If you’ve ever seen Bruce Peninsula—the Southern Ontario gothic folk-rock band based in Toronto, which has consisted of up to eleven members—you probably noticed Misha Bower. The petite, fiery redhead (who often wears plaid) looks like an Appalachian Tinker Bell, but her ancient-sounding pipes are about as gigantic as they come. A good choir member, she stands back and supports with expert harmonies, but she also steps out, when called on, like a Method actor singing the blues: wild and expressive and always seeming to inhabit the part.
The strength of Bower’s voice isn’t only to be found at the shows and on the records of Bruce Peninsula, EONS, The Weather Station, Daniel Romano, and more. She’s a writer of plays and fiction, too. Her first book of short stories, Music for Uninvited Guests, features a motley crew of lovers and losers trying to do what’s right, and you can find in her writing what you can find in her performances, which is a rich mix of sympathy, virtuosity, vulnerability, and raw power.
Misha Bower is keeping busy with both Bruce Peninsula and EONS, and working on her next short-story collection, but she had some time to talk to Noisey about her process, the Greyhound, and why she doesn’t want to live in Toronto.
Noisey: Could you describe for our readers the clippings and photos posted across your living room wall here? Are you a serial killer?
Misha Bower: [Laughter]. That’s what has affectionately been called “The Crime Wall” by dear friends of mine. It kind of looks either like what the cops use to profile their suspect, or something that you find in the basement of the person, you know, in the final chase scene when you break into their cellar. [Laughter.] Just a thousand pictures of Julia Roberts, oh my god…. Okay, so what you see are little notes made on an ongoing basis. Sometimes they’re just observations, sometimes they’re overheard things—thoughts, or just ideas related to the material that I’m working on.
It’s cool that you have your writing tools and archives out in the open like that. It’s like you’re living with your work.
It’s a pretty good system of organization. Just because I would accumulate these piles of scribbled-down notes, so just to be able to tack it onto the board, and then just periodically have a transcribing day when the writing isn’t going well…. I always want to have scribbles at my disposal. I think I’d be kind of freaked out if I didn’t have any scribbles anymore. [Laughter.]
So, what came first, Misha the Singer or Misha the Writer?
The Writer. In high school I got interested in playwriting and really pursued that for a long time, and wrote some plays and put on some one-acts. And then after that I’d moved to Toronto—and in that friend group there was just, more and more, a musical theme to our hanging out. Like, nights ending, and singing together and dancing, and drunkenly hitting pots and pans [laughs]—don’t type any of this out. [Laughter.]
I’m going to.
Don’t do it! [Laughter.] And so, when Bruce Peninsula started, I just wasn’t writing as much. But that kind of got rekindled after our first trip to Sappyfest, when I also participated in the “writer’s block” event. Neil [Haverty] mentioned to Jon Claytor that I was a writer as well, and they invited me to participate, and that kind of gave me a reason to pick up with the writing. It’s been kind of a back and forth, and now I think they’re pretty in parallel, which is a good way for it to be, I think.
Is your ear/voice as a musician something you use as a writer? Some of your stories remind me of old blues songs or Springsteen songs.
With singing, and songwriting, and story writing, I’m always thinking about character. Anytime I describe working on a song, my go-to mantra or approach is that we just need to find the character. There are so many different ways you can sing a song, or interpret a song, but really imagining where it’s coming from and who is singing it and why, is for sure something that influences my style of singing—even as a backup singer, too, just really getting into trying to support the person in the character they’re putting out there, is part of what I think makes me a reliable backup singer. It’s being in service of that character. That’s how I think about music, and definitely in writing too, no matter what the character has done, it’s a constant effort to relate to that person you’re writing for. Even when I’ve got a real son of a bitch on my hands, there’s a deep care for understanding them as they are…. Yeah, so I think there is a preoccupation with this notion of characterization in both my approach to writing and music.
Your stories are populated by so many different kinds of folks. Are you a people watcher?
Yeah, shit, I’m a people watcher. But what am I watching for? That’s interesting, because you never know what the strangers you’re observing are thinking. You don’t know what moment they’re in. If you overhear a slice of conversation, you can speculate about what they’re talking about, you can look at the expressions, you can look at the body language…. You never know what’s going on in the actual moment, but there are a lot of awesome ingredients. You see the expression on a person’s face, or the way they’re holding their hands, or shuffling their feet—a narrative comes to mind. And I go off on tangents, you know? Let’s say I’m working on a character, and there’s already some sketch in mind…some little moment, in the station or in the coffee shop or walking down the street or in the grocery store, will just stick to it, and so I’ll just import it into an existing idea or into a scene. Like, the way that woman is sitting on the bus right now, or the shade of her lipstick, or the style of her hair—that’s what so and so looks like.
You must have taken lots of busses to and from rehearsals and gigs and stuff?
I take, fuckin’, so many busses, man. When I do my taxes, the stack of Greyhound tickets is staggering, oh my god.
Do you like the Greyhound? Can you work on the bus?
It’s a mix. I mean, there’s a very real motion-sickness variable, so it depends. Sometimes I can do some work, and then other times I’m just window gazing. [Meditative pause.] Some Greyhound rides are better than others. Sometimes you’re looking out the window, and it’s that beautiful sunset, and then other times you’re just like, “For fuck sakes, like, turn down your iPod, man, this is a public space!” [Laughter.] I prefer the train. [Laughter.]
What’s it like living in London, Ontario, when you’re in these Toronto-based bands? Is it a hassle to do so much travelling? What keeps you here in the Forest City?
Work and family are the anchors. I lived in Toronto for a while, and even though so much of my life is in Toronto, I’m always kind of relieved to come back to London. I enjoy Toronto, but I don’t think I’d want to move there. The pace of it, and the possibility of being busy three times a night, seven days a week.
It can be a hassle to travel, but it’s really worth it. At this point it’s habitual. My stamina for pulling a mission is definitely waning, though. “Oh, yeah, I’ll just do the show and then catch the 1:00 a.m., get home at 3:00 a.m., go to work at 8:00 a.m.” There’s less of that. I’m looking out for myself more. For every ten Greyhound trips, I take one train!
Henry Adam Svec is a writer living in London, Ontario. He's on Twitter.