Meg Warren was 21 and on the cusp of graduating with a degree in classical music in her home province of Newfoundland when she decided to try her hand at songwriting. Initially, the motivation was external: a newspaper in St. John’s was hosting an event called The RPM Challenge, the goal of which was to write and record and album’s worth of songs in a month. Undaunted, Warren signed up.
“I thought ‘this sounds cool’, so I tried it,” she recalls. Though formally trained as an opera singer, Warren, who now fronts the synth-pop rock band Repartee, had little experience composing and had never written her own lyrics, but she was hooked. “And for whatever reason, I looked at it as a possible career right off the bat.”
As Warren, now 28, recounts the story she laughs, mostly at her own naïveté. “Honest to God, if someone said you have to start a band [now], I don’t know if I would,” she confesses. “Because I know how much work it’s taken to get us where we are. It takes forever!”
But it’s clear she doesn’t really mean it. After all, Repartee have come a long way since releasing their first EP in 2010 to a sold-out crowd at The Ship Pub in St. John’s, the city they still call home. The band has shared stages with the likes of Tegan and Sara, LIGHTS, The Arkells and Dragonette. They’ve won five MusicNL (Newfoundland) Awards, and they’ve been nominated for, and performed at, the East Coast Music Awards. CBC Music has already named their new album, All Lit Up, one of the best of 2016 so far.
“I like creating music for sure, and I adore music and the creative process, but I get a lot of joy out of performing.” – Meg Warren of Repartee
While they’re still proud Newfoundlanders (“100 percent,” says Warren, “We wear that as an absolute badge of honour”), she and drummer Nick Coultas-Clarke recently made the move to Toronto. Guitarist Robbie Brett and keyboardist John Banfield plan to follow in the near future.
Toronto is also home to their label, Sleepless Records, with whom the band signed last year after Warren cold e-mailed them three recent tracks. “It was a shot in the dark,” she says. A couple of months later, however, she was at a show in Toronto and crossed paths with a manager from the label who offered to set up a meeting. “The rest,” she laughs, “is history!”
But it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. At the time, the band had just recorded a second album’s worth of songs they were feeling excited about finishing when they learned that their work would be scrapped. “That was hard at first,” Warren admits. “They said ‘the songs are strong, but it’s not what we’re looking for, production-wise.’”
Trusting their manager, Alex Bonenfant, the foursome returned to the studio and cut a new album. “I think they wanted to rein in our ‘pop-iness’ a little,” Warren says, admitting that she has appreciated having people with industry experience weighing in on the creative process, after years of figuring it out along the way. “It doesn’t feel like we’re all alone in the world now!”
While Warren and Brett, who first met in music school, have always handled the bulk of the songwriting, the last year has also seen them spending more time writing with other people in a studio setting. “That’s not really how we wrote before,” Warren says. “We would get a jam space the old fashioned way, with a guitar and some chords, and write from there.”
Warren, who jots down song ideas into an app on her phone when they come to her, says she’s particularly drawn to making music that conveys dark themes with a light, danceable sound, referencing Lily Allen as an influence. “She writes about dark, heavy shit over beautiful, bouncy pop music,” she says happily. “I want to do that.”
A natural live performer, Warren confesses that while she’s coming around to working in the studio (“there was awhile when it was just a means to an end”), she still feels most at home onstage. “What I love about performing is connecting with an audience and having that communal experience with a bunch of people,” she says with palpable enthusiasm. “I like creating music for sure, and I adore music and the creative process, but I get a lot of joy out of performing.”
That joy extends to choosing what to wear when she’s onstage: Warren is known for her elaborate costumes, all of which are still sewn by her mother. She describes finding a dress at a vintage clothing store, which her mother then whisked home to Newfoundland, transforming it in time for Repartee’s album release in St. John’s. By the time Warren saw it, she says it had “morphed into a stunning mesh sparkly thing”, then describing her mother as a “sewing ninja.” “I’m so lucky,” she sighs.
Warren is just as grateful for the families of her bandmates, who she describes as “the coolest band parents in the world,” and for Repartee’s fans, particularly those in Newfoundland who make it consistently welcoming to go back.
Even with the ups and downs of being a touring musician in Canada, Warren is clearly thrilled with the path she’s chosen. “It’s a dream,” she says warmly. “My life is a dream.”