Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Sea Wolf, Folk vs. Country & DesignTO: Week 1

Weekly Update 2020-04: Nostalgic alternative folk from Sea Wolf, examining the difference between folk and country and the first of a two-part series on DesignTO: Toronto's Indie Design Festival.

Music: Sea Wolf
California-born Alex Church, otherwise know as Sea Wolf, produces a layered and calm sound full of soft vocals and even softer string instruments. It's like a lullaby for hipster ears. Drawing inspiration from authors like John Steinbeck and Jack London (whose novel The Sea Wolf lent its name), each new album tells a story both of indie folk music and of the musician finding his sound through a mix of acoustic and electronic sounds.

This one is a deep cut for me. I was 15 or 16 and I wanted nothing more than to see Sea Wolf play at Lee's Palace. The show was 19+ but for some reason I thought I'd be able to get in with a $40 fake ID from that place at Yonge and Gould that has since burned down. Suffice to say I did not get in. Shoutout to my friend Erin who drove us both downtown that night and ended up taking me to a martini bar in Kensington that didn't card us. So much for keeping minors away from alcohol when all I wanted was to see this band.

Anywho, a great slice of Americana comes in the form of indie folk, a delightful little genre abound with mandolins, rock ballads and vibrant storytelling of times long past. Sea Wolf is just one of the bands I discovered in my early teenage years with the rich soundscape of indie or alternative folk. More on that below.

DesignTO is in full swing, both in Toronto and in my heart. The city's design week, done right involves this ten-year-old design festival celebrating architecture, interior design, graphic design, window display and more in over one hundred separate features across Toronto. Every year I create my own custom map of self-guided walking tours and basically just go ham for seven days. See my first instalment of adventures in the Inspiration section below.

At work I am feeling a big sense of change for 2020, in a really good way. I have been trying to get a lot of initiatives started and I'm finally seeing clear, enforced buy-in from our executive leadership team in empowering me to make real change. Specifically through a coincidence in scheduling I ended up meeting our new director of facilities Greg on his first day on the job last Monday. We spoke at length about a11y items around the office and I think some real change will get going.

Between winter holidays and vacations, we haven't had much time to benefit from the mentorship of our new design manager Sam, but I am really happy he's on board as well. We're hiring another designer soon, which is great because Jackie is going on leave for a while and I sense a big pile of work landing on me very, very soon.

I met my next BrainStation associate instructor Tamira, and we chatted for a bit over coffee before heading over to campus for the 2020 instructor kickoff.

Speaking of tons of work, I am trying desperately to get GreenTeam efforts off my plate in a leadership role. I can't handle both that and #va11y as well as all my work (and Jackie's work) and trying to get the development department to adopt our new component library. So, I'm building action plan templates and assigning initiatives, and we're getting off the ground.

And my first Brainstation class of the semester is this week!

Random Thought: Folk vs Country
While I do have some small appreciation for country music, I do feel most mainstream country music is lacking in substance. There are tired tropes of country songs about trucks, dogs or losing women (and these tropes seem to ring true) that I can only hear so much of. And while I could arguably listen to a skilled banjo player all day long, even that classically country instrument isn't found much in country music these days. There just doesn't feel like much to appreciate, though I do tend to wonder if it's because I only hear the "pop" style of country music on the radio.

This got me thinking about how a lot of the indie folk that I listen to seems to comprise of a lot of what I like about country music, but just, done better. More instrumentation, intricate storylines woven into the melodies in beautiful ways, unorthodox instruments (I'm talking harmonicas, banjos, harpsichords, glockenspiels, as much accordion as you can handle). With each new song, I'd either hear an instrument I'd never heard before or learn a new word...or both!

And what was best, these songs sound like retellings of the human condition. They ring truer to me on a personal level than mainstream country music ever could. Either directly through songs of love and loss or more subtlely through fictional storytelling, these are songs that evoke. Some examples of indie folk bands I discovered in my earlier music gathering days:
  • Feist - The Reminder
  • Decemberists - The Crane Wife
  • Joel Plaskett Emergency - Ashtray Rock
  • Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
  • Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
  • Fleet Foxes - ST
  • Sufjan Steves - Illinois
  • Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
  • Band of Horses - Cease To Begin
  • The Shins - Wincing The Night Away
  • José González - In Our Nature
  • The National - Boxer
  • Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
  • Wintersleep - Welcome To The Night Sky
  • Sea Wolf - Leaves In The River
Hilariously, these albums are mostly released in 2007 (or are at least 2007 adjacent), the same year I made my discovery of electronica.

Always on repeat...

The list could certainly go on. This all got me wondering if there's such thing as alternative country, and by golly there is! Apparently Wilco is a good example of this, certainly a band I could hang my ten gallon hat on. I guess it may be time to explore a new genre of music!

Inspiration: DesignTO: Week 1
I first noticed that DesignTO was launching as an exhibit on Polish design was slowly assembled in the lobby of my work building. Over five days I observed the exhibit being built up as I came into work every day. Hashtag literally blessed to work in this building, I am very surprised to say 16 months into this role.

On Friday I visited The Gladstone's annual Come Up To My Room art showing within their four floors and even more rooms of fun. I especially loved the 3D layered paper mural of a walk down the streets of Toronto's colourful neighbourhoods by Emmie Tsumura.

One of my favourites from Grow Op 2019 was back for more: Noni Kaur brought to life a colourful microscopic view of tiny organisms splattered all over the walls of a bright Queen Street-facing room on the second floor.

Same as 2019, my next and final stop for the day was Artscape Youngplace, usually housing 3-4 different exhibitions of varying size and all indoors, making for a wonderful little zig-zag journey across all four floors of the renovated and reimagined elementary school building - it's an art exhibit in and of itself. Some highlights were an exhibition on the concept of lorem ipsum and a lovely exhibit of paper poems hanging from the ceiling of the bookstore - Toronto's first (and only?) 100% poetry bookstore.

Sunday brought us back to my work in The Historic Bakery in Liberty Village to take an unhurried look at what had been building up the week before. The exhibit on 100 Years of Polish Design was quite a feat - something like 100 different items being hailed, along with custom illustrations by Polish designers reimagining the objects in different ways. I'll definitely take another look if I get a free breath sometime next week during work.

After wandering around all the Polish design, we went walking along Queen Street West. Twelve window displays and exhibits dotted the street between Parkdale and Trinity Bellwoods. This stretch is historic for me, the "main drag" that I've been self-touring since I first heard about DesignTO (then called TODO). But what came after was even cooler - we had signed up for a glassblowing demonstration at a studio in Wychwood Barns. My mother and I both got a chance to blow glass, which we made into terrariums. Super cool - the studio is 100% electric (otherwise it would not be zoned to be held within the building).

Monday night was a newly minted classic - DesignTO's prescribed King East Design District Night. The stretch of King East between Yonge and Parliament was alive with gallery openings and exhibitions, as well as a really inspirational talk inside Relative Space by Mexican design and advertising studio Anagrama.

Milky's Coffee (based in Toronto)

A childrens' library with climbable bookshelves.

The rest of the night I spent crawling the exhibits of King East with my friend Nadia and her friends, who were all very happy to let me drag them to a bunch of different galleries, each with a different kind of complimentary hors d'oeuvre and cocktail or wine. Great way to get a little tipsy to face the winter outside!

Next week will consist of a talk on Tuesday in Liberty Village and a final crawl along Dundas West and Roncesvalles on Sunday. I can't wait to see what kind of things they have going on along Dundas, it seems to get even cooler every time I do this crawl.

Stay tuned for DesignTO: Week 2 next week!

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