Context is everything, so it’s important to consider the underlying motives when Danielle McTaggart reveals one of her big dreams for the future.
Along with Drew McTaggart—her husband and bandmate in Vancouver synth-pop darlings Dear Rouge—Danielle would love something that any creative person can appreciate: widespread recognition.
One might suggest that, on some level, her mission is well on its way to being accomplished. In the past three years Dear Rouge has gone from a labour-of-love DIY bedroom project to a headliner at venues like Vancouver’s mighty Commodore. Tune in to forward-thinking radio stations and chances are you’ll hear singles like “I Heard I Had” and “Best Look Lately”.
There have been awards: favourite new artist at the 2014 CASBYs, most dynamic duo at the 2013 CBC Buckys. And, best of all, there’s the sense that Dear Rouge is just getting started. Coming on the heels of two well-received EPs (Heads Up! Watch Out! and Kids Wanna Know), the band’s debut album, Black to Gold, has already yielded three Top 20 singles since its release this past spring.
Still, reached with Drew in a tour van headed from Toronto to Hamilton, Danielle says Dear Rouge still has no shortage of goals. Asked to name one, the singer fires back: “For me, it would be to win some sort of substantial award of some kind. That would be really cool.”
Her motivation? It’s not so Dear Rouge can buy its own Jay-Z–style personal jet, or set up a state-of-the-art recording facility like Bryan Adams’s Warehouse Studio in Gastown. Instead, speaking volumes about how Danielle and Drew McTaggart have chosen to conduct the business of being in a band, her dream is to have a high-profile platform.
“I really want to give a speech,” Danielle says simply, “to thank all the people who’ve helped us get to this place. You know what I mean?”
Laughing, she adds: “And I’d also like to wear a sweet outfit and walk down a red carpet.”
Drew McTaggart isn’t without dreams of his own. Proving that some people are wired to aim high, he chimes in: “I would say one of them would be to play Coachella.”
If Dear Rouge shoots big with things it’d love to accomplish, that somehow makes sense. Ambition is never a bad thing, and Danielle and Drew McTaggart have had it right from the start.
“We’ve always wanted to set our sights for everywhere,” Danielle offers. “You can just be successful at home, for sure, but it’s a smaller world because of social media and other things. We don’t want to be stuck in one area—we want to go and experience the world and, hopefully, have our music heard around the world.”
Dear Rouge has taken a big step toward achieving its goals with Black to Gold. The McTaggarts built their name on beautifully detailed synth pop, and there’s no shortage of that on the record, from the icy, slow-drift title track to the luscious darkwave of “Kids Wanna Know”. But Black to Gold finds the duo gunning for more than an Rdio playlist spot between Bat for Lashes and Florence + the Machine. “Best Look Lately” mixes hard-crunch guitars with dream-swirled shoegaze textures, while “Nostalgia” hits the sweet spot between buzzing death disco and night-terrors new wave.
Little touches abound, with Tropicália six-string throwing warm splashes of colour onto “Wanna Wanna”, “October Second” fading to black with soft church-service organ, and “Colours” blasted with the kind of fantastically echo-treated drums that made ’80s Phil Collins a megastar.
“Sometimes I get an album these days and it seems like very much the same straight through,” Drew notes. “It’s all singles, and they are hard to listen to all together. We wanted to make an album that you could listen to that would take you on a journey. Obviously, some of our songs are accessible for radio, but we don’t want a whole album to be just those songs.”
The bandmates have no trouble pinpointing when Dear Rouge became a full-time job, as opposed to something to be worked on after the 9-to-5 grind.
Before committing full-time to the group, Drew worked in marketing for a Vancouver printing press, with Danielle doing PR for the Cactus Club restaurant chain. Life changed after they entered the PEAK Performance Project, a showcase sponsored by local radio station 102.7 the PEAK. Dear Rouge walked away with a $102,700 first prize in November 2012.
Suddenly, playing music for a job didn’t seem like dooming themselves to a lifetime of Kraft Dinner and Top Ramen.
“We’re both 31 now, and so I think we were realistic in terms of not succeeding, because a lot of people don’t succeed at music,” Danielle says. “So when we got in that contest—and we actually said this—we went, ‘If we win first place, we have no excuse.’ ”
Drew adds: “The PEAK was definitely why we were able to quit our jobs. I remember that, at the beginning of 2012, Danielle was setting goals for the year, and we were setting goals together as a couple. Danielle was like, ‘I’m going to take one day off from work each week and focus on music. We’re going to work hard at this now that we’re starting our life together.’ She said, ‘By the end of the year, we’ll both quit our jobs and be doing music full-time.’ I was like, ‘That’s a little bit ridiculous,’ but she said, ‘Goals are good, even if you don’t achieve them.’ ”
Both had experience making music before Dear Rouge. Born and raised in Langley as the youngest of three kids, Drew is the son of a music-teacher father and a piano-teacher mom. “My dad had bands growing up,” he recalls. “He was a trumpet player in a band called Special Edition. He was into Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears.”
Despite getting a jazz scholarship for Capilano College, Drew chose a different path with his schooling.
“My parents were really good,” he remembers. “My dad, being a music teacher, was like, ‘What do you want to do with your music?’ I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a teacher, and I don’t want to be a jazz musician. If I were to be in the music industry, it would be being in a band.’ So I went to study business rather than music.”
Growing up, Drew played in a series of groups, eventually fronting a guitar-oriented unit called Maclean.
“My parents were realistic,” he says. “They knew it was really hard to make a living at music, but they also knew that music wasn’t something you can just stop doing. You’ll do it no matter what. So they also said, ‘Keep it as a strong hobby, and if you ever have the chance to really do it, you’ll know.’ That was really good advice for a young kid. I wasn’t getting all hung up on my dreams getting crushed. My expectation was to not be doing music full-time, but instead to be doing it because I loved it.”
Danielle, meanwhile, had almost soured on the industry before Dear Rouge. The Red Deer–raised singer was born to a dad who toiled in the oil fields and a mom who worked for a CD–distribution company. The Carpenters received massive play around the house, and church on Sunday was a big part of family life.
“My dad, oddly, really liked The Phantom of the Opera a lot,” Danielle says with a big laugh. “He also liked Johnny Cash and, as I grew up, Pink Floyd, even though my parents never told me that.”
After playing in high-school bands, Danielle bounced from project to project, sometimes pushed in directions that didn’t feel right. After hooking up with Drew, she was ready to start from the ground up.
“I wouldn’t even say that I was jaded—I was just worn out by the whole process,” she remembers. “In any industry you’ll find bad and good people, but I felt like I’d experienced a really bad side of the industry. Starting Dear Rouge with none of that, and having it be fun, really made me enjoy music again.”
It doesn’t hurt that, rather than desperately chasing a dream, the couple has seen things unfold on an organic level.
“In both our cases, in our early 20s we were pushing and pushing and pushing to be in the Canadian music industry,” Drew says. “When we started Dear Rouge, we felt pulled into it. And it just happened at a sort of natural pace.”
With Dear Rouge now becoming a thing, the best part is that it all continues to be fun. In conversation, both musicians come across as genuinely happy, and not just with the band. That’s funny, considering it wasn’t totally thunderbolts and electrical sparks at first sight.
“We didn’t really like each other that much,” Danielle says bluntly, with a laugh.
Drew elaborates: “I think we were both really competitive. We had strong centres and networks of friends, Danielle in Red Deer and me in Langley. When we met each other we were a little bit tough on each other. But also we had this great connection where we were always drawn back to each other.”
With that connection a big part of Dear Rouge, the two are on the same page as far as making things happen—among them joining Kanye West, AC/DC, and Paul McCartney as folks who’ve landed a spot at a certain festival with a really big stage.
“Coachella is a festival that we’ve gone to a lot and would love to be a part of,” Drew says. “You can’t just sneak onto the bill—you really have to have something going on.”
Like, for example, taking the songs of Black to Gold around the world, winning a major award, and then using the post-red-carpet-walk acceptance speech to thank everyone who has ever helped. Dare to dream.
Dear Rouge plays the Commodore Ballroom next Friday (November 20), as part of the Straight Series.