Lyricist, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Maria Dunn is the Edmontonian folk music creator of the acclaimed albums From Where I Stand, For a Song, We Were Good People, The Peddler, and the brilliant Piece by Piece. Those records have won her nominations for the Prairie Music Awards, Canadian Folk Music Award, and the Juno Award, Canada’s equivalent to the Grammys.
Dunn has become famous for her creation of “social art” and historically-themed music. We Were Good People examines the lives of Canadian working folk, including the history of the African-Americans who settled in Alberta and the other prairie provinces more than a hundred years ago to create the first African-Canadian towns in the West.
But of all her socially-engaged work, the most praised has been Piece by Piece. Lyrically, it’s the life stories and labour victories of immigrant women from early 20th Century Ukraine and Italy and mid-20th Century Vietnam, India, and Pakistan, and many other places and times, and how those lives the coalesce inside the GWG jeans factory in Edmonton. Musically, the factory floor of Piece by Piece is North American folk running machines assembled from Celtic strings, Indian sitar, and Ukrainian dance. The album embodies Mark Twain’s sage advice: for art to be timeless, it must never overtly teach or overtly preach, but it must covertly teach and covertly preach. The beautiful voice and music, and the tender and powerful stories of Piece by Piece make it one of the finest achievements in Canadian and indeed North American contemporary art.
Maria Dunn spoke with me in October 2014 onstage at Authorpalooza #1, part of a series of live talk-show writer events I created and hosted while I was the Writer in Residence at the University of Alberta’s Department of English and Film Studies.
She explored many topics, including:
How her artist residency with the Edmonton District Labour Council led her to create Piece by Piece as a live performance including with video accompaniment
The interviews with the women who had made the GWG plant profitable before the bosses shut it down, and how their lives created the stories of the album
The international musical influences in her own life and from the lives of the GWG workers that shaped Piece By Piece musically, including for Dunn the work of the Indo-British experimentalist Sheila Chandra
Her lyrical craft—how she sifted through a biographical garage packed with many lifetimes of keepsakes and treasures, to produce a single mailbox of unforgettable and timeless letters to convey those lives… and the advice she gives to young songwriters who need to move past endless songs of love, love loss, and lust
I began by asking her how she got involved with the project that eventually became her live performance and the album called Piece by Piece. Throughout the show, you’ll hear excerpts from several of its songs.