You had gone to Finland to record Heartbreaking Bravery, but I was surprised to hear that you had decided to stay there. How did that all come about?
I went there to work with Siinai and then I came back, and then I sort of… everything that was tying me to Montreal, such as the two bands I had been in [Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown] and the relationship, kind of ended within a year of each other, it all kind of ended simultaneously. I felt like maybe it was time to try something new, get out of Montreal. And there was a band in Finland that I wanted to work with, and there was a woman that I cared about, so I decided I was gonna try out Helsinki for a little while. But it's not permanent, I've only been there a year and a half. I'll probably come back in about six months.
The new record is quite different from the rest of your back catalogue. It's probably your most intimate record to date. What were all the factors that led to you making such intimate music at this time?
I knew that the winter in Helsinki was gonna be quite harsh so I bought a piano and started thinking, "I haven't really played piano properly since I was in my early 20s." I knew that it was something that I used to be able to do, so I wanted to see if I could kinda get that back. So I bought a piano and just started fooling around with it and when you do that, at least ideas that you want to turn into songs, and then you start writing a couple songs and once you have three or four, you think you might as well make a record.
My lifestyle over the winter was very quite and intimate, it's just as cold as [Montreal] but it's twice as dark and you just stay inside all the time. I had a very quiet, intimate existence so it makes sense to me that I wasn't making something loud and bombastic. Also, the last record I made before this one [Heartbreaking Bravery] with Siinai was a bit of an angry breakup record, a rock record. I was pretty angry throughout a lot of it and I wasn't feeling that way anymore and I thought maybe it's time to express some optimism and intimacy in sort of response to the last record I made. I just wanted to make something beautiful and I didn't want to have to plug anything in, I wanted to make something acoustic. I think there's so much electronic music going on right now and so much knob twiddling, I wanted to bring it back to musicianship to a certain extent.
The song "Love the House You're In" was written during the winter, a turbulent time, yet it's a self-acceptance anthem. What happened that led you to be able to write such an assertive song like that?
I dunno if I would call it a "self-acceptance anthem…" well I guess that is what it is, more than it's anything else. It's about accepting yourself but also gratitude and appreciating the fact that someone else can accept you for your faults, despite all the little shitty things that exist within you and exist within anyone. It's as much about love as it is about self-acceptance and people accepting each other. As far as what happened for me to be able to write something like that I don't know. It's just the way I was feeling at the time, I guess. Maybe a little low, y'know winter can bring people down, but then if you let it completely permeate you and define your existence then you're gonna have a really dark few months ahead of you. I can get depressed really easily in the winter, I think a lot of people can. When you get depressed, you get down on yourself, you feel like you're a piece of shit, and that's just like me maybe getting older and being like fuck that, I'm tired of feeling that way. It's okay that I'm a little bit messed up. I'm fine, that kind of attitude. Get over it, self.
The theme of belonging pops up on the album quite a bit. How much did your move affect your concept of belonging?
It probably affected it pretty profoundly. Not on a level that you're thinking about consciously. I don't belong in Finland by any means; it's not a super diverse place. Finnish people are kind and they're nice but they're also very stoic and quiet and they don't express their feelings very often. Especially if they're feeling depression or sadness, they don't talk about that stuff. So I still feel like a bit of an alien. That probably leaped its way into the songs on a couple different occasions.
Again, it's that thing of getting over it. I'm here, so I might as well get used to it. And you can exist anywhere, right? I'm someone that's moved around a lot so the idea of belonging wherever. I lived in Montreal for a long time too, and my French is terrible so like Anglophones in Montreal are sort of outsiders, right? You get that sense that… it's not that you don't belong but you're a bit smaller than you might be somewhere else and just getting used to that feeling is kind of interesting.
How cathartic was writing the lyrics for this record compared to writing of lyrics for past records?
Whether it was consciously or not, I don't know, but ultimately, being probably the most sincere and honest and intimate, the lyrical things I've done in the past… I'm more drawn toward a simplified language right now, and also the music itself, it's just like my two hands and my voice so it's quite minimal. It made sense to me on some level that the language also be a little more stripped down, less flowery, less literary, more straightforward and that led to just having to sort of lay yourself out there and express your thoughts sincerely and straightforward and honestly. And so, I guess that's what happened. I think, for the most part, I did consciously want to make something sincere. I know I keep using that word. But something straightforward, no bullshit; it's a reflection of the instrumentation. It's a really straight game, playing the piano, and the songs were recorded live and it's just… all I have here is my two hands and an instrument, like what can you do with that? It's a minimal thing so the lyrics reflect that.
Why did you decide to make a solo piano album at this point in your career?
I wanted to remember how to play the instrument as well as make an acoustic record. I wanted to make a solo record because I had just made a record with Siinai, which is fun, it's a blast but I like collaborations and then working by myself, I go back and forth. I didn't want to get bogged down in this world of electronics and arpeggios, synthesizers and mic-ing amplifiers and all this stuff that I've done in the past. Not only did I not have the space to do that but it just didn't appeal to me at all. I really was just interested in writing music on one instrument that could hold its own by itself, it could carry itself, and sort of replacing electronic wizardry with sort of some version of virtuosity, y'know? I'm not a virtuoso by any stretch of the imagination but just saying "I wonder if I can actually fill a whole LP with just a piano." It was challenging.
The short answer is that I like a challenge. There's so much music out there where there's just so much going on. So many things onstage, like so many electronics, and it's not that I think I'm better than any of that, it's just that I wanted to try the opposite and return to just musicianship, which obviously tons of people do but I haven't done it in a long time, just the music. I wanted to make it good because my hands are my hands, versus like backing tracks and samplers, arpeggios and distortion. I like how bare, honest and exposed it is.
By limiting yourself to one instrument, what was the biggest obstacle you found while crafting the songs?
There's nothing to hide behind. With a thing like recording, there's no overdub, it's not like you can do half now and then go back and do the other half later. Songs have to be ready when you play. There's no extra little "bleeps" and "bloops," distortion and shit to hide behind or other members carrying you. The obstacle was just filling the sonic space with my two hands and my voice, making sure that there's some low end and some high end and that things are moving around and not stagnant. Trying to have the songs actually build and go somewhere emotionally, and resolve. It's easier to deal with more stuff because it's a matter of adding and subtracting sonic elements, I think that's sort of what writing a song is. The type of sonic palette that you have, the more challenging the actual writing of the music is. I just have a lot of time to focus in on the details of the song.
About the technical piano style, there are kind of jazzy moments such as the breakdown in "Dreamy Summer." What was your influence for the piano?
I don't really listen to jazz very often but it was sort of fun to add a bit of swing here and there to lighten the mood, I guess? I really like Philip Glass, I like Erik Satie. I really like this woman named Rachel Grimes [from] this band called Rachel's that existed in the '90s and the early 2000s; they're an instrumental classical emo thing. A year ago, I stumbled upon this solo piano record that she had made, just an instrumental one. I think she's a really beautiful composer and talented pianist. I don't actually listen to jazz ever. I haven't really since my 20s.
Who is Julia and what is it about the image of her in blue jeans that makes it so significant?
I don't want to get too far into my personal life but Julia is a person who's very close to me and the image is just one that struck me as beautiful and kind of disarming on one particular day.
I don't know. I'm recording some more music with Siinai in Helsinki; we've been writing some songs and working on that, but I don't know to what end. I don't know if we're making an album or if we do, when it will come out. I have an old record that I never finished that I think I'm going to work on over this winter that I made with my friend Mike Bigelow [from Wintersleep] in Montreal a couple years ago. I never quite finished it so I think I might do that. But I'm really not sure.