Erica Dee Mah’s new album isn’t exactly a new album. Titled The Sargasso Season, it’s made up of songs Mah wrote roughly a decade ago, but shelved after recording some demos.
“It wasn’t until lockdown days I revisited it,” Mah told What’s Up Yukon. “I gave it a listen with fresh ears and thought, ‘I would really like to finish this project.’”
Mah enlisted long-time collaborator Jordy Walker, with whom she had recorded the original demos of what would become The Sargasso Season, obtained some funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Yukon Government and Culture Quest, and set about turning her old ideas into a new record. Though Mah and Walker have worked together on several occasions before, this project was different than anything they’d done before, for many different reasons.
“On this project, I feel like I’m leaning into my classical training a bit more,” Mah said. “A lot of it is just really exploring the possibilities of a traditional instrument as a songwriting instrument.”
The traditional instrument in question here is the guzheng—a Chinese plucked zither, which usually has 21, 25 or 26 strings. The Sargasso Season is Mah’s first record featuring the guzheng as the main songwriting instrument. In exploring the possibilities of the instrument, Mah found herself connecting unexpectedly to her heritage. She equates it to learning a language. Her intention was not to show off with the instrument, but to find a way to build songs around it that explore its potential and demonstrate its possibilities.
“I’m not a virtuoso player,” Mah admitted. “So, it’s not about showcasing really fancy techniques, but more about how we can wrap these songs really artfully and really enhance that imagery that goes with the songs.”
Mah was happy to work with Walker again, given the strong working relationship and creative chemistry the two have built up over the years
“I love Jordy’s approach,” she said. “He’s just very curious about the possibilities of sound and he’s very easy to work with in that way. He brings such a creative ear to the process and I think he and I really feed off each other’s ideas.”
Mah performs guzheng and vocals, while Walker handles Rhodes, percussion, bass and piano. Additional musicians include Mah’s husband, Darcy McCord, on cello and vocals, Alana Martinson on violin and Toby Moisey on alto flute. Mah praised the work of all her collaborators, saying the record, though it was her project, also felt like a team effort.
Part of the reason Mah shelved this project for such a long time was out of worry that it was too different from anything she’d done before. Though she is a multi-instrumentalist and has played in several different styles before, she felt The Sargasso Season was a complete departure from the rest of her catalogue, and those familiar with her past work might not understand it.
“I toyed with coming up with a band name or a pseudonym to separate it from my singer-songwriter work,” she said. “But, if anything, this album is even more me and I didn’t want to separate it from who I am.”
“The songs are rooted in my ancestry,” said Mah. “The music is rooted in the way I hear music. Some people may be surprised, but I think that’s a good thing.”
In some ways, The Sargasso Season is Mah’s most personal work to date. It will be available on all streaming services Feb. 1, with physical copies available at Whitehorse’s Road Dogs Music Supply. To keep up with Erica Dee Mah, visit www.ericamah.com.