For the Winnipeg powerhouse who's been reborn as Begonia, Fear is something to be embraced

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      As one might rightly deduce from an album title like Fear, Winnipeg’s Begonia was working through some things while she was crafting her solo debut. Expectedly, then, peeling back the layers of the album’s 12 songs provides a window into the mind of an artist who understands the big issues are often as important as the small ones. This starts to become clear when the singer born Alexa Dirks breaks down the album’s slow-burning leadoff track, “The Other Side”.

      “I wanted to be good growing up,” Dirks reveals, on the line from a Saskatoon tour stop. “I wanted to do good, and that brought about a lot of guilt and shame when I would do things that were perceived as bad when I was small. Things like sneaking an extra cookie from the cookie jar when I was a kid. Literally, I can remember doing that and crying myself to sleep. I had real conscience struggles, and ‘The Other Side’ is all about that—coming to terms with what that means as an adult. Like, still wanting to be a ‘good person’, but knowing that it’s not always that black-and-white.”

      Because things aren’t always black-and-white, “The Other Side” isn’t just about the cookie jar, as evidenced by such lyrics as “And with my eyes closed I listen in the night/Thinking it’d be nice just to see the other side.” Venture that might very well be read as one person wondering if there’s a world more appealing than this one, and Dirks makes no attempt to deflect.

      Begonia, "The Other Side"

      “Yes, that song also absolutely came from a place of a bit more desperation,” she acknowledges. “I guess I just used the cookie analogy because it would be a little bit easier for people to access immediately. But I’m also not afraid to go deep in the lyrics, and I think it’s important to explore all of your emotions. That can be the lighter-side-of-life questions and also the deeper side. All are valid.”

      Fear is as revealing as Dirks is open and engaging as an interview subject. Lyrically, she indeed goes deep, with “Cold Fire” suggesting that she’s had the strength to pull out of an unhealthy relationship with lines like “I will never go back to who I was before/Living in darkness, never feeling sure” and “Invited yourself over to my house/I wanted to love you, but I should have kicked you right out.” “Dead Flowers” is even more unflinching: “Reminds me of the time you broke down my front door/Reminding me of how you cannot hurt me anymore.”

      But at the same time there’s hope on Fear with offerings like “In our darkest hour, we never lose our power/So stand in line and put that shit away,” from the triumphant album closer, “Put It Away”.

      The singer isn’t new to the game; before going solo as Begonia she spent years kicking around the Winnipeg music scene, perhaps most notably as a member of the prog-folk unit Chic Gamine. With Fear, she decided to rip up her own playbook and push herself artistically, supported and guided by producers Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg of ’Peg indie heroes Royal Canoe. Two-and-a-half years went into the writing and recording process, leading to Fear being hailed as an under-the-radar masterpiece by tastemakers (NPR, CBC, The Line of Best Fit) around the world.

      Quite rightly, Dirks has been lauded for her singing—“The Other Side” starts out in the Church of Downbeat Soul and then builds to the spine-tinglingly powerful. But just as incredible is how the music on Fear draws on everything from fog-shrouded trip-hop (“The Light”) to synth-buzzed electro-pop (“Hanging on a Line”) to torch-flared neojazz (“Two Beers In”).

      “In my creativity, when something feels ‘right’, that’s where I move from,” she says. “That doesn’t mean it always feels good. I’m not always a superscholastic writer. I don’t have any formal training, and that used to be something that really made me self-conscious. It was really painful for me—stepping out and becoming confident, knowing that I didn’t have the same language as my peers. Now I realize my own strength is my personal language.”

      That journey, as one might deduce from the album’s title, came with a struggle.

      “I’m not the kind of person who is ever 100 percent sure of myself,” Dirks admits. “I can be very confident, and I definitely lean towards the positive. But I’m never walking into a room going, ‘Everybody loves me.’ That’s not how I operate.”

      Her self-doubts can be traced back to everyone having had an opinion on her career long before she became Begonia. It’s not lost on Dirks that she could have chosen a more straightforward path as a mainstream soul-pop singer, out to please rather than challenge.

      “Right from when I started singing, I had people telling me what they think I should do artistically,” she says. “I think people heard my voice and were like, ‘Oh, you’re loud, so you should do this kind of music.’ People would always come up to the merch table telling me that they think that I sound like Adele. I totally understand the reference, and I totally understand that people want to compare you to someone who is really famous. And I did feel pressure for a minute, thinking ‘I should try and write a torch song that’s going to be really radio-friendly.’ But that’s just not as easy for me, or maybe a better word is natural.”

      After taking a quick second to note that her love of Adele is matched only by her respect for the British megastar, Dirks continues. “So because of that comparison, every now and then I would think, ‘What kind of artist do people want me to be?’ But I’ve definitely thrown that route out the window. Once I committed to making the record that I did, and also to putting it out on my own label independently, it really changed the game for me. It was like, ‘I am officially now doing me the most honest way that I can.’ ”

      Enjoy peeling back the layers, because with Begonia there are a lot of them.

      Begonia plays the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts on Friday (January 31) and the sold-out Fox Cabaret on Saturday (February 1).

      Begonia, "Fear"