Published May 29, 2011Inspiration is an elusive notion, the result of an intangible interplay of serendipitous happenstance that leads to humanity's greatest discoveries and insights. While Esmerine were founded about a decade ago by Bruce Cawdron (Godspeed You! Black Emperor) and cellist Beckie Foon (Thee Silver Mt. Zion), the group recently expanded to a quartet via a mutual friendship with Juno-winning singer Lhasa de Sela. Harpist Sarah Pagé and percussionist Andrew Barr were members of Lhasa's band, and when Cawdron and Foon were asked to tour with them, they all hit it off. Unfortunately, before the tour was possible, Lhasa died of breast cancer. She was 37. This confluence of events catalyzed the third Esmerine album. Their first since 2005's Aurora (a heavily classical, post-rock, instrumental affair loaded with dissonance, distortion and found sounds), La Lechuza sounds more live, composed and worldly, with loads of bittersweet vocals, while its overall mood is oddly uplifting. "Last Waltz" may be more haunting than anything by Danny Elfman, and, sung by Lhasa, "Fish on Land" is a kick in the stomach. Yet the Philip Glass-like "Trampolin" is downright joyful, while "Sprouts" evolves from a lofty pastoral ambiance to brisk, Reich-ish dirge without a hint of stress. Largely recorded by Patrick Watson and mixed by Mark Lawson (Arcade Fire), La Lechuza is easily Esmerine's best-produced and emotionally visceral album yet.
Now that Esmerine have more members and a longer list of collaborators, how has the creative process changed?
Foon: Certainly it's been a more dynamic and iterative process simply due to the larger group, with more ideas and more instruments being brought to the table. Sarah plays harp and dulcimer and Andrew plays drums, marimba, gamelan ― these are very complementary instruments to the "melodic percussion" foundations of Esmerine. But now we can develop arrangements much more in a context of live playing and group improvisation. Where previously, Bruce and I would be doing a lot of multi-tracking to get there.
How do your ideas evolve? Does someone come in with a composed sketch or is it more improvised?
Definitely a mix of the two. One person comes in with a specific riff, maybe even a sense for a structural arc, and then a lot of improvisation ― in rehearsal and often right through the recording sessions ― allowing the songs to develop and shift. Almost everything to do with "arrangement" is essentially improvised and built up organically. Occasionally, we're jotting down notations and proposing parts to each other. Song kernels come from all over; Bruce's marimba pattern for "A Dog River" had been floating around for at least ten years. "Snow Day" actually emerged from music that Sarah had been working on with Lhasa.
Though the events surrounding it were tragic, I get the sense that La Lechuza is a more uplifting, joyous album than Aurora. What kind of impact did Lhasa de Sela have on your music and your outlook on life?
We all laughed a lot with Lhasa, and she definitely helped me take life less seriously. I find it very difficult to describe or even understand how life experiences manifest or translate themselves in music. It's hard to summarize anything about this without sounding trite or clichéd, but Lhasa had a true sense of wonder and enchantment about life that was unique and powerful and had, and continues to have, a profound impact on everyone in the group.
Were you planning on making another Esmerine album before you met Lhasa?
Bruce and I had been playing the occasional Esmerine show in Montreal since our last round of touring in 2005/2006, inviting various guests to join us for some of them, but we hadn't been thinking much about future recording. Lhasa asked us to open up for her in Montreal in 2009, which we did as a duo, and that's where we met Sarah and Andrew, who were in her band at that point. Bruce and I worked on a song for Lhasa's album ― the version of "Fish On Land" that appears on La Lechuza; we invited Sarah and Andrew to join in an Esmerine show, where Lhasa also sang on a song, and everything evolved very naturally from there. We just started making a lot of music together, really enjoyed collaborating together and began thinking very much about creating an album of songs given the larger context of what had brought us together and was affecting the music. So, I suppose, the answer is "no," actually.
Do you find working with vocals changes the meaning of your music, for better or worse?
I had never imagined vocals would be so present on an Esmerine record, although we did think about having Lhasa contribute vocals to a song even at the time of the Aurora sessions. As a dear friend of Lhasa and as someone who was recording a lot of the album, Patrick's vocal and piano contributions arose very organically. His singing on "Snow Day For Lhasa" is just something intensely special; it really did feel like something was being channelled, that there was a spirit in the room, and there was never any question about that song. Sarah's vocals on "Last Waltz" were part and parcel of this lovely tune that she brought to the group. Lhasa's vocals speak for themselves. Much of the singing on La Lechuza is deeply linked to the album paying tribute to Lhasa, and in terms of the meaning and context of this record, I obviously feel it expands the music for the better. But I imagine the inclusion of vocals will prove to be the exception and not the rule for Esmerine. We still plan to perform songs from our first two albums as well. ()