Artist Spotlight: Deanna Petcoff

    Toronto-based singer-songwriter Deanna Petcoff was inspired to pick up a guitar and start playing after being drawn to artists like David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Joan Jett. As a teenager, she attended Girls Rock Camp Toronto, where she formed her first band, Pins & Needles, with which she played shows and released music for six years before embarking on her solo career. Her debut album, To Hell With You, I Love You, serves both as a document of the dissolution of a relationship and a showcase for her nuanced, confessional style of songwriting; she dances through a wave of emotions without resting in one space for too long, focusing on sprightly, driving indie rock but leaving room for dreamy, slow-burning cuts like ‘As Much As I Can’ and ‘I Didn’t Lie’. Even when the tone is playful and upbeat, Petcoff uses humour less as a stylistic tool than a means of processing heartbreak, whether she’s being self-deprecating (‘Trash Bag’) or sardonic (‘Devastatingly Mediocre’). And when she can’t help but show her vulnerability, her writing is just as incisive and even more affecting, delivering an honest, dynamic portrait of longing and loss that resonates beyond the present moment.

    We caught up with Deanna Petcoff for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, the inspirations behind her debut album, being alone, and more.

    What are some of your earliest musical memories?

    I’ve always really loved music. My dad is a really big classic rock fan, so in our house growing up there was a lot of Queen and Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello. I have really early memories of air guitaring to like a Queen song or something. My brother and I used to dance around to music all the time. And then I kind of started to branch out when I was older, in my teenage years, finding what I liked – it kind of all stemmed from the same place, I still listened to mostly older music until I was like 17 or 18. But it was all classic rock and jazz and that coloured everything for me.

    What did you gravitate to when you started discovering music on your own?

    I really gravitated to more female artists. I discovered Joan Jett and Patti Smith and Kate Bush, artists that I felt really connected to and I didn’t really find through my family. Not that they didn’t listen to female artists, but classic rock is so overwhelmed with men that I had no idea that I was searching for more female artists until I found them, and it was so emotional and liberating. Connecting with that side of things on my own was really important and helped me form who I am and what I value, but also the things that I wanted to sing and find a good middle ground.

    Is there a specific moment or artist that stands out in your mind as being particularly inspiring?

    For me, it was Joan Jett. When I saw the Runaways performing in videos, I was so empowered and excited I would like jump on my bed and pretend that I was performing and playing guitar. When I saw that was when I was like, “I could do that.” If they could do it – and they were so young, they were 15, 16 in the Runaways. At that point, I was like 13 or 14. They’re my age and they’re doing the thing, so maybe I could as well. So that really set me in motion, and then the next year after that, I went to Girls Rock Camp Toronto, which is a camp run by women and female-identifying non-binary people in the music industry and community in Toronto. They teach you how to play your instruments and then you form bands, but also they have a lot of music history lessons and lessons on self-defence and lots of different things that have to do with just being a woman or being female-identifying. And that gave me more of the tools that I needed to actually be a musician and start a band and do the things I wanted to do.

    Were you drawn to songwriting at the time, or was it mostly about playing music?

    Yeah, I did. I felt like I wanted to say something and I didn’t really know what it was, and I wrote so many songs that were just so flowery and completely nonsensical. My songwriting became more honed in when I became more aware of how I was feeling as a person. I think as I got older and started experiencing more difficult things, I was able to figure out I actually I want to sing about things that matter to me, not just things that sound like they might make sense. And I think that that’s something that just comes with time and age, because when you’re 14, 15 writing songs, like, you’ve ever been in love before. You’ve never really experienced that much pain, hopefully, so what exactly are you going to write about? [laughs] I think as I became an older person, I was able to decide that I wanted to be honest in my songwriting and not just “poetic.”

    Listening to To Hell With You, I Love You, it’s clear that you have an emotional awareness of the situations you’re singing about, and the songwriting itself is a way of processing them. The album traces the breakdown of a romantic relationship, and I was wondering if your feelings changed over time as you were making the record.

    Yeah, they did change. Songwriting for me is so therapeutic, and it really makes me sort through everything that I’m thinking and feeling and in a very specific way. Because with songwriting, I like to be really clear, and I like to know exactly what I’m singing and have an end goal. Any song that I’m writing and working on, I’ll start the process and be like, “Okay, I’m writing a song about this.” And then it starts to morph and I’m like, “Maybe the song actually needs to be about something else.” And that kind of happened with ‘Sing with Me’. Initially, it was just kind of catharsis and trying to be like, “I’m upset with you. I don’t know what you want.” And then I was like, “Actually, this song is about how I want you to enjoy my music, and I want you to listen to me.” And I didn’t realize I was thinking about that until I started thinking about it. There are lots of instances on this record where that happened to me, and I’m grateful because I learned how important certain things were to me. And I also was able to reflect on mistakes that I had made. It was a really eye-opening experience for me.

    A lot of the songs on the record also revolve around learning to be open and vulnerable with another person. Do you feel like songwriting allows you to access parts of yourself that would have stayed hidden otherwise?

    Yeah, absolutely. When you’re rolling through your life and just experiencing thing after thing, it’s hard to take a moment to take stock. For me, songwriting is kind of that moment where I’m like, “This is the situation I want to write about it. It’s emotional for me. What happened? What is happening right now? What am I doing wrong?” And not just asking the question to the universe, but asking the question to myself, taking a moment for self-reflection. I like to say that I’m the villain of most of my songs because I feel like I am, but also because in general, I think accountability is important. I make lots of mistakes, everybody does, and I think being able to admit that and sing about it is very human.

    I feel like that self-exploration is the most important part about songwriting for me, and then also the connection that people can make to that, because maybe it’s something that they needed to hear that they didn’t want to acknowledge. Like with ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Over You’ – that’s such an embarrassing thing to say, because it’s so vulnerable and scary, especially if you’re the one that was broken up with or you’re the one that still wants to be in this relationship and the other person doesn’t. But it’s a feeling that people feel all the time.

    Is that where you think the humour comes in, that sense of embarrassment?

    Yeah, absolutely. I think you have to make fun of yourself, and you also have to make fun of other people. You know, life is funny and relationships are so ridiculous. When you think about all of the intricacies and nuances of situations that you’re in and how much time you spend on everything, it can be really funny and sad – there’s so much juxtaposition in all of those scenarios. And so while I’m absolutely devastated, I’m also like, “Wow, I can’t believe I did that, I can’t believe that you said that to me that one time” – you know, lots of different funny moments inside of the heartbreak. And trying to capture those things is important to me, because I want to capture all sides of falling out of love and all sides of falling in love.

    There’s a sense of playfulness to some of the more upbeat songs, but some of the quieter tracks, like ‘I Don’t Wanna Wake Up’ and ‘As Much As I Can’, tend to sit in that melancholy space. They’re very present in the moment, and you’re not trying to find the humour there.

    For me, ‘I Don’t Wanna Wake Up’ is one particular moment, which is literally that moment where you wake up beside your partner and they’re not awake yet. And you’re looking at them and you’re so happy and they’re so beautiful, and it’s such a warm moment. But often, especially if you know that things are on the decline, it’s very melancholy as well. And you’re happy in that moment because you’re with that person, but you’re also, you know, really sad because you know that it’s not going to last very much longer and you’re holding on to that. So for me, with a song like that, I’m not going to find the humour there. Because in that moment, it’s not funny. To try to find humour in that would just be too much, too confusing emotionally in the song. I like songs as well that are very melancholy and just sit in that feeling for a second.

    When you wrote ‘Sing With Me’, which is essentially about wanting to be seen for your art by someone, did you imagine other people singing back to it? And if so, how does that make you feel?

    I did. I did imagine that. And for me, it’s still a very sad feeling because what I wanted was for that person to know my songs and to sing them with me. The point of the song for me is that I don’t need that from anybody else. Like, “I want that just from you. It means something to me if you sing with me.” And while I was hoping – and do hope still, because hopefully people will hear this song and will want to sing it at the show, and I think that will be a really beautiful and cathartic moment – the song itself is very insular and very specific. I think it can take on a bigger meaning when people sing it back to me, but for right now and the way that it lives kind of in secret right now, the most important thing was that person appreciating and learning the words enough because they cared enough. I think it will morph as songs do, and the meaning of that song will probably change for me. But for now, it does remain in that insular space.

    When you think about the journey of making and releasing this album, what are you most proud of?

    I’m definitely most proud of the honesty that we were able to accomplish in the work. We really took our time, making sure that all of the parts of this record were what we wanted them to, were honest, and fit the vision that I wanted. Going into it, I knew that I wanted to write a record about a breakup, but not just, “I’m sad, I’m lonely, this sucks.” I think that we were able to keep true to the vision that I had set at the beginning, and I’m really happy with all of the feelings that we captured, I’m happy that some of it is funny and upbeat and you could dance to it or you could cry. Or you could do both at the same time, which is often my choice. And at the end of the day, no matter how this record is received or what people think of it, I know that I created exactly what I wanted to create. So releasing it to the world is nerve-racking because it’s my baby, but it’s also something I’m really proud of and something that is the entirety of me and the best that I could do in that moment. And so, regardless, I accomplished my goal. That’s the best feeling ever. [laughs]

    Have you thought about where you might want to take things next?

    Yeah, I have thought about it. Honestly, I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to synthesise the feelings that I had during the pandemic, and not even just about, you know, the fear, but the loneliness – I lost a lot of people during the pandemic, and instead of trying to write about relationships that are romantic, trying to write about my relationship with myself and how I’ve been exploring that in isolation. And then also, relating to people on a larger scale and going through something so intense, I think that there’s a lot there that would be even harder to write about and harder to be honest about because we’re all processing this giant trauma together.

    I actually don’t even know if people would be ready to hear songs about the pandemic. I wrote one song during lockdown that was called ‘Please Don’t Leave Me Behind’, and it was about my old life. And I framed it as a love song, because that’s what I’m good at and what I’m used to, but it was me at me. It was me and my old self pre-pandemic, hoping that all the things in my life that I love and value would still be there at the end. And looking back at it now, I’m like, “Oh, they’re not there.” And so the song, as a reflection, is even sadder. But I think there’s a lot of space to explore there. And not just in the context of pandemic, but in the context of just learning about yourself and learning how to be by yourself. And even if I don’t frame it as a pandemic record, it will still be relevant to that exploration.

    I think some of the best songs on this album speak to that self-exploration, too. I was actually curious if the lyrics about staying inside on ‘That’s What I Get’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Wake Up’ were pandemic-related.

    What’s really funny is that those songs were written the pandemic, but they weren’t about isolating in the way that we were isolating. It was about the way that when a relationship starts to fail and you become desperate, you’re trying to just lock it up in a box and hold onto it for as long as you can. That was a self-imposed isolation that me and that other person put ourselves through. And we had no idea that it was right before the biggest isolation that you could ever imagine. So I kind of enjoyed the idea that it could be perceived as a pandemic isolation, but actually, it was self-imposed. And I wish I had known, but how could I have, you know?

    I didn’t necessarily read it as pandemic isolation, but it’s interesting how the line between those different types of isolation actually became more clear for a lot of couples during lockdown.

    Yeah, absolutely. I think as well, so many couples broke up during the pandemic because they didn’t know how to be with each other and be alone with each other. And in the end, they were like, “Oh, I actually don’t like you very much.” [laughs] Which is very real. I think it’s interesting because this record was and remains a record of breaking up with someone that you’re still in love with and navigating those waters. And I think that that happened a lot during the pandemic, because everyone was put under such strain and so much pressure, and to try to love another person while you’re going through such a huge societal trauma is nearly impossible. And honestly, most of the couples I know that made it out of the pandemic are now gonna get married, because they’re just like, that’s the only thing left to do. Like, “That’s the max, now let’s get married because we’ve done everything else.”

    Can you give me an example of a time or a moment where you enjoyed being alone?

    Yeah. Actually, during the beginning of the pandemic, I was living with my parents. I moved back home, which was a whole other thing. But then I ended up living by myself, which was a really interesting choice because I usually hate being by myself. And before the pandemic, I was very afraid of being by myself. But it kind of taught me to value that time and how to use that time to my advantage. Now, I actually live alone, and I love it. I can enjoy all of those parts of isolation that are self-reflective and that are peaceful. And I choose when to enjoy that because I have my own space to do so, which is very freeing.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Deanna Petcoff’s To Hell With You, I Love You is out now via Royal Moutain Records.

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