By Cam LindsayIf Graham Van Pelt could shelter himself from the music industry in the cosy confines of his home in Montreal, QC, the musician's life would suit him just fine. But as someone who's toured the world and released critically acclaimed albums with two bands should know, putting yourself out there is part of the game. Any high school guidance counsellor would advise him that he chose the wrong career. Gearing up for even more attention with the release of sophomore Miracle Fortress album Was I The Wave?, Van Pelt is resigned more than enthused. "It's definitely not the part of doing this that I enjoy most," he says. "I've always been an agoraphobe and not very outgoing with people I don't know."
Dividing his time working as the everything behind Miracle Fortress and co-songwriter/co-keyboardist in the DIY party pop outfit Think About Life, Van Pelt has had to force himself to adapt to the life of a performer. "With Think About Life, I can handle it fine because I'm not the centre of attention. I can just enjoy being a part of it. The way I do Miracle Fortress is personal," he says. "With Miracle Fortress, it's primarily a process where I do everything myself and then just send it off into the virtual world where other people hear it."
Miracle Fortress began in 2005 (simultaneously with Think About Life), after Van Pelt transplanted from Stratford, ON to Montreal. Originally named Fort-Miracle and making "dronier instrumentals, noise jams, and generally scuzzy extras," it began as a solo project just like "every kid making music on their own," Van Pelt says. With some friends, Van Pelt helped launch the concert venues the Electric Tractor and later Friendship Cove and began working seriously on his music.
His first EP, Watery Grave, fell into the hands of local blogger Andrew Rose, who was starting a label called Secret City. "I did a 25-copy run of a CD-R and just gave it to him," Van Pelt says. "Andrew came back asking if I would make an album, which he would pay for. It was not really planned out beyond that."
When Secret City released Miracle Fortress's debut, Five Roses, in 2007, things took off. The album was well received by critics and eventually the legendary indie label Rough Trade licensed it to release in Europe. In hindsight, Van Pelt still sounds gobsmacked. "I was totally unprepared for the scale at which things would be happening. Even having Secret City offer to pay for that album and release it in a bigger way than anything I've done before was a big surprise."
The intricate, syrupy pop of Five Roses struck a significant chord with Canadian music writers and the album made the shortlist for the Polaris Music Prize. Along with nine other records, including Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, Feist's The Reminder and the eventual winner and Miracle Fortress label-mate, Patrick Watson's Close to Paradise, Graham found himself vying for a $20,000 cheque and the honour of owning the best Canadian album of the year.
Being thrust into this national spotlight was a little daunting for Van Pelt. "There was definitely a moment where I had to get people to stop sending me all of the press to my email," he says. "It got to a point where I just got tired that people were talking about it."
However, once he arrived in Toronto for the Polaris gala, he quickly grasped what he was a part of and understood how lucky he was to be in such a position, especially as the only rookie in the bunch. "The Polaris nomination came in its second year, and I recall that I didn't think it was a big deal until people started telling me it was," he says. "I didn't have any idea of the scale of how many people were involved with it, the number of writers pooled, and at that point in my life I may have been too cool for school and wanted to brush it off. But by the time I was sitting at the gala, it became very real and exciting, and was definitely a great thing for me."
Five Roses may have been a whirlwind for Van Pelt, but when it came time to following it up, he ran into a series of obstacles. Think About Life were busy playing shows and recording. In the spring of 2009, they released their second album, Family and he committed to touring throughout 2010, which also saw him embark on a European tour with Miracle Fortress. He also built up his résumé as a producer, taking jobs working on records by Grand Trine, No Joy, AIDS Wolf and Dead Wife.