Montreal artist changes his path and finds success with a record that he thought would appeal to few, but has taken him to a whole new audience.
You can’t say enough about good company.
About being in it, about being considered part of it, about keeping it.
Hell, Queen wrote a delightful ukulele ditty about it, so it must mean something.
But Leif Vollebekk has a difficult time putting into words what it means to be among a group of 2017 Polaris Music Prize shortlisters that includes some guy named Leonard Cohen, another who’s called Gord Downie, a lady with the name of Feist and, well, fellow Calgary Folk Music Festival attendees this year such as BADBADNOTGOOD and Tanya Tagaq.
His latest release, Twin Solitude, snuggles up with those names and certainly doesn’t seem out of place — a moody, soothing, soulful musical travelogue that takes his formerly folkier songwriting style and turns it into something that’s part Elton John, part Paddy Casey, and entirely warm and welcoming in all regards.
It is also, not surprisingly, the most successful of the Ottawa-born, Montreal-based artist’s three records.
Prior to his appearance at this year’s folk fest, Vollebekk spoke with theYYSCENE.
Q: Congratulations with the success you’re having with this album, the new direction. The Polaris shortlisting is the latest thing — that’s pretty great.
A: Yeah, oh, my god, the label is so happy (laughs), because I never give them anything to talk about. They’re like, “We can tell the press you got nominated, this is amazing!” I’m like, “OK, cool. Is that good? Good!”
Q: Does that mean anything to you?
A: I mean, yeah. I find it really confusing and nice. It’s really nice and it’s also confusing. This year it’s a list of heroes. (Laughs) I think they do a really good job of, “Here’s some great music” — not that I’m saying mine’s great — but it’s great. And also competition, awards, it’s so complex. I’m just happy that maybe more people will hear the record and maybe I’ll get to play an extra show or two because of it. So it’s just lovely.
Q: You’re right, it’s pretty good company to be in.
A: Yeah, I mean, right? Right? It’s a list of heroes who make beautiful records, and they’re talented people. It’s pretty wonderful.
Q: This album is a big change for you and this album you followed a different path, do you look at it and see it as affirmation? Pat yourself a little on the back for following the path?
A: I think it could have gone either way. When I was making the record, it wasn’t really conscious before, but I was trying to do stuff I’d be proud of or trying to do stuff that, I don’t know. It’s hard to go back, but there’s a real difference, and on this one I remember going, “You know what, I don’t know if it’s good, but I’m just going to do it like this. And it just feels right to me.” And I kind of went less with what I thought and more, in the studio if I listened back to something and it felt a certain way, then I would make a decision even if I screwed up the lyric or something was out of tune I was like, “Ah, it just feels right.” So I was pretty sure that there was a chance that nobody would like it or get it at all. And I was OK with that. And more people seem to connect with it than the other stuff. It’s reassuring.
(Laughs) I didn’t do it for any award or anything, so everything is really lovely and unexpected. But I needed to make the record either way, whether or not people liked it or not. So it’s just extra that it seems to connect more. (Laughs) Not that it’s platinum or anything, but it’s nice, really nice.
Q: It’s been out for a while now and been recorded for even longer, have you been writing and are you finding that this has inspired you to go further down the path you’ve started on with it.
A: I feel like this record is kind of its own thing. I don’t think I’ll ever be there again, the space that I was in to write it — it was really specific and I’m really lucky that I had that space, it was a really interesting period and I realized that I just needed to do something different. So the next thing, I don’t think it will be a huge departure but the next one is going to be really different. I started writing these songs immediately after recording (Twin Solitude) … and they’re actually getting old now because when I was mixing the record in California with this wonderful engineer Oz Fritz, who worked on (Tom Waits’) Mule Variations and with Herbie Hancock — just the most wonderful sound engineer and just a genius … — while he was mixing I would go to another room and I’d be working on these songs. I’m going to start recording in August.
I try to avoid waiting, seeing what people are thinking before working on the next thing because I don’t want to be being led by my tail. So I’m just trying to move on, and again, I’m pretty sure people won’t like it (laughs), like honestly, but I need to do it because I realize it’s the songs that I wrote, and that’s me. It’s not like you write songs and you go, ‘Oh, maybe people don’t like it, maybe don’t do it,” I just do it. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing. (Laughs)
So I’m going to start recording again, I don’t know when it will be done, you know, I had this big plan that it would be done as soon as possible, but I can’t control anything. (Laughs) It’s completely out of my hands. Maybe all the songs think, but until you put them down on tape, they don’t look back at you, you’re kind of seeing through their eyes, and then when you record them you get to step back and look at them and go, “Oh, shit, you have nothing to say,” or, “You’re actually talking about a lot more than I thought you were.” Until the recording it all starts to make sense, so right now I’m just confused.
Q: What was inspiring you at the time you were writing the new material?
A: You know, I don’t know. I’m really lucky because as a musician, it doesn’t have to be this way, but going from place to place playing music, touring is something that … I love travelling, I love travelling with a purpose, so I just basically get to do what I want to do all the time. (Laughs) So seeing new places always sticks in my subconscious. And also wrapping up my twenties, I kind of thought I’d be twentysomething forever. You’re not, but when you’re twentysomething you just think that because the first 10 years of your life take a long time, like you’re sitting at school and the clock ticks so slowly and you’re just like, “It’s Wednesday? Oh, my god, it’s Wednesday.” And then it’s Thursday. I remember the way that time felt it was just excruciating, so I think when you’re 20 and 21 it goes by kinda quick, but not that quick, I just thought it would last forever. And all of the sudden I’m 29 and I’m working on this record, and I was like, “Oh, my god, this is who I am. This is it. I don’t think I’m someone else when I turn 30 or when I turn 40, like this is it, this is me.” It’s hard to explain because it’s so simple and it’s so stupid, but I’m very slow to come around to things. I didn’t understand why people wore boots for the longest time. To be honest, I thought that was really strange, just wear shoes. And now I love boots. The simplest things it takes forever for me to come around to …
So I just took a look back at things. It was my first, like, not a crisis or anything, not at all, just my first reflection on things and just funny things that happened, and strange things that happened and that’s good for songs. So that’s it. Now it’s gone. But now people are starting to hear the record so I’m like like, “Oh, that’s cool. I remember that guy. I like him. I wish I was more like him.”
Q: So that’s why you record music, to remember who you were?
A: Wow, definitely not. (Laughs) But, uh, I don’t know, you just kind of, you just try and, I don’t know, I ‘m just trying to figure it out still, but it seems to be you’re trying to — I don’t know, you know I have no idea. I don’t know. I don’t know. (Laughs) I wish I had something cool to say. I don’t know. I just feel like you gotta do it and right. Now I’m just trying to do the record and I’m trying to do it differently and maybe I’ll be completely ashamed of it in a year or maybe I’ll be like, “You know what, I’m going to retire, but it’s better that I don’t do the next one because it will be awful.”
Leif Vollebekk performs a showcase Thursday night of the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Prince’s Island Park and then will participate in workshops Friday and Saturday. For tickets and more information please click here
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at email@example.com.