Lots of important moments take place on couches. They’re where we enjoy (or tolerate) our families’ company when we’re growing up, where we bring back dates to get to know them better, where we disclose intimate details of our lives to therapists, and now more than ever, where we spend much of our alone time. This multifold significance of couches inspired Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Jenny Banai’s latest album, couchwalker, as well as the accompanying 22-minute video, couchwalker on film.
The phrase “couchwalker” came to Banai as she was reflecting on how many of our experiences on couches involve emotional tightrope-walking. “It seems like ‘oh, couch, that’s a comfortable place to be — you should feel comfortable being close to this person on the couch because it’s casual and cozy,'” she says. “But what I’ve experienced and what I imagine a lot of people experience in the beginnings of relationships, when you’re trying to understand one another, is this sense of imbalance inside, this sense of risk, more like you’re walking a tightrope, like you’re gonna fall off.”
The album was released in September, featuring unconventional sounds such as shells for percussion and key changes to accentuate Banai’s crisp, clear voice. Collaborating with co-producer Scott Currie and engineer John Raham, she took on a bigger role in production than in her previous work, intentionally stretching the bounds of convention with tracks ranging from the sweet-sounding “Intermittent Heart” to “Couch Walker” (a title track that’s not quite a title track), which is infused with hints of alt-rock and jazz.
The decision to make a short film rather than typical music videos was something of a contrarian act. “I am one to kind of want to push the boundary of conventions. I had never made a music video thus far, and I kind of am very thoughtful of ‘why do I do this?'” she says. “I guess all musicians make music videos, and it’s usually assumed because you want to get your music out there, but I wanted to have a deeper creative meaning or purpose behind why I’m making this.”
She was also thinking about how to bring her fans close to her in the absence of live performances during the COVID pandemic. What better way to bring people close, she thought, than through that trusty piece of furniture we so often rely on to do so?
The star of the video is not so much Banai as her couch, which she occupies alongside several dancers throughout the film. They sit on it, lie on it, and eventually move to the floor with expressive hand motions, giving off the impression of a slumber party as they roll around with pillows. Toward the end, you only see their silhouettes dancing to Banai’s soaring voice.
“Using a couch as the centerpiece, it’s almost like I’m interacting with the couch,” she says. “I want the film to convey the complexity of being human and how we have to move through all these emotions and, whatever decisions we make, it’s ultimately your decision. You have the freedom of choice when it comes to loving, when it comes to figuring out how people fit in your heart. Nobody is controlling that, and the aim is to be able to love well. So it conveys the wrestling match within ourselves, but also that desire to love well, and that there’s grief over that.”
She edited the album down to 20 minutes to capture the most poignant moments of each song, adding voice memos to provide context. It opens with a memo of her singing a prayer, and at the beginning of “Couch Walker,” she includes a memo she recorded when she first wrote the song. For two of the songs, she sang live to bring that missing magic of live performances to viewers. Spoken words give the video a candid feeling: at one point, the music pauses and you hear one of her band members ask, “Do you want me to play?”
Collaborating with director Mataj Balaz and choreographers and dancers Joanna Anderson and Kezia Rosen, Banai brought the idea to life over the course of several meetings and rehearsals despite her initial apprehension. “It was this whole idea, this thing in my brain,” she remembers. “It felt fun to imagine, but I felt like, is this really gonna become something or is it just gonna be a flop?”
The costumes, which she says were intended to give off a “’90s kid” vibe and represent different parts of herself, helped her to envision the flow of the film, and when her collaborators signed on, it felt more real. “There was just a profound satisfaction in seeing something coming to fruition,” she says.
Banai was first discovered by a producer while she was in a community Christmas production and released her first album, Flowering Head, in 2015. couchwalker on film isn’t actually her first foray into visual mediums; she released a three-minute film accompanying her single “Intermittent Heart” in May. It centers on her songwriting process – she hums a melody out in the trees and by the water, jots down lyrics at a table, and plays guitar and violin from a bedroom.
“We wanted to film something that showed the creation of a song — less about the final product, more about the process,” she says. “With everything I do, I want it to be so reflective of who I am. With that comes a sense of awareness of how vulnerable I’m being, which can be hard, especially when you invite strangers into seeing that. It’s something I’m trying to figure out still, but being an artist, my goal is to give something to people that makes them feel known and makes them feel heard and makes them feel human, and that it’s okay to be human — not so much about ‘I’m a star, here, watch me be a star.’ I just want it to be as connectable for people as possible.”