Everyone has their own definition of folk music, but I’ve always adhered to what Bob Dylan said in 1966: “Folk music is a word I can’t use. I have to think of all this as traditional music. All of these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains, and lovers who are really geese, and swans that turn into angels—they’re not going to die.”
That was my immediate impression when I first heard Toronto singer/songwriter Abigail Lapell, whose new album Hide Nor Hair will be released January 20 on Coax Records. Although so much about her work seems ancient, it’s balanced by a fierce individualism forged in Montreal’s indie scene where she shared stages with Andy Shauf, Tune-Yards, First Aid Kit and Greg MacPherson, and has toured across Canada on bicycle, canoe and train.
That spirit has continued to flourish since Lapell’s relocation to Toronto and throughout the creation of Hide Nor Hair, her long-overdue follow-up to her 2011 full-length debut album Great Survivor. Working with producer Chris Springer, Lapell is joined on Hide Nor Hair by drummer Benjamin Hermann, Rachael Cardiello on viola, Joe Ernewein on bass, longtime collaborator Jessica Moore on backup vocals, and Mike Eckert on pedal steel.
Last fall, Lapell was the recipient of the Ontario Arts Council’s 2016 Colleen Peterson Songwriting Award for the track “Jordan,” which appears on Hide Nor Hair. But that’s just a sample of the album’s depth, sure to set the bar high for other singer/songwriters in 2017.
Abigail Lapell launches Hide Nor Hair with shows in Montreal (Jan. 17 at Casa del Popolo), Ottawa (Jan. 18 at Irene’s Pub) and Toronto (Jan. 19 at Burdock Music Hall). For further dates and more information, go to abigaillapell.com.
What makes Hide Nor Hair stand apart from your previous work?
It was produced by Chris Stringer at Union Sound, a lovely new-ish studio in Toronto, with help from an amazing cast of collaborators—most of whom I hadn’t worked with before. I’d never really worked with a producer before either and it was a great experience, like having an editor and curator for these songs and arrangements. As a result, I think the album captures the songs in a really distinctive way that’s still true to how the music sounds live. And I find the collection as a whole has a kind of dreamy cohesiveness.
On a different note, Hide Nor Hair also marks the first time my music will be available on vinyl. I’m so excited! The test pressings are arriving any day, so I’ve been checking my mailbox every hour or so.
What song do you feel best captures your vision for the record, and is there a story behind it?
“Fur And Feathers.” At one point this was going to be the album’s title track, and the actual title was loosely inspired by it. The song is very simple and raw, with a dark vibe but a bit playful and self-deprecating too, which is something I was aiming for with the album overall. I love how the instrumentation turned out, stripped-down with a repetitive vocal melody echoing on guitar, strings and barely-audible piano.
I wrote the song very quickly, not long before heading into the studio, and didn’t think a lot about the lyrics or meaning at the time. Like many of my songs, it’s pretty abstract and impressionistic, with these swirling feelings of heartbreak and grief and a note of cautious optimism. Only later, someone pointed out that song actually seems to describe some specific, real-life events surrounding the loss of a close family member. I was stunned because I hadn’t thought of it this way at all, but in hindsight the interpretation really fits. So now I think of the song as a kind of love letter, dispatched in a bittersweet fever dream, from a past to a future self. Which I think may be true of the record as a whole, too.
What do you recall about your first time performing in public?
As a teenager, I played a cover of “Wheat Kings” by the Tragically Hip at a high school talent show. It was in a packed auditorium and I remember feeling super nervous and like a huge weirdo – but it went over better than I would have thought. People even started clapping along, which at first was very encouraging. However, I quickly learned the hard truth about audience percussion: it always speeds up. By the time I made it to the end of the song, the clapping had accelerated so much that I had to wrap it up at breakneck speed. Fortunately it’s a great song at any tempo. I’ve continued to include that one in live shows over the years, and especially lately.
What's your best touring story?
In the past few years I’ve done tours entirely by canoe and by bicycle, so you’d expect the most impressive-sounding stories to come out of that. However… I think my best road story is one that takes place in a more conventional motor vehicle, about six years ago, when a tire actually fell off my friend’s minivan on the highway—while we were driving—and rolled into oncoming traffic. We were an hour or two outside Montreal at the time. Everyone was fine, but the rest is a bit of a blur: trekking up and down the median in search of our missing tire, trying to translate for the Sûreté du Québec cops who showed up seemingly for the purpose of yelling at us in French to get off the median, endless CAA phone calls, trying to avoid getting stranded in a nearby rural town…. And then the craziest thing was that we ended up getting a tow into town and made it to the show on time and played as scheduled. No big deal.
What song by another artist do you wish you had written?
“New Slang” by The Shins.