Not one to shy away from a sincere hug, Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell gets right in there as a warm hello becomes a hug. She pulls out of her bag a bounty of pins. Imprinted on the buttons is a simple black and white line drawing of two people hugging, an image, she explains, that appears on the merch for her band's latest album, Life After Youth (Saddle Creek/ Dine Alone Records).
“That's our sweatshirt design,” says Elizabeth Powell excitedly about the picture on the pins, which is actually her own drawing. “This image is emblazoned on this sweatshirt that we're selling, and it's this non-verbal sign of connectivity and ‘bring it in.’ I think now, more than ever, it's kind of a symbol or a beacon. ‘We're safe, we're taking care of each other, I see you, I got you.’ And that can be interpreted in so many ways, in terms of mental health. There are people in my town wearing my sweatshirt and it fills my heart with joy, it's so awesome.”
Since releasing and touring 2010’s Cloak & Cipher, Elizabeth Powell has been living mostly low-key in her hometown of Orillia, Ontario. Seeking a break and some songwriting quiet time, in 2011 she headed there from Montreal (where she started Land of Talk in 2006). Months turned into years, as they sometimes do. Then, in 2013, her father had a stroke, so she helped care for him. He, in turn, encouraged her to start making music again. “It's been everything that I needed,” she says. “Solitude, nature, there’s a trail right out my front door, I can run that through the forest almost to the next town and back. The solitude, for me, is so inspiring.”
Virtually all of Life After Youth was written in this environment. After some Toronto practice sessions with drummer Bucky Wheaton, who was Land of Talk’s original drummer, they produced the album in Montreal at Breakglass studios, “which is my home studio with Jace [Lacek] and Olga [“Oggie” Goreas] of the Besnard Lakes, they’re a husband and wife team, I've done all my records there,” Elizabeth Powell says. Then, with the album almost finished, she went down to New Jersey to work with producer John Agnello, of Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, and many more. “I went there for two weeks, laid down some overdubs, just added that extra layer, that extra sheen,” she says. While a couple of songs they worked on didn’t make it onto the record, she mentions one song she recorded with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and bassist Sal Maida (who played with Sparks and Roxy Music) “If Only,” that was “total punk rock, just this building of drone… it's about connectivity and pull up the people and take care.”
With two tours for this album already done, she says, “I want people when they're in the room and we start to play music to feel a little bit of lightness.”
Is that how you feel? Lightened up?
“Oh yeah! Yeah.... When I'm playing even I tend to go up on my toes," she says, rising from her seat to demonstrate said stance. Her ease and flow of movement is in part the result of 14 years of ballet training.
Lately, though, she’s noticed an evolution in her movement; in her physical expression of sound. She may rise up, but she also gets down low, she says. “Something's been happening. I feel like the way I move on stage is changing as the times are changing. As a woman on stage, you can't not talk about the male gaze and how that affects the way you move your body. So the more woke I get and the more empowered I feel, I move around differently. I used to play a lot on one leg, almost like a bird, a flamingo. Now, I play a lot more with both feet on the ground, a lot more getting down and going up, a lot more groundedness and using the space. Maybe it's the older I get, there are probably a bunch of factors that inform that, physiology, awareness, and also my dance background; ballet, and breakdancing too. Also punk rock.”
At the same time, she admits, “I tend to be so hard on myself. But I’m less critical now because I feel grateful. There's a then and now. Before I took this five year hiatus, I was much more critical in every aspect of my performance. Now, I feel very privileged to do what I love. That's how I feel when I get up on stage now. It's not about anything to do with me, this is an opportunity and I'm very lucky and I'm going to make the best of it. It's kind of a miracle that I have a body, I have my health and I can get up there and play show. Not a lot of people can do that.”
Contrary to the “too-cool-for-school” posturing that tends to permeate certain interactions, and to warmly deflect any rock star assumptions that we might sometimes project upon people in the spotlight (without even realizing it), the hug, and inclusive acceptance and connection it represents, feels like the perfect symbol for open, sensitive way Elizabeth Powell hopes to live and interact with others at this point in her life. She jokes that she’s almost militant in her affection. “You’re saying your not afraid to connect,” she says. “As for the whole cool cynicism shit, not into it. I find it's counter-human and counter-productive for friendships, for personal growth, for creativity for anything. I've seen what isolation can do to people and I've seen what connectedness can do to people. I think it's time to start acknowledging our brothers and sisters.”
After all, "You never know where somebody else is at. As soon as you set the tone of being open and giving, you see a whole shell melt off people sometimes. As soon as you're willing to let other people know that you're willing to relate on a very honest level, a lot of other stuff just falls by the wayside, like a social anti-inflammatory.”
By Simona Rabinovitch
Photos: Tyler Knight (cover) + Shervin Lainez
Land of Talk play the Phi Centre November 23.