Living through a pandemic is bad enough, but add a break-up on top of it and you’ve got yourself a recipe for your own personal disaster party. Or at the very least, a lot of sleepless nights screaming into a pillow and hitting the Tyskies a little harder than you should. In such times of crisis, the best you can hope for is a gingham-swaddled outlet for your pain. Take singer-songwriter and musician Bria Salmena, who last year found herself in the midst of a mega slump but managed to elegantly claw her way out of it with the help of some cult country music saviours and her best mate and musical collaborator Duncan Hay Jennings.
“I was ending a relationship of five years and in those moments you gravitate towards things you can relate to,” explains Bria over Zoom from the apartment she and Duncan share in Toronto, the pair sat side by side. Those things were songs of lost love, which would soon make up their debut ‘Cuntry Covers Vol 1’ EP. Six tracks long, it features gorgeously drowsy, sultry and shoegazey takes on tracks originally by Greenwich Village folk outlier Karen Dalton (‘Green Rocky Road’) and the always amazing Americana don Lucinda Williams (‘Fruits of My Labour’), Bria’s voice front and centre – a burning, yearning thing of hot-blooded beauty. “They’re all about being heartbroken,” says Bria of the thread that links the selected songs, which also include takes on gruff outlaw Waylon Jennnings’ ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ and the 1960s cosmic housewife Mistress Mary’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Love Ya Now’. But rather than weep over what’s been lost, these songs are sensual and self-assured. They seem to suggest that though one particular relationship might be over, the door is in no way shut to future suitors.
The EP is Bria and Duncan’s first project under the Bria name after years of ploughing a far more thrashy course in Canadian punk band Frigs. And if Bria, Duncan and their sturdy Stetsons look familiar, that’s because they’re also key members of Orville Peck’s backing band. For the past three years, they’ve stood by the masked cowboy in matching western suits, tracking his speedy and stratospheric rise to fame with every twang. But at the start of 2020, in the midst of a huge tour with Orville and off the back of writing and recording a new Frigs album, Bria was approaching burnout.
When the pandemic hit not long after she felt even less inclined to pick up a pen and write her own material, but without even thinking, cover versions started pouring out of her. “It just felt like an easy way to be expressive but that didn’t have to make me become really introspective,” she explains. Inspired by long-time interpreters of other people’s material like Marianne Faithfull and Linda Ronstadt, she and Duncan started sharing ideas with each other, building a playlist packed full of tracks they thought would work for a possible record, including tracks by Daniel Johnston and Bob Dylan that didn’t quite make the final cut. “You might see them on a Volume 2… if there is a Volume 2,” adds Bria.
With the material they chose, Bria and Duncan wanted to further flip the typical view of country music and agitate the genre’s “deep patriarchal roots”. It’s something they’ve been doing ever since they started playing with Orville Peck. “We’re a queer country band and everybody who comes to Orville’s shows are the queers and the freaks,” she says. “They’re people who the mainstream white American, country, conservative world wouldn’t be interested in having listen to their music. And it’s nice to be a part of something that makes people feel comfortable and makes people feel comfortable expressing themselves.” With ‘Cuntry Covers Vol 1’, Bria and Duncan continue to make country music become a more accepting place by broadening its appeal beyond its more traditional – and often reactionary – roots. “We don’t consider ourselves country musicians,” she adds, calling back to the duo’s DIY punk past. “We don’t write country music so I feel like I’m a visitor here, but I want to participate in a way that I feel is necessary for a genre like this.”
Though Bria bristles at the idea of being called a country singer, she’s loved Loretta Lynn since she was 17. “I just thought her voice was so nasty in a way that I liked,” she says. “All of her songs were so assertive. I was listening to more folky stuff and thought country music from that era was corny – especially the women; it was all very sad and the kind of personality that I didn’t immediately relate to. Then I found Loretta Lynn and thought “oh, you don’t care and that’s nice”. She sang about stuff that, for the time, was jarring.”
Bria and Duncan met in Montreal when they were still in their teens and have been playing music together ever since. When it came to ‘Cuntry Covers Vol 1’, a change of scene offered the pair a fresh approach to go alongside their fresh sound. An hour north of Toronto is The Outside Inn, a farm in Hockley Hills, Ontario where Duncan’s aunt lives and where he and his girlfriend packed themselves off during the worst of the pandemic. “It’s a beautiful place”, he explains. “I set up a makeshift recording studio in the living room and we raised chickens and grew flowers and pot and had a real nice time.” When Bria heard what was happening, she quickly joined them and they got to work on recording the EP. “I started going up all the time and hanging out in their paradise,” she says with a grin. When there, it wasn’t too much trouble to also rope in Duncan’s aunt, who can be heard on backing vocals.
Peeks at this paradise can be found in the videos that go alongside the project, with the cosy ‘Green Rocky Road’ and their woozy take on The Walker Brothers’ ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, which sees Bria brandishing freshly baked cherry pie and stomping about fields in wellies and dungarees. “It’s a snapshot of what our summer last year looked like and it’s a real nice thing to have,” says Duncan. We’d say that it’s not too bad for us either.
Cuntry Covers Vol 1 is out now.