang for the legendary Rolling Stones manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham on his “Rolling Stones Songbook Volume 2” (2013), re-working the controversial lyrics of “Under My Thumb” into an ode to female empowerment. In October 2014 she self-released “Volume 1”, a half-dozen songs recorded at Oldham’s studio in Vancouver.
Before we jump into the interview though check out this video of her playing We Go from Volume 1 EP. As the title suggests it was recorded early in the morning at Falconettis and underneath she’s explained: “My amazing friend Morgan opened up his bar this morning so I could shoot this video to apply for a touring grant!”
Her childhood soundtrack was filled with fairly typical sounds, but also one or two guilty pleasures!
Che: My mum loved Fleetwood Mac so I grew up with that. I still to this day can’t get enough! Queen, obviously, was a staple. Embarrassingly ABBA was also a staple, but I love it! (laughs) Also, I was a kid. I’m just gonna say that before. (laughs) I loved Air Supply a lot and now when I listen to it I’m like, “This is the cheesiest thing I have ever heard!” But as a kid I was belting out “All Out Of Love” in the car. It was heaven! That was a time. (laughs) And musicals, “Les Miserables”, I know every single line of that. “Rent” obviously. Pavarotti, big fan of him as well. I was heavily influenced by my mum. She had a very varied group of musicians in the house.
She also showed her daughter one important way to not follow her example…
Che: My mum sang when she was younger. Apparently we have almost the same voice, but she’s been smoking since she was seventeen and she’s completely lost her voice. It’s just gone. She’ll still sing and it used to make me want to cry. Not ’cause it was so bad it made me want to cry, but just the fact that she used to be able to do what I do, and it feels so good to do it. Just to not be able to do it any more, that’s why I don’t smoke.
Mum wasn’t the only tuneful person in the family…
Che: My aunt is a very musical person. She plays guitar and writes and sings. My uncle’s an actor so he had a ton of musicians that were always round the house. My uncle was a badass, kind of like a really cool metal badass, and actually Devin (Townsend) was his friend. I didn’t know that until a year ago or something! (laughs) The music scene’s so small here we all kind of know each other. So my uncle would have all these metal, long-haired gruff guys there and I was this little six-year-old! (laughs) There was a lot of music in the house. A lot of very different music.
Those relatives encouraged her to make the jump into the public arena…
Che: When I was little I would only sing in the bath, by myself. I would never let anyone hear me sing. So whoever was in the house at the time would come to the bathroom door and listen apparently! I only just heard about this recently! (laughs) That’s how they knew I could sing. So knowing all of this, and knowing I was deathly shy, my uncle set up a little weekly spot for me to sing at this little French bistro down the street from our house that he went to all the time. This was when I was 16. My folks were like, “you’re gonna finally do this in front of people. You can do it! We’ve heard you! You should probably try this out.”
So they set up this spot for me and one of my uncle’s friends, who’s an amazing guitar player and songwriter, told me to pick three songs and he would play the guitar. I think I prepared for that for a long time. For three months because I had never stepped out in front and done this before. I told all of my high school friends. When the night came the room was packed and I’d picked a David Gray song, “Sail Away”. Another one was “I Know” by Jude, it’s really beautiful. The other was the first song I ever wrote, which is actually on the new EP, “Lights Out”, the last song. So I got up there and I was so fucking awkward (cringes). I just stood there and it was really, really scary. But when I sing it’s effortless, because it’s what I can do and it feels really nice. I can look really awkward and I can feel really scared, but I can do it. So I did that and the people that owned the French bistro, who are lovely, asked if I wanted to do a weekly spot. I did that from 16 to when I graduated. Then I travelled Europe for a little bit.
Che: I’m not the greatest player. (laughs) I love playing it and think I’m pretty good, but I’m not confident in it like I am with my voice. I played then, but very rarely would I just accompany myself myself. Usually Tim (her uncle’s friend) would be there too to flesh it out. I’m getting a lot better now. I’m over it. Now I’m 30 I guess I should get over those things! (laughs) I got my first guitar when I was 15 or 16. We had a family guitar I would just pick up and play every once in a while when I was 13, but I only got into it when the bistro gigs started coming. Vocals there were no lessons. There were no lessons for guitar either. I had a mentor which was Tim. Sometimes I would go his house before a performance and we would jam and that really, really helped everything. Songwriting, guitar…I owe a lot of everything to him. I see him every once in a while. He’s from England and he’s obsessed with soccer. So he writes these folk albums about soccer! About the teams and everything! They’re really funny.
After finally escaping school it was time for a change of scene, including a brief visit to Blighty…
Che: I think I was in the UK for three days? I lived in Ireland for a little bit in Galway. It’s beautiful. It’s moody. I lived there for three months. It was an experience, something new. At that point I hated Vancouver. Everyone hates their home town at some point. I got random bar jobs and explored. That little city, Galway, is so moody in a really beautiful way. It reminded me of Vancouver, it was grey and rainy all the time, but the buildings are really old and they have these lovely swans. Thousands of swans that just hang out in this beautiful inlet. It’s like this stark white against this grey backdrop. I was there for three months. Then I came back home and that’s when I started writing a lot of music.
Che’s mum then signed her up for the Canadian equivalent of “Pop Idol” and she made it as far as going to LA to write songs with the team behind Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry hits. She found she really didn’t fit that mould and returned to Vancouver to concentrate on her own path…
Che: It killed me ’cause at that point I had been writing my own stuff for a while. It was so typical and I have a really hard time lying to myself and doing things for the sake of notoriety. I do things because they make me feel good, not because I want to get something out of it. I owe a lot to that experience for teaching me exactly what I don’t want and I’m not really capable of as a person.
Then I learned to record stuff on my own. I had a great friend who was a really good producer out here and taught me a lot about Pro Tools and all of that. I pretty much holed up in my own place and wrote and recorded demos. Through that experience I met this guy Colin, who was one of the agents in Feldman (Agency, entertainment management company). They have Elvis Costello and people like that. He (Colin) totally saw where I was coming from. He didn’t want me to be anyone but who I was, which was really nice. So he put me together with a producer and a studio and at that point I had about ten grand in savings, which is a really funny story (to be told later!) So I funded it all myself. I was young so didn’t quite know what my sound was. I knew what I didn’t want it to be, but I didn’t know what it was specifically. I didn’t know how to tell people like producers what I was looking for.
I was maybe 23. I wasn’t shy anymore, but I still had a hard time telling people “I don’t like this.” I would just try to get along, which is not great when you’re trying to put across a point of view of music. I know that now, but back then I was very much being polite and a “Yes Man”, which led to an album that I personally don’t really like. This was “Underachiever” (2009). I wrote the songs and liked the songs, but I was young and I didn’t really know what I was doing so the product was something I’m personally not happy with. Some of the songs are great, some not so much. It’s not really my style, but it was a great learning experience.
After this, she made a connection that would be a life-changer…
Che: When I met Devin Townsend he was making “Ki” (album, 2009) . I met him through my friend Dave Young, who’s in Devin Townsend Project. Devin was looking for a calming voice or something and Dave was like, “Ah! I know Che!” It was really funny, he (Devin) took a complete chance on me. We’d never met and I don’t even know if he’d actually heard my voice. I’m not sure, but he might just have taken Dave at his word. He picked me up then we drove to Dave’s house and he had all these tracks set up. He was like, “Just feel it out and try to do this. Just see where it goes.” I thought, “Cool! He seems like an awesome dude!” It took about two hours, a really short amount of time. I had no idea he had this huge following or was so amazing! No idea. I was just doing it ’cause I like to sing, I had nothing else to do and I was like “Sure!” Then I left and we kind of kept in touch, but we didn’t really know each other. Just like, “How are you doing? I’m great!”
In 2013 she was getting her own project together at Andrew Loog Oldham’s studio when the phone rang…
…Find out what happened next in Part Two of our exclusive interview where Che discusses working on the The Rolling Stones covers album with Andrew Oldham, adventures with Casualties of Cool, the influence of Nick Drake and her immediate future.
- Mar 2 Mon Borderline, London
- Mar 3 Tue Exchange, Bristol
- Mar 4 Wed The Barrel House, Totnes
- Mar 5 Thu Koola Bar, Newquay
- Mar 6 Fri The Bullingdon, Oxford
- Mar 7 Sat Drygate, Glasgow
- Mar 8 Sun Sneaky Petes, Edinburgh
- Mar 9 Mon Cluny 2, Newcastle
- Mar 10 Tue The Deaf Institute, Manchester
- Mar 11 Wed Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham,
- Mar 12 Thu The Boileroom, Guildford
- Mar 13 Fri The Forum, Tunbridge Wells