Alexa Dirks is bidding adieu to the critically acclaimed music that made Begonia a household name with a concert of revamped songs.
Concert previewClick to Expand
Begonia / fear : reimagined /
● Friday, June 4, 8 p.m.
● Livestreamed from the West End Cultural Centre
● Presented by Cluster: New Music + Integrated Arts Festival
● Tickets $15 or pay what you can at wecc.ca
Next Friday, the Winnipeg indie-pop singer will be joined onstage at the West End Cultural Centre by a quartet of strings and keys to present a selection of songs from her album Fear as they’ve never been heard before. The show, titled / fear : reimagined /, is presented by Cluster: New Music + Integrated Arts Festival.
Over the last few months, Dirks has been working with local composer Julian Beutel to create chamber arrangements for eight songs from her 2019 Polaris Prize-nominated debut album. The result feels like a fitting sendoff.
"I’m kind of starting to move on from Fear, like from that album cycle, in a lot of ways. I was meant to tour it so much in 2020 and then I just had to let go of that," Dirks says. "And I’m working on a new album, so… this feels like such a beautiful way to move on, to move forward and make new music (while) honouring all the work I put into that."
The project started when Ashley Au, director of Cluster, approached Dirks with the idea of reworking some of her music for the 12th edition of the music festival. Having only performed in public once during the pandemic, she was hesitant.
"My first instinct is to say no to everything because of my anxiety and just because I’m so used to being a little hobbit in my home," Dirks says. "But the opportunity just felt too sweet to pass up."
She picked songs that would fit well with classical instrumentation, such as The Other Side, which is filled with roomy ambience, as well as a few curveballs, like the percussion-heavy track Living at the Ceiling. And then she backed off, giving Beutel free rein to fiddle with her music.
"That’s something that’s not always easy for me… if I’m allowed, I always have an opinion," Dirks says. "Knowing Julian’s skills, I just felt really excited to hear this album be interpreted in a completely different way."
Beutel grew up in Saskatchewan and picked up the trumpet in high school. He graduated from Brandon University with a jazz degree and moved to California to complete a master of fine arts, where he started composing soundtracks for students in the school’s animation program. He chose Winnipeg as a landing spot when his visa expired in 2015 and has ingrained himself in the local music, video game and film industries.
In 2016, a short animation for which Beutel composed the music was nominated for an Oscar.
Working with Begonia is the first time he’s written new music for an artist’s existing body of work.
"It’s like a throwback and crossover of a bunch of skills that I’ve accumulated through the years," he says. "It’s very exciting to get the chance to work with such iconic, respected music with such a big fan base; it’s not something I took lightly."
The process started with a lot of listening, playing along and analyzing the different components of each song. Beutel’s goal was to maintain the integrity of the music while staying true to the theme of "reimagining."
"When you think of Begonia you think of Alexa, obviously, and then the drums and the bass carrying the groove in this really rhythmic, emotionally intense, beat-driven music," he says. "What if it wasn’t that? What if there were no drums and bass and all the meat and potatoes were gone, but you still had Alexa’s voice?"
The usual backup instruments were replaced with piano, violin, viola and cello, played by classical musicians Naomi Woo, Rodica Jeffrey, Greg Hay and Natanielle Felicitas, respectively. Audiences can expect Dirks’ voice to be front-and-centre, surrounded by arrangements both familiar and completely new.
Beutel and Dirks collaborated over Zoom and digital sound files until they landed on a setlist they were both happy with.
“You think you know (these songs) inside and out. Now I get this gift of listening to them again for the first time.” – Alexa Dirks, aka Begonia
"She was super open-minded about what this concert could be and was really down to mess with any element of it," he says.
Dirks cried when she heard the tracks for the first time.
"You think you know (these songs) inside and out," she says. "Now I get this gift of listening to them again for the first time."
Due to the current health restrictions, the musicians haven’t been able to rehearse together. Dirks sees the concert as a bit of a musical blind date and has been working on getting her vocals ready for the big event, "I don’t want to go up there and like… start squeaking, I feel like I’ve been going through puberty again," she says with a laugh.
These days Dirks lives in athleisure and a bare face. Preparing to transform into Begonia again — with a theatrical outfit and full glam makeup — has taken a pep talk, or two.
"It’s a love-hate thing. I love putting a look together, but sometimes just being seen is a bit scary," she says. "I definitely feel a bit self-conscious, but more excited."
Tickets are $15, or pay what you can, and available at wecc.ca.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.