Interview – Ladies of the Canyon
– by Ria Nevada
The harmonious roots music of Ladies of the Canyon have developed and flourished deep in the heart of downtown Montreal. Their heartfelt, throwback sound caught the attention of Canadian folk heroes Barenaked Ladies who have taken the quartet on the road with them on their current tour.
Before their show opening (along with Clara Venice) for BNL at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre last Friday, I talked to the band about the different writing approach they took with their latest record Diamond Heart, and the significant changes that have shaped their current direction. I learned about their soft-spot for America and discovered that one of the Ladies of the Canyon may just be Kris Kristofferson’s most devoted admirer.
Ria Nevada: The Montreal music scene is really interesting – there’s a really diverse range of subcultures in a relatively small city. Did you find it hard to break into that local artist scene when you first started out?
Maia Davies: Not really. The fact that there’s so many different little pockets and subcultures means that there’s room for anything to happen there. The Montreal attitude is quite lax, I guess. All my best friends were in all those indie-rock bands, and I didn’t really want to do that even though I love that kind of music. But we were starting to do something quite different. But everyone’s always really accepting and they would come out to shows and be like, “Folk music. I don’t know anything about this, but I like it!”
RN: The Mile End in particular has developed this reputation for being the aggregator for all things “indie cool”. Are there other areas that you guys gravitated more towards?
Jasmine Bleile: Where we met was pretty much in downtown Montreal – a mostly English-speaking music scene, and that’s where a sort of folk and roots scene started up. We all met in this bar where I worked called Grumpy’s Bar. It’s kind of a hub for local talent, and it’s a lot of roots-based music and that’s what we started doing, eventually shifting into our own thing where we incorporated a lot of ’60s and ’70s rock n’ roll and folk music into our sound. But we really grew out of that kind of roots scene. Bands like United Steel Workers of Montreal were really great to us at first and helped us get our first shows.
RN: I saw them at the Vancouver Folk Fest a few years back and they bring a whole crew on stage.
JB: The best advice one of the Steelworkers ever gave me was “Don’t have too many people in your band. It’s too much trouble to travel with!”
RN: Yeah! It’s a traveling caravan! So how did living in Nashville affect your personal and artistic progression?
JB: We never lived in Nashville – we were there for a couple of weeks, for some writing sessions. When we went down there it was like “We need to move down here! It’s amazing!” But now, I think I’d rather move to LA. It would be more fun. Nashville’s fun – there’s a cool scene down there, it’s not just country. There’s everything.
Anna Ruddick: We had a really good time, but I think the main thing that came out of it was learning what we didn’t want to do, which was play commercial country music. We tried it out and we wrote a lot of tunes like that, but that kind of shaped what we ended up doing. We knew that wasn’t for us. Making you do different things that are outside of what you do kind of gravitates you back to a more rational spot for what you want.
RN: Your latest release is called Diamond Heart, which implies juxtaposition between vulnerability and indestructibility. Can you pinpoint moments in your career thus far that have really tested your ambition and patience?
JB: Oh like every Friday? Is it Friday?
RN: It sure is.
AR: One of the women (Senja Sargeant) left the band and we replaced her with Tara (Martin) in between records (2010’s Haunted Woman and Diamond Heart). Part of the theme is how difficult that was for us, and overcoming it and continuing with a big presence in our lives being gone, and trying to make something new out of that happening. That’s one of the themes of the song “Diamond Heart”.
Video – Ladies of the Canyon, “You and All Your Famous Friends”:
RN: You’re all pretty unabashed about your affection for ’70s soft rock, a genre which unfortunately has gotten this cheesy rap. What is it about this era that pulled at your heart strings?
MD: Have you ever heard an America record? It’s just incredible songwriting, musicianship, production.
JB: Some of the best performances, some of the purest, most genuine songwriting I think that I’ve heard. I don’t know, I connect immediately to it.
RN: I know what you mean. Songs like “Lonely People” and “Love Will Keep us Alive” – how can you not just belt your heart out?!
JB: (laughs) There’s lots of the really heavy ’70s rock that we like too. We like to rock.
AR: You know the song “Lonely People”, so you have heard an America record!
RN: Sure have!
AR: That’s a great song.
MD: Me and Anna had a phase kind of when we were writing a lot of these songs, and we were so obsessed. We bought all their vinyl and refused to listen to anything else. It was like, “Do you want to listen to Homecoming again?” (everyone laughs)
RN: Which ’70s Americana classic do you think cover bands should be banned from covering – either because it’s so great you can’t touch it, or because it’s already been done to death?
MD: Probably things like “Sweet Home Alabama”.
JB: Yeah. That’s a good one. I don’t mind hearing it. Not many songs bother me as much as hearing “Brown Eyed Girl” eight million times. That kind of thing it’s like, “Oh no! Stop!” Or what’s the Janis Joplin one? “Me and Bobby McGee.” It’s an incredible song but I don’t want to hear everybody covering it.
MD: Kris Kristofferson is still receiving a lot of money for that.
JB: I love Kris Kristofferson. I love the Janis version too.
MD: Kris Kristofferson is Jasmine’s big crush.
JB: I love him and would still marry him even though he’s pushing 80.
RN: How’s life on the road with Barenaked Ladies?
MD: They’re so funny, it’s crazy! It’s our second date (of the tour) so far and every time I’m around them, I’m just howling laughing. Everything out of their mouths is funny.