Juno Awards reggae nominee Storry on leaving sex work behind for music

TORONTO — When you've lived as many lives as singer-songwriter Storry, there's a reason to split each pivotal experience into its own dramatic chapter.

That's why the musician, who heads to the Juno Awards this weekend with her first nomination, has decided there's value in revealing herself in layers.

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Her debut album marks a third part of sorts, called "Ch III: The Come Up," picking up with her life story in progress, as she looks to a career outside the world of strip clubs and in the music industry, which she describes as "equally misogynistic and problematic."

"A lot of people were like, 'Don't tell your story, it's going to seem gimmicky,'" explains the performer while sitting in her living room on the outskirts of Toronto.

"Trying to hide it would almost be impossible. It's in every thread of my life; it's part of who I am."

Most of her life she's faced incredible personal challenges, which range from what she describes as recovering from an abusive ex, to repairing family relationships, and working as a stripper.

With her album, she hopes to challenge stereotypes and sweeping generalizations of the sex industry, and squash any notions that sex workers' lives aren't as nuanced as everyone else.

Storry's album lands in the midst of a mainstream re-examination of how women in the sex industry are portrayed and received. Last year, Jennifer Lopez brought humanity to a complicated character in the film "Hustlers," while rapper Cardi B has relentlessly pushed against the notion that strippers are one-note wonders.

"Cardi B enabled us to be seen as a mom, an artist... and that's my intention behind this album, to add more to these dimensions of strippers and sex workers," she added.

Born in Toronto as Dina Koutsouflakis, Storry spent her formative years in the Mississauga, Ont., area before moving to Montreal where she studied vocal jazz at Vanier College. She returned to Toronto to take opera at a local university before deciding she found greater passion in writing original songs.

Around that time, she met a music producer online, fell in love, and embarked on her first romantic relationship, one that she says gradually saw her lose control over her own life choices. She describes being totally blindsided by the shift in power, at least partly because of sheer inexperience.

"I'm over the moon and then five months later I'm in a strip club, he's taking all of my money, and that was my life for many years," she said.

"Anyone who met me in school, all my aunts, everybody would say to you I was a confident, very wise person. I was always giving other people advice... telling people to leave abusive relationships, so nobody would've ever thought that I would get into a relationship like that. The stars just align sometimes and it's no one's fault."

Koutsouflakis said the relationship had quickly turned toxic. She said she wasn't allowed to own a computer or use social media, and she grew more distant from her family.

When the relationship ended, she says all of the music they created together remained in his control. She hasn't seen it since. Left in financial ruin, she turned to her mother for support and went on a yoga retreat in India to renew her spirit.

Returning to Canada in 2015, she rekindled her relationship with her family.

"Nobody knew anything about what was going on in my life, so I felt very alone, and I thought my family's going to disown me if they find out," she said.

"When I came back from India I made a list of people I was going to tell my truth to. My mother, my brother, a couple of my cousins, some of my closest friends, and I gave myself a week to tell them. I sat each one of them down, had lunch, and explained what had happened in my life. Almost every single person embraced me and told me they wished they had come to me earlier."

Those conversations encouraged the singer to embark on a deeper exploration of herself, and the complicated path that would involve therapy and solidifying a new identity.

"I've had four different names that I've used quite consistently," she explained, pointing to her birth name, her sex-worker name, another "fake real name" she used while on the job, and finally her stage identity.

Storry is the "person that helped me get out of all this crap," and helped shape her next chapter, the musician said. In the years that followed, she would return to singing more seriously with an eye on releasing her debut album.

Among the songs that laid the groundwork is "Another Man," which is nominated at the Junos in the reggae album category.

The track was created in Jamaica with famed rhythm-section players Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who work under their collaborative name Sly and Robbie. The producers were searching for singers to appear on their compilation album "Pocket Book Riddim," a collection of tracks that each feature a vocalist performing their own lyrics over top of the same backing beat. The popular sub-genre is called "juggla riddims."

Knowing that many listeners will encounter her first as a supposed reggae artist, she's quick to emphasize that Storry is a multi-faceted identity that on her debut album explores soul, hip hop, R&B and even a sliver of her opera roots.

Her latest single "Money Ain't Free" brings Storry's experience to life, diving into the push and pull of the sex industry on a woman who's come to rely on it as a financial resource. The song is classy, a little Broadway showy, and pulls on emotional heartstrings that'll be familiar to listeners of Amy Winehouse and Etta James.

With the Juno nomination under her belt, Storry hopes her newfound clout will help expand her ambitions in the music industry, which include co-producing her own album, and other artistic endeavours such as filmmaking and painting.

"I really strive to create an experience," she said, "And stories are never one dimension."

Listen to a playlist of 2020 Juno Award nominees on Spotify: https://spoti.fi/2O4CnGm

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 10, 2020.

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