There the duo Dala was, sitting backstage at the Newport Folk Festival last summer, taking in the ambiance and being nervous, excited and a bit out of sorts at the same time. Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walther, the only Canadian act to perform at the festival’s 50th anniversary celebration, Dala couldn’t believe where they were or what was happening.
“Newport was the highlight of my musical career, probably of my life to date,” says Sheila Carabine, the dark-haired one, in a phone interview from her suburban Toronto home. “It was surreal. They had all these folk icons set to play that day. Pete Seeger walks by with his banjo, and Joan Baez is hanging out with Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie is cracking jokes sidestage, and there Amanda and I are in the midst of all this with our jaws dropped.” Bob Dylan was also at the festival.
Dala, whose name is a combination of the last syllables of Amanda and Sheila, were scheduled to perform at 11 a.m. Sunday morning at the festival, early in the day, a slot relegated to the more unknown, obscure performers. But the duo were in for a couple of big surprises, huge, in fact. First of all, they had a full house, surprising for that hour. Then, they were asked to perform a “tweener” on a mainstage, singing after Neko Case and before Arlo Guthrie in front of 10,000 people. The duo performed one of their best-loved songs, “Levi Blues.” “It was so hyper-real,” says Carabine. “To say it was a highlight would be an understatement. Whenever I need to cheer myself up, I look at pictures from that day.”
By the end of the festival they had sold the third most CDs of any act there and were booked into the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Scott Cullen, organizer of Concerts at the Crossing, booked the duo sight unseen for the opening show of 2010. Dala will perform on Saturday, January 16, at the series venue at the Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville.
Cullen says Dala is turning out to be one of the fastest selling shows in the series history. As of press time, Cullen says just 57 tickets are left in the 250-seat venue. The concerts pricing structure reflects Dala’s popularity across generations. Tickets are $20; $10 for ages 15 to 21; and $5 for ages 14 and under. “We’ve been doing this series for 14 years, and I haven’t seen a response like this since December, 2000, when Erin Mckeown opened for Grey Eye Glances and WXPN had just started playing her CD like crazy,” says Cullen. “What’s amazing about Dala is that they’re selling tickets without much, if any, radio support in this market.” He attributes the brisk tickets sales so far to word of mouth from people who have seen Dala before. “One of my regulars was at Newport, and he’s been especially helpful in sending out mass E-mails to his friends about this concert. I also think that anyone who sees their video on our website, Dala’s website, or YouTube and hears their music can’t help but be impressed. In a lot of ways, I think they’re selling themselves. Their harmonies just give you goose bumps.”
The duo is headlining the concert series’ first annual New Music Showcase. Also performing will be 18-year-old Brittany Ann, who has already appeared at such prestigious venues and festivals as the Bitter End, Bethlehem Musikfest, and World Cafe Live and who WXPN’s Gene Shay says “is the future of folk music”; 19-year-old Natalie Acciani of Cherry Hill, who has been a featured performer at the Barrington Coffeehouse; and Briana Berry, who Cullen says was “one of our finds at this past fall’s Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference. Based on what we saw at NERFA, this young woman sure knows how to interpret a song like a Bonnie Raitt or a Linda Ronstadt.”
In a press statement, Cullen describes Dala this way: “Think the Everly Brothers meet the Indigo Girls, with an indie folk-pop sensibility.” The duo, whose latest album is called “Everyone Is Someone,” is in the midst of some nice buzz right now. Their appearance at the Newport Folk Festival last August garnered them lots of press, including a photo in Life magazine and coverage on National Public Radio. Just a couple of weeks ago the band’s song “Horses” was named one of NPR’s Top 10 folk songs for 2009. “That was a huge honor, and we were amongst some incredible artists,” Carabine says. The beautiful, haunting “Horses,” which has a very popular video on YouTube, is based on a true story of a young man, unable to move or even speak, and the emotions he feels as he looks out his window. “We met a young man, Ken Morrow, who was in an accident, and he can no longer speak,” she says. “He was silent but definitely communicating, and he definitely had a big personality. Both of us were very moved by that meeting, very inspired and humbled. And usually, when we are overwhelmed by something, we write a song about it. ‘Horses’ is about everyone who has to overcome obstacles in their lives.”
The two, who play guitar, piano, keyboards, and mandolin between them, sing artistic songs that go way beyond folk and way beyond pop. There is a seriousness, a substance, and an ambient, airy beauty to their work. Their harmonies are sophisticated — and not just because their voices fit together very well.
“It’s definitely been a slow adjustment,” says Carabine. “Only in the last year have I really considered myself a real musician, because it’s just something I like to do. It’s exciting to get E-mails and reviews in papers, or on blogs or podcasts. It’s exciting when people begin picking up on what you’re doing. When the music that you do on a personal level resonates with someone else, it’s a magical thing.”
“Everyone Is Someone” also received a very positive review in the Irish Post, a prominent Dublin publication, which made the two musicians happy because both are of Irish descent. “We haven’t actually played Ireland; that’s next on our radar,” says Carabine. “That they picked up our album and reviewed it was amazing. We really want to go there because we both have relatives all over Ireland and the UK, so we can stay with them and save money on hotels.”
Walther, 26, and Carabine, 24, both live in Scarborough, Ontario. They met at band practice as high school students — one in 9th grade, the other in 11th — at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School. “We were friends for a few years before we started writing music together, so we built up this friendship and this trust. Music was really a natural extension of our communication,” Carabine says.
Carabine was born in Scarborough, the daughter of an engineer and stay-at-home mom who later became an insurance executive, and both parents were originally from Ireland. She has two older brothers, both of whom are also musical.
Walther was born in North York, an expansive borough nearby. Growing up, both listened to folk musicians such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell, as well as the Beatles and Cat Stevens. “We know what we like, and we have the same tastes,” she says. The Canadian-born Mitchell, for instance, “is just a brilliant writer. (Her lyrics) just leap off the page, and out of the speakers, and I think that every artist who hears her can acknowledge that.”
Carabine has lots of praise for Walther, her musical collaborator. “Amanda is just so naturally musical. Her mom said that when she was a baby, even before she could speak, she was singing. She would be out there singing. I think that’s where she is at her happiest, when she is singing. And she is a harmony machine. She can sing harmony to any note, and it’s always the perfect harmony, the sweet spot.”
Dala feels pride in their country and their city. “It’s a great city, Toronto. There’s a lot going on but it’s still quite manageable, pretty clean. It is a bit cold up here but we’re Canadians, and we can’t complain,” Carabine says. Canada, indeed, figures a lot into Dala’s music. One of their more well-known tunes, for one example, is “Hockey Sweater.” You’re not going to see a lot of people from, say, Los Angeles, writing or singing about something like that. “Every song is different, and for me songwriting comes from this place, a need to express something. It’s my most powerful means of expression,” says Carabine.
The two women officially came together as a writing duo/singing group in 2002 and started performing at coffeehouses and other small venues. The next year, the duo met their manager, Toronto’s Mike Roth, and they have recorded three CDs since.
At the time they met Roth, both women were college students. “We were both pursuing music because we loved it, not as a career option. But Mike heard our music and and really encouraged us to pursue it full time. So we left our respective universities and just dove in headfirst. We haven’t looked back. We’ve been doing this full-time since 2005. The idea of being able to do this for a living was too good to pass up.”
Dala, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville. Saturday, January 16, 8 p.m. Canadian duo of singer-songwriters Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walther headline. Also, New Music Showcase with three performers under the age of 21. $20; $10 for ages 15 to 21; $5 for ages 14 and under 609-510-6278 or www.concertsatthecrossing.com.