In Spite of Herself, Dorothea Paas Is Breaking Through

The publicity-averse Toronto songwriter has already won over U.S. Girls, Jennifer Castle, Badge Époque Ensemble and more
In Spite of Herself, Dorothea Paas Is Breaking Through
Photo: Miriam Paas
"I've been hesitant to promote myself or push myself on anyone that doesn't want me," admits Dorothea Paas. "I want my audience to want to hear me, and I don't want to force anyone to hear me. But that doesn't really work if you're trying to get an audience."

As marketing strategies go, it's not a very good one — and it goes a long way to explain why Toronto singer-songwriter Dorothea Paas has taken nearly a decade to release a proper debut album. In that time, she's played lots of shows, had a supporting role in an indie film (2019's Anne at 13,000 ft), and released several tapes and Bandcamp EPs.

But despite her resistance to self-promotion, Paas has gradually found her audience. Her birdsong vocals — which draw on both her background in an opera choir and her love of Joni Mitchell — have made her an in-demand backup singer, leading to gigs with U.S. GirlsJennifer Castle and Badge Époque Ensemble. Adding to her cast of notable allies, P.S. I Love You shredder Paul Saulnier plays bass in her band.

She refers to her stint singing with Jennifer Castle as a "literal dream come true, because I've been a stan of hers for like 10 years," and notes that U.S. Girls leader Meg Remy is the first person she calls for "really great insight about industry stuff."

Speaking with Exclaim! over Zoom from her Toronto bedroom, Paas reflects, "I've taken so much insight from them. Also, honing my skill of arranging has been really helpful over the course of these projects."

Her Toronto music industry connections led to more opportunities; she even got a deal on discounted studio time thanks to Max Turnbull (a.k.a. Slim Twig of U.S. Girls and Badge Époque), who mixed the adventurous folk rock songs that make up her long-awaited debut album, Anything Can't Happen.

The final piece fell into place when she caught the ear of Toronto label Telephone Explosion Records — not that she was trying to get noticed, of course.

"I haven't been someone who's sent my record out to labels ever, or tried to approach labels or anything like that," she says. "I was just kind of hoping that, if somebody wanted me, they would reach out to me. And over time, with Telephone Explosion, I think that just organically happened. I kind of had positioned them in my mind as the one label I would want to be on in the city." She cites New Fries, Pantayo, Scott Hardware and her "bestie" Jane Inc as a few of her favourite labelmates.

It's no wonder that Paas has won over so many of her peers, since Anything Can't Happen is a beautiful showcase for her gorgeous folk melancholia and abstract art-rock experimentation. Title track "Anything Can't Happen" crescendos with a low-end-heavy groove and Laurel Canyon harmonies à la Neil Young, "Perfect Love" is a pastoral acoustic lament blessed with angelic coos, and "Running Under My Life" closes the album with a haze of daydream synths. The arrangements are minimal but complex, with structures that turn on a dime — as on "Closer to Mine," which briefly flirts with a surging rock beat before taking a left turn into abstract, echoing balladry.

Paas says that the album was inspired by her childhood growing up in the church, even if religious music sometimes made her uncomfortable at the time.

"When I was a teen, I felt like music was manipulative in some ways. I would be at these Christian things and then, all of a sudden, the music would swell, the chords would change, and I would be crying. I would be like, 'I believe,' and then I would step back and be like, 'Wait, what just happened? This music just made me do something and I don't know why.'"

Although she eventually rejected Christianity, largely due to the homophobia of many denominations ("I definitely pushed back super hard for a while and pushed my whole family super left," she says), she now views faith and spirituality in a "softer" way. She's learned to harness the persuasive power of music that used to make her so uneasy.

"When I write a song, because I'm self-taught and I don't know the theory of what I'm playing, I think it's very instinctual. It's very emotion-led," she says. "I definitely know when I'm doing a bit of that manipulation. And I like it when it's for the right reasons."

These days, she even finds herself falling back on her old habit of prayer, albeit in a fairly secular way. "Before this interview, I felt a little nervous," she acknowledges. "My instinct is still to sort of pray, even if I'm not exactly praying to God. It's something that's ingrained in me."

In fact, prayer sometimes helps her get over that old hurdle of self-promotion.

"Being a performer, sometimes it feels confusing to understand why I'm being given any kind of platform or why people will want to listen to me. There's part of me that wants to surrender to something and be like, 'Well, if this is what's happening, I want it to be good,'" she says. "It feels like spiritual to me, even though I don't exactly know who I'm asking or who I'm praying to. It's just more like a hope that there's something significant in the work or some kind of emotional connection."