After five years perfecting his craft as a singer-songwriter in the troubadour mould, Montreal's Leif Vollebekk learned to let his songs breathe.
“In the past, you think Bob Dylan and Neil Young — I have to make it work just with a guitar and a voice. That's a song,” he explains. “That's a great rule but I also realized, why do I have this rule? The new songs, I didn't want to have any limits.”
The results, as heard on third release Twin Solitude, are what one imagines Nick Drake would sound like if covered by Jeff Buckley, with Vollebekk's stream-of-consciousness lyricism coloured by a special relativity as informed by what’s not there as what is.
Below, Vollebekk gives a track-by-track breakdown of the album.
"When I wrote that song it came out in one shot. I didn't change any of the words. It was done in like 15, 20 minutes. If I write songs out I can't read any of the words afterwards, so I type it out on the typewriter. I know it sounds stupid but if I'm on the computer I can't concentrate. So I use a typewriter.
"It was the first song that I wrote for the record. I was hoping to have some new songs and I had been forcing them and this one just came out so easily and felt so good to play. So I was like, ‘Oh, this is how I want to write the rest of the record.’
"My subconscious was like, we've been working on this for ages. And lyrically, it feels like the first one. It's a renewal. As a musician, you tend to get to bed later and wake up later. But when you get up in Vancouver to start a tour you feel so great because you're getting up at like 8; you're up with the sun. That's really nice. For some reason that was on my mind a lot. It's not that it's different over there, it's more like there's a certain spirit to being on the West Coast. And when I'm out there I feel like everyone leaves me alone. If anyone wants you from Ottawa or Montreal, you're safe."
'All Night Sedans'
"I was in Florida during this period where I had to get away from me. As a true Canadian, I used to go to Florida when I was younger with the fam. For a while I thought this record was going to have a Florida theme. Every place has this feeling, that's why there are so many place names in my songs. What's the vibe of a city like? It's very moving. There's something about Florida where it's like, you're on your own. I don't feel bogged down by anything.
"So I was in Florida and I was getting off the highway and there was this car and on the back it said, 'All Night Sedans.' And I looked it up and found out it's this all-night sedan delivery company. For some reason it really touched me. I was like, this guy's working. It was at night, he may have been living in that car, I don't know. But it just got stuck in my head. All Night Sedans. It means nothing and everything to me. It just kind of takes you somewhere.
"I'd kind of forgotten about it and months later I was listening to Kate Bush and I just went to the piano and wrote this song. Then all of a sudden, about halfway through, those words came up and it was like, 'Oh, that's this song.'"
"This song arrived complete with a bass line, lyrics and chords. I wasn't playing anything, I was just biking around and I assumed it was someone else's song because it had all those elements. I still wonder if it's someone else's song. I didn't write it down because I thought it was a stupid song and then I went to bed and thought, why didn't you write that song down?! Because it was so different for me I thought, well, this isn't the kind of song I write but then that's the whole point. You've been trying to figure out what you write if you're not trying to write in a certain style."
'Into the Ether'
"I think I was hungover when I wrote this song. I'd been dragged to a club in Montreal. The next morning I was bleary-eyed and started playing these chords and singing whatever came and this song kind of came out. It seems to be about nothing specific but it kind of connects what it needs to, where it needs to."
'Big Sky Country'
"When I was younger I went on a road trip to Montana and all the licence plates say ‘Big Sky Country’ and the sky is really beautiful out there. And some time later I was playing some festival in Saskatoon and the licence plates out there say ‘Land of the Living Skies.’ And when I was writing this song that line came to me: 'Meet me where the land of the living skies meets big sky country.' And then I realized they touch! For some reason that got me excited, that they would argue about that: Big sky! No it's living!"
"Before going to bed one night, my guitar was out of tune and I picked it and strummed. It was in this beautiful tuning and I strummed it again with a second chord — the song only has two chords — and all of a sudden I just wrote this song.
"It's a rhythmic thing. There's something about the rhythm of saying ‘never been’: I've never been to Michigan. It rolls in this way. I've been thinking a lot about how the rhythm of the words is the hook in a lot of Motown songs. English is the best for that. Marshall Mcluhan said that rock and roll is English. It works because all of the natural rhythm's in English. A song like ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ works because ‘Delivered’ is a triplet. Whereas in French it would be very flat. So I think this song is so great because it's doing that thing that I like. It's really fun to say.
"For the record, I've been to Michigan lots of times."
'Road to Venus'
"I booked a show in Colorado and I booked a show in L.A. so that I could drive between them. When I was driving Venus was due west and every night it's the first thing in the sky. I was doing it alone so you kinda let your mind wander and for a little while I was in love with Venus. I was just following her all the way to L.A. I wrote this song a few months later.
"Also, when I was 14, I was taken by my mom to see a Christopher Pratt exhibit and he had a painting called Driving to Venus and I remember going, 'This is an awful title. It should be Road to Venus. That's how you say it. You don't say 'Driving to Venus,' that's stupid.' It really bummed me out and then 15 years later, I stole the correction.
"So in my mind I had thought of a title for someone else's painting, then I was living the painting, then I wrote a song about it."
'East of Eden'
"This is the oldest song on the record. I'd been kicking around the lyrics for a while trying to find the right chords. I'd been listening this English folk singer called Nick Jones, and there's this one song I was trying to learn how to play and I had to change the tuning on my guitar to cheat, and I discovered I could play chords on it. So I put the two together."
"The folk singer Gregory Alan Isakov had this house show I played at and after the show a couple of people were talking about coming back from this place called Telluride and for some reason it just sounded really good to me. A few months later I wrote this song. It was the morning after I wrote ‘Michigan’ and I did the same thing with the words. You get lazy midway through saying it: Telluride. It just sings itself."
"This is an eight-minute song but it's not that it's so long, it's the tempo's so slow. I wrote that one on the piano at some point and I showed it to my sax player and told him I wanted it to sound like Tom Waits' 'Anywhere I Lay My Head.' He said we should play it on the pump organ like Tom and I thought, yeah, we don't need another piano ballad. So I asked him to overdub a bunch of sax without listening to the other takes and then did the same thing with harp. And when we mixed it, it was this totally organic thing.
"I tracked it live and we only did one take. And at the end we came to the control room and I assumed it was four or five minutes and then it turned out eight-and-a-half minutes. It wanted to breathe."
Twin Solitude is out now.