For Storry, 1 Juno nomination was a fluke. The 2nd was an affirmation
The singer is up for best adult contemporary album this year against her childhood heroes: Céline and Alanis
Watch Storry perform two songs and chat with Saroja Coelho on The Intro, above, and hit play on The Intro stream, filled with songs from artists featured on CBC Music's emerging artist series.
When Storry was nominated for her first Juno Award last year she thought it was a fluke, chalking it up to the reputation of her collaborators, reggae royalty Sly and Robbie on "Another Man." But when she received a second Juno nomination for her debut album, CH III: The Come Up, alongside fellow nominees Céline Dion and Alanis Morissette this year, she realized she had earned her place.
"Having done this process, and produced and wrote and did this whole thing — and not having support and not having the funding and still being nominated next to my childhood idols has been such a huge awakening for me, and really kind of solidified the idea that, 'Yes, you are a great artist.'"
CH III is a coming out of sorts for Storry, an introduction to the journey she's taken and how hard she's worked to get here. It's a story she's kept close to the chest, and one she was nervous to let out into the world. On CH III, Storry is both vulnerable and in charge, her powerhouse voice soaring through jazz, R&B and pop in a way that is fresh, not gimmicky.
"I want [to make] stuff that people are either going to love or they're going to hate," she says. "I want something that's going to smack them in the face if they're sleeping, you know what I mean? That's the kind of art that I want to make. So I think along that kind of ethos, I have done that."
'I wanted to heal people's souls'
The earliest Storry, a.k.a. Dina Koutsouflakis, remembers singing into a microphone was at two years old, though six years later she would ask for a stack of medical books for Christmas because she couldn't decide whether she wanted to be a singer or a doctor. (She did get those wish-list books, and studied them religiously.) But she was just as dedicated to the Canadian legends of the '90s, going so far as learning Dion's biggest French single, "Pour que tu m'aimes encore," mannerisms and all, and making everyone think she spoke French (she did not). Ultimately, music won out.
"I decided to do music because I felt like I wanted to heal people's souls, I guess," Storry says.
She took two years of classical voice training in CEGEP in Montreal, then moved to Toronto to study opera at the University of Toronto.
"But sadly, I didn't get to finish my bachelor's," she says. Asked why, Storry takes a deep breath before responding. "Well I met this guy who I fell in love with and who was a producer, because I was trying to still pursue my pop career. As much as I loved singing opera, I also really love writing music. And I felt like in opera, you sing a lot of other people's work, so I wanted to still pursue that…. This guy ended up pimping me out and putting me in a strip club and taking all my money and abusing me for several years and didn't let me go back to school. Didn't let me read, didn't let me have a computer or social media. So my life basically just kind of took a 180."
When Storry was able to extricate herself from that abusive relationship and industry, she travelled to India and avoided music, focusing on becoming a yoga teacher instead. She was looking for a sign to get back into songwriting, though, and when a friend pushed her to return, she took his advice, moved home and started working with Yotam (Tom) Baum, a professor of music at Bishop's University and one of her best friends from high school.
"And I said, 'Hey, I want to write a concept album about my life. Would you be down?' And he said, 'You're only the best vocalist I've known in my whole career. So, of course.' And I met up with him and I divulged my life story and we wrote a hundred songs."
The Come Up
Eleven of those 100 songs made it to Storry's debut album, CH III: The Come Up.
"It's about a woman trying to leave the sex industry, which she was coerced into, and get into the music industry, only to realize that both are equally misogynistic and problematic," explains Storry. "And throughout it, she grapples with her relationship with her mother, her family, her romantic relationships, [her relationships] with money and with her career."
Recorded in three days with four musicians (including Baum) due to budgetary necessity, CH III (Chapter 3) doesn't follow any previously released first or second chapters, but Storry says those preceding chapters exist within the 100-song sessions. She just felt that the songs that coalesced into CH III, to her, made the most sense as her debut album — and for her budget, in terms of what she could produce herself. Those songs leading up to this self-proclaimed third chapter may find a home on a future album.
Her frustration at sexism in the music industry spilled out in "Bow Down," where Storry, frustrated by being pushed down, sings, "Well if the king is the ruler/ then I'm the king of kings/ bow down to the maker of all things."
"I thought to myself, women are the makers of the world, you know? We are the mothers of the world, how dare people be so disrespectful to women?"
It also reminded her of her time working in the sex industry, and of where she was, both mentally and physically, during that part of her life.
"The physical trauma was the easiest thing to heal," she says. "It was the mental trauma that stayed with me and still, you know, is something that I work through every single day."
Sometimes I get little notes and emails and DMs and those things kind of help me push through and say, OK, what I did was meaningful and it is impacting people."- Storry
The singer intersperses "little interlude-type things" to string the concept album together, including bits of a pep talk her mom gave her when Storry was having some very down days. (She hit record when her mom sat down for a heart-to-heart, later asking for permission to add it to the album.) It makes for powerful glue.
Storry was worried that letting everyone into her life all at once would be too much for a new artist, and that her story would come across as gimmicky. And having released her album the month that the COVID-19 pandemic took hold means it never really got the attention it deserved, despite this Juno nomination, so she still has mixed feelings about it all.
"I wasn't able to tour and I wasn't able to promote the album like normal people do when they release an album," says Storry. "But yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, me and Tom, when we first got together to write this music, we said, even if it only gets 10,000 streams, if it saves one woman's life, then it is worth it. And it's hard to be able to say that because I'm literally living in my room. So I don't know how it's impacting people. But sometimes I get little notes and emails and DMs and those things kind of help me push through and say, OK, what I did was meaningful and it is impacting people."
Having written and produced the album on a shoestring budget with very little time has prepared Storry for her one-woman show. After the pandemic hit last year, she took that drive into a 10-day intensive writing and video-making session that resulted in Interlude-19, a 10-track album that plays as an EP due to its short bursts of song.
"I thought about the pandemic as being like an interlude in our lives," says Storry. "It is this short period of time, it seems long to us, whatever, a year or two years or even five years. But it's really, in time, It's really just a flash in the pan.... So, basically, I wanted to create a compilation of interludes that were about this kind of waiting and purgatory."
Released on Sept. 5, 2020, Interlude-19 has a very pandemic feel, the effects of isolation settling into the lyrics. It also features her mom, the two singing Arabic lullaby "Nami Nami" together, which opens the album. The song "Telling" was produced by Polaris Prize shortlister Junia-T, who also makes a cameo in the video.
That said, Storry is ready to take her project to a new, fully funded level.
"[This Juno Award is] a huge honour and at the same time, it is also a huge disappointment," she says. "And I say that because, I think that as an artist that I should be able to make a full time living off my art if I'm going to be nominated next to these divas, you know, and I believe that I deserve to be there.... I also believe that I deserve to make a living wage off my artistry and I deserve to have a team help me. And I don't want to do it all by myself. And it feels like I have no choice."
It's a bittersweet moment for Storry, but she's just getting started.
Wherever you are in the world, you can tune in to the 2021 Juno Awards on Sunday, June 6. You can watch live on CBC-TV and CBC Gem, listen on CBC Radio One and CBC Music and stream globally at CBCMusic.ca/junos.