gregory alan isakov
Leif Vollebekk and I met in New York on Friday afternoon, just prior to his opening performance for The Barr Brothers show at The Bowery Ballroom. As we talked, one of the Barr Brothers was showering in the next room. We were sitting on a couch (Leif and I). It was the day after Lief had just heard the news, that he (as well as Nathaniel Rateliff), will be touring with Gregory Alan Isakov, come January 2015. Leif and I discussed a variety of things including his degree in philosophy, Newport Folk Festival, the Montreal music scene, his collection of musical instruments, how to cook, and… a stolen journal. “F… yeah! This is Leif Vollbekk’s interview!”
Lauren Jahoda: You released your first album, Inland, four years ago, right?
Leif Vollebekk: That’s probably right (laughs). I don’t remember. Yeah…four years ago…2010.
What were you doing right before you committed to pursuing a career in music above most other things?
I was at school. I was studying philosophy in Ottawa because they said it would be free if I went there. I would have rather gone to McGill University but they said it would be $1,000, (laughs) like nothing (laughs), but I was like “Fuck you McGill! You don’t want me bad enough to pay for all of it!” (laughs) It turns out that I should have gone to McGill (laughs) because I moved to Montreal eventually and that’s where all the musicians I fell in love with are. That’s where these guys [The Barr Brothers] are from. I chose philosophy because I liked it and I knew I’d end up doing music somehow and I didn’t want to do it right away. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it made sense.
Did you finish your degree?
Yeah. I finished my degree. It’s hard to go back into that head space. I remember writing a lot of songs then and six months later thinking, uhh, that’s the worst song ever. That’s so terrible. I’m embarrassed of that. I remember thinking, just keep on writing. I told myself that if I don’t hate it after a year, maybe I’d be onto something.
You needed to let the songs sit.
Yeah. I was really thankful that I didn’t put out the first things that I did, like the home recordings.
If you listened to those very early songs now, do you think you would still feel the same way?
Oh, I found a bunch of them in my parents’ basement. My mom said, “What is this?” It was the old four-track and then I listened to them. They were from when I was 16, 17, 18…just thinking about it makes me so grossed out. I don’t even know, ugh. It’s really gross (laughs). The old me is a weird me.
I think it is for everyone (laughs). Was music a large part of your childhood? What was your first instrument?
My first instrument was the violin and then I picked up the guitar. I just didn’t get anywhere with the violin. I was pitchy. I started playing the guitar and everything was in tune because of the frets. So one summer, when I was 15 or 16, there were days when I just got up, picked up the guitar and then it would be 6 PM. I would not stop playing. I wasn’t practicing, I was like the monkey at the beginning of Space Odyssey, ya know. Just bashing at it (laughs). By September, I learned how to play guitar. I knew what a chord was. I knew how to tune it. I knew how to sing songs. Growing up though, my folks listened to a lot of music, but no one really played that much piano. My mom’s dad and all her brothers did, so all my instruments I got from them. Because they’re all dead (laughs). I have dead people’s instruments (laughs).
Oh no. Did they give them to you or did you inherit them somehow?
The electric was given to me by my uncle. He said “If you want it, take it, my arthritis is so bad.” He called it his Hawaiian guitar because he set it up to play slide on it and sing Hawaiian songs (laughs). In the 60s, there was this trend of Hawaiian music I think? (laughs) Maybe there’s something there? I don’t know (laughs).
It was exotic (laughs).
Yeah. It was exotic and it had this [Leif mimics the sweet sound of Hawaiian music]. So I just set it up and yeah, I love it. It sounds great. It can only do so many things but, what it does is amazing. I play my grandfather’s acoustic. They all sound great, but they also have limits, which is what I like about them too. That way, I don’t have to make a choice… like buy a Martin for $2,000.00 (laughs).
So you still use those same family instruments?
Have you bought anything else?
I bought a Wurlitzer. I bought two of them actually because they break…[Leif catches me imagining a Wurlitzer keybo]…(laughs) I want to hear what you think it is.
I think it’s an organ (laughs).
Kind of, yeah. It’s basically the electric guitar equivalent of a piano.
That’s actually what I was imagining (laughs).
It’s kind of amazing. Some famous recordings, like “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles is on a Wurlitzer and Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.” It kind of sounds like an electric guitar, but it feels like a piano.
The comparison is a bit of a stretch, but I imagine that, like the pedal steel, it doesn’t have a…it’s not an earthy sound. It’s more like an ethereal sound.
Yeah! It is kind of like that. That’s interesting because the pedal steel also didn’t exist pre-1950s. Inside the Wurlitzer it’s kind of like a xylophone.
Is it easy to transport?
I have them here with me. It’s heavy, but not too heavy. I prefer to play the piano, but I got tired of playing gigs where there weren’t pianos. I would just play acoustic, electric guitar and sing and part of me would be think, that’s right you can do it, but I didn’t like doing it. I felt like I wasn’t playing songs with the right feel or the way I wanted to.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s sort of like you know what’s missing. You know what’s good for your songs.
Yeah. Totally. It becomes way too much about the lyrics if I do solo/acoustic all night. So I just started bringing the Wurlitzer.
Can you tell me about the music scene in Montreal?
It changes every 10 years. It just morphs into a different beast. The people who do really well end up disappearing or playing less. When you start selling out arenas, you stop playing Montreal 10 times per year, not like when you were starting your band, playing with different people and trying new things. I think that also makes things change. And if you don’t do well, you quit and get a job sometimes. Every 1o years, it’s totally different people, and different shapes and sizes. There’s a band called Shapes and Sizes but they changed their name (laughs).
There are a few clubs that are part of it…it’s kind of complicated. There’s the French scene that’s not part of the English scene, and there’s the English scene that’s not part of the French scene.
Do they ever mix?
They mix sometimes. I played on this amazing French singer’s record a few months ago. So that’s cool. So they mix. I’m finding that it has started to happen within the last two years. The scene is great. It feels like a really small community of artists, but if you’re not in it, it’s quite large. There are a lot of venues and a lot bands. A lot of different configurations and crossovers. I’m too immersed to describe it (laughs).
Do you live in the city?
Yeah. I live on the cusp of the French and the English areas, that metaphorical line.
Can you name some current or fellow musicians who inspire you?
I really got into Gillian Welch. Her and David Rawlings’ thing is very rootsy and they are inspired obviously by the Carter family and that kind of thing. It’s kind of weird because my current influences are people who are influenced by what I’m influenced by. Even the Ryan Adams record I really like and even the later Bob Dylan records I’m really into, but those are especially rooted in old folk songs and ripped off of 1940s/1950s melodies. I love Sigur Ros. They’re the best.
Yeah. They’re awesome. I’ve heard you talk about them before.
I miss the keyboard player in that band though. He left and he was one of my favorite parts of that band. Really beautiful.
I saw your journal online…it’s called “FuckYeahLeifsJournal” (laughs), but the last post was from 2012.
Yeah that’s my friend Andrea. I left my journal…it’s not really a journal, more like my songbook…and I left it at City Winery here in NY. I was in Vancouver and she was going to NY and I asked her if she would get it for me once I realized that’s where I left it. I didn’t know her that well at the time so she thought it would be funny to be like “Yeah, sure. I’ll be sure not to read it”…*wink**wink*. So she took a picture of everyone she met in New York City reading my journal. She’s got firemen reading it, police officers, tourists, her friends and some really angry people who didn’t want to do it, the naked cowboy with his guitar. That’s what that was.
I think that’s safe to say (laughs).
Can you tell me about your experience performing at Newport Folk Festival this summer?
It was great. It was the best festival I’ve ever been to, ever. Every stage there was someone amazing playing on it, all the time.
Which stage did you play on?
I played on the Quad Stage. It’s a great stage. Inside the Fort. It was amazing. Gregory Alan Isakov played there right after me, so we were sharing a dressing room and that’s when we met and that’s how these things work out. So I get to tour with them. Otherwise, I don’t if we wouldn’t have met. Everyone who runs it is a sweetheart. I got to talk to Mavis Staples too. I went to one of the after-shows too and that was great.
You recorded at four different locations for North Americana — what was it that made you arrive or leave those places?
It’s not even an interesting story. I started recording at this one great studio in Montreal and I decided I wanted to go further and do different songs and record them differently because I was figuring out what sound I wanted. Then they booked up and I was touring. They were booked out for about 8 months. So I went to the places where people sounded good. I ended up in France because I was touring and I ended up at this studio because I was working on someone else’s record — it was where Feist did The Reminder. It’s a nice place and I decided to do a couple of days there in between my tour. So, I didn’t have to pay for a flight to get there or anything. Then, I liked this one engineer who worked on a Sigur Ros and Ryan Adams record, so I wrote him and asked him where he wants to record and he said at this place. So we did this place in New York. I just had songs that needed to be recorded and I had to figure out where I was, in relation to who I wanted to work with. Yeah. It just kind of happened.
I really love the song, “From the Fourth.” Can you tell me a little about writing that song?
That’s the last song I wrote for the record, so it’s always nice when people like that one. I wrote the first two verses and then I carried them around for awhile. I was working on it in this little village in Ireland called Clonakilty and I was on tour with Sam Amidon and then he missed his flight and I had to do the show solo. They were so amazing, this bar called De Barra’s and this guy Ray…he was like, “Well, how about I get you an apartment?” So I stayed there and I had the apartment to myself. I worked on it there. I liked the song but it was missing something. I don’t remember when, but I wrote a third verse because it had only two verses. It was very in-need of that third verse. It takes forever sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. The ones that are good and the ones that are bad aren’t distinguished by how they are written at all. It’s just a bunch of stuff all the time. It’s like cooking. Some things take time and it’s better if you braise it for 10 hours and sometimes it’s better if you just don’t cook it at all. But the timing can really kill things and sometimes it can help things. Just keep all the burners on and don’t fuck it up.
Did you just make that analogy up right now?
I very much enjoyed meeting and talking with Leif. His music is amazing. He was obviously at a high point, just moments away from opening The Barr Brother’s concert, and still aglow in the fresh news that the next leg of his musical journey, to begin in January, will be alongside Gregory Alan Isakov and Nathaniel Rateliff. It is a certainty that, in the days to come, you will suddenly see and hear more and more of Leif Vollebekk and his incredible music… like the very moment when the subway comes above the ground.