By Lily O’Brien
“Most of the time when we are practicing, we spend a huge amount of that time laughing,” says Gemma Cohen, on rehearsing with her musical partner Miranda Mallard for their band, Dagmar.
“It’s really funny because we are just big goofballs, but we write this music that’s kind of intense and a little bit dark,” Mallard adds.
The duo describes their music as “indie classical”—they are influenced by medieval music, using unexpected harmonies that sound like those used in chants and heard in ancient churches, along with groups like Radiohead and the experimental, minimalist 20th-century composer Philip Glass. “The strongest element [of our music] has to do with our approach to harmony,” Mallard (on guitar) says.
They have declared themselves “honorary sisters” because they are in sync with each other musically, and are also very close friends. “We’re family,” Cohen (on bass) says. “It’s scary—I feel like we’re twins.”
Mallard, 30, and Cohen, 29, grew up in the small town of Fairfield, Iowa. They sang in a choir together in middle school but didn’t really become friends until college. At a party one night around 10 years ago, they discovered that they both loved choral music, and had their first “musical episode” together—they sang the stunningly beautiful “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ opera Lakmé. They’ve been singing together ever since.
Both women have degrees in music, and share eclectic musical taste, including styles ranging from classical choral to alternative rock. Their songs are mostly co-written—one of them usually comes up with an idea and they then work on it together and “Dagmarfy” it, which to them means using melodies in “unexpected ways.”
“We’re really lucky because the way that we think about composition is just different enough that it really complements each other,” Mallard says.
Dagmar made their first recording, afterlight, in 2015 with other instrumentalists, and they tour frequently. This spring, they have a five-week tour of Europe planned. Mallard and Cohen drove out to the Bay Area together seven months ago—Cohen, who is also a nurse, lives in San Francisco, and Mallard is in San Rafael, where she teaches music lessons privately and educates kids in Little Folkies, a music school for children in Mill Valley.
“Our music was really appreciated in Iowa,” Cohen says, “but I think the sound of our music is progressive and it’s challenging and I think this [Bay Area] audience really appreciates that.”
Dagmar performs as part of “Siren Song” on November 12 at the Wu Wei Tea Temple, 1829 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Fairfax; 8-11pm; dagmarsound.com.