“Just waiting at the back of the line,” Begonia sings on her new album Powder Blue. “I can’t be the only one.”
Begonia is the stage name of Alexa Dirks, a dynamic Winnipeg singer-songwriter in the business of fancy pop, Feist-meets-Flack balladry and bold expressions of vulnerability. That her intimate confessions are deeply embraced by fans is hard proof that she is not “the only one.”
Powder Blue is her second full-length album, following 2019′s Juno-nominated Fear. She spoke to The Globe and Mail about her sexuality, music industry land mines and the connections she makes with her music.
Your 2019 album Fear got a lot of attention in Canada. Is there a push with Powder Blue in the United States?
We’re putting money into marketing outside Canada. But you can pay publicists and still not get on a cover of a magazine. There’s a bit of lightning in a bottle and a bit of this person knows this person who knows this person. I don’t know the exact formula. I’d probably be way more successful if I did.
You signed with Winnipeg’s Birthday Cake Records after the last album. Why?
My management is intertwined with the label, so I’m comfortable with them. I’ve never really felt compelled to sign a lot of contracts. It has to be a deal that makes sense to me. I know where the head of the label lives. If there’s a problem, he’s two blocks away from me.
Any interest from major labels?
There are always sniffs. A big label will set up an important meeting, only to cancel at the last minute. It’s almost laughable, the ups and downs of the industry. But I try to cap my jadedness. You really can’t take everything personally. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to get out of the bed in the morning. Every day in the music business is a mini-rejection or a mini-win. There are land mines all over the place.
You work with producer Marcus Paquin, who has worked with Arcade Fire and the National. How did that come together?
It was suggested that I meet with him. It almost didn’t happen, because when I looked at what he’d done in the past, I decided I didn’t want to put myself out there. I was feeling too self-conscious to be in a room with him pitching ideas. The night before the meeting, I convinced myself I was feeling sick and that I would need to call it off. It was blind-date energy. As it turned out, we met in Montreal and it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
This record was made during the pandemic. When the lockdowns began, there were a lot of think pieces written about how art would be affected. Did we ever get any answers?
I was angry about those kinds of musings. Everything was halted yet people asked, “What great art will be produced?” My answer at the time was, “Nothing.” I couldn’t get out of bed. I was crying every day. It made me mad that people were putting these expectations on us. I know it came from a place of joy, but at the time I resented the expectations that we should be prolifically creative during one of the most screwed-up times in my lifetime. Later, I was ready to do something.
Why release Right Here as the album’s lead single?
We actually began writing that prepandemic. It’s not heady – it’s a pop song. It felt like a nice re-entry into society.
The first track on the album is Chasing Every Sunrise, a ballad. In today’s streaming world, don’t you want to start with something grabbier to get the listener’s attention?
To each their own. I wanted to do something that satisfied me. I love being thoughtful about the track listing. I mean, the album is 40 minutes long. It doesn’t ask that much of a person to listen to the whole thing.
That attitude seems quaint in 2023.
I don’t know about that. Authenticity and being true to oneself seems to be a trend today in many ways. If you’re trying to chase after what is going to popular rather than what you believe in the most, that’s going to show.
You mention having a therapist in the song Bleeding Heart, and in I’m Not Dying you sing, “I may seem depressed but I’m actually not.” What’s the story?
The line about depression is a dig at myself. There was a point when I had second thoughts about putting it in. But it’s more tongue-in-cheek than anything.
In the song Marigold, you ask “Am I bisexual?” Is that a rhetorical question?
There’s always been a fluidity to me. I’m not a label person, but I’m not straight. I can’t say exactly what I am. That’s always been part of my artistry in general. I’m not telling people who I am, and this is what you should be. I’m not saying I’ve reached the mountain top and now I know. It’s about exploration.
This is the kind of thing your fans are responding to, yes?
For sure. And the more I lean into that vulnerability, the more I feel that raw connection. I get messages from fans saying, “I understand.”
Do they mean that you understand the fans, or that they understand you?
Absolutely a mix of both. And the feedback encourages me to be bolder. It’s naturally who I am, but the messages I receive make me more comfortable putting these things out there.
This interview has been condensed and edited.