Land of Talk
Finding A Voice
"I'm sorry, I'm so soaked!" Elizabeth Powell apologizes as she approaches and immediately leans in to greet me with a hug despite the fact that, just moments before, the skies emptied a sweltering hot summer's worth of pent-up precipitation over downtown Toronto. Bounding through the downpour into a cozy, quiet pub for our late afternoon chat, Powell finds a place to store her battered rain gear (a piece of cardboard) and apologizes again, this time for being tired. But even with the polite almost warning that she'd been up before the sun, she seems anything but ready to slow down.
Since forming the punk-infused indie rock trio Land of Talk in Montreal five years ago, she has struggled to establish consistency in a band that she'd always intended to be like family, enduring like veterans Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo, iconic in photos and timeless in liner notes. Try as she did to foster a diplomatic approach, and as band members continued to come and go, it was obvious to everyone but Powell that her simmering ambition was bigger than just a singer in a band, and eventually, she too would see that the functional dysfunction was holding her vision hostage.
Now fiercely perched atop a culmination of artistic self-awareness and firmly rooted confidence, Powell is set to release her band's sophomore album, the rich, progressive Cloak and Cipher. A marked departure for Land of Talk, it unravels itself as a taut, textured, deeply sophisticated pop album; from the wistful summer rush of "Quarry Hymns" to the vintage R.E.M. guitar work on "Blangee Blee," Powell is trading nervous for assured without sacrificing her tone-and-tempo-shifting edge. The album is a statement for Powell; she's taken ownership of her role as leader and is, by her own will and hard work, poised to deliver a personal and professional watershed in her still-young career.
It's also an album that, for a time, had no guarantee of ever being made. In fall 2008, mere weeks before the release of the band's full-length Saddle Creek debut Some Are Lakes, Powell's voice nearly gave out completely. Pushed to the point of requiring surgery for a haemorrhaged vocal cord polyp, she was able to fulfil only a handful of shows as guest guitarist and singer with Broken Social Scene before retreating to recover, reassess, and write. She would also need to completely relearn how to sing, though this time, the proper way. "It sucked then, but I don't like to go back and think about it. I'm excited about what's happening now," Powell says without hesitation.
Born north of Toronto in Orillia, but moving with her parents and brother in her early teens to Guelph, Ontario, Powell spent those formative years soaking up the city's significant punk and rock underground that birthed the Constantines and the defunct Three Gut Records label. Local icons such as Jim Guthrie and former Royal City frontman Aaron Riches welcomed the then-electric-violin-player into their bands and their scene, leaving a deep impression on Powell not only as a musician, but as a foundation of community and principles in art. "I don't know if I made the choice to become a musician, but it was people like Aaron and Jim who were huge influences. Jim used to have basement shows and he had a huge set up in his basement. So after school, we'd just jam. It was just such a natural, nurturing environment. All boys, mostly. Didn't matter. It was cool.
"Maybe me being a frontwoman in a band was just a result of there already being so many dudes playing guitars in bands ― you're relegated to bass or keys. There was no room for a female as guitar player only. So I [had to] blaze my own trail completely and make it about me, which I've never been comfortable with," Powell reflects, in her typical altruistic way, like she's trying to justify her ambitions.
Off the national radar but planting a big stake in Powell's course was local experimental rock band Pussy Chute ― more specifically, its leader Michele Thorsen. "She's amazing. She was a big role model for me, and I don't even know if she knows that." Powell remembers Thorsen as a protective older sister type, encouraging and helping Powell to project her literal and figurative voice.
"She started a girl gang called S.M.U.G. ― Smelly Messy Unkempt Girls ― and she made stickers and it was a picture of a hot, total tough-looking chick in a plaid shirt, and jean cut-off shorts, no make-up. Basically who I was, and [who] I still feel like. She was into solidarity in women and that was my introduction."
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