Victoria Canal: Q&A

Victoria Canal (photo by Max Wanger, PR)
by Kara Manning | 05/21/2024 | 2:01pm

Victoria Canal (photo by Max Wanger, PR)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and WFUV has asked Julia Bailen of Bailen and Victoria Canal to share their stories of perseverance over personal struggles. If you or someone you love is struggling, you can reach out to SAMHSA's hotline, NYC Well, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), or the Sound Mind organization, focused on ending the stigma that surrounds mental health through the power of music. You can also read 2023's interviews with Ruston Kelly, Bully's Alicia Bognanno, and Pom Pom Girls' Mia Berrin.

With a prestigious songwriting win at The Ivors this week for her majestic composition, "Black Swan," a first-time North American headlining tour in March, and a debut album underway, Victoria Canal has already had a life-changing year.

Her songs, including those found on 2022's Elegy and 2023's Well Well EPs, deal frankly and eloquently with grief, depression, body image, and the unconditional love of a best friend. She has an ardent fanbase that includes Coldplay's Chris Martin, who has served as a songwriting mentor for the London-based, Spanish-American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist — and who was key in her signing to Parlophone. Last year, she won The Ivors' Rising Star Award — and on May 23, she took home their "Best Song Musically and Lyrically" award with her collaborators Eg White and Jonny Lattimer.

At two gigs I saw earlier this year on Canal's tour — solo at an official SXSW showcase in Austin, Texas, and with her bandmates at New York's Mercury Lounge a week later — Canal's onstage demeanor spanned vulnerability, cheeky pluck, poignant lyricism and deft musicianship (she plays guitar and keyboards/piano equally).

Warmly effusive and funny in her between-song patter (with some acerbic jabs at an ex-boyfriend), she is also capable of bringing her audience to tears as she lands on painful truths in compositions like "Swan Song," "Shape," or "Braver."  Her ability to tap into a well of real, raw emotion resonates in this tech-fixated world, not unlike Gen Z contemporaries such as Laufey, boygenius, and beabadoobee. She also identifies as queer, which adds an additional layer of self-discovery to her love songs.

The dedication and affection of Canal aficionados — some of whom came dressed as goth swans to Canal's Mercury Lounge gig, mimicking her own black feathered frock — was a clear signal that something notable is happening with this young artist with much to say. Her most recent single, the charming "Chamomile," which speaks to the unconditional love in friendship, is inspired by her real-life BFF, Lucy Clearwater, who is not only in Canal's band, but also opened on that spring North American tour. In turn, Canal has opened for Hozier and Emily King in the past.

Canal, who was born with amniotic band syndrome and without a right forearm, has also been outspoken about disability and depression, and how finding a path incorporating those challenges has informed — and redirected — her life as artist. For FUV's May is Mental Health Awareness Month Q&As, she chatted with FUV about that unpredictable and sometimes roller-coaster journey:

Congratulations on your Ivor Novello 2024 nomination for "Best Song Musically and Lyrically" for "Black Swan," just a year after winning the "Rising Star" award at The Ivors. What does that nomination mean to you, as you grow in confidence as a musician, songwriter, and performer?

It really feels like things are falling into place, after 10 years of relentlessly pursuing music! It’s super gratifying to see the fruits of my and my team’s labor, we’ve definitely been hustling for a long time. But it feels like just the beginning!

The lyrics of "Black Swan," like many of your songs, key into a struggle for identity. "Dissatisfied with the nature of me," you've written. As an artist who has been candid about their struggles with anxiety and depression, do these songs evolve when you're in the throes of those low feelings ... or after, when you can look at them more dispassionately?

"Black Swan" was one of those songs I didn’t really fully understand the meaning of until I started singing it live. I thought I was playing a character while writing the song with Eg White and Jonny Lattimer, embodying the loneliness of perfectionism and imagining the complexities of Nina Sayers (in "Black Swan" the film) and lo and behold… it‘s me. At least it’s me when I’m in that dark place. It’s really cathartic to give space to that desperate, hopeless feeling.

You've also dwelled in what it means to grieve, to experience profound loss. Songs such as "Braver," for your mother, and "Swan Song" have come to mean a great deal to your fans. As a Gen Z musician, that kind of acute grief is still far away for many people of your age. Why do you think that grief is still an enormously difficult topic to discuss?

The idea of saying goodbye to anyone you love is the most terrifying thing in the world. I dread watching my parents get older ... ever since I was five years old, I’d cry and cry any time I left my grandparents or parents to be on my own. I guess I’ve just been acutely aware of death and its inevitability my entire life, for some reason. The passage of time can be beautiful, but so, so tragic, and I think people just don’t want to think about it. I don’t necessarily want to think about it either, but I do, and I guess that’s why I write songs, to put inevitable feelings somewhere.

As you've written beautifully via your single, "Chamomile," for your dear friend and bandmate Lucy Clearwater, friends really do buoy us during tough times. What would you advise anyone who is facing a mental health struggle in talking about it with a close friend? And if you have a friend who is obviously in pain, what is the best way to help them, in your experience?

Depression is really hard because it tells you you are the most alone person in the world. It takes someone patient and determined to sit with you through that, especially when you feel like your mere existence is a burden on everyone. I’d say just do your very best to let yourself feel what you feel without being angry at yourself for feeling it. You know? Buddhists call it “the double arrow.” Feeling bad about feeling bad. Trying to make it just feeling bad is all we can really ask for. And as far as being there for someone else, I think it’s just a matter of doing your best to support them through it, without necessarily trying to change or fix anything; just letting them know you’re with them no matter what.

What brings you joy?

I love being around warm, cuddly, silly people who can also be profound and in awe. Big bonus if we’re all playing music together and are outside somewhere gorgeous.

What would be a perfect day for you?

Perfect day: a nature swim, games and music, a long meditative walk, a delicious fresh meal (with a sweet treat of course!) and finish the day out with a joint and a campfire. Maybe a movie or episode of "Big Mouth" to top it off.

How are you feeling today? When you feel that encroachment of sadness, those darker thoughts, how do you take care of yourself?

Today I actually feel really good! I’m reading a book called The Wealth Money Can’t Buy while looking at the ocean, on a little holiday. I used to hate spending time by myself and would avoid it at all costs. But I’ve been doing therapy, and life coaching, and going on little adventures alone, so I’m learning a lot about giving myself the life source I need rather than having to seek it elsewhere. Really enjoying this day to myself!

When I’m sad or in a darker place, I try to do what I can to self-soothe: call Lucy my best friend, shower, order some nutritious takeout, watch funny videos, nap, listen to Adrianne Lenker or "Armchair Expert." I try to get off my phone because it’s such a joy killer. I’m trying to let myself have those rest days without feeling guilty for not working. I’m growing to really, really love a rest day.

You share your bad days on social media — and you've created a unique bond with your fans. Why do you think you've struck such a profound chord with so many?

I’m honest, and want to connect with others, so I think people respond to that because they want to feel connected too. That’s really special to me and makes me feel understood.

You're a pianist and a guitarist with a limb difference. While you have tackled that disability bluntly in songs like "Shape," do you believe that your disability ever got in the way of what you wanted to achieve as an artist, or has it actually augmented your determination and drive?

That’s an interesting question; I don’t think there’s a way of knowing, because I’ve never known any other way. All I know is I’m doing my best with what I’ve got, across the board. I do know I’ve let my limb difference get in the way of my confidence, and certainly my body image, but I have felt so much growth there since starting to be open about it and write music about it.

Are there any mental health organizations, or other charities, that mean a great deal to you and why?

Backline is an important one to me, because they help people in the touring business have access to mental health resources. MusiCares provides so much to people in music.

There are exciting times ahead for you — with a debut album on the horizon which you've been working on. What has that process been like? What do you feel you've discovered about yourself as a songwriter over the past year that is reflected on your more recent songs?

It’s been an arduous and lengthy process, but it’s paying off! You know what they say, it takes your whole life to make your debut album. I’m definitely exploring sexual expression in a way I’ve never done before — escapism, comparison, existentialism… lots of existentialism. I’m so so excited for the fans and new folks to hear it.

- Victoria Canal
May 2024

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