With his stream of consciousness approach to lyricism, Montreal singer-songwriter Leif Vollebekk edges closer to a conversationalist than a true songster. A self-described graduate of the Bob Dylan School of Songwriting, Vollebekk latches onto phrases the way poets turn over language.
On his second record, meaning has more to do with feeling than any true message. After releasing his debut album North Americana in 2013, Vollebekk returns with Twin Solitude, a project that sits at the nexus of color and mood. He useTs shades—like yellow or gold—to discuss his latest songs, which integrate indie-folk with a touch of jazz. The album exudes a meditative joy best encapsulated in pigments rather than overly exacting prose.
His lyrics undoubtedly form a key component, but thanks to uncomplicated melodies and sparse instrumentation—piano, drums, bass and the occasional sax, organ and strings—nothing feels overly cluttered. “I feel like there are solutions in the songs,” he says.
Vollebekk will kick off his spring tour on February 28 at the Mercury Lounge, and ahead of that show he spoke with Village Voice about finding the right color for each song, and learning to get out of his own creative way in the process.
Village Voice: There’s a meditative aspect to this batch of songs.
Leif Vollebekk: It’s funny, that was kind of the go-to word for me. The songs for this record were written in that way—in a really calm mood. It has this effect where when you’re playing them, you go back to that state. It’s really relaxing.
Especially with “Elegy.” It feels like taking a deep breath.
I tried recording it a couple of times and it was coming out like an orchestrated song. It felt really wrong, so I took a step back. The drummer was right by me, so I played the piano and sang while he played drums. We did it all live in one take. We listened back to it and I was like, ‘Is this a song? Does that work?’ Because that’s the thing, sometimes I play demos for people, and I hear everything that I hear in my imagination. You hope it translates. When I hear music, I hear lots of space and then I find that when I add instruments it’s almost like somebody saying too much in a special moment, or saying the wrong thing. It takes the air out of the room.
It feels claustrophobic?
For sure. An orchestra doesn’t sound like too many instruments, but in pop music every instrument can be mic’d perfectly. The kind of sound you can get in the studio today, it’s so complex. In the 60s, you’re all in a room live to tape so the trumpets will sound thinner and the violins will sound thinner, but they blend better. Today, there’s too much choice. So there was something nice about just the drums, the piano and a touch of bass.
It brings the lyrics to the forefront.
When I started listening to Bob Dylan, that was acoustic guitar and vocal. I could not deal with excessive instrumentation because the lyrics have all these colors, and if you have an instrument getting anywhere in the way, you can only minimize the trip. There’s something about The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or Blood on the Tracks, when Dylan’s singing with just the guitar. You see so many things. Or at least I do. If you can get away with fewer instruments, people can come into the song more easily.
I wonder if there’s a touch of synesthesia to your process, where you see colors when you hear sounds.
I was telling the string players what I wanted, and all of a sudden we’d have this moment where one was like, ‘Oh do you see music in colors?’ I was like, ‘Well yeah!’ And she was like, ‘Me too!’ It was the easiest thing. We were just talking metaphorically about what I wanted. It was so special. I was like, ‘I want the golden thing,’ and she would do it. “Elegy” is not so much gold but this yellowish color, and so if anything was breaking that it was really jarring. At one point, I thought about playing bass on the whole thing, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is awful.’
Like it’s too blue at that point?
Yeah, it added this darkness, but also it started dragging things. I noticed there was no bass on Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry” and I thought, ‘Nobody’s waiting for bass to come in on that song. It’s fine.’
You’ve mentioned how songs come quickly for you, but you have an inclination to edit them. How did you work around that instinct this time?
I’d have a melody and I’d go, ‘That song, it had an interesting, weird lyric in it, but that’s not good. That’s not a classic song.’ So I’d change the lyrics to another thing. I started crafting the song. It was almost like I was assembling body parts and expecting this person to get up and walk away, but instead it had no life. It was this lesson of: Let the song come to you and write it down. You can’t tell it what it’s going to be. I don’t have kids, but I assume that would be a bad idea with kids. My parents tried to stay out of my way as much as possible, and I really appreciated it, because then I got to figure out what I wanted to do. For this, I wanted a record that had a pulse. I was feeling things in 4/4 time, and the last record was mostly 6/8 and really loose time, and this time I wanted someone to be able to put it on and if you don’t like lyrics you could drift away, but if you like lyrics they’re there.
One aspect to your music that continues to pull me in is your turn of phrase. Certain lyrics have a poetic sensibility that continues to haunt listeners long after the song has ended. Where do these phrases come from?
I spent a lot of time at the school of Bob Dylan; I’m a recovering Dylanphile. For me, the greatest gift in music—aside from music—is when you listen to a song and a line floats around and hangs around with you for a few days. All Bob Dylan songs have these lines, and that was a big dream of mine. If you do it right someone’s going to go, ‘Oh, this line…’ and it becomes part of their life. Like, ‘Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past.’ Whenever the moon is yellow and the sun is going down, I can’t help but go there and I’m hanging out with Bob. It’s like an entire Murakami novel in one line.
But you don’t have to read 1,600 pages to get the nugget.
It’s somehow the last line of the novel about how you feel.