Seven years ago, Elizabeth Powell lost her joy. As the singer and guitarist for indie rock group Land of Talk, Powell had seen her share of success: Between 2006 and 2010, the band released two EPs and two albums and toured with bands like The Decemberists and Broken Social Scene. But setbacks weren't far off. Powell had to contend with Land of Talk's frequent lineup changes, a vocal polyp that nearly robbed her of her ability to sing and an exhausting cycle of writing, recording and touring.
After the release of 2010's Cloak and Cipher, Powell says, she started doubting her career path. "I think that because I had been a performer for so long, and I've been writing music since teenagehood, that I stopped listening," she says. "I think that I stopped being the music fan." So Powell decided to take some time off and retreat to her bucolic Canadian hometown, unsure when — or if — Land of Talk would return.
But music had a way of pulling her back. A series of intense events — both fortunate and unfortunate — rekindled Powell's focus and sparked a new chapter for Land of Talk. The result is Life After Youth, the band's impressive third album, out Friday. Life After Youth is full of songs Powell has been writing, in one way or another, over the last seven years. The time off seems to have added a centripetal force to her smart, dense indie rock; Life After Youth feels more grounded or centered than the band's earlier work. The album radiates a commitment to its own existence but takes pleasure in uncertainty; it's deeply rooted in partnership but pulled together by Powell's newfound sense of perspective.
Ahead of the album's release, Powell spoke on the phone with NPR Music about the value of distance, the benefits of collaboration and the power of lost CDs from the Salvation Army.
Marissa Lorusso: It's been several years since you last put out a record. Could you tell me a little bit about what went on in those years?
Elizabeth Powell: I ended up feeling the need to retreat a bit after touring Cloak and Cipher, which we had released in 2010. Memory is a tricky thing, so I don't want to romanticize; I don't think it was any kind of grand move that I was planning on making. I think I was just thinking, "Here's the most time off I have in the foreseeable future." I knew I had a couple months where I could just be on my own and go out to my granny's cottage [in Orillia, Ontario], which is where I had written a lot of my songs. And I immediately started working on music, demoing what I thought might become maybe a solo record. We had toured three records and I was feeling like it might have been just a natural evolution. You know, a lot of artists do that: They have their band and then they do their solo thing sometimes. So I was recording music, probably loosely kind of aiming at that, and then my laptop crashed. [Laughs.] I lost all of what I had recorded.
So I kind of just threw my hands up and I left music; I kind of put music away for a while. And then, unfortunately, my dad suffered a major stroke, which had him in the hospital for a good six months rehabbing. I found that one of the most powerful tools, along with all of his other therapy, was music. And I realized it was also helping me deal with an event as traumatic as that. My dad and I are really close, so it was hard: It was like watching not only my dad suffer through something major and traumatic, but it was also like watching my friend. But music just really got through to him in a way where no one else was getting through to him. After I got home from the hospital after his stroke, I just wrote this chord progression which ended up becoming "This Time." And I played it for him and he just got a glint in his eye, he got a really cool faraway look in his eye, and he smiled. And then he's like, "This is beautiful; make this, make other people feel this way." You know, he was using his own words, but he was just saying, "Please, keep making music again." And I thought that was sweet.
So there was that one really unfortunate thing, and then there was a series of really fortunate things that happened. Bucky [Wheaton], my original drummer, came through Toronto, and he just happened to be subbing for the Besnard Lakes' drummer. And the Besnard Lakes is who we make our records with so it was like, too perfect — basically my old musical family came all the way up to Toronto. We had a great night, and Bucky just said, "Let's make the record that we never made. Let's make the record that we haven't had the chance to make, because now is our chance." And I just said, "Of course, absolutely." And I started sending him demos of stuff that had just been brewing and stuff that had been marinating.
I guess this whole time I had just been collecting music, like I always do, and I had just been filing it away for later. And it all ended up kind of coming out probably better than the solo record would have become! So it was nice that I had those couple years to not even think about creating any semblance of an actual song structure.
Do you think taking the pressure off yourself — just kind of playing around and not knowing if you were going to do anything with these songs in that time — ended up changing the way that you wrote, or the songs that ended up coming out of that process?
Totally. Because I didn't even really reach for my guitar after a while. There's this Mahalia Jackson CD, this live CD, that I got at a Salvation Army. And now it's gone, I've lost it. But the one song that I was obsessed with is an old traditional called "Closer To Him." The organ parts were really getting to me, like I was really getting obsessed with them, and her voice is obviously just sublime. And there's this John Lee Hooker song — he does a cover of "I Cover the Waterfront" with Van Morrison, and again there's these organ parts and I was really interested by them. So I started to just play keys a lot.
I probably would have just immediately gone for the guitar had I been more in Land of Talk mode. But just waking up in the morning and sitting a keyboard is so different. From that stemmed also more of an open mind about song structure, or lack thereof. I don't even know technical terms of it; it's not as intuitive, it's not as textbook, or orthodox, but it seems to me like it just has a feel to it. Like even "This Time" is not as straightforward. To me, it seems like you want to float or sway to it; it has more levity to it. I wanted there to be more of an airiness and more of a flexibility, you know?
I feel like on this record, too, you can hear your lyrics more clearly. I know that you had vocal issues a couple years ago, and had to re-learn how to sing — I wondered if it was maybe related to that?
Maybe it was that. Again, it was probably a couple factors. I used to really grate on my vocal chords, and I used to smoke cigarettes, and it was always this very hoarse affair. And, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was probably developing those vocal nodes, which would eventually became a hemorrhagic vocal polyp. Leading up to that, I was probably just pushing harder and harder to get sound out. When you're yelling, you're not enunciating as much, but you're putting a lot of feeling into it — So that I think changes the whole lyrical and vocal effects, you know? But then maybe because of the way that I was approaching this record, and maybe having lived in nature — just kind of living on the lake and hearing the birds chirping, maybe that was kind of informing what kind of sounds I was wanting to hear. And then also maybe I was searching for more clarity in my life, and so I wanted to offer more clarity in my voice. Those are all possible. And also — oh God — being introduced to Kurt Vile for the first time, and Courtney Barnett. Those were game changers for me. Game changers!
They made me realize that those musing kinds of conversations you have with yourself, that internal dialogue — I want to hear that! I just wanted to hear more of it from them, so I was like, "Oh, maybe that's okay if I let people in — if I don't cloak stuff and try to obfuscate. What if I just give a little more? And be a little clearer?"
Did you feel like you were able to be more clear with the lyrics on this album? Or be more straightforward?
Yeah, like that's the thing — I feel like I am being clear! But in a way, it's almost like, I've just made my voice sound clearer. You know what I mean? I'm halfway there!
Like the mantra thing of like, [sings] "I don't want to waste it this time" — I just wanted to sing that over and over again. I was just happy to repeat and repeat and repeat, ad nauseam, but it wasn't until just calling on Sharon, my friend Sharon van Etten — she, like a champ, came by the studio when we were in New Jersey, and she just kind of picked my brain, and picked my heart. I just feel like I don't have to explain much to her; she could kind of glean the rest of what I was saying. She was guessing and prompting and just sort of coaxing these words and these lyrics out, to just finish off and flesh out these ideas. So she helped out a lot with "This Time, "Heartcore" and "Loving" — songs that I would have been happy kind of leaving in this nice mantra area. She scratched through my surface and got to more of the root of things, whereas sometimes it seems like I'm trying to just make it abstract to keep the root hidden.
Had you used that kind of collaborative process to write lyrics before?
Never — oh my god! Never. Never. I would never. I think something like came with the time away was understanding my strengths and my weaknesses. And also understanding and appreciating just how supportive and how trustworthy my musician friends are. I think I had just been so cagey. I think I spent the first couple years of Land of Talk — well, since I was 13 or 14, playing open mics — trying to make my own voice, create my own guitar style. I think I had just been trying to forge ahead creatively in such a way, and a huge part of that was self-preservation. You're just trying so hard to protect yourself against a lot of stuff.
How do you mean — emotionally? Financially?
I think that creatively, too — I feel like I had a lot to prove. And maybe it was especially being a woman in the industry, too. I just felt like I had a lot to prove: I have to write my own songs to be taken seriously. And that was a huge point of pride, that I write my own songs: I'm the composer, I'm not just a pretty face. [Laughs.] Not even that I was, but I'm just saying, like, "I'm more than you expect of me." Because I feel like women are underestimated, like, f****** constantly.
You have to be twice as good to be taken seriously.
I felt like I had a lot to prove. So I maybe would not have even been open to it, or have even considered it, had I not just had that time away to grow and to get perspective on things. And I'm coming back now to an industry where I feel so well-represented. What a time to come back to the music industry! But I just can't stress enough how it wasn't like that back then. It's amazing now to be going on tour and to be just like seeing women everywhere — and I'm not talking about gender in a binary way, I just mean, like, people who aren't...
Who aren't cis dudes.
Right? So I think it's so exciting, and I'm so excited to see where it's going. Because it seems like it's only getting more and more and more fair.
I'm curious about the fact that you were hoping to make a solo record, because I feel like the lineup of your band has changed so much — it kind of seems like you're the one constant in the band. Why do you think you were interested in doing that seven years ago?
I think maybe I was getting disillusioned. I started to think: I don't know if I just want to be Land of Talk. I don't know if I want to be in a rock and roll town like Montreal, releasing a record every year. I felt like I was maybe becoming too careerist. And it's not that I had a problem with making money from my music. It's just that sometimes, you get plugged into an industry track; I felt like if I didn't watch it, maybe I would be feeling emptier and emptier. So maybe I was trying to get off the track, and see if I could focus more on the art instead of the career aspect of it. I felt like the art was becoming the footnote or the sidenote or the afterthought. And so I guess I was starting to feel like a natural gravitation to wanting to isolate — which is also where I do my best creating! I also find that when you're at your emptiest is when you resonate the most. I was lost, aimless, feeling a bit like I needed to center myself. So maybe that's why the record sounds like it's me trying to center myself. There, there you go! I can't believe it took that long just to figure out the obvious. [Laughs.]
Are you nervous about the future? Because of how you felt pulled off track?
No. Because I feel like I went through it, and realized that I'm going to be nervous about the future anyways — and I would rather be doing my favorite thing. That's the other thing, too: that I want to feel useful. I was starting to feel like maybe being an artist and being a songwriter was just serving myself, like it was selfish and it was egotistical and it was maybe not healthy because it's, "Look at me, look at me." It's narcissistic.
But the last six years has definitely proven me wrong. Now I'm returning to music, and that's a good place to be if you want to keep the joy going and keep connected. Because it keeps me connected to people, and those people happen to be music lovers, and I happen to be making music that they might be loving, and then I feel like "OK, I'm useful. OK, it's a two-way street now, it's helping me and it seems to be helping other people." Like, wow. Yes. I'm here to stay, and that doesn't make me nervous. I find that really reassuring.