© Arden Wray / A.Side, Brandon Speakman
Music/Interviews

We asked Alvvays about being antisocialites

September 7, 2017

Molly Rankin's writing uses loneliness as an antidote.

“You can’t really evade being out there when you’re in a band, but if it were up to us, we probably wouldn’t have any press photos.”

Molly Rankin is seated on a bench on the edge of Trinity-Bellwoods Park. Sun peaks through the leafy branches overhead, casting the Alvvays frontwoman in a kaleidoscope of shade and light. She’s discussing the applicability of their new record’s title: Antisocialites. Arm draped lazily over the bench back with opaque black sunglasses on, Rankin looks every bit the part.

Antisocialites is just a term that I feel like is trying to have the best of both worlds, where you can hide in plain sight and be stingy about putting yourself out there in the age of sharing,” she says. But it’s not a judgment; she quickly declares that she’s not “anti-technology.” It’s simply about preserving a space to breathe and develop and, ultimately, be alone, as those spaces shift and disappear from view.

There’s a palpable loneliness to the 10 songs that make up Antisocialites. Lead single, “In Undertow,” establishes as much, opening on the shaky first steps after a breakup. Rankin meanders through new activities to occupy the void: “Meditate, play solitaire, take up self-defence.” “There’s no turning back after what’s been said,” she adds with a mournful conviction. Later, on “Not My Baby,” she shrugs, “You can tell your friends that I don’t make sense and I don’t care, because I’m really not there.” It’s a record dedicated to facing forward, glancing rarely, if ever, over its shoulder; that’s perhaps the defining quality of Antisocialites that differentiates it from traditional break up records. That focus doubles as an assured statement that the past is an impossibility, informed curiously by reality. Rankin wrote “In Undertow” on a small beach on, and when she returned to visit it, the water level had risen to erase the beach.

Rankin wrote much of the record on one of the small islands off the shore of Toronto. She took up residence in an old classroom, writing ideas and priorities on a chalkboard. The islands are a popular tourist destination and sustain 300 homes, but against the incessant rumble of Toronto, they’re solemn and quiet. “Being alone is something I really enjoyed before we started touring so much,” Rankin says. “I forgot that I enjoy isolation, and I really got reacquainted with that when I went to the island.”

Loneliness in Rankin’s writing is presented ultimately as an antidote rather than an ailment.

Loneliness in Rankin’s writing is presented ultimately as an antidote rather than an ailment. It’s a place she knows well. “I’ve always been a loner,” she remarks. “I just learned to really love it, and that’s when I started picking up instruments and writing songs.” Writing was a way to occupy herself, but more than that it was a means of eventual connection. “It’s always been a way that I could feel part of something and still be alone, which is ultimately my goal: for people to listen to it and not to feel like they’re alone, even though they are.”

Rankin’s reasoning sounds almost escapist, or perhaps just resourceful: taking loneliness, repurposing it, negotiating with it to be a state of empowerment and comfort. Antisocialites deals in as much fiction as fact. “I find it really fascinating to explore imaginary little narratives that you can escape into,” Rankin explains. “Not necessarily things I lived through, but a lot of it are these things that I visualize in my mind. Driving across the country by yourself and feeling free, maybe just escaping things and trying things I’ve never tried before.” She talks excitedly, smiling at the imagined roadtrip and nodding affirmatively. “Vicarious living. I don’t think I can actually do that, but I can write about it,” she admits. “I’m not sure I’d actually want to drive across the country by myself, but I do like the visual.”

I don’t even really like to be in the water. I think I just like to watch it.

Visuals, after all, are crucial to the vision of this record. From “In Undertow” onwards, water is a malleable narrative utility, employed to both regenerative effect and fatal consequence. Rankin ponders her connection to water aloud; perhaps it’s something she left behind when she came to Toronto from her maritime home. “It’s space that no one really fully understands,” she notes. The same everyday, life-giving liquid also constitutes some of the earth’s last shadowy, unknown corners. “I’m not much of a swimmer,” she adds. “I don’t even really like to be in the water. I think I just like to watch it.”

That distanced appreciation seems habitual, almost reflexive. Rankin’s resolve in keeping space to herself is concrete. “I’ve made it a habit of leaving things behind. I think that’s to my detriment, but it’s the only way I’ve been able to stay healthy.” She references “Not My Baby,” a track that falls exactly halfway through the record. “That song is one of my favourites because it’s a stage in a separation where you feel like you’ve seen the light,” she smiles. “It takes a long time to get to that place so once you do find that place, it’s a great feeling.” She adds proudly, “Also, the beat is slightly danceable.”

Taking the miserable and making it danceable seems to be one of many beating hearts to Alvvays. The bright, chiming guitars and seafoam synths mingle like salty ocean air, splintered with Rankin’s blunt reflections and undressed realism. “I like when I listen to songs and it sounds like an exciting sugary world, but the words make you turn your head,” she grins. “You’re wondering if you’ve heard what you thought you heard, in sort of an off-putting way.”

Most of Antisocialites is wrapped in that wit and satirical positioning, but before the curtains close, Alvvays allows an almost incongruous moment of catharsis. For less than three minutes, closer “Forget About Life” seems to sheepishly suggest a new communion. Though still guarded and prickled with sarcasm (Rankin invites someone to join her for some “undrinkable wine” under “condominium signs”), it’s a near-brush with peace. “It’s sort of a romantic escapism anthem in some ways,” Rankin muses. “It’s pessimistic and optimistic at the same time.” It’s never really clear which of those Rankin believes in. That’s something she keeps for herself.

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