Discovery: Wolkoff

With her forthcoming debut album, Toronto-born singer-songwriter Joanie Wolkoff, who performs under her surname, occupies the territory between electro-pop dance-ability and lyrical sincerity. Without Shame, due April 15, features production by Icarus Moth, Wolkoff’s friend, frequent collaborator, and co-performer, and here we’re pleased to premiere “While You Still Can,” the third single from the LP.

Wolkoff began her musical career following a slightly clichéd North American childhood: singing in her Anglican elementary school choir and learning to play a plastic recorder (“I want to know who decided to give children the most shrill instrument and set them loose,” she says). She then took piano lessons and learned how to play Nirvana on the trumpet, before discovering Canada’s rave scene, modeling for a summer in New York City, and attending The American University of Paris. During all of this, she consistently created music with small bands, but in early 2015, she quit Her Habits (a yearlong collaboration with producer Sanford Livingston) in favor of working alone. For Wolkoff, it was important to have “creative control over one’s own image, sound, and paperwork,” so she enrolled in an intensive production program, began composing by herself, changed her name, and released an EP, Talismans, in August 2015.

“For a split second, I felt like the carpet had been ripped out from underneath me and I was in free fall, [asking myself] ‘Oh my god, can I write music on my own?,'” she tells us. “It took about five minutes for me to snap out of it and say to myself, ‘You’ve always written music on your own, you just haven’t shared it.'”

When we sat down over breakfast in Brooklyn, Wolkoff (who, by day, works with recent immigrants, teaching English and tutoring French) was forthcoming and non-judgmental of her past. We spoke about shame, writing, and the story behind “While You Still Can.”

NAME: Joanie Wolkoff

HOMETOWN: Toronto, Canada

CURRENTLY BASED: Brooklyn, New York

WHAT’S IN A SURNAME: Essentially, I wanted to plant my flag creatively. I thought, “What’s wrong with my last name?” It’s the name that my grandfather chose to Anglicize his Polish last name in the ’50s. He was a Wolkovich but wanted to hide his Jewish identity after the war. He was still shell-shocked and had spent time in a Gulag. He changed it to Wolkoff, which sounds no more American than Wolkovich. I like that it resonates with anyone who has gone through any kind of upheaval, micro or macro, when you consider what it is to change your name.

“WHILE YOU STILL CAN”: Forgive me dad, I love you… When I was 17, my stepmom “invited” me to leave home. I carried immense shame about it for so many years. That event informed many choices I made and even more choices that I didn’t make, out of a sense of inhibition, embarrassment, or worthlessness. While we’re always being told not to give up and to keep on keeping on, it’s also important to recognize when you’re fighting an uphill battle that’s not going to change, or to choose your battles. If you’re surrounded by people who don’t understand you or encourage you, or you find yourself in a really unhealthy cycle, “Get away, start over while you still can.”

WITHOUT SHAME: I was exploring ideas around what shame gives to us and what it can take from us. In our modern day culture of extravagance and shame-shaming we’ve become accustomed to using shame as a negative buzzword, which is probably by and large a good thing because it’s freeing for people who have been long marginalized or whose ideas have been cut off at the knees before they had a chance to share them. However, I also think that shame can act interestingly as a kind of impetus. Shame can be a motor behind some incredible and beautiful things because it’s your superego—sometimes that’s all it is, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So I guess the name, Without Shame, is an exploration of two sides of an ideological coin, both of which fascinate me and inform large areas of my life.

The name bubbled up to the surface when I was visiting my dad for a couple of days in Canada during our annual pilgrimage to the Royal Canadian Fair, which is a Torontonian agricultural show. We take huge pride and delight in knowing that Toronto still brings the goods and is a mighty purveyor of freshly blow-dried cows that are being groomed to win beauty contests for livestock [laughs], and maple fudge, all things plaid, and hay-smelling. So, we were in the car listening to a Canadian talk program that was covering Dolly Parton’s biography. It was a really well done exposé on the choices she was forced to make, or the choices that she made, in spite of shame. While the show wasn’t “The Dolly Parton Shame Show,” it was definitely touching upon things people choose to do because of, or in spite of, pressure, embarrassment, or fear of embarrassment. A radio journalist must have said something about shamelessness in passing and I said to my dad, “What do you think of ‘shameless’ as an album title?” He said, “‘Without shame’ makes more sense to me than shameless,” and I said, “Thanks, dad.”

FINDING HER GENRE: I’m caught in a bind with electronic music because, as it goes with anything that you study closely and develop a relationship with, it becomes both alluring and repugnant. I don’t unilaterally listen to electronic music. In fact, the only time I listen to electronic music actively is when I go out running. While we gain something from listening to electronic music, we also miss out on the immediacy, or the physical rapport, that you can experience from music created on a material instrument. I try to write in such a way that any given song could hold up if it were performed on live instruments, [but] there’s something about [electronic music] that is really accessible to me. I’m not an instrumentalist; I love writing lyrics and like composing using a grand piano preset. I would have a whole new set of challenges and degrees of alienation if I took up a physical instrument and tried to use that to write an entire album. The day will come.

UNDER THE TURNTABLE NEEDLE: Vinyl was alive and well in my household, even when it was sort of outmoded. My parents split when I was two and painstakingly had to divide their record collection, so my earliest memories of music are connected to my parents’ collection and lying on the carpeted floor in, maybe, ’84. I don’t know whose it was, but we had this ceramic Chinese dragon statue, which in my child mind was enormous, like a big dog or pony, but was probably no larger than this table. It was a coiling dragon with a long, serpentine body and I remember wrapping my body through and under the rungs of this scaly, red ceramic dragon while my mother played what might’ve been Gordon Lightfoot or Engelbert Humperdinck; it was some kind of ’60s or ’70s folk classic. My father loved, and loves, the blues. He’s a big B.B. King, Muddy Waters fan, and we listened to a lot of Third World, Taj Mahal, and The Police. They were both really active in their love of popular culture and their own instrumentalism, because they both played guitar. My mom played folk guitar and my dad still plays blues and rock guitar. They were always singing or turning the radio on in the car. My dad played Paul Simon’s Graceland non-stop in his car for a whole winter the year it came out, so anytime I hear this really summery music inspired by all of these incredible African musicians I think of Toronto covered in snow.

PEN TO PAGE: I wrote songs as a kid for fun and the pleasure of showing them to my folks. I was an only child until I was 10, so I was left to my own devices a lot. If I wasn’t drawing, reading, or listening to music, I was inventing creepily detailed inner-universes. The first time I wrote music in collaboration with others and recording it, I was probably 15 or 16 with a buddy who became a performance artist. The last time I saw him he was covered in Vaseline and dumping a bag of uncooked rice over his face and screaming, but there was a time where we would just sit together in his basement with a four track recorder, and write and record songs about worms or French exchange students. It was fun and playful and a good way to get my feet wet.

TIME WARP: I have often felt, when I’m composing music, like I stretch or contract time. Of course, this is only how I’m feeling—I’m not cuckoo—but I really get the sense sometimes when I’ve finished composing that I stepped out for a quick minute. I look at the clock and it strikes me that I’ve been in the zone for many hours. I started doing that with more intention, threw a candle or two into the mix, and faced myself toward the window with my keyboard, computer, and interface. Instead of treating it like work, I found myself treating it like—I’m going to embarrass myself and sound so new age—a transcendental activity. On this [album], I really tried to pay mind to how I approach the act of writing, and treat it with a lot of reverence and allow for it to be mystical. When you create something, whether it’s a song, an article, an automobile you handcrafted, or a cake, you should give that activity the primacy it deserves. When you’re on your deathbed, you’re not going to look back and say, “I’m glad that I rushed myself through that process and then went and did sit-ups, called auntie so-and-so, and picked up the laundry.” You’re going to say, “I should’ve spent more time channeling the muses into what I was doing.”