It's Thursday night behind the Cobalt, a bar in East Vancouver that straddles the line between divine and dive. Members of Twin River, the garage pop band that's celebrating the launch of its new record tonight, are perched on the bumper of a massive truck that may or may not be broken down. They've just finished soundcheck and they're feeling good. It's been a rough few years — a breakup that's not unrelated to a departure of one of their bandmates, their lead singer-songwriter Courtney Ewan's move to Montreal — but now they're on the other side, and their new album, Passing Shade, is a time capsule of the upheaval. It's also an anchor in this moment, says Ewan, and a declaration.
Ewan and fellow guitarist Andy Bishop started playing together seven years ago. Originally, Twin River was more of an alt-folk project for the duo, but their sound and style has evolved, as has their somewhat rotating lineup. This is the first record with a mostly solidified lineup: Francesco Lyon on bass and percussion, Jordan MacKenzie on drums and Rebecca Law Gray on keys and supporting vocals. Only Gray is missing tonight, but the rest of Twin River is ready to talk about their journey from duo to five-piece, heartbreak and friendship, and borrowing from Patti Smith.
I love the new record. It’s a very far journey from where you started as a duo. Was that a conscious decision or where your hearts took you?
Ewan: A little bit of both, actually. When we were recording Rough Gold, the first EP we did, we recorded it at our friend’s house. We went in as a duo, but over the course of the weekend, we kept saying, ‘Oh, it’d be fun if Rebecca came by and sang on this part!’ or asked this person to do this, and then we just didn’t stop adding people.
But in terms of the actual sound, from an alt-folk twang to garage-pop. It has so much joy and still some grit.
Bishop: How long did we do Rough Gold? Five years?
Bishop: I think that’s the biggest answer right there. To be honest, it bums me out if any artist has trouble trying out different ideas and different styles. What I really enjoy about this group is we didn’t really have anything in mind, but we get to be creative. Our last record was a little bit more all over the place and we got to try a lot of different styles out. It was really the first time we recorded as a full band, everybody in the studio, and we kind of wrote it in all sorts of different ways and genres and ideas. There were a few ways that kind of stuck and we built on those... we used that as somewhat of a template to move forward.
Ewan: Also, sometimes it’s as simple as you add more amplified instruments and it becomes louder. You’re suddenly in a louder band and you have to strum the guitar a bit differently so you don’t get lost amongst four other amps.
Vancouver has a kind of tight-knit scene which is lovely, but what has been like for you to leave it and then return, in this half-return way?
Ewan: I sort of think I did a bad job of leaving Vancouver because I was home maybe 30 per cent of the last two years. So even though I was like, ‘I’m moving!’ I don’t feel like I left. Maybe I was clinging desperately to Vancouver, but I didn’t feel like I made a grand departure. But maybe that’s Canadian music. Even though I was a five-and-a-half-hour flight away, I was still in this bubble of Canadian music.
Your last record came out in early 2015. It’s only 2016 now. That’s a fast output. What was the decision-making around that?
Ewan: Well, the funny thing is that’s just what the calendar shows. Should the Light came out a year and a half after we recorded it, so even though it does seem like on paper the two records are really close together, in our brains it felt like quite a long time. Basically, the second we could do another record, we wanted to.
Bishop: You’re giving away the secrets!
Ewan: (Laughs) Sorry.
Bishop: We’re just prolific.
Ewan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re right. I sneeze and write a song.
Bishop: Courtney Taylor, not Courtney Ewan, Courtney Taylor: ‘I sneeze hits.’
Ewan: Oh man, please don’t take that as the quote.
It will definitely be the headline... You were writing and sending songs to Andy cross-country, and you were writing through some dark times, which has also impacted the band in that —
Ewan: There’s a human missing.
Yeah. [Courtney’s ex is also her former Twin River bandmate.] How do you play through that empty space?
Ewan: The empty space is this ‘glass half full or half empty.’ Emotional ties aside, we’ve played with quite a number of people over the last few years. It does, in a sense, have a rotating lineup, so it’s not the first time we’ve had a lineup change. And as far as writing through something personal, I feel like part of it made it easier because I had something to write about, which is not always there. And it pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Bishop: It’s such a great thing, you know, when you realize as a songwriter that it’s okay to write about something personal, it’s a breakthrough. It took me a long time, like, ‘oh, I have to use metaphors’ or, even though the song still is about you, you fight that. It wasn’t until I started listening to a lot of Jason Molina years ago and like, right now I have shivers and tears just thinking about it, but it was like that kind of moment. He’s writing about these personal things and it’s alright. It’s such a beautiful thing for this record.
Even the title, the concept of passing shade can be respite from unbearable conditions or it could be a nod to throwing shade or casting aspersions.
Lyon: I wonder if that’s a term in art school, like passing shade, some angle of light?
Ewan: The title has a concrete reference. It’s from Patti Smith’s book, M Train, and we switched the order of words which slightly changes the meaning, which I liked for all the reasons you kind of outlined there. But it’s from the forward to M Train and she has a dream that she’s talking to this cowboy and he’s ignoring her and she’s really trying to get his attention. He won’t even look up or acknowledge her presence and she gets angry and says, ‘You can’t ignore me, this is my dream, you have to talk to me. I’m not just a shade passing.’ And it’s this real moment of self-assertion and confidence and I read that line and I was like, yeah, that’s right. She’s within her dream, but I felt the same. That’s exactly where I’m at in my life right now. This feeling of like, yes, okay, I want to write about my own life and stop — like, I like songwriting for the aspect of storytelling as well, but I wanted to kind of, like, drop an anchor here and live in this moment for a minute.
It’s album launch night. What does it mean to each of you to celebrate this record?
MacKenzie: It’s pretty special and I’ve played on a lot of records and to do it with these people and under the circumstances on which the record was written, it’s a really special night. It’s just awesome and it’s been a while since we recorded it, so it’s just nice to get it out there.
Ewan: What I just said about dropping an anchor, it feels like another anchor. It’s one of these landmark moments — I’m really proud of this record and I’m proud of what we did and the way that we did it and what we’re going to do. It’s nice to have a night celebrating that.
Lyon: For the most part, I went through a lot of change in the last six or seven months.
Ewan: You passed some of your own shade.
Lyon: I passed a lot of shade. And I feel like this album sparked a lot of great creativity that I felt I lacked in music in general, that I’ve never really been challenged with. The way we recorded it, we were all really busy. Andy and Jordan and I were also working on White Ash Falls stuff, too, and Courtney would fly in, and it would be very stressful and intense, but it was great, because it did spark other things that probably came from being really intense. I really appreciated that part of it and I’m really stoked, because I think we recorded a really cool album. For the most part. (Laughs) Until we pass shade.
Bishop: I’m just really excited to get it out. I feel very proud and passionate about the record that we did. Courtney and I have been playing together now for seven years and Frank, Jordan and I have been playing together for four years in two different bands. It was really nice on this record to get everybody in together. It was like two worlds collided in the best way. These are my best friends and I’m so happy to share this with them. I’m a sap.
Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner
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