With the release of Indistinct Conversations at the end of July, Land of Talk – and its driving force and sole constant member, Lizzie Powell – gained a lot of clarity (despite the soft-focus implications of the album’s title). For the LP, the Montreal-based trio returned to the original lineup of its inception to include Mark “Bucky” Wheaton and Chris McCarron, picking up the discussion with surprising grace given the band’s circuitous path.
Forming in 2006 from the same fertile scene that gave rise to Arcade Fire and The Besnard Lakes, early releases on Nebraska imprint Saddle Creek operated in a similar anthemic indie rock milieu. But Powell was beset by series of misfortunes – lineup changes, a vocal polyp, a GarageBand crash that obliterated the music they were working on, and finally, their father’s debilitating stroke that left him hemipelagic, necessitating Powell’s return to their small hometown in Ontario.
Powell returned to Montreal two summers ago and Land of Talk resurfaced after a seven-year hiatus in 2017, with a lush, sophisticated statement on reconciling aging and a career in the music industry, Life After Youth. But Indistinct Conversations finds Powell and their cohort on surer footing than ever before. Look no further than the album’s opening track (and third single) “Diaphanous” for a hint at the band’s new approach – dreamlike sketches, poetic but plainly-stated lyrical phrasing, resonance, statements you have to lean in close to really hear. Next comes an acoustic demo version of the album’s third track, “Look To You,” overlaid with a Facetime chat between Powell and their father – Powell was mid-vocal take in Wheaton’s studio when their dad called, and Wheaton let the tape roll; the final version of “Look to You” interlaces a sweet, lofty chorus with thumping, tenacious percussion on the verses that twist provocatively around Powell’s cryptic words. And that’s just the beginning – there’s so much more to delve into from there.
Powell says the album came together, as many of Land of Talk’s previous efforts have, via a continuous evolution of ideas for song tucked away in voice memos and other digital reservoirs. “There’s songs that I carry with me, like puzzle pieces, like a little trail of bread crumbs,” Powell explains. Putting together an album is “like catching these fireflies and seeing whatever ones can fit in the jar, and you’re like that’s good, boom, that’s the perfect glow.”
Sometimes a bridge Powell tried to force into another song becomes its own song; sometimes fragments floating in their consciousness combine with snippets of music from a television show or a car driving by. That’s partly what inspired the album’s title – Powell has suffered some hearing loss from years of touring, and often watches TV with closed-captioning on. “I started finding [the text] really poetic, the way they would describe like dogs barking in the distance… seeing ‘indistinct conversations’ on the screen kind of resonated,” they say. “It was just one of those a-ha moments… that’s something that I deal with and I called the band Land of Talk for a reason! And I could never really explain [that when] there’s a whole conversation going on [and] everybody’s talking, I sometimes feel like I can’t key into that.”
“By the way, I am getting better,” Powell adds. “This record – maybe every record in a way – kind of serves as a healing tool or these ways to push me forward.” That progress is charted all over Indistinct Conversations, as Powell examines the rifts that can arise when language falls short (“Love in 2 Stages” asks, “I dig deep, why don’t you?”) but also fearlessly calls out those that weaponize words. “Weight of that Weekend,” for instance, reckons with gaslighting from its opening lines but its chorus honestly states “This is a prayer for love;” meanwhile, “Footnotes” disarmingly recounts melodrama between Powell and her neighbor that escalated too quickly.
Though Powell remains candid throughout the LP, they’re a good deal more understated with their vocal delivery these days than say, Land of Talk’s debut singles “Speak to Me Bones” or “Summer Special,” and that’s very much to benefit of Indistinct Conversations. “I’ve noticed I’ve been letting my voice be heard more and I’ve been letting what we really wanna say reveal itself with the music without too much editing now,” Powell agrees. “It just feels a lot more free – vocally, letting a lot more space happen between lyrics, and maybe not being so self conscious about my guitar playing, so I’m willing to be a little bit more experimental.” There’s an assuredness, an intimacy, woven through these songs – Powell’s intricate guitar passages build tension just to let it unspool.
Having learned to play by ear, Powell uses alternate tunings, something they’ve been made to feel insecure about in the past, particularly as a “woman in rock.” Powell’s growing discomfort with that label, as well as an expanded cultural understanding of gender as a spectrum, recently led Powell to begin identifying as a non-binary femme who uses both she and they pronouns. This freed Powell up to approach singing as, say, Bill Callahan or Kurt Vile might, something Powell previously believed they couldn’t do. “[I had] a lot of self-limiting beliefs, and I subscribed to a bunch of notions that I don’t necessarily need to subscribe to anymore. I started understanding more about how I’m not locked in to the gender binary,” they say. “It was shoved down my throat that I was a woman the more I was on stage. The next generation of people are speaking truth to power, and deconstructing a lot that needs to be deconstructed – just shining a light on things that I used to take for granted, all these belief systems that are slowly coming apart. I’m so glad they are. I don’t need to perform any kind of gender.”
Powell continues, “There’s a lot of just letting go of insecurities [on this record], and a lot more seems to be revealed every time I write a new song and bring it to Bucky and Chris.” Truly, there’s a magic that this trio have managed to pull out of these sessions against all odds, producing the record themselves at Wheaton’s home studio. The intuitive treatment of Powell’s songs is a testament to their lifelong friendship with Wheaton and McCarron, Powell says. “I cant stress enough the way Bucky held my songs and held space for me… that rehearsal space – you wanna talk about safe spaces, it’s a nest,” they explain. “[For] me personally, who sometimes has had issues with just not feeling safe to create, it’s no small feat to have created a space like Bucky and Chris have, where I can completely feel safe and free enough to just be expressive and musically on.”
Powell adds that so much of the connective material between the tracks came from Wheaton just listening, even when Powell didn’t realize he was doing so – whether it’s literally, as in the phone call with Powell’s father, or conceptually, like taking inspiration from the tour van playlists Powell compiles. On Indistinct Conversations, disparate influences coalesce as the three collaborate, bringing in friends from the Montreal scene (like Erik Hove who added sax and flute, or Pietro Amato on keyboards and French horn). “I think I kind of scratch the surface at something and then we dig a little deeper. It’s just like a relay of, okay now you dig a bit, pass the baton, let’s see how far we can go before it stops making sense, or before it hurts too much,” Powell says of the songwriting process. “I think it was a joint effort, a joint vulnerability and a joint kind of coming together of what indistinct conversations meant.”
With these songs being built in the studio, having the album release delayed, and of course the ongoing pandemic, Land of Talk haven’t gotten to play the album live much. But this Thursday, September 24th, they’ll play this year’s hybrid in-person and live-streamed edition of POP Montreal (in-person ticketing is sold out for their performance). Powell says that despite the setbacks the band has faced, they’re more than happy to finally showcase this material. “We’re all kind of sensitive beings. We really wore our hearts on our sleeve even more so this time because it’s even more through our lens production-wise,” they explain. “But the results paid back – people are connecting with it more. This has become our most natural and rawest record. I was already proud of it cause we worked so hard. But now, more than that, this is such a special document just for us personally – I think it shows a lot of bravery and strength in our vulnerability, and I think that’s a huge lesson.”