We normally think of video games as mind-melting time-sucks used by awkward teenage boys as a means of escaping the traumas of the real world. For Vancouver songstress Stefana Fratila, however, a year-long addiction to the virtual-reality computer game The Sims inspired the most important revelation of her musical career. She was 14 at the time and had stopped playing music entirely the year before, after quitting her childhood piano lessons.
“I had one Sim who had all possible creativity points,” she recalls, leaning against the counter at Yaletown’s AGRO coffee shop. “I remember this moment when my Sim was playing the piano, and she was playing ”˜Chopsticks’ way better than I ever had. I suddenly got really angry, and I was like, ”˜What am I doing? I’m in front of a computer and my keyboard is under my bed and it’s untouched.’ ”
Fratila set aside the video game and relearned her instrument, quickly discovering a passion that had been absent from her earlier music lessons. Not satisfied by piano alone, she soon began amassing an array of instruments, beginning with a guitar and moving on to everything from accordion to kalimba (a small African thumb piano).
“As a birthday present, my friend Ellis gave me this green ukulele. He spray-painted a stencil of [Franz Ferdinand singer] Alex Kapranos’s face on the back of it.” She laughs. “That was my first ukulele, and it’s what I’ve written a lot of songs on. It’s very easy to write songs on ukulele. It’s just so simple and mindless.”
Fratila’s impressive range of instruments can be heard on her self-released recordings, which were laid down in her bedroom and display an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to songcraft. Working in styles that range from ramshackle folk to warped electronica, the singer seems more interested in sound collages than traditional songwriting, with strange effects and overdubs emerging and then retreating in the hazy mix. “Vista Voyager” is a ukulele strummer, fleshed out by kazoo, chiming glockenspiel, and clattering hand percussion. “The Breaking Points of a Man” is comparatively sparse, a haunting keyboard ballad that acts primarily as a vehicle for Fratila’s creepy, girlish vocals.
“That’s the most lo-fi track I’ve ever decided to put out,” she admits. “I get a text in the middle of the song.”
In keeping with this bizarre songwriting style, Fratila’s means of releasing her music is unconventional. Each CD she sells is culled from dozens of songs recorded over the past few years. The Georgia Straight’s copy is called Stop Yelling! and is housed in a cardboard Digipak, decorated with spray paint as well as ink drawings of a dog wearing sunglasses and large fists descending from the clouds. Fratila’s name is written on small pieces of wood that are fastened to the cover with white masking tape.
While her recordings are typically solo endeavours, these lavish packages were made with help from friends met while attending an alternative art school at Lord Byng secondary. “All through high school, we were drawing on my CD cases instead of doing schoolwork,” she remembers.
It makes sense that Fratila attended art school, given her left-of-centre approach to everything from lyrics (which are often improvised while recording) to fashion; dressed in a vintage Yogi Bear shirt on this day, the singer has the good looks of a ’50s pinup, her pale skin framed by black hair and offset by striking red lipstick. Nevertheless, her unconventional ways may soon be changing.
“It’s a lot of work for the artists. A lot of work,” she says of the handmade CD cases.
“We’re going to find a cover that we want. I imagine that I will find a name, rather than going through 200 different names. And then that will be the self-released album.”
Her lyrical style, too, is becoming less surreal, favouring meaning over spontaneity. “I’ve found it’s a good idea to think about it more. I’ve ended up using my poetry for lyrics, because I write constantly. The words I write are focused, and they’re more thought-provoking.”
Certainly, there’s no mistaking the meaning of “Hon (So Much Goes)”, an unabashedly romantic ballad on which Fratila admits to her “Silent declarations of my hesitant love for you”.
She hopes to enter a real studio soon and record with a full band, abandoning her home-crafted origins in favour of a more full-bodied sound. Still, no matter where Fratila’s artistic muse takes her, it’s hard to imagine her ever entirely losing the weirdness that marks her home recordings. After all, she still has the same quirky voice and an ever-expanding collection of instruments. What’s more, listeners needn’t worry about her getting distracted by her Sims habit ever again.
“I uninstalled the game,” she reveals. “It felt good to get rid of it.”