by Grady Mitchell | Stefana Fratila is a sonic painter. Like a painting, her experimental electronic music jumps from place to place, switches tempo and mood on a whim, and brings together disparate elements on the same canvas. As jarring as it can be, it’s equally beautiful. Music this richly capricious keeps the listener alert – they have to pay attention or risk getting lost.
Stefana was born in Sibiu, a small city in Romania, and came to Vancouver at age four. Most summers she returned to Romania, and to this day still feels that in many ways she floats between the two cultures. “I’ve struggled with my sense of identity because I have always felt like an outsider in both places,” she says.
Her birthplace has had a profound effect on Stefana’s musical development. Communism’s chokehold meant that musical styles that had already faded in the western world were blossoming in Eastern Europe a decade later. In the early 2000s Romanian artists were putting their own unique spin on nineties pop.
Stefana would buy new tapes when visiting, and seek out traditional Romanian folk music through her grandparents’ collections. As she continued to visit over the years she connected with a growing sense of the local youth embracing and appreciating their own culture. Since then she’s collaborated with Romanian artists, including a live set with musician Diana Miron.
Perhaps because of her interest in traditional folk music, Stefana has often been categorized in that genre – a notion quickly dissipated in the first few seconds of her latest album, Efemera. She’s always made experimental pop, Stefana says, but “because I was playing acoustic instruments people heard it as folk pop. But even on my earliest bedroom recordings, I was using electronics.” Over time the electronic element has overtaken the analog, and she’s relied less on guitars and more on esoteric digital instruments.
Efemera opens with string-like plucking and quickly unspools into a wavering sonic landscape. On the first track, the appropriately titled Intro, she introduces the song’s elements one by one, then brings them together in time for the breathy falsetto vocals to kick in on Pixel Plant/Hound Dawg. From there the album sways between ambient, drifting sounds and heavier, beat-driven tracks. Songs bleed into one another with no distinct borders between them. “I love to play with layers. It’s hard for me to imagine making music which has a sense of complacency or conventionality because to me sound itself is so progressive,” she says.
Her songwriting is largely stream-of-conscious and improvisational, but usually anchored by a strong concept. Songs act as a vehicle for her ideas, a natural extension of her highly political musings on feminism, decolonization, and the complex issues of equality. Her music counterbalances her academics. Right now Stefana is working on her Master’s thesis at UBC, studying the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Canada’s residential school system.
While the Vancouver music community is vibrant and thriving, she says, there are still many areas it needs to improve. In terms of accessibility within that community, a number of questions arise: who’s attending, who’s opening and who’s headlining, is the show early or late, all-ages or adults only?
“The bills in our scene are still not representing the demographics of Vancouver or even the audiences attending our shows. In Vancouver, the people brought together are those who can afford to pay cover to watch (largely) white people playing. A lot of venues are in or close to the DTES and Chinatown but you rarely see people from the neighbourhood coming in. I’m pushing for something more radically inclusive, because I think music and art is supposed to be about the inclusivity of all genders, races, socio-economic backgrounds, sexualities, and bodies.”
It’s easy to think everything is peachy, Stefana says, when you’re on top. It’s the artists on the fringes who struggle. Unfortunately, the burden of breaking the silence around these issues usually falls on the most disenfranchised. “What sometimes happens is that a few people at the very centre feel like it’s going really well,” Stefana says, “and they aren’t noticing that those people around them are not fully engaged or welcomed.”
Not that the city is without progress. “I do think there are a lot of people trying to change that, though,” she continues. “And Vancouver remains home to many inspiring and original artists.”