Ada Lea Maps Memories Across Montreal on Sophomore LP

Photo Credit: Monse Muro

On September 24, Alexandra Levy – known by the musical moniker Ada Lea – released her sophomore LP one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden via Saddle Creek Records. Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Marshall Vore, guitarist Harrison Whitford (both of Phoebe Bridgers’ band), and mixing engineer Burke Reid (Courtney Barnett), the album provides listeners a new perspective on an artist whose 2019 debut LP what we say in private had previously established her as a pillar in the contemporary indie scene. 

A practice in long form storytelling, Ada Lea’s latest effort renders a handful of vignettes noteworthy enough to make up the essence of a singular year split evenly into four seasons, beginning with a fateful New Year’s Eve party depicted in “damn.” As the album unfolds, each song becomes a benchmark in a nonlinear devotion to documenting the happenings of a year in Levy’s life. Levy claims that “the narrative definitely took precedence over anything,” a sentiment which can be felt through the lyrical character building felt throughout. Here, duality creates intrigue – no character is any one thing, but a myriad of moments and desires which conflict with themselves tenderly and honestly.

The album, in part, is a commentary on how to get closer to time and its passing through revisiting physical locations. Set in the St Denis area of Montreal where Levy grew up, the physical release of the record includes a map marked with a corresponding location for each song. “partner” is set in the diner a heartbroken lover revisits to remember the glare of neon lights that shone down on her during a break up. “oranges” is centered on a house with a landing where two old friends shared cigarettes and wine, reminiscing of better times. On “saltspring,” the narrator goes back to an island to see names once written in the sand now washed away. Listeners can get a sense of Levy traversing a physical map as a way to conceive of memories from another time and even compare them to the present. One year is different from another, sure, but that difference is legitimized by the ways our relationships change, and how our feelings on those relationships shift with distance. 

Levy and Vore were going for “rich, warm, chorus-y tones” which can be felt on each track regardless of structure. “[Marshall] had a pretty clear idea of what he was envisioning tonally, so it was just a matter of ‘dialing it in,’ as they say in the biz,” says Levy. “Some effects were baked into the tracks during the sessions with Marshall, but Burke Reid, who mixed the record, really brought the songs to this gorgeous place.” There’s something exciting about an artist who allows the environment and sound of a song to build the character in question as much as the lyrics. This happens subtly in Ada Lea’s work, leaving plenty of room for listeners to fall into the feelings she wants to evoke, beckoned quietly into the world built by each song without being told how to feel.

There’s a particularly interesting dynamic at work on album tracks “backyard” and “writer in ny.” With vocals that sound flattened and distant, “backyard” is about choosing to stay in one place and learn the ins and outs of it, a nod to the joys of familiarity and how watching things change over time develops attachments and understandings. “There is something to be said/About growing up in the neighbourhood/And then staying in that neighbourhood/Even when you finally could leave and explore other places near or far/But you chose to stay in the place you grew up,” Levy sings in the song’s opening lines, a distinct sentimentality in her delivery.

Immediately following, “writer in ny” embodies a craving for change based on fantasies attached to highly romanticized locations. The chorus goes, “Cause nothing’s gonna bring me down/If I never had it anyway/I’ll be a writer in New York/Winter in L.A.” Well aware of its cliché, these lines are heavy with the weight of believing that happiness can only be found in these ‘ideal’ ways of life, in these ‘ideal’ locations. And so two things can be true at once – we can flourish wherever we’re planted, marking our growth easily in familiar surroundings, while also yearning for growth and expansiveness elsewhere.

“On one hand you’re moving forward, you’re in motion, but your other hand is gripping to memories and roots – somehow wanting to be in control, yet reaching for the impossible at the same time,” Levy says of this “push and pull.” That concept echoes through the album’s title, with its play on words (using “sewing” as an alternative to “sowing”) signifying the way language can twist our intentions.

Throughout one hand… we are given insight into characters introduced in Ada Lea’s previous work. We see and feel that critical moments have transpired that have changed these people for better and for worse. And true to reality, not every moment could have been foretold. Levy’s greatest inspiration, author Elena Ferrante, says that the best writing brings “Unexpected events, meaningful contradictions, sudden swerves in the language, in the psychology of the characters.” For me, the most intriguing part of this album is the way Levy forgives the humanness of her characters, how she continues to love them and be loved by them, regardless of their mistakes and their daydreaming. It’s as honest as it is heartbreaking, and like life it continues to unfold as quickly as time allows.

No moving to a new city, going back to an old lover, or reminiscing on drunken parties will slow that roll, but Levy manages to document her life and the lives of those around her well enough that change feels less like a loss and more like an opportunity for the upheaval of unending doldrums. Mid-album instrumental track “and my newness spoke to your newness and it was a thing of endless,” a slightly variable guitar loop with a soft, warm hum throughout, explains best how fast and bottomless one year can be – especially when in the company of a loved one, reborn endlessly into one another’s newfangled selves.

Follow Ada Lea on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Land of Talk Makes Boldest Statement Yet with Indistinct Conversations

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.”

Follow Land of Talk on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PLAYING PHILLY: Frances Quinlan of Hop Along Releases First Solo Single

Frances Quinlan press photo by Julia Khorosilov.

Don’t get me wrong: Hop Along is one of the best bands in the business. But what would Hop Along be without Frances Quinlan’s distinctly shrill vocals and unparalleled, witty songwriting? On Tuesday, Frances Quinlan announced her first solo record, Likewise, out January 31 on Saddle Creek, and shared its first single, “Rare Thing.” The track feels fantastical because it was inspired by a dream, and though it is, admittedly, about Quinlan’s relationship with her baby niece, there’s a universality to her declarations of selfless love. It’s a typical Quinlan move – to lull us into a sense of comfort as her vocals lilt around the melodic plucking of a harp, only to drop a truth bomb on us when we least expect it: “There is love that doesn’t have to do with/taking something from somebody.”

Quinlan’s solo work isn’t unfamiliar compared to Hop Along, which makes sense, since bandmate Joe Reinhart engineered the record at Philadelphia’s Headroom Records. But there’s a certain sense of creative freedom and urgency on “Rare Thing.” Her solo project gives her room to veer away from the structure of a rock band – the baggage of its guitars and drums – and experiment with something more stripped down. It’s not unlike her live performance of Hop Along’s “Happy to See Me,” off of the band’s 2015 record Painted Shut (usually, Quinlan’s three bandmates will leave the stage for her to perform with just her guitar). Only this time, rather than just performing acoustically, she’s able to explore other instrumentation, incorporating synths, harps, and what sounds like a drum machine.

This isn’t the first time Quinlan has worked without a full band. After her first year at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), she wrote and recorded Freshman Year (2005) as Hop Along, Queen Ansleis. Though she was just a teenager when she released her first freak folk album, the low-budget project took on a digital life of its own, amassing such a cult fan base that Saddle Creek put out a vinyl reissue of the LP in 2015, its tenth anniversary. Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield even has a tattoo on her arm of the Freshman Year album artwork: a surreal and somewhat indiscernable doodle, which looks like a goose wearing an oversized chef’s hat and apron.

Given her schooling at MICA, it’s not surprising that Quinlan makes all of Hop Along’s album art. When I wrote about her artwork for She Shreds in 2015, Quinlan said, “There’s going to be a point when my voice goes, and I’m not going to be able to tour anymore, but I think I’m going to have painting in my life forever.” So it’s exciting to see her painterly touch on the promotional materials for Likewise – Quinlan’s press photo looks like it’s taken in an art studio, and the album’s cover is almost undoubtedly of her own making. The limited edition pre-order of Likewise – which sold out within hours – even includes two signed screen prints.

Like her music, Quinlan’s artwork is beautifully incoherent. Something feels off-kilter, though her work – visual and aural – creates a sense of ease. The intimacy and overflowing wordiness of her songwriting feel like a friend who’s so eager to tell you a story that she has to stop to catch her breath; likewise, the paintings and screen prints that crop up on Quinlan’s Instagram are as soothing as they are frenetic: in the image below, the earthy landforms seem to morph into animals the longer you look, like an optical illusion.

Like her paintings, “Rare Thing” gains more depth the longer you listen – what at first sounds like it could be a Postal Service song ends up evolving into something more artful, with bassy riffs and melodic strings dancing through the song. Frances Quinlan’s music – whether solo or with Hop Along – demands close attention, and it’s a joy to sink deeper into her fantastical, cluttered world.

INTERVIEW: Maria Taylor

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Photo Credit: Liz Bretz

Maria Taylor has a long history of creating music – she played in her first band when she was just fifteen, and spent most of the ensuing decades as a cornerstone of famed Omaha label  Saddle Creek, releasing records both as a solo act and as part of duo Azure Ray (alongside Orenda Fink). Last December, she put out In the Next Life, her sixth solo record, this time on her own label, Flower Moon Records. The album sees vocal accompaniment from longtime collaborators like Conor Oberst, Joshua Radin, Macey Taylor, and others.

In the past three years, Taylor has taken time away from music to focus on family; she got married in 2013 and has two young children, slowing her prolific musical output somewhat. The result is that Next Life is an album full of appreciation and love for family as well as a personal reflection of a life spent seeking out higher fulfillment. The tracks are delicate and intimate, the type of warm and glistening folk music that resonates deeply. She reflects on the past (“Pretty Scars”), promises made to her children (“A Good Life”), perseverance (“There’s Only Now”) and living life to the fullest (“If Only”), with wisdom, grace, and gratitude.

Taylor has been touring to showcase her latest album, and we chatted with her briefly about how it’s all been going.

I see that you recently released In the Next Life and are touring for it. How has the reception around it been so far? Was it what you expected it might be?

It seems to be well received. I never really have any expectations when I release a record, but it’s always nice to feel like your fans are on the same page as you. We are all growing up together.

What inspired you to create this album?

I had taken three years off since having two kids. I adore being a mom, but writing and playing music has been such a part of me for my whole life. I really felt like I needed to write this record to remember my identity other than just being a mom. It was also important for me to show my kids this side of me, for them to see what I love and what makes me happy.

What has it been like setting up your own label and releasing music through it? I imagine there’s a certain sense of elation and pride behind doing so.

It’s been a really gratifying experience. I couldn’t do it without my husband. He’s the label head. It’s a ton of work, but it’s been a fun process, and we’ve even released my friend Louis Schefano’s record on the label.

You’ve toured alongside many notable acts and have some fantastic features on In the Next Life. Are there any past joint performances that shine particularly brightly in your memory? 

Hmm. I think that the time I played with Bright Eyes at The Town Hall in New York was one of my most memorable performances. He played seven shows in a row and had guests each night. I was on stage playing two of my songs with his amazing band plus Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Nick Zinner, and Ben Gibbard. I remember looking around and thinking, ” Oh my god, what the hell is happening?!”

Who would be an artist or band that you’d love to play with (living or deceased)?

I’d love to play with Carole King.

When playing live or writing an album, it is difficult to keep your solo work separate from the work you do with Azure Ray?  

In Azure Ray we always wrote individually, so the writing process is the same. When I’m playing live I usually don’t play any of my Azure Ray songs. I have so many newer solo songs that I want to play, it’s hard enough to narrow that down to a set.

Your musical history is quite prolific at this point. What do you have in mind for next moves?

I’ll always write music—as long as i’m breathing! But my kids are my first priority now. Their needs will dictate what I do with my time from now on.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

ALBUM REVIEW: Hop Along “Painted Shut”

painted shut

It’s easy to imagine Frances Quinlan, the vocalist of Philadelphia’s Hop Along, as the frontwoman of a stage-destroying punk band. She seems to put every bit of energy she has into her singing until she’s hoarse and out of breath, twisting her voice from a whisper to a howl. The band behind her, though, provides some relief from her intensity. The rhythm section, made up of  Tyler Long on bass and her brother Mark on drums, remains unshakably steady under Joe Reinhart’s wiry guitar.

Painted Shut is Hop Along’s second album, and the first they’ve released through Saddle Creek Records. John Agnello, known for his work with Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, co-produced and mixed the album, and according to the band, it was “finished in the shortest span of time the band has ever made anything.”

Key tracks on Painted Shut are “Powerful Man” and “Buddy In The Parade.” The first tells the story of what Frances calls her greatest regret: not being able to help a child she suspected was being abused. The second is inspired by the jazz musician Buddy Bolden, who suffered from schizophrenia. “Horseshoe Crabs” deals with another troubled artist, the folk musician Jackson C. Frank, and contains my favorite line on the album: when Frances describes waking up to a sunrise as “staring at the ass-crack of dawn.” 

The band is currently on tour, and they’ll be playing at Baby’s All Right on Sunday. If you can’t make it (it is Mother’s Day, after all) you can at least check out the shadowy, illustrated music video for “Powerful Man” below!

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