There is a lovely folk show happening at the AGH Design Annex this Friday, featuring the Canadian folk legend Ken Whiteley, and Olenka Krakus. This will be a solo show for Olenka,who usually plays with her band, Olenka and the Autumn Lovers.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Olenka about this show, earlier this week. Picture this: it was a sunny May Day morning and two Eastern European ex-pats happily chatted about music, and the old country. Olenka’s old country is Poland, and mine is Serbia . As an immigrant from Eastern Europe, I am always interested in speaking with people with similar backgrounds and experiences. As a talented folk artist, Olenka, had plenty to say. Weaving personal issues, with political takes, Olenka has been using song writing and singing as a medium to share her tales.
Q – How did you get into playing music?
I was born in Poland and I lived there until I was five – I remember listening to The Beatles with my parents and singing along with the lyrics, even though I had no idea what any of them meant. As new imigrants to Vancouver (Olenka now lives in London, On), we didn’t have a lot of money for a while, but eventually once I was about 13-15 years old my parents were able to send me to piano classes. Piano was hard and I had a tough time learning to read music. It always felt easier and more natural for me to learn by ear.
Piano didn’t go well for me, but my dad had a guitar and after teaching myself to pluck at the strings for a while, he showed me a few basic chords. After that I realized that I could experiment and make music. My brain exploded once I realized all of the sounds that I could create with those few strings.
Q – How did you get into song writing, and singing?
I was really into writing poetry as a teenager. Real juvenile, silly stuff, but I used it to express myself. It took a few solid years with a guitar, learning Leonard Cohen covers, before I actually started playing songs. My own songs. I think that singing Beatles, and Leonard Cohen, while I was learning English really helped me learn harmony and melody. At some point I realized that the guitar and my own words were the best vehicle for self expression.
However, it wasn’t all acoustic guitars and Leonard Cohen all the time. I went through a punk stage before the folksy stuff ever entered my life. I was into bands like the Dead Kennedys and The Breeders. I loved that stuff, and I still see some parallels between punk and folk. Both of those genres belong to the people and have always been about self expression and DIY. Folk is definitely easier on the vocal chords, though.
Q – How do you feel about musical labels and being classified as a ‘folk’ artist?
I don’t mind it at all. To me, folk is about instruments and story telling. My music is driven by narrative and by characters. A lot of my stuff is also political, and is music of the people. I don’t always exist in my songs and I leave it up to the characters to tell their stories. Those are all things that define folk music, to me. I like the tradition, and I always have. From the days of early Medevil folk story tellers, to the early Irish traditions, I like it all. There is a rich history when it comes to folk music.
Q – Poland plays a big role in your musical identity and is key in many of your songs, how have you been received by Polish Canadians?
I had a stronger Polish following while I lived in Vancouver, because of my parents and their involvement in the Polish community there. My parents would call up all of the people they knew and my shows were always well attended by the community. It happens less in London. I was interviewed for OMNI TV for their Polish program a while ago, and that was fun. From time to time people will introduce themselves to me after shows and tell me they are first or second generation immigrants and that they relate to my songs. A lot of my Polish fans also tell me that their parents told them to listen to me. I guess its a way to stay connected to the culture.
Q – Do you listen to any Polish music? Do you keep up with that scene?
Not really – I listen to some, but not a lot. I have a few friends who live in Poland who occasionally send me stuff to listen to. There is an interesting band from Toronto, Lemon Bucket Orchestra, who do a really good job combining a bunch of Eastern European sounds in their band. It isn’t exactly Polish – but a lot of the sounds and instruments are familiar to me.
Q – That kind of ‘nostalgia’ music has become quite popular in the past 10 years. What do you make of that?
I think that a lot of people are nostalgic for their motherlands and this kind of music helps them connect. More so, I think that people who never grew up anywhere else but have heard tales of a different life from relatives – turn to this music to connect to a history and a past that is close to them. It’s interesting to feel nostalgia for something that is so distant from you.
Q – What are you listening to these days? Do you have any good recommendations for us?
I just picked up the latest release by Dusted, which is Brian Borcherdt‘s newest project. I’ve always been a fan of his solo stuff, maybe even more than Holy Fuck stuff, and this release is more filled-out than his previous solo stuff. His voice is amazingly haunting. I’ve also been revisiting a lot of George Jones lately… it made me sad to see another great old-time country musician pass away. His music is tremendously catchy and so so so heartbreaking. I also just went through an obsessive cycle of listening to Beck‘s Sea Change and Joni Mitchell‘s Hissing of Summer Lawns. Both albums are amazing start to end… and that’s basically what I was doing: listening to them start-to-end over and over and over… a little OCD, I suppose.
And as for local Londoners, I’ve been listening to my old cellist’s band “So Young” (they just released their first release Secrets), and I’ve also been into another London-based country/roots act, The Allens.
Q – What is your relationship to the folk scene in Hamilton?
I’ve liked a lot of stuff that’s come out of Hamilton, and most especially the stuff that Terra Lightfoot has been involved in. She’s terrific and I was blown away the first time I heard her play with her band. I am always on the lookout for new artists to listen to. It is hard to keep up with things as people sometimes move on, and new artists emerge every year. One thing I am interested in is helping new artists get their footing. I am glad to connect artists with promoters, or clubs, or anything else I can help with. It isn’t easy when you are starting out, and it’s good to have people to point you in the right direction.
Q – What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
I will continue to play shows on my own, and with the rest of the band, throughout the summer. Our big plan is to record a new album in September. We have a lot of work ahead of us to come up with great new material by then – that’s the main focus this year. Hopefully we will have a bigger tour next year, with the new album, and maybe even a trip to Poland.