Zoon Makes Up for Lost Time With A Sterling Murmuration
Zoon’s Daniel Monkman has always dreamed of collaborating. “Growing up, I was very stuck in my own head and was a control freak,” the Selkirk-born musician tells Northern Transmissions by phone from Toronto where they now reside. Following the release of their debut album, 2020’s Polaris Music Prize shortlisted Bleached Wavves, they bookended this past summer with a pair of EPs, June’s Big Pharma and September’s A Sterling Murmuration. Both explore collaboration, though Monkman didn’t set out to establish an overarching theme. “I would catch these moments of inspiration while writing Big Pharma, and it just worked out. But I think it was definitely subconsciously guided.”
Big Pharma came loaded with big name features including poet, musician, and academic Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, author-rapper Cadence Weapon (who won the Polaris the year Zoon got the nod), and Grammy-nominated composer and producer Michael Peter Olsen. A Sterling Murmuration’s guest list is lower profile, but all its members have been a foundational part of Monkman’s life.
A Sterling Murmuration sprung from a batch of 10 songs Monkman and their high school friends wrote over a decade ago, after migrating to Winnipeg around 2009. “They started calling it the Selkirk Invasion,” Monkman recalls as the small town contingent began sprouting bands in Manitoba’s capital. After working on it for two years, Monkman’s group, the Blisters (later renamed Bloom), were set to release their debut album to much local anticipation. But then Monkman left Winnipeg to go to rehab in Vancouver. The songs sat on a hard drive for 11 years. In the spirit of the Selkirk crew’s tight-knitted collectivism, Monkman kept A Sterling Murmuration homegrown. Every player on the EP—Elizabeth Burt (synth/vocals), Scott Willett (guitar/vocals), Kyle Lowen (drums/vocals), Micah Erenberg (vocals), and Danny Hacking (bass/vocals)—and even its producer, J. Riley Hill of Winnipeg studio No Fun Club, is a high school friend of Monkman’s. “They’re all my closest, closest friends. I think we’re all happy that these songs are finally getting a life.”
Keen observers have noted that Big Pharma and A Sterling Murmuration came out on the first and last day of summer, respectively. But in a more intentional move, Monkman, who is Anishinaabe, released Big Pharma to coincide with National Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21). That said, summer does hold personal significance to Monkman. “Summer is such a special time, especially growing up in the Prairies where you really try to hold onto the summer because it’s very fleeting. And winters are so harsh and cold that you go back into the basements, and you’re preparing for when summer comes again.”
This seasonal retreat is only one facet of A Sterling Murmuration’s primary theme. The EP’s title refers to a flocking pattern birds follow for to evade predators and exchange information about food sources. Lacking such community leaves us exposed to danger; in isolation, we’re more vulnerable to harm. Sometimes. establishing community requires embracing humility, and Monkman has endured their share of humbling circumstances.
“I was experiencing a lot of homelessness around that time,” Monkman says about their early days in Winnipeg. “I was wandering around house to house, friend to friend in the wintertime. If it wasn’t for my songwriting, I don’t think a lot of those people would have wanted me to be around. A lot of those songs were written around that time when I was hoping for a better summer and a better life.
“I definitely wore out my welcome in a lot of places,” Monkman admits. “But now that mental health is something we really talk about as a society, I think a lot of people who knew me back then are very compassionate because they understand how difficult it must have been for me.”
Of the original 10 songs, four have found new life on A Sterling Murmuration. “The way you hear the EP is the exact same way I heard it 11 or 12 years ago,” Monkman says. But they completely reworked a fifth track for their upcoming sophomore LP. “I thought it was so beautiful, and I’ve always played it live. Every time I’ve had a live band, I’m like, ‘We gotta learn this song from 10 years ago.’” Still, Monkman was never satisfied with how it turned out—until they got to add the missing ingredient: an orchestra. “This is exactly what I wanted to make 12 years ago, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the resources.”
Big Pharma found Zoon drifting from their signature take on shoegaze—a blissful symphony of washed out guitars and sounds inherited from traditional First Nations music—to rock, acoustic finger-picking, and even vaporous hip-hop. But in revisiting their past material for A Sterling Murmuration, Monkman realized they’d always had a unique way of interpreting shoegaze and folk music.
“That’s what I was really known for back in the day,” Monkman says, reflecting on the period when the blustery, haunting acoustic psych-folk of songs like “In the Woods” and “Move” were new and considered weird, especially to listeners in a small town or on a reserve where there was little to no internet. In 2022, though, those songs call to mind influential artists of the time like Grouper and one of Monkman’s favourites, Animal Collective. “It’s just a continuation of those genres through a new set of ears,” Monkman says of their matured sound, “because back then, I was very clouded by ego and substances.”
The shelved record is a document of Monkman feeling their way around a genre they’d only recently discovered and fallen in love with. “It was maybe two years before that I heard [My Bloody Valentine‘s] Loveless for the first time. It was a new interpretation of what I thought shoegaze music was. ‘Play Ground’ is just a traditional shoegaze song. I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel.” There’s even a touch of Jesus and Mary Chain on the honeyed and slightly more grounded “Giizhig,” an Objibwe word meaning “sky.” “If you were to see a very majestic cloud, it seems heavenly, you use that word to describe a very beautiful sky,” Monkman explains.
Monkman has spent more than a decade developing their craft and, most importantly, continuing the emotional work that personal growth and recovery entail. With friends old and new by their side, including Adam Sturgeon with whom they form this year’s Polaris shortlisted group OMBIIGIZI, they’re not only surviving but thriving as well. Monkman is reclaiming their past, making up for lost time, and pulling those who supported them into a more prosperous future. Summer comes again.
Watch Zoon’s brand new video for “Giizhig,” directed by musician and visual artist Tearing Up‘s Graham Caldwell, below:
Purchase Big Pharma by Zoon HERE
Looking for something new to listen to?
Sign up to our all-new newsletter for top-notch reviews, news, videos and playlists.