The story of Land of Talk has not been one of fast-track success. Formed in 2006 as the creative vehicle of songwriter Elizabeth Powell, the Montreal group built a formidable reputation on the back of a trio of well-received albums. However, the indie outfit’s progress stalled during a temporary break following 2010’s Cloak and Cipher. What had initially been intended as a brief creative breather dragged into long-term hiatus when, after learning her father had suffered a stroke in 2013, Powell retreated to her regional hometown of Orillia.
Following more than half a decade of relative silence, Powell formally announced her group’s return in 2017 with a string of melancholic yet uplifting singles. Having emerged from a deeply transformative set of experiences, Powell approaches her craft with renewed vigour. Liz has been far from idle in her time away. Sugared but fiery, her vocals drip with sombre resonance.
Fourth LP Life After Youth collects a number of direct and deeply emotive tracks. Cast against riff heavy swirls and a cloud of gauzy production, meditative lyrics convey the album’s earnest poetic heart. Coursing with pathos; it’s music which hits straight in the middle of the chest.
Catching up with Music Feeds, Powell relates the personal experiences which informed Life After Youth with resolution and frankness. When her mind turns to her new material she brims with infectious zeal. In addition to opening up about the events which radically altered her perspective on music, Powell also talks of an intimate collaboration with Sharon Van Eton, her punk roots as well as the “social physics” which led to Roxy Music’s Sal Maida and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley appearing on the LP.
Music Feeds: You cut your teeth playing in punk bands during your teens. Is there an element of punk which has fed through to your current work with Land of Talk?
Liz Powell: I feel that it may be especially present with this record, in the voicings of my guitar and this kind of aggressive strumming. A couple of punk rock tunes came out just because I just couldn’t help it. It didn’t make it onto the record, but there was this song I did with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth that’s just a total punk rock anthem. It’s amazing! I hope it makes it out someday. But I also think, with this record, the theme, what I was gravitating towards and the songs I was leaning towards, was also kind of the opposite of punk, especially in terms of the sonics. But I think my message, hopefully, will always be punk rock.
MF: You’ve said you’ve worked with Steve and a lot of musicians would fantasise about recording with him or Sharon Van Etten…
LP: As they should! It’s a dream!
MF: …or Roxy Music bassist Sal Maida. What motivated you to work with Sharon, Sal and Steve for Life After Youth?
LP: Well Sharon and I met years ago when she was performing in Montreal. Her and I bonded immediately. She and I were kindred spirits from the get-go.
It wasn’t until after we had recorded most of Life After Youth that the others became involved. John Angello, a producer, recording artist, mixer and just an amazing guy, I love John, he had heard a couple of the songs and after I had played a show in Toronto, someone handed me a phone and John was on the line saying “Lizzzzy! We’ve got do music together! We gotta make music together. If the record isn’t done let’s finish it or if it’s done can I mix it or something?”
The music just spoke to him, and I can’t be happy enough that he became involved. He’s the one who is buddies with Steve Shelley and I think it’s Steve who is buddies with Sal. So Jon was just like to them: “I’ve got Land of Talk coming to town to do some last minute overdubs and last minute songs.” So it was John who was the matchmaker. He was really the mastermind behind that. But that’s what happens. It’s social physics. Once you associate yourself with one awesome-amazing- talented person they’re connected to all these other talented and amazing people. So John takes the credit for all that, but it was a beautiful day in the studio playing with Steve and Sal. It was absolutely beautiful.
MF: Do you have a favourite Sharon Van Etten, Roxy Music or Sonic Youth LP?
LP: You know what? I’m not one to have favourites. I just listen. I couldn’t even tell you. No, I can’t even… I would probably have to say Sonic Youth’s that was my go to. It was what I cut my teeth on. It was what made me realise I didn’t have to sing pretty, I had guts, I had power! So that was a bit of coming of age one. For Sharon, I’m going to have to say I love all of it, since the first day she was touring solo. She’s a piece of my heritage. I can’t pick favourites! Do you?
MF: I’m giving the interview so I don’t have to go on record.
LP: I can’t pick favourites.
MF: While Land of Talk has been playing in dribs and drabs since 2015, in terms of recording there’s been a seven-year gap between Cloak and Cipher and Life After Youth. Were you anxious about recording another album?
LP: No, I think I had been anxious which is why I left the music industry and I wasn’t going to come back until I wasn’t anxious. So I think making the record meant that I was ready to do it. I knew it wasn’t going to be an angst-ridden endeavour because I was coming at it sort of like I was coming home. It was more of a homecoming, it was like a reunion. We recorded over Christmas time in Montreal. It was the only time we could get the studio. It was available and we got cancellation rates. They were so generous with their time and so it was like a reunion. So yeah, no anxiety.
MF: In past interviews, you’ve characterised the way you write lyrics as being very stream of consciousness and cathartic. It seems like there has been a lot of turbulence going on in your life outside of your music over the last couple of years. How has this impacted what you’ve recorded for Life After Youth?
LP: I think that maybe my approach to music has changed. Beforehand I was writing songs about how I was feeling, what I was going through. My dad suffered a major stroke and his subsequent recovery was in no small part due to heavy doses of music. At times he just had this look in his eye and would say “Turn the lights off and play my music!” And it was just HIS music. It was then that I started seeing music in this totally different way, as this healer and this drug, this powerful thing. Obviously, I had understood that as a concept, but I was internalising it as a human watching this man be consumed. He was constantly in so much neuropathic pain, but you could just see the music wash over him. Seeing that changed what I was singing about, and how can it not, watching someone you love going through something so extreme and then to heal from that? To see that and to see that music brings us so much joy.
Losing my granny, my dad’s mum Martha, was another part of that. She died in my arms as I was singing this old bluegrass standard ‘Angel Band’. That’s music, that’s what music is for! I just felt like before this I hadn’t tapped into these other aspects of music, so that has to have informed how I was writing and my inner dialogue.
As I grow as a person I start to speak to myself differently. I think when I’m singing, those lines are just coming from my head. When I sing “I don’t want to waste it this time” on ‘This Time’ I’m really thinking that I don’t want to waste it. I’ve been changed as a person. I think I want to be clearer with people and be more present in the music and even in my songwriting.
I think Sharon helped me with that too. She would kind of pull me, pull the songs further along. It’s like I would write the equivalent of something like a Haiku and she would pull it into a paragraph. She helped me keep going with that, just in listening. She helped me pen some of those songs just listening with her heart and that made it into some of the lyrics. That’s the other thing; I already knew she was a dear friend and dear person as well as songwriter. But to be in the same room writing together and just be inspired like that, I had never felt like that before. I don’t think I would have been open to that if I hadn’t been through everything I’d been through. It’s been a pretty great confluence of events that led to this record.
MF: Touching on that, all of your albums seem to craft their own distinct identity and tone. Applause Cheer Boo Hiss had this sort of this raw rock element to it, Some Are Lakes had this grand ’80s pop feel and then Cipher had some slower burning and contemplative moments. How would you describe Life After Youth?
LP: I feel like Life After Youth has got this kind of low hum. It’s kind of massaging, I’m hoping it’s got this kind of meditative or lulling quality. That’s how I’m feeling onstage when I’m playing it. For me it’s driving, this driving meditative and repetitive zone I get into that then can sort of hold the song in place just enough so I can say my piece and then just dance away. I still have yet to find the words to describe it, and I am trying. It’s a soothing record, a peaceful record.
MF: Moving forward, you’ve gotten the band back together, you’ve got an album and you’re building up a bit of momentum again. What’s coming next for you?
LP: Well the darndest thing happened; once I started I just couldn’t stop writing songs. There’s a lot that we recorded that didn’t make it onto the record. There’s this awesome song ‘Footnotes’ and this other song ‘If Only’, all these songs! I think we have a problem. I think we’re going to have to put another record out soon. It’s a good problem to have. I would love to just lay down the demos even at my house and do it over the summer and get back in the studio maybe around Christmas time again.
And obviously, I would love to come to Australia! Get beyond North America. I would love to play Mexico and I would love to play Japan. I think wherever will have us, we’ll go! We’re not going to force anything. Whoever will have us we’ll go, we’ll be there!
‘Life After Youth’ is set to be released on May 19th. Pre-order here.