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Bria Tosses Another Shiny Quarter in the Jukebox

The industrious punk rock frontwoman and Orville Peck bandmate keeps the cover train rolling with Cuntry Covers Vol. 2.

by Sarah Morrison

Photos by Justin Aranha

In the winter of 2021, Bria Salmena and Duncan Jennings found themselves enjoying a much-needed break from their rigorous touring schedules. Having just come off a support tour with UK rockers Wolf Alice, it was the perfect time to fall back into their settled lives in Toronto. Rather than sitting still, however, the pair embraced their cold and cramped settings by starting the recording process for Bria’s second covers EP, Cuntry Covers Vol. 2. 

Known locally for lending her raw and emotional grunge vocals to the post-punk band FRIGS, there was a certain curiosity as to where Salmena’s passion for country music all began. I didn’t grow up listening to country music as a child. I certainly heard people like Faith Hill on the radio but I don’t think I even associated her with the genre,” Salmena says. “I feel like my first real introduction to country music was when I was about 17 or 18. I started to become interested in writing acoustic-based songs and was hugely influenced by Gillian Welch as well as Loretta Lynn. From there I started to write more folk and country-based songs.”

That bubbling interest blossomed even further when Salmena ended up joining forces with one of modern country’s most enigmatic figures. After taking a break from FRIGS to join Orville Peck’s backing band on tour, Salmena and Jennings returned home only to find themselves organically chipping away on a series of covers that eventually morphed into the first volume of Cuntry Covers. Knowing that they wanted to continue exploring this space, they decided to expand the project into a mini-series with fluid plans regarding the form it would take in the future.

While Cuntry Covers Vol. 1 was created during the warmer months on a hobby farm in rural Canada, it was also birthed during a time in which Salmena experienced a bit of heartbreak. While searching for her own voice to lend to some timeless classics, the songs took form in response to that  personal experience, a conviction that vibrates through each track. When it came time to create Vol. 2, Bria and Duncan took to their confined living/working space during the null of the winter months. Their experimentation with each cover took on the chaotic energy that surrounded them. Even with the notable contrast in energy shifts, both EPs are uniquely idiosyncratic within their own identities. “We realized that Cuntry Covers as a concept is very much rooted in the spaces we occupy while making them,” says Salmena. “For us, the darkness and coldness of that winter is reflected in the song choices, and even in all the visual accompaniments.” 

“We realized that Cuntry Covers as a concept is very much rooted in the spaces we occupy while making them.”

Experimentation is a large part of the art of covers. Being able to interpret someone else’s track, making it your own without losing the bulk of its identity, takes a lot of courage. It also allows an artist to push themselves to new heights, something that is shown in heavenly fashion throughout Vol. 2. “We were more committed to approaching the project with a more experimental and adventurous framework. We decided to use an ‘homage’ approach to the first three songs on Vol. 2, which meant we wanted to experiment with the chords, progression or even melody to take the song somewhere else entirely. What we tried to honor was a certain core energy or feeling we interpreted from each song,” says Salmena. “For example, in the Loretta Lynn cover, we really wanted to portray the assertiveness and power in Lynn’s tone and lyrics, and interpreted that into a kind of fast paced pop-punk situation.”

Some might think finding ways to reimagine songs with strong legacies would come with a sense of pressure, but not for Salmena. Her cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” continues to preserve the song’s powerful message, taking it into new territory by bending its original genre-fitting form. Lynn was known for pushing the boundaries of country music, especially for women. On this particular song, she tackles topics of alcohol, abusive relationships and rape, discussions that weren’t being had around its 1967 release date. Salmena does a magnificent interpretation and really allows the story to become her own. “If I’m being completely honest I didn’t for a second question whether or not we should cover it. I felt like I understood the sentiment, in a way where it could be my story to tell,” she says.

Another one of the bigger singles on the EP is a cover of Paula Cole’s “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?,” a song that drips in wit, irony, and melancholy while examining gender roles and stereotypes. The nuance of this song, as well, was lost to most listeners when it was initially released, with the satirical lyrics going over people’s heads. Salmena and Jennings’  take on transforming the song into their own took some time, with the pair struggling to find their own voices. But after overcoming their creative block, they managed to produce one of their strongest singles thus far. “The song came with all sorts of challenges. We tried so many different interpretations but they were all sounding too close to the original or just not feeling right,” Salmena says. “By the time we came up with the version that’s on the record, everything just fell into place.”

While it’s unknown if this may be the end of the Cuntry Covers series, having the time and space to experiment with a cover project allowed for the pair to go back to their roots of working together, while also being reminded of their new musical ventures. “It definitely reminded us that performing covers can be extremely fun. We used to play covers all the time in the early days of FRIGS shows, but hadn’t done it in a while,” says Salmena. “Recording covers has always been a part of country music, so much so that often people don’t know the original versions of songs. We wanted to explore that tradition in country music more, which in a way we were reminded of while working with Peck.”