Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
BRAIDS Melissa Gamache january2020 04 color hires scaled

Hope in the Shadows

14 June 2020, 08:00
Original Photography by Melissa Gamache

Braids returned home to explore new songwriting processes on fourth album Shadow Offering.They tell Kate Crudgington about the journey.

In true Braids style, Raphaelle Standell-Preston, Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith are making the most of creativity in lockdown.

The trio are holed up together as isolation ‘partners’, within walking distance from their self-contained studio. “The city is in full lockdown” explains Tufts. “They've got police patrolling the parks, and you can get up to a $6,000 fine if you're caught outside when you're not supposed to be.”

The Braids drummer grew up in a musical household, so it’s no surprise he caught the music bug early. “Originally, my Father got me into music. He's a great drummer, way better than I am! My Mom is also a beautiful singer, not professionally, but she sings passionately in choirs and other projects. Growing up in that household was amazing. Three or four nights a week, there would be a different band in my basement. From Celtic projects, to jazz quartets, to loads of hand-drumming for the dance community in Calgary. I had a very broad exposure to all types of music when I was young.”

For vocalist and bassist Standell-Preston, the supernatural played a part in her early musical journey. “Mine's kind of a strange story,” she tells me. “On her deathbed, My grandmother told my uncle that if he didn't take care of me, or look out for me, that she would haunt him. He was a little bit aloof throughout my life, he went to live in the mountains and he kept to himself, he was a very private person. One day, at my Mom's house, a red guitar showed up. My uncle didn't really know how to give gifts, so he said the guitar was for my Mom, but it was my guitar basically, so I picked it up and started having fun with it.”

“I don't really have a cool origin story” laughs guitarist Smith. “But just like these guys, I was originally in a high school band and choir and all those things. I was just a 15-year-old music nerd who went everywhere with a Discman, wandering around high school corridors with headphones on. I was one of those teenagers where my choice in music defined me. I was always pretty glad to be in music projects as a result of school, playing jazz, or stand up bass or trombone.

“But honestly, it was meeting Raph and Austin and being given the opportunity to actually make our own thing, which never even occurred to me as a possibility. They kick-started the feeling of ‘oh my god, I can go and make something that makes me feel how I feel when I listen to these bands’ Originally, I wasn’t going to pursue music at university or anything like that. I was going to go into politics.” The trio laugh at how far Smith’s original plans have deviated.

Shadow Offering took almost four years to complete because the band didn’t want to rush through the 35-40 songs they’d originally written for it: “The ambition was very, very high at the beginning; and that set us on a path with a bunch of goals that we didn't want to abandon. We wanted to reinvent sonically where we would go, reinvent more of a full band feel, how many songs we were going to write, and how we were going to capture and record those things. We wanted to possibly hire additional personnel” - which ended up being Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla – “so whenever we were at a juncture point, or we felt like things were getting close to how we wanted them, a piece of the puzzle would change and that would push us to want to take more time with it.”

Standell-Preston is particularly proud that they co-produced the record with Chris Walla: “We tend to be quite insular, and stubborn, and specific with what we want, so it was a really big deal for us to open the door and to have somebody else come into our world. It was just such a beautiful, and important experience having Chris in the studio. You can really feel his influence throughout the record. Chris was like an artistic therapist in a way. He brought to light - in the softest way possible - some of the cracks that were existent in the band, so he very constructively presented ways that we could help one another. He helped us to experience more autonomy within the band.

“Something we pride ourselves on in Braids is that we are an extremely collaborative band, so Chris was really cheerleading us in the sense of asking us individually, ‘what do you want to work on? and what do you want to be really good at?,’ - allowing us the space and time to discover that.”

Tufts is quick to praise Walla’s presence in the studio. “When you're not tasked with overseeing the whole recording process, it liberates you to concentrate on your own artistic contribution to the record,” he explains. “Normally, all three of us are producing the record as we make it, so all of that additional mental baggage bears a lot of weight when you're actually trying to be creative. It’s like, I have this idea that I want to execute, but I have to make sure that all the microphones are in place, so you check all the mics which can take up to an hour, and then you've lost your original idea.

“It's so liberating to work with such a talent like Chris. He's very good at capturing bands live, and capturing energy and rawness. We wanted this record to have a lot more live energy. For years, we've just had so much fun on tour playing our songs live, and we always felt that our recorded versions - albeit they're very detailed and intricate - lack a certain visceral, human nature. We constructed so many of our songs on our previous recordings, whereas this time we captured something. We didn't build it, we captured it. I feel like that's a massive thing that Chris was able to help with.”

Smith considers home to be a central theme of the album: “When we finished the cycle for our last record Deep In The Iris, we were all about 26 years old, and we hadn't spent a lot of time in Montreal. We'd been in and out for touring, and during the recording process, we rented a cabin out in the middle of nowhere and retreated from our lives and the world to create something.

“This time around, we wanted to start our real lives again. Reconnect with friends, our partners, and the idea of just having a regular life. Normal things, like having a weekend, or going to dentist appointments! Instead of using art as a sense of escapism or refuge, it was more grounded in the real and the regular, and the everyday.” Smith feels that single “Snow Angel” encapsulates this: “It’s steeped in what is happening in the world, and how you have to be a part of it, and build experiences to then write about them. I think this record has a certain depth, and breadth that our previous work doesn't - that's how I feel at least - and that magnitude of experience we were able to tap into.

“Something about ‘Snow Angel’ taps into a feeling that is hard to express in a word-for-word rational way, but it's something I've felt at multiple times in my life. Whether that's when I’m scrolling on YouTube, cruising around the internet, or talking to my friends - it taps into what the general consciousness feels like to be alive in this day and age, interacting with the world in the way that we do. It reminds me of what it means to be an artist and to share that with the world. What impact that can have, in a non linear, non-literal way. Also, it required such delicate, focused, emotional precision and work since the day we started writing it in 2016, until the day we put it out in March 2020. I'm so proud that we got it across the line. When you get a little older, you can start to get a little jaded about certain things and you can start to feel like it all really doesn't matter as much as you once thought, but this song feels to me like this is an example that proves the opposite. I'm proud of that, but even if I take myself out of the band, and have a listener's perspective, it means a lot to me.”

Standell-Preston reveals that “Eclipse (Ashley)” is her favourite track on the record: “It was so beautiful to write a song for my best friend. It was so beautiful to not write a song about heartbreak and celebrate somebody that I have such a true, unconditional love for. It feels like my love for her is what the true essence of love is. I remember having so many goosebumps writing the song. She's been in the audience a few times when we've played it and it's super trippy and crazy to be able to play that song for my best friend. It's a really positive Braids song I think.”

Tufts goes for simplicity with his favourite, “Ocean”. “One of the reasons I’m able to fall in love so deeply with this track is because I got to play a spectator role,” he says. “It's a piano duet between Taylor and Raph, and it's the most honest love song we've ever written. When Raph gets into a state where she's emotionally vulnerable and totally wears her heart on her sleeve, it's a tipping point between masterful delivery of emotion - and crying. It's quite delicate.

“We realised that Taylor and Raph had to be tracked in the same room, they had to be there together. We had Taylor in one spot, but Raph couldn't really look at him or else she was going to cry, so we had them looking in opposite directions. I was just there in the room, sitting on a stool, listening to them play it. We put a mic in front of me, just to capture my ‘essence’ [the band laugh] which I don't think made it into the mix, but I was just sitting in silence, and it was really beautiful for me to have that kind of outside perspective into our band. It’s truly a beautiful song.”

Despite the record’s title, they insist that it’s message is one of hope. Standell-Preston elaborates: “Something I consciously wanted was for things to not feel so fatalist. I wanted to try and find the silver lining or the teachings from an experience. I think in some of my past lyrical work, it can feel a little bit hopeless. While we were recording Shadow Offering at home, I was going through a lot of therapy, dealing with some issues with my mental health. I was writing consistently alongside that too, so it’s generally more positive because I was in a more positive headspace.

“I always write from a personal perspective, but I think you can choose in which light to cast something, so that more people can relate to it. I know that throughout the process I was constantly thinking, ‘would so-and-so be able to understand this feeling that I'm having?’ - not that I want that to change the feeling that I'm expressing - but how can I have somebody else feel connected to it? In terms of an overarching approach to lyric writing, I was very much thinking, ‘Can somebody find solace in this? Can somebody absorb this and find happiness in this?’

“I didn't want it to be totally self-serving, I was thinking of a more universal picture. Which is in itself more hopeful.”

The poetry of Mary Oliver played a key part in Standell-Preston’s more positive outlook: “She writes so beautifully. She captures sadness in the same breath as she captures beauty, so I was trying to hold those two things together and not having things be too dark. I think as a person, I've tried to move more towards finding the positive in things, and the lessons from my lived experiences. It's how you decide to process it. There's always going to be strife, and struggle; life is struggle. It's just about how you decide to frame it and share it.”

Tufts and Smith were also conscious of reflecting Standell-Preston’s positivity. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘how do we show up for Raph as a band? How do we really support her sentiments, or clear the way so there's nothing but that sentiment?’,” explains Tufts.

Their instincts for each other’s emotions and song-writing processes is clearly still as strong as the day they began writing together in college ten years ago. “Braids write collaboratively,” Tufts adds, “so it's not like one person comes in with a song and we work it out. One person normally comes in with a kernel, or a seed of an idea; it could be a poem, a guitar riff, a set of chords that someone plays on piano, or an idea on the drum kit. Then through jamming and experimenting it comes to life.

“As such, a lot of our previous work never really had song structures that follow the canon of song-writing, a lot of our songs aren't really verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. This was the first time we really looked at how we could blend a bit of those two worlds, where you take something that Braids has developed - this collaborative, linear thing - and look at it from a standard song writing perspective. Re-engineering how we write songs.”

Like many others this year, Braids have postponed their touring plans and had to shift the release date of their new album. The prospect of playing live again in the UK is still something close to their heart. ”We've travelled so much with this band over the last ten years, and this has been the longest stretch where we haven't been on tour,” says Tufts. “We're all craving those connections with our fans again, and to play shows for people. We always have amazing shows in London. It'll be fun to play Moth Club, but even if it's a gig in the weirdest little town that I've never even heard of, at the moment I'm like ‘get me there!’”

“I think it ties in to a larger feeling of how I'm appreciating so many more things since all of this happened,” adds Standell-Preston.

“We all take so much for granted, and we all have so much privilege that we don't check” continues Smith. “Even when we do get back on the road, I think the world will be a completely different place. People's willingness to go to shows may be different, and their financial situations will be too - I don't know if it's the same in England - but in Canada the economy is devastated. The government is putting in amazing measures here to make sure that people are cared for at a base level, but we still have no idea what the long term percussions of Covid-19 are, at least globally from a financial perspective.

“To expect that people still have disposable income to see shows, to spend money on records and to see art is...well, we still don't know if that will be a thing. We'll have very different expectations about how these things will be. I've never had so much appreciation for the fact that we actually get to go on tour, and how that makes it possible to be an artist in 2020. Most artists are seeing their revenue primarily from touring, but at the same time they have more awareness of the climate crisis and how bad international touring is for the environment.

“This crisis is really making everybody take a deep look at something we always assumed we just had access to - even stuff like going to the baker. I don't know what it's like in England, but everyone here is baking bread. I baked five loaves this weekend - what am I doing?!” From the sounds of it, Smith would’ve made a very liberal politician if he’d gone down that college route. It also seems the lockdown loaf baking obsession has transcended continents.”

Using music as a form of refuge is something the world has embraced during this time. “Sometimes, when you're in the record creation phase and you're spending all day in the studio, the last thing you want to do is go home and listen to music,” admits Smith. “Lately though, I've been rediscovering music in general. I find this lockdown period to be quite numbing, there's a lot of catastrophe-feelings when you read the news, where it almost pushes me to the point of not wanting to read it. It's too intense, too noisy, too crazy. So I've been reacquainting myself with the idea of listening to music as a meaningful activity. It brings a certain sense of catharsis and solace. When you spend all day creating it, you sometimes forget what it's like to actually just listen. Lately, I find I’m just listening for the pleasure of listening.”

Tufts agrees: “I think a lot of artists are doing that right now. One of my favourite drummers in the world Eric Carlen - an absolute front-line jazz drummer - has been receiving a tonne of Instagram comments asking for lessons during lockdown, but his reply was, ‘I'm sorry, I'm not offering lessons at this time, I'm in a phase of listening right now’. And I was like - ‘woah’ - one of New York's top jazz musicians is in a ‘phase’ of listening!? It reminded me of how important listening to music is, in terms of developing your own soul and creative spirit.

“Top-pinnacle musicians are saying, ‘the best thing I can do for myself is to just listen to records.’ I think that is so beautiful.”

Shadow Offering is released on 19 June via Secret City
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