Toronto’s Beams takes classical bluegrass instruments and makes sweet indie tunes that are easy to love. With lap steel, musical saw, soprano harmonies and a banjo-slinging songstress, Beams makes you wonder how Toronto can make such good country music. I attempted to get to the bottom of this question by grilling frontwoman and songwriter Anna Merneiks about her influences, writing with a banjo, and where she finds inspiration in TO.
Q- With your line-up, you have a lot of classical blue-grass instruments, but you definitely don’t sound like Mumford and Sons or just another folk band. Why did you choose the banjo? What is it about this instrumentation that you like?
It just sort of chose me. I was given one and I learned how to play it, and sometimes I find that when you start to learn an instrument really well, you become less curious about it and start writing less interesting stuff and that was sort of happening to me on the guitar. So my curiosity for the banjo was inspiring and I wrote some songs on it and things just sort of gravitated around that.
Q- Did you end up transferring any of the songs that you wrote with the guitar or earlier to the banjo and with Beams?
Yea there have been a couple, not very many. I transferred “How Wonderful” onto banjo and one that isn’t on this album, but might be on the next one.
Q- In another interview, you mentioned that you have “strong roots in nature”. What’s the history story behind that?
I was just sort of brought up that way. We have a cottage that didn’t have a road to it so we had to spend a lot of time… we would walk in in the winter. It would take a couple of hours. We got to know the woods really well. We had to cross the water to get there in the summer; we got to know the lake very well. Now I’m studying forestry.
Q- Now that you’re living in Toronto- Canada’s biggest city, where do you go now to be inspired or grounded?
I like to do yoga. I find that it’s hard to be grounded with such busy surroundings looking externally; I find that looking internally in a nice room is the best way to experience that feeling you get when you’re in nature. Well… maybe Trinity Bell Woods on a nice day watching the sun go down or something. There are places. It’s more difficult that’s for sure.
For inspiration, I find going to see art or watching documentaries about interesting people, I find that pretty inspiring.
Q- I’ve read that a lot of your songs are based on personal experience, but many of the songs I’ve heard so far use animals or scenery in the lyrics. How do you like to tell stories in your songs?
It depends on the story, I guess. My first inclination is to write from the point of view of me talking to someone else, but I find that if you do that all the time it gets a bit boring so sometimes I think, how can I tell this story in a different way, how can I connect this to a different character? Because sometimes if you say things too plainly they loose some of their meaning because people are so used to hearing it one way.
So like in “Snake Song”, that one is more like predators coming after my Dad, and I was like, ‘okay, what other situation would you see something coming and fear of certain death?’ So similarily dangerous thing would be an eagle hunting a snake and the snake would think it’s obviously going to die, and then in a miraculous world, the eagle would let it go.
[Snake Song] was also sort an experiment to see if I could write a parable. I was reading a lot of Aesop’s Fables at the time. It really draws the story in a way a lot of people can understand if you can use simple animal storylines.
Q- Do you find since a lot of your songs are based on personal experience that you need to use other characters to separate yourself from the narrative, or protect your personal story, or are you happy to share your experiences candidly with the audience?
I think for the most part, usually I’m not so worried what people will think about me because everyone has pretty much done and experienced everything and any sorrow I’ve had, I’m sure that other people have had too. If someone is afraid to talk about it, but they see me talking about it and being okay, then maybe they will get the courage to talk about it and realize it’s not so big and scary. If that makes any sense? Basically, I’m not afraid of that. If anything, I try to protect the [other] people that I’m writing about.
Q- Congrats on releasing your debut album, Just Rivers. From the sounds of it, you’ve been making music and writing songs for quite some time. How far back do some of the songs on Just Rivers go?
I think that “Sun Wraps Around” was the first song that I wrote on banjo. I got it for Christmas when I was 18 and I’m 23 now.
Q- In his email, Mike told me you were headed to the studio for a BBQ. What’s on the menu? Does Beams have a favourite type of potato salad?
I think tonight is a good old steak and salad and wine type of barbecue. We really like to do stuffed peppers. You can stuff them with anything and they will be delicious. You can pretty much do anything… oh no you’re going to make me hungry… I like to wrap vegetables in tinfoil with some butter and garlic and whatever herbs and throw it on there. You can do it on the fire too! You can cook pretty much anything that way, it’s amazing.
So next time our readers are up at the cottage they can cook a Beams special!
Thank you so much for your time Anna!