Part of listening to new music from Alejandra Ribera is deciphering through the songs where she has been in the world during the time she was creating it.
Although the Toronto-born singer/songwriter is based in Montreal, she is many respects a global artist, fluent in French and Spanish as well as English, who spends significant amounts of time living in France.
Her Spanish influences were especially apparent on her 2014 album La boca, which contained the SOCAN Songwriting Prize-winning track “I Want.” Yet, on her brand new record This Island, released Jan. 27 on Pheromone Recordings, Ribera took a much different approach in choosing to produce it herself and record in a rural Ontario studio during winter.
A sense of isolation and confinement is indeed evident throughout the album, although the simple pleasure of making music with her longtime live band adds spontaneity and levity on several tracks, something not immediately evident on her previous work.
Engineered by L. Stu Young (Prince) and mixed by longtime Daniel Lanois associate Trina Shoemaker, This Island is a sonic marvel and Ribera’s most accessible effort to date. She will be supporting the album with shows in Quebec and Ontario in February and March. For more info, go to alejandraribera.com.
What makes This Island stand apart from your previous album La boca?
[Past producer] Jean Massicotte had built such a rich tapestry of arrangements for La boca that when I went to start performing the album live with a small band I was anxious that it wouldn’t translate. What followed was an extraordinary lesson in the power of simplicity through distilling songs to their most crucial elements. It learned to trust in the songs themselves, and in the performing of them I learned to trust myself. I discovered when we played as a trio there was a vulnerability that the band and I exuded and that made us accessible to people in a way that was quite powerful. The nakedness invited a kind of energetic exchange that was really thrilling to experience. Of course it was also charging the musical conversation between all the players internally. The experience inspired me to take a different approach with This Island and start with the idea that we would only record what we felt was essential. Instead of working with one producer I worked directly with my band to develop and explore all the possible arrangements just through jamming.
What made you decide to record in the country in the middle of winter?
I’m extremely sensitive to my surroundings, as are the guys I play with. I felt a lot of responsibility having decided to self-produce and I needed an environment where we could flourish. I had to take into account our individual natures. It’s like meditation—the more you practice the easier it is to do it in any environment—but there’s a reason people go to quiet places or light a candle first. I wanted to be completely present during the recording and I knew that overseeing the whole production would be taking up a lot of my energy so I had to cut out any excess noise. I didn’t want to have to see billboards or listen to people talk about traffic on my way to work. That’s why I chose a place where we could look out the window and just see the trees. It was amazing to wake up in the morning, look out at the frozen lake and then walk down stairs to pour a coffee and start to play. It afforded a kind of fluidity that was quite special. As for the winter part, well if you know me then you know that was just an unfortunate circumstance I couldn’t control.
What track do you feel best captures the overall vision you had for this record?
“Blood Moon Rising” is the track that best captures the essence of what we were doing over those 13 days. If someone were to listen to just one track that’s the one that I would direct them to. Cédric, my bass player, was just telling me the same thing the other day. There had been a power outage overnight. None of us had noticed because we were asleep in bed but the heat had stopped working for a few hours and as a result the pianos had gone out of tune. The next morning I was busy comping a track with Stu Young, our engineer, when Cédric and my guitarist Jean-Sebastien came into the room all excited and said “We have a new idea for ‘Blood Moon Rising!’ The piano sounds all honky-tonk now and when you detune the guitar it’s really cool!” It was just as simple as that, live off the floor. The song required intimacy; it was still fairly raw for me and I specifically needed those cats in the room to be able to go to that place emotionally.
You cite many varied influences on these songs. Do you find you're often more inspired by non-musical art forms?
I’d have to say that over the past few years my songwriting has been influenced more and more by film and dance. I suppose it’s because I’m a very visual person and I’ve always been attracted to beauty. Whenever I describe music it’s in visual terms and I use my hands and body a lot to express abstract ideas. I’ve often said that Billy Connolly has been one of my greatest influences and it’s because I learned so much about rhythm and timing based on watching tens of hours of his performances. At a very young age it was recordings of Audre Lorde’s voice reciting poetry that captured my imagination and influenced my enunciation more than any one particular singer. As time goes on people tell me that they can hear my own style emerging. I don’t know about that but each song demands a distinct version of myself to be the conduit at a particular time. There are all of these gems that I carry in my “inspiration pallet”—the sensations in my body when standing in front of a Rothko or watching choreography by Twyla Tharp—and it’s when I’m playing with my band that I feel the freedom to draw these influences out in the singing and transform those moments of inspiration into a frequency.
What’s been the biggest change in your life over the past years, and what are your major goals for 2017?
The greatest change is that there has been nothing but change for the past few years. I believe that it has influenced the way I experience time. It has been steadily slowing down for about five years, roughly when I left Toronto. Perhaps it is the experience of living in new cities and adapting to new languages that keeps me very much on my toes. I find that time stretches and occasionally folds in on itself. You’ll never hear me say, “Where did the month go? It seems like just yesterday…” but I do experience deja vu quite frequently. Further to that my dreams and my waking life seem to intersect more and more and as a result my identity is less affected by the work I'm doing or the place that I happen to be living in. When I find myself back in an old dream I’m reminded of who I was at that time and I see the distance open and close very quickly. I see my life from a bird’s eye view and then it snaps back into a close frame. I suppose the other greatest change is that I am learning to define success based on my experience of peace as opposed to what I naively believed was important before I had ever lived it. My goals are to produce more art more frequently and care less what happens to it.