Published Oct 31, 2019Leif Vollebekk thought he knew what life was about, but then experience proved him wrong. He thought he knew the process of writing a song, but then the process changed.
"I thought maybe my last record, Twin Solitude, was going to be my final record, and then I was going to quit," Vollebekk says. "I thought: 'I'm going to stop trying so hard and do whatever I want on this one.'"
He did what he wanted, but he didn't quit. Instead, Twin Solitude went on to be shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize and Vollebekk saw his music connect with his widest audience yet. Doing whatever he wanted proved to be a fruitful method for the songwriter, whose new record, New Ways, acts as a kind of companion to Twin Solitude.
"It's the same breath, but I think also different," Vollebekk explains. "When I made the last record, I was writing ballads. When I played it live, I thought, 'Maybe it's time to not have a straight-up ballad in my set.'"
The Montreal-based singer-songwriter hinges his articulation of New Ways quite often on Twin Solitude. Like night and day — though he thinks both are night — he finds them opposite and inseparable. Vollebekk does, however, feel he was able to grow and address moments he didn't find perfect on his last record.
"I needed to make songs that were a little bit more angular and a little bit more top-down instead of bottom-up. The last record was all about the kick drum, which is on the one and the three, and the new record is all about the two and the four. Not so downbeat, more upbeat."
But the process, he clarifies, never became singular or straightforward. Even when the writing began smoothly, challenges would come later, as with the spacious, nearly seven-minute-long "Transatlantic Flight."
"I got home home after taking a plane back from Paris and 'Transatlantic Flight' was clear in my mind. I knew exactly what the drums were going to sound like. I knew exactly when the strings would come in. I recorded it one summer and it was good, but not good enough, so I changed the tempo and went back the next summer and recorded it again. Same cymbals, same piano, same microphone. I've never been like that before. I couldn't let that one go."
In an attempt to shorten the song, Vollebekk tried to cut out the middle and end with a fade out, but none of it worked.
"What you hear on the record is just one take from beginning to end with an improvised ending that we kept in," he says. "All through this album, I had to try things in a different way, and a new way. So I called it New Ways. That's what the record is called from the outside."
The separation of how the world hears the album and how he hears it is something Vollebekk lingers on, and this begins with the name.
"From the inside, the record is called Phaedrus," he explains. "I wanted to name it Phaedrus, because it deals with the Platonic dialogues, so like in Dostoevsky when they have pet names — like Sasha for Alexander — Phaedrus is my Sasha. It's called Phaedrus to me."
Vollebekk's personal relationship to his music played into the recording process of New Ways. Always recorded live off the floor and with an emphasis on capturing the vocal track, Twin Solitude saw a band in the room with Vollebekk, where New Ways was recorded with only a drummer.
"I find that if it's just me and a drummer, the song comes in clear and I can see it. I've been realizing that how music looks to me is important. When the song looks like something in my mind when I'm listening, it usually sounds better, and people connect to it better."
The way music looks often comes with comparisons to colour, something that Vollebekk attributes to learning violin using the Suzuki method: an open D marked in blue, the A-string a warm yellow.
"Those colours weren't picked randomly by my teacher. They were also colours that I had a hand in," he says. "But it goes deeper than that. I never played the F-sharp on violin because I was bad on the E string, but I know it's a deep purple. Each song on New Ways has a colour and maybe a mood. 'Transatlantic Flight' is a blue, blue-grey, white thing, the whole way through. 'Hot Tears' is just yellow. It's just pure, hot, bright flame yellow."
These colours correspond to music videos, which take aesthetic notes from filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Richard Linklater, both of whom provided inspiration to Vollebekk through his writing process and furthered his emphasis on the visual component of music.
"Watching beautiful movies can feed your dreams," he declares. "I went deep into Terrence Malick while working on this record. I needed those images. So, yeah, I find it jarring if the music video doesn't match the song somehow. It's like if someone shows you the word green, but it's written in blue. At the same time, I'm trying to let go."
It's important to Vollebekk to find the place between pushing for what you want and being able to free yourself of the idea of perfection, and New Ways is, in many ways, the product of this duality.
"It's funny. I don't know anything about life. Even two years ago I thought I had figured out something, but I had figured out nothing," he says.
"I do know that you can't force not trying. I had to persevere. I know what I want, so I have to go get it, then go as hard as I can. When I'm done, I let it go and see what happens."