Robin Dann sits outside of a coffee shop in downtown Toronto telling me about the sound on her band Bernice's recent EP, Puff. "We think a lot about space and not overcrowding the sound. Everyone is a minimalist, even though sometimes the songs can feel pretty dense." As she is telling this to me, a truck zooms past and eclipses—almost—her actual sound, and takes up her aural space. The wind then howls and the voices of pedestrians walking down College St. can also be heard over hers. Life in Toronto can sometimes feel like a competition to be heard at all.
The electro-pop group released Puff via Arts & Crafts in June. This is their first release of material on the label, who signed them in November of last year. But it has also been six years since Bernice released anything at all and are still relatively unknown to a wider audience. In 2011, Bernice released the full-length What Was That and not much else in the interim. The group had still been working and touring, creating new material, but seeing the commitment to music didn't really occur to Dann until the last few years. "I haven't been particularly organized about my ambitions for the band. It's only really now that we've been lucky to start working with Arts & Crafts and they have been really helpful at telling me what to do," she says.
With Puff, Bernice is given a fresh start. "It takes awhile because it's such an oversaturated musical world. It takes awhile to get a little bit of steam going behind you," Dann says carefully. And she's not exactly wrong. Toronto is a hotbed of music, which is phenomenal for music lovers. But there is tension: artists may look to cities as their place to break it, still, but an influx means competition. Whether you're unconcerned with the market, the market is still concerned with you. You're not just competing locally or nationally anymore—it's also on a global scale. There is a balancing act between personal interest, art, and commerce. Definitions of success vary from person to person or group but, much like the trucks flying past Dann as she is talking to me, competition to be heard at all in this city is a concern.
Bernice is harder to place sonically. The electro-pop and R&B influences are very apparent on this EP. But does that slot them into more of a pop place or something lo-fi? "I don't really think about it in terms of really kind of sitting us inside of a genre, an existing genre," Dann says, "I know that there's a lot of obvious form inspired by tons of different music. That's definitely the tricky thing about this band and our sound. A lot of people don't know where to place us." Dann joyfully lists influences like Brandy, Sade, and even Katy Perry's Teenage Dream (calling it the perfect thing at the time of release.)
Puff creates space. It is a concise and sharp EP at only five songs but there is nothing succinct about the sounds or lyrics on it. "David" is an emotionally gripping track about a character who "holds the pain more closely," as Dann croons slowly over harrowing synths. In contrast, "St. Lucia" is the more upbeat, dancefloor friendly pop track that still holds weight on the listener. Standout closing track "Gemini" looks at the concept of what Dann calls "twinning." "It could be in a friendship or a love relationship and it's where you kind of feel completely reflected. You totally understand this person and they totally understand you," says Danns. "It's kind of like what happens when you're in this deep connection zone with somebody and how it can be wonderful and it can be sort of disorienting and confusing and ultimately wonderful. I think that's what we're all looking for, kind of, even though opposites attract too. It is kind of a dark song. I think I was focused on the less happy qualities of that feeling at the time. " This track is where one hears the full potential of Bernice; acute lyrics with soft, tender and yet clashing sounds with what Dann calls tinkering; these little percussive noises that almost trick you into thinking they are an ad-lib, or an accidental addition, during recording but they are purposeful and polished.
Dann tells me that the title of the EP comes from a book by the popular and mysterious Italian writer Elena Ferrante. "We were looking for a title that just felt like it expressed the musical world that we like to create, which is definitely playful and light. I thought about naming either this or the album 'In the air without a shape,'" she says, "She felt like she, in the book, had no identity. She was just hanging in the air without a shape. So this was kind of like a more concise way of expressing that feeling." That sentiment may be threaded slightly through the EP, perhaps even forthcoming songs on their LP that feature tracks from the same session as Puff, but Bernice does deserve to be heard—to take shape and find a slot in the ever expanding music-scape.