“I feel like you’re just more ready for life if you’re a pessimist.”
It’s a rainy morning in Toronto, and Ariel Engle is trying to parse the difference between pessimism and fear. Where do you draw the line between the two, and more importantly, how do these feelings inform her new self-titled solo album as La Force?
“I can be pleasantly surprised,” Engle continues, explaining how grateful she feels when good things happen in her life as opposed to the “act of faith” an optimist partakes in.
The last few years have been a roller coaster of blessings and tragedies for the Montreal-based musician. Having been on the peripheries of Toronto collective Broken Social Scene for many years (she is married to founding member Andrew Whiteman), Engle finally joined the band as an official member on its 2017 album, Hug of Thunder, as a songwriter and vocalist.
Her contributions were vital in forwarding the band’s signature indie-rock sound, especially on some of the album’s strongest tracks, “Stay Happy” and “Gonna Get Better.” With Engle onboard, the band gained yet another strong female vocalist whose saccharine harmonies can blend beautifully with Leslie Feist, Amy Millan and Emily Haines, but can also lead the charge and take things to new melodic heights.
That, of course, launched Engle into a busy cycle of recording and touring, which she had to balance alongside newfound motherhood and her solo project, which was gradually taking shape at the same time. What first started off as a followup album for her and Whiteman’s band, AroarA, soon turned sour; a rarity for the couple, Engle notes. “We don’t fight that much,” she assures. “But this was taxing.”
“What he could see that I couldn’t see yet was that I really needed to do some stuff alone,” Engle recalls, of those last AroarA sessions. “So halfway through the process, he was like ‘Maybe you need to do this by yourself,’ and I was like, 'Maybe I do.'”
From there, it took Engle roughly three years to put together a full album, a process that was derailed, transformed and ultimately influenced by two big life events: the birth of her daughter and the death of her father.
The melancholic ballad “Lucky One” was one of the first tracks Engle wrote, shortly after she gave birth. “I thought, oh this is incredible,” she reveals. “But is this going to be OK? Everything is perfect right now, but you have to beware of perfection because something’s going to happen, and it did. Shit happens.”
That towering anxiety is felt on the track, as Engle sings: “When you said I was the lucky one/ did you mean compared to them?/ Here tall, 'til the penny drops and I lose everything.” But against the simple guitar line and heartbeat rhythm, she sounds in control of her destiny, prepared for the worst outcome around every corner.
Soon after, her father died of cancer. “I could feel my daughter calling to me as I was calling to my father,” she remembers. “It’s a very vulnerable place; a raw child emotion.” That grappling of the past — her memories of her father — versus future — taking care of her child — is felt throughout La Force, a mental tug-of-war that forced Engle to truly dive headfirst into her demons (“Mama Papa”) while still hanging onto the love that keeps her afloat (“You Amaze Me”).
“It makes my record sound very depressing!” she laughs, midway through our discussion, as the view out the café window continues to show some serious downpour. Even with all these dark clouds casted, Engle is effervescent in real life and that brightness is reflected on the album — especially on the closing duet with Whiteman called “Epistolary Love Song,” where its lyrics are taken from emails that she and Whiteman exchanged early on in their relationship. “There are really happy moments because really happy things did happen,” she clarifies. “But, I’m also not afraid of the dark.”
La Force, as a result, shows a lot of range, emotionally and musically. But it’s a ride worth taking, especially when guided by a voice like Engle’s — ethereal, moving and, outside of the confines of singing backup or in a band, truly a force to be reckoned with.
The upcoming months continue to look busy for Engle: a few more Broken Social Scene dates lined up (she offers nothing but a wide-eyed smile when asked if the band will record more music soon) and a slew of La Force tour dates. Engle hasn’t done many shows as La Force just yet, but the few she has have set the bar high: opening for Feist at a church outside of Montreal, and for Patrick Watson at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall.
In true Engle fashion, she kicks the bar back down in pessimistic style for her next gig. “I’ll be here next time, just in the corner,” she says, of the Dundas West coffee shop we’re sitting in. “I would love to be an optimist, but I just can’t will myself to.”