If 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.
"I was doing a lot of juggling, but definitely in the last couple of years it's gotten more complicated," he says. "It's tricky, considering both bands started touring and doing similar things at the same time. A lot of people would say one is the side-project to the other, but I was trying to have two main projects and spend full-time on both, which was taxing after a while. For now, it's not going to change. I've been trying to get better at everything I do in both."
When it came time for a second Miracle Fortress record, Van Pelt found himself unsure of what kind of record he wanted to make. "I've never been interested in coming up with a good formula and then repeating it, hoping people keep liking it," he says. "I had a lot of material and I was having a tricky time trying to fit it into one record. I was supposed to be making an album and I kind of made five EPs. So what's coming out is some choice songs from a couple years and then songs that came to me fairly recently."
Was I The Wave? is not the album anyone could have anticipated. Fans of Five Roses may find the new album to be a challenge considering how much of a departure it is. According to Van Pelt though, there wasn't a great difference in making the two albums. "It's an entirely different record, but there was no conscious choice to try and test myself," he explains. "The way I make songs didn't change, I used all of the same tools. The process didn't change either; I just isolated myself with all of these sounds and just tried to make songs out of them. Sampling is primary to what I do and a lot of the sounds on the new album are me taking one note from another record and messing around until three or four sounds click together and make some sense. That's how I entertain myself. I fell in love with sampling as a young kid. Since then it's been what I like to do most with my free time, I guess."
Where Five Roses played with field recordings, copious layers of warm psychedelic guitar tones and soft pop melodies, Was I The Wave? occupies itself with brooding electronic textures, throbbing programmed drums and overt minimalism. Were it not for Van Pelt's unmissable falsetto singing those wistful harmonies, he could have easily released this under a new moniker, and no one would be any the wiser.
"The biggest difference is in the production: there are some pretty heavy moments and beat-driven stuff I stayed away from on Five Roses," he explains. "We've been talking about how this is a record more for the individual as opposed to a big group of people. The mood was different on this album. It was gradual and you could chart it if you were hearing the random things I was working on. It kind of started with trying to make a dance song or trying to make a minor key dance song. I was also going through a depressed period in my life and writing downbeat material."
What overcame him was a great sense of loss when author and post-modern literary icon David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008. "Around 2007 or 2008, he had become a really big hero to me," recalls Van Pelt. "I read anything he wrote and loved everything he was doing. His death came right around the tail end of touring for Five Roses, and I had never felt so abandoned and unprepared as right then. At the time, I was a little too close to his work to really keep my cool. I ended up having a big breakdown that day and didn't feel good for a long period of time.
"I was pretty upset because he dealt with a lot of things in his work that I was really interested in, like being honest about what you do. I had bought into a lot of what I thought he was about, so it was pretty painful when he killed himself. I put a lot of stock into being really good at everything I do, so I was losing motivation and things were slowing down. It was a good while before I could confidently live with any of the work I was doing, in the face of his 'not making it' through his own fight."
Was I The Wave? is a symbolic title for the second Miracle Fortress album. You could easily read into it further as some kind of nod to DFW's work or even his untimely demise, but Van Pelt found the phrase in a heart-wrenching article published in the New Yorker back in February.
"The title came from this story I read where a widower wrote about how his wife had been killed by a dangerous wave on a beach in Mexico," he says. "He was asking himself what role he played in the fate of this woman, and what brought her to this point on the beach where she would be killed by this wave at a young age and how waves start days in advance in the middle of the ocean and take days to reach their conclusion. I found that phrase beautiful because it was a very moving story. I also felt that it was a phrase that could apply to some of the feelings on the record about wondering what your place is and where you belong. I like the first person perspective of the title, which I felt was appropriate for the project. There are some songs on the record about being overwhelmed by the world's vastness and wondering what you are and what you are not. I thought that title worked out really well."
Miracle Fortress circa now is more solitary than ever. Touring Five Roses, Van Pelt assembled a full band that translated the music into much more than just a solo project. However, with Was I The Wave?, he's reconsidered not just the music but also his role as a performer. Pared down to a duo (with Think About Life drummer Greg Napier), he's allowed himself enough room to grow into a bold artist free to cultivate as he pleases.
"Miracle Fortress, I guess, was never really meant to be heard by more than one person at a time," he says. "It's not a big impetus to put on a performance. The fact that I'm just playing with a drummer who is extremely positive and cool with me making changes with the performances on the fly means I can still feel like I'm in control of the situation. [With Five Roses], I didn't realize what I was getting into by releasing an album, touring and starting a band. I had some experience with Think About Life, but I didn't know what to expect with Miracle Fortress. I didn't realize that I wasn't the front-person of a rock band. I didn't know that wasn't what I wanted until I willed it into existence. When I was performing and being the singer of a rock band I found it really hard to convince myself that I was good at it and I had to decide that I'm just not front-person material. And that's okay. I'd rather focus on what I'm good at."