Published Aug 21, 2010"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."
Though not very eager to discuss her own role as a woman in music for fear it overshadows the rest of what informs her, when asked if she feels any obligation to carry that torch, Powell's tone turns meek. "I owe her, yeah. I would want to be that to a girl, or girls. I would like that." You get the feeling that Powell isn't so much the reluctant hero as she is an engaged and influenced product of post-feminism, perpetually in the private, persistent midst of mapping her roles as artist and woman, but also ready for everyone to just get over the gender thing already.
It wasn't long before Powell felt restless with her violin and her transition into a multi-instrumentalist and solo artist occurred. "I started playing fretless bass. It was more appropriate than a violin and I felt like I had more power and more traction," recalls Powell, fondly listing numerous bands she played in. "Every week we would start a different one, you know? There was a lot of experimentation; there was a lot of freedom."
After her dad helped to build a soundproof room with egg cartons and velvet drapes in the family's basement ("not so soundproof, by the way," deadpans Powell), money from after-school jobs as a babysitter and parental-relief worker for parents of special needs children was used to buy a drum kit and a four-track recorder. In this eggshell basement retreat, Powell began building songs, laying down rhythm and pushing the limits of alternate tunings and heavy-gauge strings on an old Yamaha acoustic guitar.
In a blissful self-sufficient blush, Powell flexed her voice at open-mic nights, made a solo CD, and recorded a cassette with Guthrie that she would sell in attempts to make tuition to study music at Concordia in Montreal the following fall. Bluntly, though, Powell mourns the quick end of an impressionable era.
"I got to university and kind of lost myself," she says. "Nobody knew me. And it kind of killed [music] for me. I already knew what was going on. I didn't need to be discouraged and demoralized and given really bad marks." So she started a band, Land of Talk. Schoolmates Chris McCarron and Mark "Bucky" Wheaton, on bass and drums respectively, temporarily accompanied her for the gritty, grabbing math-rock of their first EP, Applause Cheer Boo Hiss.
After touring, losing a second drummer (Eric Thibodeau) and garnering a heap of critical hype primarily from American bloggers, the trio (now rounded out by Andrew Barr on drums) returned to the studio, this time with producer Justin Vernon ― aka Bon Iver, himself about to be consumed in an avalanche of praise for his stunning album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon's scaled-back approach meant a slightly leaner sound for Some Are Lakes. Bassist McCarron left in the unrest that preceded the album's release, leaving room for current bassist Joe Yarmush to join.
Powell's downtime yielded another EP, Fun and Laughter, in late 2009, noted for its inspired, maturing songwriting, courtesy of a recharged Powell. "I had no idea about 'the machine' and being inputted into the industry, and becoming a thing; a sex thing, and a woman thing. Before all that bullshit ― and it is total bullshit ― I was writing and completely orchestrating on my four-track. I was playing the drums, I was playing the bass, I was doing the guitar," she says.
Recovery from throat surgery brought solitude, and an opportunity to reclaim what Powell didn't even realize she'd lost; with no expectations, she had carte blanche. When it came time to record Cloak and Cipher, Powell recruited the trusted ear of her old friend Jace Lasek, co-leader and primary sound wizard of the Besnard Lakes. They went back to his Breakglass Studio, where Applause also came to be. "The initial EP seemed to be more of a band effort, but with this it's seemed to be very much a solitary thing," Lasek says with a stated reverence for Powell. "She's learned a lot from making the records that's she's already done, and now she's really quite focused on what she wants and what she doesn't want."
Uncharacteristically punctuated with reserved bursts of horns and strings on songs like the gorgeous, shivering "Colour Me Badd," and with appearances from members of Stars, Wintersleep, and Arcade Fire, to name a few, it could almost be seen as the band's first bona fide "Canadian Indie Rock" record, something Powell attributes partially to finally feeling not just tethered, but anchored to a music community. "I haven't ever felt like I embraced Montreal as my home until probably the last year or two. That was a huge thing, too."
The symbolic lyrics ― borrowed passages from books, TV, newspapers, wherever, and filtered through Powell's omnipresent journal ― remain vague yet chilling and at times anxiously indecipherable, such as on "The Hate I Won't Commit," Powell's professed ode to Fugazi. Its one-take, fat-bottomed bass-chord groove and manic guitars sound almost calm next to Patrick Watson's staccato distorted piano part.
"I was trying to do the piano solo and I couldn't do it," recounts Powell, "and I remember smashing down on the piano and saying, 'where the fuck is Patrick Watson when you need him?'" Her fit of frustration turned prophetic when she called it a night, only to open the studio door and see Watson himself walking down the hall. "He had been talking to Jace a couple days earlier and found out we were in the studio together and was coming by late to have a drink or something. That [part] was all just him having a good time, just loving the song, and giving it whatever it needed and deserved."
Gratitude oozes from Powell when she speaks of her peers. "Land of Talk has been a lot of people's passion project, and not just mine," she says. Lasek backs that up, reciprocating the admiration. "It's a really amazing time making records with her. She's always full of surprises; there's always something new coming, always another song that we don't have time to record, but she's still always writing and always working. There's so much more in her to keep making music."
"Some bands have a bit more of a meteoric rise, and some are slow burners. I like to think we're a slow burner," Powell says. "It's totally true to who I am and how I approach my own life. Very slow and very unsure, but curious. And it all works out."
"Everything got kind of confused and weird and stupid and bullshit and everyone got the wrong ideas and misguided. This record is the first time in a long time, like, since I was Elizabeth Powell from Guelph, solo, and believing in what I was doing..." she pauses, then with that measured, fiery conviction, continues, "I feel as good as I did when I was in Guelph. I finally just accepted and embraced the fact that Land of Talk is me."