Rural Alberta Advantage's Prairie Home Companion

Rural Alberta Advantage's Prairie Home Companion
On a Saturday afternoon in his Toronto home, Nils Edenloff is trying to train Charlie, a female chocolate lab he just bought for his girlfriend. "I'm going to be gone for a huge stretch of time, so she's got a companion now," he says. The pet is just one adjustment Edenloff has had to make in his life, now that his forward-thinking indie folk trio, the Rural Alberta Advantage, have experienced a sudden surge of popularity surrounding the release of their debut album, Hometowns. He's also struggling to find the time off from his office job to make way for the months of touring ahead.

Still, despite the stress that can come with sudden change, it's all worth it. "So many people would kill for these opportunities," he explains. "I don't think I could look back and be happy if I didn't take advantage of them - I'd probably be a pretty miserable computer engineer."

Edenloff was raised in Alberta, spending parts of his formative years in Edmonton and Fort McMurray. When he finished college, his options were to either settle into prairie life, or venture to Toronto's booming city life. Choosing the latter, he ventured eastward and met drummer Paul Banwatt. Soon, Edenloff and Banwatt were hosting an unsuccessful open mic night. "We were doing pretty close to what we're doing now - folky, acoustic songs with a lot of percussion in them," Nils recalls. "Nobody came to this open mic night, so we had to have tons and tons of stuff. We played for hours and it was great. At some point, that's sort of where this all started." To round out their sound and fill in the gaps, the band recruited Amy Cole to play keys and sing back-up vocals.

It could be argued, however, that the band wasn't truly defined until they settled on their moniker. The name came to Edenloff via his family. "My brother sent me an email from school to tell me he was going to visit our farm, just outside of Donalda, Alberta. He said he was just going to hang out with some girls and explore the 'rural Alberta advantage,'" Nils says. "Growing up, they always talked about the Alberta advantage for jobs, and the oil and gas industry. I remember growing up and hearing that so many times. It wasn't until my brother tossed off something about the rural Alberta advantage that it really resonated with me. For all the times I've been told about oil and gas and all the jobs in Alberta, no one really directly referenced the beautiful, quiet parts of it."

With this nucleus at the centre of the project, Edenloff was able to pull from his prairie upbringing to develop a batch of songs that referenced Alberta thematically without becoming a useless gimmick. "It wasn't like, 'This is the mandate.' It just sort of happened," Nils remembers. "When I started writing songs I realized that growing up in Alberta had an effect on me and shaped who I was. I didn't realize that as much until I moved out to Toronto."

It was then that Hometowns, the band's debut, was born. Painstakingly recorded over a year with multimedia engineer Roger Leavens at Boombox Sound, the album was perfected over time. "We'd go in there for one evening a week, so it was a long, arduous process," Edenloff remembers. "It was probably harder doing it that way, because given that you have so much down time you have so much more time to analyze things and get wrapped up."

The result, however, was well worth the wait. Hometowns is a mixture of ramshackle alt-country and busy indie rock marked with brief but necessary moments of electronic playfulness and plaintive strings. At times, it's a dead ringer for late '90s Elephant 6 crew Neutral Milk Hotel, which Edenloff is unashamed of. "I'd be lying if I didn't say In An Aeroplane Over the Sea was a huge album for me," Edenloff admits.

But what the Rural Alberta Advantage lack in complete originality they make up for in unabashed sincerity, finding their identity in consistent, heartfelt song craft and wide-eyed enthusiasm. Edenloff's earnest croon, at times pushed to the edge of his vocal cords, is at home atop hard-strummed guitars, while Banwatt's busy drumming swarms Cole's soothing harmonies and tasteful keys.

After self-releasing the record on CD-R last year, Hometowns drew some attention online. Soon, they were approached by eMusic for a slot on their eMusic Select program - a promotional tool that also helped launch the careers of artists like High Places and Crystal Stilts. The band quickly started touring the U.S., playing their nerve-wracking first show outside of eastern Canada in the usually too-cool New York City, who embraced them fully. From there, they toured much of the U.S., including a successful stint at SXSW, where they opened for Grizzly Bear. Along the way, they caught the attention of Saddle Creek, who added them to their Toronto-heavy roster, alongside Sebastien Grainger and Tokyo Police Club.

Now, with the official release of Hometowns just around the corner, the band are ready to put out some new material. Besides a planned seven-inch with reworked material from Hometowns, Edenloff is ready to record some new material. "We've been playing these songs for a while, and we want to show that they weren't written by a focus group and we can do something new ourselves," he chuckles.

First, however, they'll visit most of the continent, covering 14,000 km, to tour the record. Fortunately, they've found really close friends in each other. "In early February, we went down to New York for a couple of shows. It wasn't until the end of the trip that we realized we didn't put the iPod in or listen to the radio once. All we did the whole time, there and back, was just talk. We really do enjoy each other's company."