I've tried on two occasions to write about Angela Desveaux, a Montreal singer/songwriter that pushes all the right buttons when it comes to my taste in roots music. And yet each time I try to explain what elevates her songwriting and her performance above the ordinary, I stumble over words. Part of the problem is that, objectively speaking, there really is nothing remarkable about Desveaux: her voice instantly exudes melancholy, her arrangements are conservative and tasteful, and her writing is plainspoken and yet can reduce this vulnerable listener to tears during weaker moments. And yet while trying to convince others of what I consider to be her immense talent, I'm often met with shrugs from the skeptics. "That's nice," they'll say, patting my head politely.
Desveaux's 2006 debut, Wandering Eyes, received respectable notices but nothing earth-shattering. She keeps odd company on the Thrill Jockey label, an association that seems impressive until you wonder why she hasn't become a CanCon staple in her homeland, seeing as how there's plenty of room to capture the same kind of crossover audiences as Corb Lund, Carolyn Mark, Jim Bryson, Blue Rodeo, the Sadies--the kind of roots that Canadians still do best. That might be remedied this time out with a domestic release, although Sonic Unyon isn't exactly known for its roots cred either.
The new album, The Mighty Ship (also the name of her touring band) features a noticeably more raucous touch, while the slower numbers are more lush and languid. Song-for-song, the debut may well be the better entry point for beginners--but perhaps that's because it sounds instantly familiar; Wandering Eyes was a better Lucinda Williams record than Williams herself has made in the last decade.
But while that record was basically a bare-bones portrait of Desveaux's songwriting, The Mighty Ship shows much greater care paid to arrangements, thanks to Ottawa producer Dave Draves (Kathleen Edwards, Howe Gelb, Snailhouse). The sound of subtle tensions unraveling in the opening track, "Other Side," is gorgeous, as are the string arrangements played by the Chow brothers from Islands. And Desveaux is lucky to have the services of Snailhouse's Mike Feuerstack (aka MVP of the Montreal scene, now also a permanent member of Bell Orchestre) on guitar, something she talks about below.
This conversation was conducted for this article in the new Exclaim. Desveaux plays The Boat in Toronto tonight with Andy Swan; more dates can be found here.
August 6, 2008
Locale: phone from her Montreal home
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about your writing, and it’s here again on the new album, is the character narratives—how believable they are, how believable the situation is and the honesty with which they’re addressing the situation. The last time we spoke, which was when the last record came out, there’s obviously a danger in discussing these songs; the audience will always assume they’re autobiographical. They’ll assume you’re a sadsack, heartbroken person. When I asked you about that directly, you said that was in the past for you, and that you had just started going out with [drummer/boyfriend] Gilles. And yet here we have a whole new record of often quite painful songs. So I have to ask: where do they come from?
I think it’s always good versus evil for me. I really enjoy science fiction novels and movies; I always see life as a struggle. I’m always complaining and I always think everything is unfair—and yet I’m a really happy person! It depends on what mood I’m in; I can get really sensitive and think that everything’s unfair and sucks. I think I write songs as advice to myself, and I hope that maybe it consoles other people who have similar problems, but they’re always very general or a bigger topic. They’re not specific problems. When I read my own lyrics, they’re always advice to myself. If I can’t say no to someone, a song will be called “Hide From You.” I don’t like disappointing people, so I’d rather hide from someone than face them and tell them that I can’t do something for them.
You even manage to make falling in love sound depressing here: "There's something about joining another that makes you feel sad/ Leaving part of yourself, convinced that it's bad."
I think my voice has a bit of a weird tremolo in it that sounds sad. If Willie Nelson is singing something, it will always sound sad—no matter how happy the lyric. I saw an old interview with Margaret Atwood, where the young interviewer was saying how Atwood was really depressed and a negative person and painting a bad picture of the world. I don't hide the fact that love is a constant struggle. Gilles knows that I love him a lot, but the first year with him was a constant struggle. You always have to pay a price for something that is good. You always have to struggle. I like highlighting the fact that there is a bad part. Honestly, I'm a really happy person.
I don’t know how literal the lyrics are on “For Design,” but it appears to be about shame and body image issues.
Definitely. It's about fashion and appearance. I've never been too concerned about outer image. I don't think this generation is any worse off than any other, but I see young girls being very skinny and having eating disorders and I wonder where the communication is in the family. I think it's important to teach young girls that instead of fashion, health should be your #1 priority. Maybe this is ruining the romance of the song, but it's about teaching people to love and respect their bodies. I get disgusted when fashion becomes a top priority to the point where a mother won't even approach their child about their weight or wearing bikinis to school.
I imagine you probably deal with some of that working at a health food store.
I've seen two girls come in here regularly, and they were skinny to the point where they would buy three almonds each, and they would hardly have the strength to open the front door. They were both white as ghosts. Why isn't she in a hospital bed and seeing a psychologist? Working in a health food store I see so many eating disorders. A lot of people who come in here are really paranoid obsessive-compulsives.
I was reading about a nutrition prof who would discuss healthy diet issues around the dinner table with his family, and his daughter ended up anoxeric.
I've had a few friends who grew up vegan or vegetarian and weren't allowed to have sugar anywhere in their lunchboxes. Then, of course, they binged on junk food as soon as they left the house, just to rebel. When I first started working here, I bought every pill I thought would help: liquid calcium, fibre supplements. Then I realized my fridge looked like an old lady's and I was spending half my paycheque on this stuff. I’m probably not the best sales person in a health food store.
Your characters always seem to be at a crossroads in life, contemplating major upheavals or coming to terms with settling. “Even though I know, I'm not sure where I'm going/ but I'm going/ I'm sure enough to know it will stay this way forever.” “I need you to remind me of exactly all I'm running from.”
There’s a lot of indecision. They're thinking, “One day I'll be really sure of what I'm doing in life.” The older I get the more I realize that I'm never going to be certain of what I'm doing. The fact I know that is more comfortable now. I'll never be perfectly content, but this is the way life is; it's uncertain.
Speaking of changes, what’s different for you on this album?
On the first album, I had those songs and I rehearsed briefly with Howard [Bilerman] and Harris [Newman] and Mike [Feuerstack] and had a rough idea of how it would sound. This album is a good example of how Mike Feuerstack and Eric Digras and Gilles Castoux and I sound like, how we’ve been playing together and developing these songs. Since we put out Wandering Eyes we’ve been playing new songs for two years. It’s less of my complete ideas and more of a band thing, which is why the title of the album is Angela Desveaux and the Mighty Ship, pushing this idea of a band name.
Are there co-writes on this album?
It’s still mostly my songs. The first album was very much verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-end. It’s not like that as much on this album. Mike has definitely shaped the songs a lot. It’s more of a group effort, though I wrote most of the songs and all the lyrics.
Would a new song like “Worried Mind” work if you were playing a solo show? It seems written with band textures and rhythms in mind.
People always ask me to play alone or as a duet, but then I only play one song off the new album. “Mighty Ship” is the most folk/country song here. Everything else needs the band and their textures. This album will have to be promoted and toured that way, which is what I will do at whatever cost. I want to leave behind playing solo acoustic. These are the songs that I play with these band members, and that’s what I want to show people right now.
When I saw you play in New York at CMJ—where I seem to recall you drove down there and back to Montreal in the same 12-hour stretch—it struck me of how much of a band project it was. I think there was even a Snailhouse song in the set, and you also covered a Paul McCartney and Wings song.
We recorded the McCartney song, but decided not to put it on the album for a bunch of reasons. But we still play it live. And we still try to give Mike one or two songs in the set. When you have someone like him in the band, you have to mention his work and show it to people. It’s amazing—I’m a huge Snailhouse fan.
What’s it like having that dynamic in the band? I know him very well—well enough to know that he’s a generous musician and a generous all-around guy.
What’s it like working with a songwriter who has a large catalogue of his own songs?
He’s such a strong artist. I’ve played with other people; I can play with a really good guitarist who knows the perfect lick for the perfect part. But Mike is really tasteful and he brings me what I’m looking for. Although my songs are straightforward and have a country/pop flavour, he’ll always bring something that’s unique and that I really value. When you have a harmony back-up singer, it can be smooth and perfect, but singing with Mike has a lot of character and it shows when we sing together. That’s the only thing on the album that I feel we didn’t have enough time to work on. At the time, Mike was having an operation for a polyp on his throat, so he didn’t sing as much on the album. I would have liked more harmonies, but it wasn’t good timing.
I thought I did notice a more textural approach to both vocals and instrumentation on this album. Which makes sense when I learn that the first album was very much spontaneous arrangements, as opposed to a band that has had time to sink their teeth into it. I know you did some tours either solo or with Mike as a duo. But did the band do much touring in Europe and the US?
No, not in Europe. I did a Bruce Cockburn tour with just me and Mike as a duo. And then we didn’t tour extensively after that. We did some one-off shows with Elliot Brood and the Sadies, and often last-minute shows would come up that I’d do on my own. I feel like I’m saving up my energy for a big blowout in September and October. Mike released his own album this year and he’s working on that, as well as Bell Orchestre. I’ll probably be playing with other musicians once in a while, but the tour will definitely be a band effort.
When your debut arrived on Thrill Jockey, it stuck out on that label’s roster—many people were surprised to see it there, even though they have other roots acts like Giant Sand and Freakwater.
I don't fit in indie or underground music, and I'm not mainstream. It's a struggle for the label. I wanted to try something different on this one. I know I have to venture out and work with different people. Wandering Eyes did great for a first album, but I don't feel I've reached my audience yet. It's hard with expectations with a second album. I want to find my audience, whether it's 10-year-old girls or 60-year-old men.