I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lauren Mann (and her husband Zoltan) in August to have a long conversation while they were in Vancouver picking up the vinyl of her new album Dearestly. The album was released with a pay-what-you-feel digital download on July 8, 2016 and CD and vinyl on August 19, 2016, and was produced by Josh Rob Gwilliam (Michael Bernard Fitzgerald, Cowpuncher) and Howard Redekopp (Tegan and Sara, Mother Mother).
IVM: Dearestly is rooted in a sense of physicality, of place: it’s about heartbreak, not necessarily with a person, but about losing your home. There’s the old saying, “home is where the heart is”, but home is also incarnate, it’s built up somewhere physical. Where did that desire for a home spring from, thematically?
Lauren: A lot of the songs I started writing a while touring; birthed on the road, on constant motion. A hoping for a landing place. Home is where the heart is, and when we’re traveling together it’s great, but sometimes you need to be rooted somewhere. I was really longing for that for a long time. So all the songs chronicled that journey of traveling, of those experiences, and then finding that physical place of a community and a house – it could be materialistic, I guess, but it’s about needing that stability. That was a very big part of the where the songs came from. What is home, and what place is it? After traveling Canada and the U.S., I’m wondering where do we belong. Where do we fit in? As people, so we can just live our lives and just be normal people when we’re not touring.
IVM: It’s threaded throughout with the four “Idylls”, these little interludes. They helped direct the album as a throughline to that ending place. So you mentioned how being on the road influenced your music, how much of it is autobiographical?
Lauren: Most of it, I would say. There are a few songs I wrote – song writing’s a funny thing, because sometimes it comes naturally, but it takes you a while to realize what it’s about; you discover the meaning as you’re writing it. Some of these songs were birthed out of where I was at, in that place, just thoughts and feelings. But sometimes it takes a while to know what it’s talking about. “Oregon” I wrote while driving through Oregon to California on tour, scribbling what I could in the van, with just the tune my head. I started writing it out once I was able to sit down at a piano. But I sat with it for a couple years, and when we started doing preproduction, we wrote a couple of the verses and rearranged it a bit. It changed a lot, and it was cool to go back to that song and work on it and again and look the lyrics. I was wondering “what is this song trying to say?” after two years of hanging out with it, it took on a new meaning of things coming to an end, of things dying, kind’ve what you were talking about with heartache a bit, of not knowing what’ s next, when things are just crumbling around me. But then you see the new growth emerging out of that. So it became a lot more significant to me after a long time. It’s a funny thing.
IVM: I found that song very melancholic, but I enjoyed how the lyrics about returning to the dust, trees burning down, etc, leads into “Idyll IV”, which talks about planting seeds. The imagery throughout the album maintains this balance, this ebb and flow of emotions where I’ll go from grinning ear to ear to a somber reflection on the transience of life. A lot of people like to make a cohesive album which keeps the energy at the same level, but you play around with that and allow people to go through different emotional wavelengths as they listen. Did that come about naturally, the contrast between joy and heartbreak, or did you write it in?
Lauren: It was definitely natural, developing over time. I didn’t craft the record at first, I just wrote the songs; saw how the songs took shape between Over Land And Sea and Dearestly. That time was a lot of highs and lows in my life, personal struggles, relational struggles, and family issues: the stuff people go through. But then again there were the extreme highs of traveling and seeing the world, and having really cool moments of friendship. It naturally chronicles that journey which I was on. Now it’s just out there and people can interpret it through their own journey. I think that’s just life, with those highs and lows. I’m just trying to write from where I’m at and be as authentic as I can be.
IVM: For such a personal record about you, it is couched in language that’s very universal, vague enough for people to apply to themselves. One of the motifs I noticed was the passage of time, especially on “Beautiful Place” about not wasting time, which goes right in “Hibernation” about taking your time and being slow and deliberate about things.
Lauren: Haha, totally, although that was not intentional. Sometimes stuff happens and you’re like, “that’s cool how that worked out.”
Zoltan: We sat with the track listing for months after it was all recorded, no one could figure out how to order the songs. I’d ask Josh, the producer, because we had to start pressing stuff. So I made a list, Lauren made a list, Josh made a list, and we compared and reconciled them together, eventually landing on something which just felt right to everyone. One of the first iterations just sounded like songs in a row, but this feels like an album. There are those subconscious ways that songs end up fitting together.
Lauren: And going back to your comment about how they contrast each other: one idea I had going into the album was paradoxes, highs and lows, good and bad, etc. So time was one of those things. Don’t waste your time, but also don’t take your time. Playing them against each other.
IVM: Looking back on it, with 20/20 hindsight, on tour it’s like you’re always spending time, but moving to Pender Island, there’s likely a more relaxed, take your time lifestyle, removing yourself from the world.
Lauren: Yeah, there’s a very big contrast going from that busy, different town every night, to one place where we’re hanging out in a forest. The visualisation of that, the moving and the changing, I think the musical aspect of that is playing out throughout the album. The upbeat, kind of pumped up choruses, but then again the ambient moments of stillness, which I really like. Sometimes stillness awkward, but it can be great when you embrace it and let it be.
Zoltan: That started even before, when we moved to Calgary. We had wanted to move to Pender, but we had to put it to the side, we couldn’t make it happen. So we moved to Calgary, took out a lease and had a normal life, but we just needed to take the time we needed to figure things out.
IVM: It’s funny how these songs were all written in that four year period between Over Land and Sea and now, how there’s so much talk about Pender Island and moving places. Was that constantly on your mind, moving to the ocean, or West Coast, or Pender specifically?
Lauren: Yeah, a few years ago we played a show out in Pender, and then we kept going back on tours to play tours, or to hang out with people we met. During those first few visits we realized that there was something special there. And we had always wanted to move out to the coast, but didn’t know where, or how. Pender just captured us with the community and smallness of it. Every time we went it felt like a retreat. As soon as we came to the island, it was as if time slowed down and we were going to be okay. More and more, we felt like we needed to live there. It was originally “someday, just a dream”, but came together really quickly. In the record, I think it came through in the hope of that. You know the song “Leaving”? I wrote that before we planned to move to Pender, but it was rooted in that hope of “this is where I need to be, but I don’t know if I can be there yet.” That uncertainty, but also “I know I need to be somewhere different.” And I need to be ready to make that move. Many of the songs near the end were written with that in mind.
IVM: Throughout the album as well, there’s this notion of buried treasure, of looking for something that’s hidden. “Beautiful Place” and “Idyll II” and “I Wanna Know” and “Make Smooth”, and then in “Show Me The Way” it’s found, or at least the hope that it will be found. That song is also very different from the rest of the songs on the album. Very aggressive, with this more earthy sound, which suits the lyrics about going underground, etc – which oddly enough, reminded me of the Dantean descent in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair— and I think those verses have some of the most striking imagery in the album, what inspired the song?
Lauren: We were driving through Oregon again – it’s a very inspiring place – and we had a bunch of days off on our West Coast tour. We saw a sign for a lava tunnel, and decided to stop.
Zoltan: You guys were all asleep, and I have an obsession with tunnels and caves.
Lauren: So we decided to stop, and it was a free activity, which we’ll always down for. We got to take lanterns and hike a mile into this lava tunnel. That was the start of the inspiration of the song, just being underground among these crazy rock foundations. We had a few moments where we’d turn all the lights off, and it was the darkest I’ve ever seen.
Zoltan: It was 100% devoid of light.
Lauren: Yeah, and another time we all started singing “Amazing Grace”, harmonizing and hearing it bounce off these cave walls. These cool moments of realizing we’re underground in this emptiness. It sat with me for a long time, so that’s where the song came from.
IVM: So you’re about to go on your next big tour for Dearestly, is this your first time leaving your new home? Are you excited to get back on the road?
Lauren: Yeah, I’m excited. We haven’t done a big tour for a couple years, so it’ll be great to see friends out East in Quebec and the Maritimes. Having a home and our community on Pender Island has put me in a better place to leave. We’ll miss our friends, but we have the knowledge that we can go home and carry on. The stability is key. I’m in a much better mindset than some other tours.
IVM: “St. Lawrence”, the song, I did a double take when I heard it the French verses, but they were really quite beautiful – but what was your intention to do the song in both English and French?
Lauren: Well, I was inspired by an island outside Quebec City; it’s called Île d’Orléans. We have a friend out there who we often visit while out on tour over the last few years. I wrote it while we were there and our experience in that place – although it’s funny how we live on an island now, but it was years before we even thought about moving to Pender. It was a place of tranquility and relaxing. I’d set up a hammock and write for hours. I wanted to take the first verse and translate it into French to reflect the place, but I don’t really speak French. So I got help from a songwriter in Quebec named Roxanne. She translated it and helped me with the pronunciation. Which was great because I wanted to connect the dots and communicate where it was written.
IVM: And it even feels like a French Canadian folksong. On my initial listen, I wondered if you had written it, or if it was a cover of a Quebecois song.
Lauren: Cool! That’s what we wanted. I put it out as a live version on a DVD a few years ago, but until we came into the studio, it didn’t have those janky horns and carnival-esque bombast. I never knew how to execute that (and we didn’t have like, a tuba player in the band). But once we got into the studio, I tried to craft it into something else, and it was better than I anticipated. It felt fresh, even though we had released it previously.
IVM: And this is your first time working with these two producers, who have both worked with some significant musicians, Howard Redekopp and Josh Rob Gwilliam, what influence did they have on the album, and what did you learn from that experience?
Lauren: It was awesome working with them, and very cool how it worked out. We spent a lot of time on preproduction, before we went into the studio; we sat down and worked on the lyrics and arrangements. I worked with Howard in Vancouver on the arrangement and chords so we could make them the most effective they could be. Then Josh and I went though, line by line, every song to make sure it was the best lyrics I could come up with. I had never done that before, but it was really easy to work with them, because they both caught the vision of the songs and weren’t trying to make it into their thing. They just wanted to make the songs the best they could be. It was great to collaborate with them. On “Brave Face” I had written most of it a couple of years ago, but couldn’t write a pre-chorus or chorus for the life of me. Howard came up with the melody line, and I scribbled down some words, and there was the chorus! Then Josh and I worked on the pre-chorus. It took all three of us to get it, but that song became a focal point of the album, so it’s cool to see the fruits of collaboration. On my own I couldn’t make it, but with three minds with the same vision, it’s a great song.
IVM: So, this is also your first time without your band behind you, it’s no longer Lauren Mann & The Fairly Odd Folk, it’s just Lauren Mann. In the studio of course, you still have a band recording, was it your friends and previous bandmates contributing, or new faces?
Lauren: A mix of both. A few people who came in where folks I had played with years ago, who had been on tour with us, or even played with before the band was even formed. So it was cool to reconnect with them, but there were quite a few new people too. And they were great; it was the perfect cast of characters to make it happen. We ended up with over twenty people involved with instrumentation and vocals.
Zoltan: Also, another note, Over Land & Sea was recorded before our touring band became involved anyhow. So when it was Lauren Mann & The Fairly Odd Folk, the band had never actually been involved with the record, they were touring with us.
IVM: Interesting, I didn’t know that before. So I’m always interested to peer into the mind of musicians and find out their influences, not just musically, but through books, film, other art forms, etc. How they lead into your music and provide inspiration.
Lauren: One of the influences on this album was old movies from the 1940s, with the cool harmonies and vocal parts which we were channeling. As for books, I love to read, but I don’t know what I was reading at the time I was writing these songs.
IVM: Well, it doesn’t even have to be direct influences on these songs, is there anything you’ve been reading recently which has been sitting with you?
Lauren: Well, recently I’ve been reading an intense book, What is Art by Tolstoy. His fifteen-year gestating ideas on what art is. It’s very insightful, and very different from many people’s ideas of what art is. He spent a lot of time thinking about it, so it’s interesting reading that and reflecting on what I think art is. You can get so caught up in making art and selling it; so much is just the promotion and tours that go along with it. Reading what he’s writing about the simplicity of creating for the people, not the elite, allowing it to be understood by the simplest people. Many people see art being made and can’t connect or understand it. You can argue for or against it, but it’s interesting to think about it modern terms of authenticity and connection. For me, connecting with people is one of the biggest parts of being a musician. Writing songs isn’t just for yourself – you could just write poetry – songs are meant to be performed and it’s about the listeners. That’s the foundation of what we do.
IVM: You can definitely hear in that the lyrics here – as we talked about earlier, it has all this striking imagery, but it’s also very accessible and universally applicable, versus writing esoteric references to things only in your own head.
Lauren: Yeah, and some of those things can be cool and artsy, but hard to decipher. I want to be able to apply music to my life, but also wondering about the person who write it and where they’re at. So that’s what I like to focus on in my own music.
IVM: There’s also the dichotomy between, does the author get the final say on what their work means, or is the listener’s interpretation legitimate regardless of what the author intended.
Lauren: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. My position would be that I’ll write a song from a certain place, expressing a certain feeling. Once it’s written I’ve done my part, and it has meaning to me, but now it’s free to take on new meanings for different people, and that’s totally legitimate too. It depends where people are at in life. They’ll interpret a song based on their own mindsets and ideas, but it can change over time. The fun thing about releasing an album is that I’m done with it. All my thoughts and feelings are all there, the songs have been created, and the songs are out in the world to take on a life of their own. It’s fun for me to see how the listeners respond to them and how they see them.
IVM: Like when we talked about time, how it wasn’t a conscious connection, but it’s still there.
Lauren: Exactly. It’s cool to see people picking up these threads which I didn’t make, but which work within the context of the album.
IVM: So, you’re done recording the songs, it’s in the hands of your audience. But while on tour how much do you mess around with the song structure and experiment with them (beyond the way that very song is different each time you play them)?
Lauren: Yeah, I guess I’m not totally done with them, because you do riff on them while touring, and it’s essentially recreating them. There’s different instrumentation, and on this tour I’ll be on my own, so I’ll be keeping the same core of the song, but treating them differently to adjust for the performance.
IVM: Is it going to be just you and a guitar, or will you have samples in the background or anything?
Lauren: It will be mostly myself and just a piano, a few other instruments like a ukulele, and omnichord, I haven’t started experimenting with samples, so I may incorporate some of that, very subtly, but we’ll see how it all comes together.
IVM: The fun of touring and seeing where it goes.
Lauren: And, like you were saying earlier, I’ve never done a whole tour on my own, ever. So it’s nerve-wracking, but also very exciting. I’ve become a lot more comfortable on stage, having fun with it, but I’m looking forward to the experience of being completely alone, and being creative with the songs.
IVM: Can you talk a bit about your choice to crowdfund the record, and release it with a pay-what-you-feel model on Noisetrade?
Lauren: In the music climate of today there’s no one way to be successful for independent artists. People are experimenting and trying things. We wanted to give it a go and make music accessible to as many people as possible, just getting it out there. We’ve found through past Noisetrade campaigns that if you put it out there to download, people who really like it will support us in different ways like coming out to shows or buying merch. We’ve made a lot of cool connections with people who never would have heard our music otherwise, so we wanted to do the same thing with Dearestly and let people have it.
IVM: Just like Tolstoy and making art for the people.
Lauren: Haha, yeah. We’ve also realized that reconciling art and commerce is tough. We want to make a living and be sustainable with our careers in music, so we have to consider how we can make that happen long term, but we also want to be authentic and have no desire to be a moneymaking machine. Trying out new methods and giving out our music, it’s all part of the journey.