Everyone is Someone
Everyone Is Someone
A Q&A with Amanda Walther of Dala
By Geoff Gehman
Pretty much everything about the duo Dala is as tight as a peapod.
Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine grew up singing Beatles tunes with their musical dads and brothers in their hometown of Scarborough, Ontario, where they met in high-school band class. Best friends since 2002, they named their group after the last two letters of their first names. Their bird’s-nest vocals are so entwined, sometimes it’s tough to tell which bird is which. They write songs that stick about meaningful matters: a broken body fused to a whole soul; a love so great, it must be written on China’s Great Wall. As an extra added bonus, they make other people’s numbers their own. Exhibit A is Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which they transform from defiant anthem to hushed elegy.
Carabine and Walther are darlings of stage, television and album. They contributed covers to collections of songs by Young and the Cure, mixed their tunes with those by Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot on a PBS special, and played the 50th Newport Folk Festival as the only musicians raised north of the border. On Friday, October 14 they’ll bring their supple, subtle soul to the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in a conversation from her home in Toronto, Walther discusses Dala’s Lennon & McCartney differences, the sisterly solidarity that chases the melancholy of the road, and her somewhat surprising distaste for dried grapes.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
A: I can’t pinpoint one song because so many songs have mattered to me. I grew up in a musical family; ever since I can remember I’ve been singing Beatles songs, old country tunes, Irish and English traditional music. I think the first song that really clung to me was “Femme Fatale” by the Velvet Underground featuring Nico. I was 14 when I first heard it at an art exhibit in Toronto and it made me fall in love with the Velvet Underground.
Q: You and Sheila met in band class in high school, back when she played the trumpet and you played the bass clarinet. Do you remember your first meaningful musical connection, the one that made you feel like peas in a pod?
A: There’s this one song, “Mairi’s Wedding,” that we both sang and played as kids. We kind of bonded over that and the fact that we had very similar musical childhoods; both our dads performed English and Irish traditional songs. We just clicked on so many levels.
Q: Is “Moon River” another tune from the farthest reaches of your childhoods? Your Dala version, with Sheila playing ukulele, is quite enchanting and haunting.
A: It’s the most beautiful song, isn’t it? I can’t remember the first time I heard it; I think it’s always been in my subconscious. We often play it at the end of our set because everybody loves it; it really crosses borders. It takes me on a full imagination trip. I feel like I’m in a painting almost.
Q: How about the first song you and Sheila sang together that gave you the shivers?
A: The first song that gave us the shivers was “One Man Guy.” It was written by Loudon Wainwright III and we first heard it covered by his son Rufus Wainwright. Both of their versions are very different and beautiful in their own way. It was one of the first songs we learned together; that’s when we discovered we had this magical sound.
Q: Do you get tired of hearing your vocals called “angelic”?
A: No, I love hearing that. We’re very fortunate in our profession that we’re given such a great compliment. I think it’s our duty to take that in and absorb it and be grateful. It’s wonderful to be appreciated by an audience; it’s wonderful to have an audience.
Q: Why do you still like performing with Sheila after 14 years?
A: It’s a unique partnership. I feel that we have a connection we don’t have with anybody else in the world. We have the same history of music. We both grew up listening to the Beatles constantly. We have the same harmony sensibility. We know each other so well that we don’t have to say what we’re thinking to know what we’re thinking. We’re different enough people that we keep things exciting; we still surprise each other. It helps that we really are best friends, that we really love each other as people.
Q: How do your differences affect your music making?
A: Sheila is much more lyric-driven. She writes poetry; she’s a crafter of words in a way that I’m not. When it comes to lyrics I like to be as succinct as possible; I’m much more of a prose person. In a way, we balance each other lyrically; the contrast works out nicely. Musically, I’m definitely a melody person and harmony-driven; sometimes I think of weird melodies that Sheila wouldn’t.
Q: Can you explain how you filtered your differences into the song “Lennon and McCartney,” which you named after two very different songwriters who frequently wrote, and sang, as one?
A: We wrote that song sitting at the piano. Sheila began by playing the chord structure; she was actually doing a riff on “Levi Blues” [another Dala song], believe it or not. We began switching around the chords, changing it up. I sat down next to her and started playing a piano melody in an upper register. It had a note that isn’t technically correct. That’s just where my mind went; sometimes I can be a little strange [laughs]. At first she hated it: “This doesn’t sound right.” But then she couldn’t get it out of her head. It ended up as the harmony part I ended up singing and then I wrote a melody to match. It was kind of backwards but it worked.
Q: The “Lennon and McCartney” lyric that really grabs me goes: “Just another guy who lost his glasses/Looking for Annie Hall/He’s like Lennon for the heavy meanings/Me, I’m still in love with Paul.” So, truth to tell, who’s more Paul and who’s more John in Dala?
A: Sheila definitely is the Paul and I’m definitely more of the Lennon [laughs]. The song is really describing in a lot of ways our relationship with each other but also our relationship with other people. That whole song is about loving and accepting somebody who is different from you because they are different from you. Same isn’t always equal.
Q: Another familial song is “Father,” which you wrote by yourself. So did your father actually give you the following dating advice: “Always wear your runners in the night time, so you can run, run away”?
A: That is definitely a “me” song [laughs]. I write things as they are: very plain, no metaphors, yet you can find a deeper meaning. I didn’t have a curfew when I was a teenager but my dad made me wear running shoes so I could run away from bad guys [laughs]. I wasn’t a bad kid; I was pretty responsible even as a young person. But I do believe in sensible footwear in general [laughs].
Q: “Horses” is a popular, pivotal song that you wrote with Sheila. You were partly inspired by a young Dala fan who, because of an accident, is confined to a wheelchair and can’t speak. Were you with him when he first heard the song and, if so, how did he react?
A: As songwriters we tried to see the world through his lens for a little while. While we were inspired by his story, we also have our own stories; everyone has a battle, whether you can see it or you can’t. We were very nervous about how he would react to our song; we were not sure if we had done his story justice. Sure enough, he came to our CD release concert, where he heard “Horses” for the first time. We met him after the show and he was ecstatic. He can’t speak but he was gripping our hands very tightly. He communicated very clearly, without words, that he was so touched, that he felt the deep connection. We were so happy. He gave us an inspirational gift that inspires us still.
Q: That’s a rare privilege. Have you had the even rarer experience of strolling along and suddenly hearing a stranger humming one of your songs?
A: I haven’t heard one of our songs hummed. But I have come across unusual circumstances. I was dancing with high-school friends at a club in downtown Toronto and, sure enough, dancing next to me was a big Dala fan. It was really surreal to meet one of our fans in a techno club.
Q: What do you do to stay sane on the road besides painting watercolors? Do you and Sheila have rituals that keep your feet on the tracks?
A: We drink a lot of coffee. We chat a lot. Sheila is an excellent conversationalist. We talk about everything under the sun from politics to religion, social issues to pop culture. We have a lot of good brainstorming sessions when we’re driving the long road. That keeps the creative juices flowing; that keeps us together.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you felt like giving in or giving up?
A: There were moments at the beginning of our career where it would have been very easy to give up. Because Sheila and I had each other, we avoided a lot of the melancholy that can come with touring, the melancholy that solo artists can experience. I don’t even remember the toughest times because we faced them together.
When you’re on the road a lot the one great challenge is keeping your relationships at home healthy and in a good place. I’m very grateful to everyone important in my life; they’ve been very patient and very supportive through the hard times. I’m very fortunate to have so many fabulous people around me; they’ve taught me a lot.
Q: What was your most rewarding time in the music trade, when you almost felt you’d make music for free? How about you and Sheila playing the 50th Newport Folk Festival as the only Canadian act?
A: That was amazing. There are a handful of turning points in our career and that is one of them, along with being one of our favorite memories. We played our full set on one of the smaller stages and it was packed; they couldn’t have had more people in that tent. We also performed a one-song “’tweener” after Neko Case and before Arlo Guthrie on the mainstage. We did “Levi Blues” because it was short and we only needed one guitar and one mike.
Q: So, Amanda, what tops your Bucket List? How about taking “Levi Blues” to China, one of the exotic places the song’s narrator yearns to visit, so she can write “I Love You” on the Great Wall?
A: Yep, that would be amazing. I’d love to travel more, especially in Asia; it’s such a rich continent. I went to Thailand and I will be back for sure. I’d also like to go to Australia. Many musicians from Canada live there; it sounds like we’d be right at home.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: The first thing that comes to mind is raisins. I love all food except raisins. I know that’s petty but they destroy everything they’re baked into.
Q: True confession: Have you ever been tempted to imitate the “Levi Blues” narrator who scratches “I Love You” into the grooves of an LP?
A: I haven’t. I could never do that, my goodness. Although I love the idea that someone could be so clueless to not in any way see the value of a vinyl record and someone else could be so mortified that anyone would scratch anything into any vinyl record.
Amanda Walther: The Scoop
She was an eighth grader when she performed “Dream a Little Dream for Me” with her father for a Toronto song circle. She and Sheila Carabine, her partner in Dala, recorded the stardust song for the 2010 compilation “Sing Me to Sleep: Indie Lullabies.”
She and Carabine have written songs with their manager/mentor Mike Roth, who received the producer prize during the 2006 Canadian Folk Music Awards ceremony for his work on the Dala album “Angels & Thieves.”
She and Carabine performed Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and their own “Marilyn Monroe” during the 2010 PBS special “Girls from the North Country.”
In 2015 she released the children’s CD “More Better” as a member of WW Club, a side project with her brothers and cousins.
A half-hour documentary of Dala’s first visit to Alaska features her favorite experience: standing on the peak of Thompson Pass. “We were in the clouds and we could see for miles. It took my breath away. That is one of the all-time favorite moments of my life so far. I’ve been on a number of different mountains but this was a whole different kind of mountain. I’m still speechless; there are no words.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. One of his favorite Dala lyrics appears in the song “Good as Gold”: “I am not that photo on my father’s mantle/Tell me I’m beautiful/Tell me you won’t get old/And leave me alone.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.