As many of you may know, the last thing you want to be doing on a sunny day in Bristol is being trapped at work, a mere observer to the sunlight as it streams through the windows. So it was with great joy that I caught up with Ottowa-born artist Leif Vollebekk for a coffee down by the docks. An effortlessly friendly and impeccably dressed man, we talked about ice hockey, obscure first names and a British penchant for drinking in the morning hours before kicking off with the questions below:
You’ve travelled pretty far from home whilst making your music. How was your relocation effected your style?
Usually when you go you don’t get exposed so much to the local thing ‘cus you take everybody with you. When I travel alone-alone I kinda experience more what’s going on. You end up hanging out a lot with the people you’re on tour with so it’s kinda like taking a little piece of home or whatever. Actually all those guys [Gregory Alan Isakov & band] are from Colorado so maybe I start to write songs a bit more like Greg. A bit more of those themes end up linking into my music sometimes. It’s just nice to see different things and hear different accents.
You’re inspired by the likes of Bob Dylan, as it’s a pretty turbulent time all over the world at the moment, do you think musicians still have the power to change the world as they might once have done in the 1960s?
Sometimes I wonder about the people who were mobilised by that music, I think they would have mobilised without it too maybe? I think it helped but, I don’t know that any of the people that are truly evil in this world ever hear a song and change their opinion, you know? They usually think it’s not about them. You see that with politicians when they play a Bruce Springsteen song about the working man being beaten down and then they play it at their speech. The person that’s being sung to by these songs is usually not being changed by them.
Not that music doesn’t have any power, but, I feel like the internet too is also a bit of an echo chamber, you tend to just agree with everyone you know and no one’s gonna be convinced otherwise by a tweet. I think it’s about connecting deeply with people and being honest with yourself, maybe that’s when you can really talk to somebody. I also think politics is so temporary in the grand scheme of things and a song is anything but that so I just think that it’s dangerous to feel that you have some sort of duty other than to the song.
Working well as a team seems important to your music, what do you think is the key to working well as a musical collective?
There’s different gears, right now Greg is like a beautiful blue whale and I’m like a smaller fish or whatever animal’s attached to its belly right now. Riding on the tour bus, I don’t need a tour manager or a driver so I get to be in their ecosystem and I enjoy that. It’s just me and this other band so I get to see how they work, see what they do before a show, how they connect and how they rehearse. I like being a fly on the wall and then getting to play a set.
It’s very rare that things work so well and they’re all very special people, very talented. There are a few other songwriters that aren’t sixty that I like and he’s one of them. Greg’s up there for me with those Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen types, the people that go all the way.
Who has been the greatest influence on your music besides musicians?
For a little while I really thought Hemmingway was the answer to everything but reading East of Eden [by Steinbeck], there’s something about the breadth and the reality of how Steinbeck wrote. The characters were so flawed and full of life, so real. There’s also an undercurrent of some powerful force in the whole book and you don’t know if its inspiration or just some deep truth which he acquired in some period in his life which he could convey. There’s a power to that writing that’s really nice.
Of course every time I think that I’m done with Jack Kerouac I always go back a little bit. Not just On the Road but I read this biography of his called The Voice is All and that was beautiful. It helped me think about stuff ‘cus he’s a French-Canadian, he moved to the States and he grew up speaking French. He felt like a complete outsider ‘cus he was a French kid so he bought the dictionary, read it and learnt every word so that he wouldn’t stick out. Then here comes the kid that has the most extensive vocabulary of the Beat generation just because he over-compensated and become more English than anyone – the embodiment of America is the outsider. It’s nice to think about the roots of someone like that.
Do you have advice for young musicians trying to make it in the industry?
It’s funny ‘cus I talk about this with Greg too, someone told me and it’s true that you just play all the time. It sounds stupid or obvious but it’s the only way to find your way – to play as much as possible. It’s about putting your foot forward, a band might discover you and put you on tour. Or nothing happens and no one listens and you have to figure out how to convince a crowd to listen to you for three years playing at a shitty bar.
Whatever it is that you’re gonna learn, you’ll learn it. Sometimes it could be nothing but the more you play the more you’re gonna figure out what it is you have to do. If you’ve been playing a million shows you’re gonna have an idea of how to do it. When I was in my twenties sometimes I got a little indignant thinking I deserved more than I did but I wouldn’t change anything. Things not going well was time to think about what was happening and it’s also a blessing writing the shitty songs at the start of your career as no one asks for them.
Tell me a little bit about your new album ‘Twin Solitude’.
Whenever people ask to talk about a record I have problems because I realise that I write a song and then another song, so it’s like someone asking me ‘do you wanna tell me about all ten children that you have?’. But with this one I hadn’t recorded in a long time as I was waiting for the songs to pile up before I went in, for me it has to be like a breathing thing, then you take it in and hang out with it around recording gear. Then you’re not doubting whether the recording is good or the song is good. I was just lucky and I caught a bunch of songs in the river.
After a period of reflecting on what kind of music I wanted to make, I realised I was sticking to a genre, I was thinking about my heroes and people that influence me and I was trying to match them. One thing I learnt is that you can’t beat someone at their own game – that game is being themselves. I listen to all kinds of music but I was only playing one kind of music. I kinda made this rule that all my songs had to be playable on the acoustic guitar otherwise they weren’t songs, which is a good rule but also what’s up with that? I started playing on the piano and I decided I’m not gonna have a genre and just see what kinda songs I write. Everything I wrote is more fun to play. I was hearing music fully for the first time, ‘this is what the band’s gonna do’ so I could be freer. A lot of this record is me finally figuring out how to play with a band. It’s a bit quieter and one colour all the way through. You can put it on and disappear, listen to the words or go about your day.
Article: Freya Spriggs