“Just a girl with a guitar”
June 25, 2019
Canadian-born singer and songwriter Stellarize (Dee Corcoran) travels the world making music. She chats to Bethany Reitsma about growing up and growing into her place in the world – which, it turns out, is wherever she wants it to be.
Travelling busker Dee Corcoran remembers the moment she realised just how many places there are to go in the world. It was the first time she got on a plane to British Columbia at 18 years old and looked out of the window at the cut-and-paste states of Canada thousands of feet below.
Several years later, she’s living in Wellington, New Zealand, after travelling across America, Europe, and Australia performing under the artist name Stellarize, and the world seems a lot smaller.
Dee is a soft-spoken Canadian with huge blue eyes. Her loose blonde hair is constantly in her face and it seems like she’s never without a pearly lip balm in her pocket. She wears black Vans with everything, dresses, skirts, jeans.
For a few weeks she’s been living in a tiny room on about the third or fourth floor of the Logan Brown building where Cuba Mall intersects with Vivian St in the middle of bustling Wellington. The smell of cigarette smoke, rain, and coffee grounds eases in through the cracked window as she tries to gum it shut with blu-tack.
“I’m moving to Ireland on Tuesday,” she says casually, clearing bags of salt and vinegar chips off her cluttered desk. She likes the Bluebird brand, just one of the things she loves about New Zealand.
Her laptop and microphone and recording equipment sit haphazardly on the floor among tangled leads. Guitars lean casually against the wall next to a ukulele. Posters from her gigs hang on the walls.
Everything she owns is in this room, making it easy to pack up and go. She’s particularly proud of a vintage, soft-covered chair she bought second-hand.
When asked how earthquake safe this building is she laughs. “Don’t even ask. The amount of times I’ve thought about that when it gets really windy, it wouldn’t take much for this. building to topple over.”
Her voice is mellow and low but when she sings it takes on an country-style quality, honeyed notes matching the subtle thrum of the guitar.
New Zealand is the place that made her come out of her shell. It’s the country that offers a bit of everything – big cities, small towns, coasts, forests, and mountains.
“It was never on my list to come here, but it has been calling me for so long,” she says.
It hasn’t just been a journey across the world, but to her own self-confidence. The diminutive twenty-something artist is unflinchingly open about overcoming her insecurities. Her songs are just as honest, staring you in the face with their truth.
“I was just a girl with a guitar thinking, what the hell am I even doing? It wasn’t like I just woke up and said, ‘I got this’, it’s taken me a long time to get to this point.”
Dee grew up in a small lakeside town in Canada with her four sisters. It was a sheltered life. She and her siblings went to a French school, one of only four schools in the area. Her experiences with bullying led her to spend a lot of time on her own as a child.
“I made a space in my closet with all my toys and hung pictures on the walls. I’d get home from school and go straight in there and start writing. It was my way of finding peace.”
When she was growing up, music was always there in the background, with 70s and 80s easy listening music usually playing on the radio. Her dad liked Pink Floyd. An Irish rock band called the Cranberries was what made her want to write. She went through the obligatory Green Day phase and she still loves Fleetwood Mac as much as she did as a teenager.
“I cut my hair like Stevie Nicks when I was younger,” she says, chuckling. “It was bad. I’m never gonna have a fringe again.”
She describes her family as “a bit broken”, but it shaped her nonetheless. Sometimes her mom didn’t have time to read her songs or poems when she tried to show them to her. Maybe if she’d had that support growing up, her journey would have looked different. But she is as philosophical about this as she is about everything else.
“You can’t hold grudges about that kind of thing. It is hard keeping in touch with my family, for sure. I talked to my mom for the first time in six months the other day,” she says, a smile breaking across her face.
At 17 she had enough money saved to buy a guitar and three months of lessons. Playing became an obsession and she would fall asleep with the guitar in her arms, fingers blistered from practising chords.
“The songs just started coming naturally. It was really depressing stuff when I think about it, but I never stopped writing.”
She braved her fears of sharing her work and sent some songs to a rap group. “It’s funny because I wanted to be a folk singer and they were these gangsta kids,” she says.
“But they loved my songs and I ended up writing hooks for them.”
She started dating the guy who made the beats for the group and he taught her how to record. It wasn’t until a friend told her she should be out there playing, not just making songs in the basement, that she thought about sharing her music further. Moving to Toronto was the first step. Dee started going to open mics and performing and says it all started rolling from there. “Once I started doing those, I felt like I could do anything.”
Since then her life has revolved around travelling and making music. She has now lived in California, Australia, Germany, France, and New Zealand, and it seems that she can’t stay in one place for too long.
She calls it the “Bob Dylan thing”, this idea of being a musician on the move. She quotes the Coen brothers’ 2013 movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” as her inspiration for life. The film portrays a week in fictitious broke folk singer Davis’ life as he struggles to sell a record in 1960s New York.
“He was basically a freeloader, but he was a really talented musician. He made something amazing out of his life.”
It isn’t the most glamourous lifestyle, despite efforts to make a business of performing, she admits. “Sometimes you just need the money. There’s a certain way to go about it if you want to be a street musician. You have to learn how to share a moment with strangers as they walk past.”
The cold days are the hardest – standing for hours gripping a guitar with chilled fingers, waiting for the moment when someone stops to listen. She holds out for the moment when someone tells her she made their day, or she hears just one clap.
She gets a lot of questions about when she’s going to “settle down” but she’s reluctant to put down roots in any one place.
“This guy I was dating wanted a family and a house. I like the idea of that, but that takes away the music part of me. He and his family believed in what I was doing, but they did kind of wonder when I was gonna get a real job.
“But that would mean taking a break from music, and I don’t know when I’ll be ready to do that.”
Wellington music producer Toby Lloyd worked with Dee on her 2018 EP “Stellarize”, and they became close friends in the process. Her talent lies in her ability to clearly capture emotions, he says.
“She could record herself alone in a room with a guitar and it would sound great. My job is just to take it to the next level.
“Pop production is all about movement and excitement. You’re always trying to take the song on a journey. And it doesn’t have to be linear.”
The EP was summery and carefree although the subject matter was quite raw, he says, with a stark contrast between the lyrics and the music. Lloyd’s job was to help her return to that raw emotional space in which she wrote the songs and bring those feelings to her live performances.
“It was difficult. Trying to get to that place ended with her in tears once or twice, but she took it like a champ.”
“Sometimes it involves a bit of alcohol. We’d have a bit of vodka to relax. Alcohol gives you tunnel vision and takes away your ability to multi-task, so you can focus on just one thing, really focus on the song and on channelling those emotions.”
Guitarist Scott Roy has played in two bands for Dee and has known her for years.
“I love her uncluttered approach to music, she never overcomplicates the song.”
“We grew up listening to the same music, which is uncanny cause I’m 20 years older, but sharing those songs helped us bond musically.
“She can be quite forgetful, she’ll say she’s going to go get something then leave the room and forget all about it. She’s good fun, she works hard to make sure everyone enjoys themselves.”
He says he’s excited to see what she learns as she keeps travelling.
Dee is confident she’ll be doing this “forever.” “I’ve gone through certain stages where I leaned towards being comfortable, but part of me dies on the inside when I’m on a path that isn’t mine.”
She says this path will bring her back to Wellington before long, though.
“I have this feeling that Wellington is where I should be. There’s a lot of like-minded people here – artists, musicians, poets.
“It makes the world seem really small.”