In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s New York City memoir, there’s a very specific quote that I return to regularly: “I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth”. It resurfaced again when Deanna Petcoff’s debut album, To Hell With You, I Love You, landed in my inbox. It’s full of contradictions — both musical and lyrical. One minute, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter is calling herself a pathetic trash bag and explaining that she’s sorry, but she can’t get out of bed, backed up by punchy, frenetic guitar. Next, all the toxic things her partner has said and done are rolling off her tongue as if they’re her own words and actions, over a sweet, waltzing melody.
Chaotic, epic, bold, and beautifully written, it’s an album that manages to encapsulate a twenty-something life in ten songs. About everything all at once, Petcoff falls in love, loses herself, breaks up, picks herself back up and finds herself again in about the space of time it might take you to watch an episode of your favourite sitcom. It’s glaringly honest, occasionally heart-wrenching, and consistently surprising.
In conversation with 1883 Magazine, Deanna Petcoff talks about discovering her own voice, writing an album that would reflect her own journey and stand the test of time, and why the underlying message of the record revolves around love in its many forms.
I have many questions. First of all, I want to say that I really love this record. It has a very distinct tone, and I’m curious about your early musical influence.
Thank you! I definitely learned a lot of my musical taste from my Dad. He loves Queen and The Rolling Stones.
I’m the same way. What about the kind of music that wasn’t formed by listening to what your parents listened to?
I stuck on the classic rock train for a really long time. I ended up doing my own discovery though, so I found Joan Jett on my own. That was a huge awakening for me. She was so powerful and cool, and so in control of everything that was happening. Her lyrics were empowering. Through her I found Bowie, who is my number one favourite artist, and the 70s punk era. The Stooges, Lou Reed. My parents weren’t thrilled about that, because it was very loud. They hated The Stooges. When I was in that phase, I had the Raw Power record, and it would skip all the time, but I would play it while I was getting ready for school. They were like, ‘this should not be a problem that we have’. [Laughs].
I didn’t get the punk thing until a lot later in life. When I was a kid I was just like, ‘I wanna listen to the Spice Girls please’. I discovered Patti Smith when I was a young teenager and that was my window into punk.
I literally have a tattoo for Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Me too! For Patti.
I got their room number from the Chelsea Hotel.
I have ‘Dancing Barefoot’ written on my foot with her little lightning bolt tattoo. When did you discover her?
I went to Girls Rock Camp Toronto when I was 14. It’s this really cool camp that teaches girls and non-binary artists how to play music in a band. Everyone had to do a slideshow about their favourite female artist, and one of my mentors did a presentation on Patti Smith. It was all about her influence on punk, her poetry and her art. And how incredible, inspiring and in control of her body she is on stage. As soon as I heard all of that, that was it. I did a deep dive into all of her music. I’m not sure when Just Kids came out, but when it did, I read it like three times in a row. I have a couple different copies, but I brought my original copy with me on tour to keep for inspiration. Just in case I lose sight of why I’m here. What about you?
Weirdly, I discovered her because she wrote a profile on a celebrity in Vanity Fair. I remember reading it and thinking that I’d never read a profile that captured a celebrity in such a human way. Actually, now that I think about it, that article is probably why I profile people now. All celeb profiles attempt to humanise their subjects, but very few actually succeed in doing so. I also read Just Kids several times, right away. My copy is signed, and then underlined a million times over, and I’ve written in the margins. I actually bought a second copy to give to other people to borrow.
I did the same thing! I was like, ‘you should be buying this but if you’re not going to buy it, I do want you to read it.’ I also have the extended hard copy that has extra photos in it.
She seems to grab on to people and follow them…she’s definitely responsible for weird, serendipitous shit happening throughout my life, like on a cosmic level. Has she informed your creative life at all?
She is a huge reason why I’m so careful with my writing. I take a lot of time to look at what I’m saying. In many ways, I wanted to be as poetic as her, but I knew I had to find my own voice. Reading her work and listening to her music, I was very drawn to how poetic and conceptual it all was. I recognized that it wasn’t my style, but I could still incorporate the values that she brings to her work into my own, and the care that she takes but also her being able to say whatever she wants to say. That definitely informed my creative process a lot.
I definitely have had the same experience with writing. This seems like a good place to segue into talking about To Hell With You, I Love You. Were you writing this record during the pandemic?
I wanted it to be cohesive and I wanted the story to have a throughline, so some of the ideas I’d had from years before. The initial idea for ‘If You Were Me’ was written in high school. I tried to capture that idea in different songs I was writing, but it never really worked. So I revisited and revamped it to make sense within the concept of this album. Bits and pieces are from before the pandemic, but it all came together in lockdown, essentially.
That’s really valuable for people to hear ― that creativity doesn’t happen all the time, and it’s not instantaneous. You have an idea that you sit with for however many years before you find a place for it, it’s really a long game. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially during the various lockdowns, because everybody was like: ‘we need content!’ Everybody wanted new stuff because there wasn’t really anything to do. But how harmful is it to expect art on a constant basis?
Totally. With the pandemic, people were either reflecting on the way that life was and mourning that, or they were deeply invested in the isolation they were currently in. I had a lot of reflecting to do when the lockdown happened. I ended up back in my childhood bedroom at my parent’s place. But it was valuable because I was able to appreciate the things I had learned and the person I became. I made it through a lot of other things in that room. Different mental health struggles, challenges…and suddenly I was back there and dealing with another challenge.
I definitely feel that dual nature of moving back in with your parents. It’s comforting, but you feel a little trapped at the same time.
It’s a weird cognitive dissonance. You are an adult, but also: ‘leave me alone, Mom!’
Like, I’m a grown up, but also my brother is hogging the shower.
And there must have been ups and downs outside of family during that time as well — the music industry alone changed so much.
Every industry is changing in a significant way. Like, how are you supposed to plan for anything? It’s in the universe’s hands now. That’s how I feel, after the pandemic. I’m gonna do this wrong, but isn’t there a quote that goes: ‘If you want to make God laugh, show her your plans?’ During the pandemic I felt like that was exactly what was happening to me. I was like, ‘I’m gonna make a record!’ and the Universe was like, ‘Are you though? Really?’
But it’s about being malleable and able to adjust to whatever the world is throwing at us. Yeah, the pandemic hit, and we were still able to make our record. We were able to make it work, and that proved to me that I am able to adjust to difficult situations and still find inspiration, even when everything is horrible. That’s a lesson I’m applying to the rest of my life as well. Your planning is not done. Even if you have a direction, you need to be able to be malleable and make changes based on what’s best for you in that current moment. And to serve your future self as well as your present self.
That sentiment really echoes a lot of the record for me, as well. I want to go back to ‘If You Were Me’ for a moment, because I think it’s such a stunning tune, but also it’s one of the tracks where you play with perspective.
Lyrically, it began in high school with the relationship I was in. It was an abusive relationship emotionally. There was definitely a lot of gaslighting, and it was very controlling. I didn’t really have any personal freedoms, or the ability to make decisions for myself. I was really young when I got into that relationship, and I thought: ‘this is what love is like.’ Someone tells you who you’re going to be, where you’re going to go and what you’re going to look like. You listen, you do it, and then they love you. Coming out of that, and reflecting on it when I was re-working this song, initially it was a plea to be treated better. And then I swapped the roles a bit. I was saying all these horrible things, like, ‘I’m going to control you, I wouldn’t feel responsible if you felt like you couldn’t leave’. It’s jarring and upsetting to hear somebody say that. It’s not okay. I wanted to take on that role reversal a little bit, and acknowledge that those were the messages I was receiving at the time. A lot of people don’t catch onto that right away in emotionally abusive relationships. I wanted it to be uncomfortable, but sound like a love song. Even though it’s really not.
That auditory and lyrical juxtaposition is really interesting to me. Most of my favourite songs have a similar tension. I was talking with an R&B artist the other week and we were talking about ‘Mad’ from Solange’s A Seat At The Table. She’s singing about being so mad she wants to punch somebody, but the chords are super warm, and the tone is really sweet.
My band and I talk about that all the time. It’s the ‘happy sad’ thing. I want it to sound happy, but be the most devastating thing you’ve ever heard. Or I want to be viscerally angry but sound like I’m in love with you.
Absolutely. Musically speaking, ‘Trash Bag’ is a little different but it covers some similar themes. Why was it important to you to have that song on the record?
I really did go back and forth about whether or not to include ‘Trash Bag’. In the end, I decided to include it because I felt like it was another facet of this situation. All of these feelings are relevant to having your heart broken and falling in love with someone. I liked the idea of having something that isn’t really serious, but is also kind of the most serious. I’m playing on the idea of not being able to leave my apartment, or get out of bed, and be a human person. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but also — I’m unwell, and I can’t see you, and I hope you still like me in the end.
It’s alarming. ‘Devastatingly Mediocre’ is another one of those tracks that toes the line between serious and playful.
My friend was dating this guy who was really boring. And honestly, he was not good enough for her. We were all looking at her like, ‘what are you doing’? And she was like, ‘yeah, but he’s nice. He’s not mean to me, and he doesn’t do…anything in particular.’ And those are all bare, bare, bare minimum requirements. He shows up on time, he texts me if he’s going to be late, and he’s mildly attractive…in many ways, if we’ve been treated poorly, we settle for a lot. I was like, ‘let’s not anymore’. Let’s search for what we actually deserve. It’s tongue-in-cheek, because it’s the most insulting to call someone devastatingly mediocre. That’s like, a horrible thing to say.
It’s almost worse than telling someone they’re a shit person.
Exactly. It’s so mean. But it’s also funny, and you know exactly what I mean when I say that. I wanted it to be a bit insulting. It’s self-deprecating as well. It talks about how I’m choosing to do this, I’m choosing to settle for something. I wanted to play with that concept of deserving more. Because that happens all the time!
It does. It happens to women a lot of the time. We all know somebody — or have done it ourselves — who has been in relationships where we are obviously undervaluing ourselves.
This is a little dark, but a lot of my friends who have been assaulted, especially, choose people specifically who wouldn’t hurt them, and don’t look for anything more than that. Because they’re afraid. That makes sense for a while, but at the same time, having that autonomy taken away from you and then continuing to stifle yourself because you don’t know that you deserve more isn’t the way to go about your life. My friends and I talk about that a lot. You choose people who meet the bare minimum because you’re afraid of getting hurt, and trusting someone is scary. But what’s the point of not being 100% in?
I think you’re right in the sense of settling for people because you don’t want to get hurt. The reality is that it’s going to hurt you more in the long run to be with somebody who doesn’t fulfil everything you need.
I’m really fascinated by relationships, and learning how people interact, what they need to feel loved. With this record, I wanted to explore the idea of breaking up with someone that you’re still in love with. I think that sometimes, being in love with someone isn’t enough. And the album tries to explore what is enough, and falling out of love with someone not because of something they did, or said, or not because they aren’t wonderful. It’s complicated, and being in love can be hard. It sucks, but it’s also amazing. I villainize myself all over this record, but at the end of the day I want people to take away that there’s so much love there.
Interview by Tanis Smither
Photography by Nadia D
To Hell With You, I Love You is out now.