A & E MUSIC | Dynamic Duo
Dawn and Marra are playing their hearts out, and people, lots of people, are starting to notice.
By James Tennant
Dawn and Marra stand on the stage at the Hamilton Blues and Roots Festival, their colourful summer dresses and cheerful banter at odds with the darkening sky. When it does start to rain, Marra remarks that the spray blowing onto the stage is refreshing. Dawn thanks the audience for sticking around. They play as though the weather hasn't changed, as though Dawn hasn't been up all night with the flu and as if they're seasoned professionals instead of two women on the cusp of their career and, indeed, adulthood itself. Dawn Larsh and Marrakech Koren may seem young — they are 20 and 18-years-old respectively — but given they were 16 and 14 when they began, they can hardly be called inexperienced.
Dawn's experience with music began when she joined the Hamilton Children's Choir at 12. Her parents were supportive; equally so when she decided to try her hand at songwriting. Once the teenager was ready to play in public, she began to appear at local open mic nights. One of these was hosted by local musicians Frank and Kim Koren and when they saw Dawn play they sensed they had to introduce her to their daughter.
Luckily for the girls and their fans, their intuition was right; Marra began to play bass on Dawn's songs and the chemistry made them fast friends as well as musical soulmates. You can hear it in the way they talk during interviews; Marra and Dawn don't quite complete each other's sentences, but they often tell stories in tandem, in some kind of sentence-relay:
Dawn: "Our first gig was the scariest thing in the whole world."
Marra: "It was some kind of outdoor festival in the middle of nowhere."
Dawn: "There was hardly anyone there."
Marra: "Our parents and her aunt and uncle, the sound guy and some vendors."
Dawn: "It didn't take the pressure off."
Marra: "I was freaking out, saying 'I think I'm going to puke.'"
Dawn: "I was going to puke, too."
This connection seems to be part of the reason they are so effective as a duo. They began as Dawn Larsh, with Marra on bass; eventually Dawn encouraged Marra to sing, and songwriting became more of a team effort. It wasn't too long before the collaboration prompted Dawn to suggest they begin to perform under the moniker Dawn and Marra.
Despite their youth — as individuals and as a duo — Dawn and Marra wasted little time before they recorded in a studio. At around the same time, the duo won the Hamilton Music Awards' Rising Star Search, bolstering their name on a local level and providing them with a smidge more time in the studio.
The debut, Never Ask Me Why, consisted mainly of Dawn's own material, a collection of songs she refers to as "a catch-all." "We didn't really know how we wanted it collectively sewn together," she says. "We didn't have a sound."
Fast-forward to 2013, and the situation has changed. Dawn and Marra have plenty of ideas. When it came time to record their followup, Teaspoons and Tablespoons, they were specific about their sound, arrangements, instrumentation and even their choice of producer. Dawn and Marra want to take control of their image and music and not be pigeonholed as something they aren't — cutesy girls singing folk songs. While traditional elements abound in their music, they are fans of other genres and don't want to be limited by labels.
"Once you're put into the folk category it's hard to gain recognition outside of the folk world," says Marra. "I think for a summer we were pegged as a folk group."
In order to help expand their sound, Dawn and Marra wanted to find the right producer. They were told to aim high — to find the producer they could work with at this point in their career. They chose Howard Redekopp, whose credits include Mother Mother, Tegan and Sara and one of their personal favourites, Said The Whale.
Marra: "We were like, okay, we'll do that, but he's never going to work with us."
Dawn: "I composed an email; I just didn't send it for a long time."
Marra: "Then we didn't hear from him for a few weeks."
Dawn: "I put the email out of my head as soon as I sent it."
Marra: "It was like 'there's no way.'"
Dawn: "'It's not even a thing. Whatever. It didn't even happen.'"
And then it did happen. After hearing good things about Dawn and Marra, Redekopp set up a Skype meeting. At first sight — Dawn with a ukulele and Marra with a tomato shaker — Redekopp was uncertain, but when they played him a song — "Joe," from the new album — he was sold.
"Once you're put into the folk category it's hard to gain recognition outside of the folk world."
Dawn and Marra flew to Vancouver to record Teaspoons and Tablespoons over three weeks in January. Indeed, despite classic traditional elements, this is not a folk record; its varied textures, arrangements and melodies take the songs to a place that's as indie-rock as it is folk. They are coy about the title; they say they simply liked how it sounded — although it could refer to the fact that the only two utensils Marra took to Vancouver were a teaspoon and tablespoon. Or the fact that they play two different sized ukuleles, as well, an alto and a soprano.
"I think we're going to do a Beatles thing and tell different things to different people," Dawn says. "Your article can be the only one that says we're doing that."
Future Dawn and Marra historians, take note. Not that they expect they'll be so successful that they'll have historians, per se. It could happen, but their goals, for the moment, are reasonable and savvy — to find the right people to support them — though they're comfortable doing it all on their own for the time being. They also hope to expand their audience beyond the local circuit.
"At one show, this couple said they drove three hours to come see us," Dawn recalls. "I thought, 'I'm going to play so good now.'" "Yeah, I will play my heart out for you," says Marra. That's the essence of being a real professional — playing your heart out for people who enjoy what you do. They're already doing that. If they keep it up, everything else should follow.