Dagna Barrera and Silesia Guitars
Seattle is a city of music, so I found a Polish woman whose life here is bound to guitars.
During our first meeting, you could glimpse the weave of her electrifying energy in the air.
Dagna Barrera literally and figuratively controls chaos: she’s a mom, she leads her own business, plays in a metal band, and works at the lab.
Fulfilling one of her greatest life-passions Dagna runs a guitar store in Shoreline. Today, she will tell you a bit more about who she is and what she does.
Dagna, Silesia Guitars – I got a strong impression that names are quite important in your life.
Yes, it’s true that I put more weight to names than the average person. It helps me connect with the things I choose on a deeper level. When you assign a name to something or someone, it is with them forever, so I like to make it something special, more than just to fulfill a function of distinction.
I am playing bass guitar in a band called The People Now and I have taken on the name of Dagna Silesia for my stage name. I come from Wroclaw which is in Lower Silesia so, not only is there a clear connection for me with the name, it also rolls off the tongue nicely in the English version of the word.
Naming my business Silesia Guitars was just a natural progression for me. Customers react differently to it, some pronounce it funny, but some actually know where it is and we end up talking about Poland right away. Either way, it often ends up being a good conversation starter.
I myself was honored with a rather unusual, for Polish standards, name. Even though it may not be the most beautiful one I always liked the fact that my name is unusual. It’s worth mentioning that my name doesn’t derive from “Dagmara” as many Poles often think but from the Norwegian “Dagny.” Polish bureaucracy of that time made all girls’ names end with an “a” so they altered “Dagny” into “Dagna” and I don’t mind it.
In order not to be boring, I’ve also decided to grant my daughter a “different” name.
My daughter’s dad suggested Tiamat since it’s a character in Dungeons and Dragons as well as a name of a mythical Babylonian queen of chaos, and a name of an iconic Swedish metal band. I really like this combination.
So far, Tiamat my daughter is a small angel and still has a long way to go to earn this “chaotic reputation.”
And with this unusual name, you later moved to Scandinavia.
When I was a 12-year-old I moved to Sweden with my mom. Sweden is a beautiful country that became my second home. That’s where I started to play guitar and got interested in the fascinating world of music.
I also finished my music high school. It was an amazing opportunity to get an official education to learn to perform onstage with other kids!
After I graduated high school I wasn’t interested in anything else besides music, so I didn’t know what I should do. We lived in Stockholm. I worked in music stores doing some minor guitar repairing.
One day, digging through the net I found a school that professionally taught the repair. I never even heard such school exists so I got really excited.
Manual work was always my thing and now I could combine it with a guitar.
That’s when I thought it’s a great way to use both my passion and manual skills in a perfect way.
Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, in Phoenix, Arizona was my destination. As a 20-year-old I packed my bags and left Sweden and set off to this dry-as-a- bone city in the USA. In Phoenix, I learned how to build and fix acoustic and electric guitars.
How do you remember Phoenix? Cultural shock?
Certainly! First of all, I thought I knew English better than I did when I arrived. Secondly, I had never experienced such heat and it was really shocking. In Sweden, everything was cold, neat, and clean.
Phoenix is hot, desert-like, sandy and dusty. But most of all it’s not ergonomically planned at all. The distances are so vast that even crossing the street seems like a trip overseas. I really missed trees while living there. Though, I spent a lot of time at school with people from all over the world. There were students from all over the U.S., Japan, Panama… and it’s worth mentioning that I was the only female in the school.
And after the course in Phoenix, you went back to Sweden.
What brought you back to the U.S. and why did you move to Seattle?
As it might happen in life, love made me want to relocate to the States. And I had chosen Seattle due to its music scene.
In the 90’s Seattle was known for its explosion of grunge music because that’s where bands like Nirvana, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam were starting out. Even though grunge was mostly gone when I arrived here, the music scene was, and still is, widely active.
Most musicians wanting to push their careers forward are going either to LA or NYC, I wanted to be in a slightly smaller city that has four seasons, clean air and water, and good music – and that’s what I found here.
Also, Seattle really reminds me of Stockholm but with better weather. Seriously, I really like the weather here!
I lived in a place where it was much worse so I’m not complaining about Seattle.
And I still believe my choice was good.
How long did it take you to find a job in a music shop in Seattle?
And how did it happen that now you have your own shop Silesia Guitars?
Before I landed in Seattle I was working for a luthier, Michael Dolan, in Santa Rosa, CA, who built interesting custom guitars. After relocating here, because guitar repair is a small niche, finding the right job in Seattle took me 2 years.
Eventually, I landed a job at Parsons Guitar Shop which ended up expanding to few locations in the area.
My boss trusted me with leading the shop in Kirkland. Since I was doing everything alone, I learned a lot about running a business.
After some time I took a few years break from the guitar business and had my daughter.
It was also a time when I started to develop my passion for plants and gardening and decided to become a landscape designer. I already took some steps to go in this direction when I heard the news that my boss from the guitar shop was closing all his businesses and relocating to California.
It was a chance I could not miss! I immediately started planning to fill that gap in the market by opening my own shop. It was a “now or never” type of moment.
That’s how Silesia Guitars came into existence. From my years of prior experience, I already had developed a trusted customer base, which definitely helped me get started.
What are the benefits of owning your own business?
Most of all freedom. It’s very important to me as a musician. I’m not a slave to some company who dictates times I should work and how long vacations should I take. And it happens that I go out on tour, so this freedom is crucial to me.
Also, a big plus is that I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder trying to hurry me up, because “time is money.” I am very meticulous and always strive to get the job done in the most appropriate way, and yes, sometimes it takes extra time, but I want to put out the highest quality work out there that I can.
A lot of my clients appreciate that and at the end of the day, that’s where I get the most pride out of my work: when clients notice. That’s an approach that, unfortunately, you won’t find at most workplaces, and for someone that is obsessed with details, it’s painful to deal with.
Are there many people who ask you: why metal music?
Actually, no, the only people that really ever ask that are the Polish. I don’t know why, but it’s rather surprising to some of them that a woman from Polan can be into metal. It’s true there aren’t many of us but I never really wondered why I specifically listen to metal. If some music appeals to me, I simply listen to it.
I’m much more interested in analyzing the composition, intensity and the use of specific notes, not so much what genre it is. The fact that metal is a heavy and intense style of music might trigger certain emotions that people often don’t want to face or is just simply not their cup of tea.
In fact, classical music is quite similar to various styles of metal in many ways. But how often are people surprised that you listen to classical music?
Will Tiamat follow your musical footsteps?
There’s some hope… I am trying to entice her but I wouldn’t like to push her to anything.
Our living room is full of various instruments like guitars, piano, bongos, a cello, and we often have little jam sessions.
I see both of us take great pleasure in doing it together, but I know that my 5-year-old doesn’t yet have enough of an attention span to devote to learning an instrument.
I will just patiently wait until she shows more interest, and try to support her then.
But apart from Silesia Guitars you also do something else for a living…
Besides running my shop, I am also a contractor for the Bellevue based invention lab Intellectual Ventures, where I work in the electronics department. I work alongside some amazing scientists who create inventions of various kinds. I assist them in making prototypes of new ideas, mainly in form of electronic boards, cabling and other forms of assembly.
One day you are working on a new form of antenna technology, next day on a laser fence that shoots down mosquitoes, and another day on a self-refrigerating container that will deliver vaccines to kids in remote villages in Africa. It is really cool to be involved in something that actually makes a difference for the world.
At some point, my friend who works at the lab asked me if I wouldn’t be interested in raising mosquitoes because they really need someone to do it. Now… I actually have a mild allergy to mosquito bites, and as disgusting as it seemed at first, I could not resist such bizarre invitation.
Being involved in the process of “rising a mosquito,” from collecting the eggs, through their various life stages, ended up being quite interesting. Also seeing how I got attached to them, while they were still swimming little larvae… I even named them Squiggles.
I would come into the lab to feed them, saying “Squiggles, it’s time for lunch!”
One thing led to another and eventually I ended up gravitating towards the electronics department where I set deeper roots.
You are a mom who plays in bands and you run your own business – you must be pretty tenacious! How do you do it all?
Sometimes I wonder that myself (laughs) I think that I am very goal oriented and that good feeling of achievement gives me drive. Also, I think that good organization skills are key, and I am always looking for the most efficient way to do everything that I do. I can easily say that you will never find me bored.I don’t even have the time or take interest in watching TV are many other things I’d rather be doing.
I feel the repercussions of that in social interactions though.. When someone makes a reference to a movie or a show and everyone giggles, I stand there clueless because of course I haven’t seen it (laughs)
I am also very lucky that my daughter’s father is a very involved parent and without him, I would not be able to do half the things I am able to do.
With all that said, I have definitely taken on too much in the past. As of late, I have learned the importance of taking time to myself and evaluating the meaning of things I want to do.
Asking myself “Why do I want to achieve this or that? Do I need it?” has become more frequent.
I have also started meditating and taking dance lessons. It helps me get grounded and more connected to myself.