Amy Macdonald has performed in a number of musical projects over the years, first in her hometown of Edmonton and subsequently in Montréal. Her tastes are wide-ranging and she has performed everything from folk, to free jazz, to hardcore. In tandem with her various projects Macdonald has established herself as an important part of Montréal’s musical community as a member of the Loose-Fit promotion collective and tape label Misery Loves Company.
February 29th, 2016 saw the release of Two Mountains, the first full-length release from Macdonald’s sadcore project Nennen. In her own words, these are “very, very sad songs rendered with space and softness and hardness.” On a rainy Tuesday afternoon we sat down over tea and blood oranges to talk about the album, her collaborators, and how space can help one think.
Stream Nennen’s Two Mountains below and read on for our interview.
AUX: You seem to avoid describing Nennen as your solo project. Can you talk about why that’s important for you?
Amy Macdonald: I think there’s something that people come up against a lot if they talk about a solo project which is the idea that it’s just them playing shows and just them recording and just them putting it out or they are the only drivers of the thing. One of the things that’s been really fun about Nennen and actually makes it psychologically possible to do is that other people care about it. People around me care about it and seem to want to pull it out.
So that includes Tim Keen who recorded it and spent a lot of patient time mixing it and trying to decipher my really abstractly worded emails about what I wanted it to sound like. Matt May and Joni Sadler, who I have been jamming with a lot for the live shows, and who both contributed their particular thumbprints to how Nennen lives as a live thing.
Eamon Quinn and Jack Deming, who both played on the record and added a lot of fullness to the songs. And just getting help from people around me like Lucas Huang, who designed these symbols that are actually freakishly – he designed the two mountains logo which is also two Ns – two mountains above two parallel lines which is a line in a song on the album he hadn’t heard when he designed it.
Also Graham Latham, who has just helped me a lot in sort of thinking through how to do a physical release. And thinking through the sequence of how to get it mastered and figuring out how it should arrive at a physical version of itself and how many copies it should be and how I might find a little pocket of people who may like to hear it. None of that is stuff that I am capable of doing myself the way that Nennen is. I mean, yeah, I write the songs, sure, and that is an important part of things but it’s not the whole story. It’s so good to have other people involved because to me it gives me breathing room that I couldn’t give myself.
Would you say that Nennen is something you are creating in the context of a community? A lot of those people you have named you have collaborated with in other things as well.
It was through collaborating that Nennen felt like it was becoming possible to do as well. It was through playing with other people that I started to think, well, maybe I could play songs that are the product of my writing process. The conditions of possibility for that are very collaborative for sure.
Do you wanna talk a little bit more about the compositional process? The album, I would say, is somewhat abstract and you mentioned bizarrely worded emails to Tim Keen…
“I want this to sound spherical!” Yeah, it’s kind of abstract. I feel like I’m always chasing a shape more than anything else or an arrangement of space. That’s obviously not the whole story. People have responded to it in very emotional ways, even you know just my mom and my aunt and one or two people I know who have said things to me about it.
Definitely the compositional process for me is heavily invested in sorting through emotional dirt but I never feel like the end goal is to express an emotion, to have it contained in the song legibly for people to read. It’s more like opening up a space where other people can come to feel a dimension of something. I guess I sometimes wish I could sort of sit down and write about something that just happened to me but that’s not usually how it goes. There’s usually a lot more emotional filtration that happens before I write so it ends up getting abstracted from an event or even a specific feeling.
That sounds like your describing your relationship to the semantic content. How do you actually compose the musical elements of the songs?
That’s spatial too. I’m not a sculptor so sculptors might take issue with this, but I sometimes think it’s like coming to a block of marble. OK, this is the block of marble I want to work into the sculpture I want to make. It sometimes feels less like building something up then like chipping away at a larger block of stuff until it becomes the thing that I was trying to find. So it was like hours and hours and hours of playing the same parts over and over again until different elements of those parts rebuild themselves as shapes or bits of the songs.
I just play guitar alone and record it on my phone and then walk around listening to those recordings and take little bits and pieces that I thought were striking or interesting from those and then going back and playing more guitar about them and then eventually very, very slowly build a song. It does feel like distilling hours of repetition into one object.
It’s rarely a Eureka Moment. Sometimes if it’s been percolating for long enough then the Eureka Moment can happen in 10 minutes if the lyrics match and everything comes out of the guitar and lines up. But that does sort of belie the long, long, long, long process of having a piece or a part stuck in my head all the time just as the back drop of any given day running that through my head as a I am walking or running or whatever.
You seem to favour spatial metaphors when describing your music and geography seems to loom large over this particular release. A lot of the song titles (“Henday”, “Villeray”, “Two Mountains”) are places.
I think it comes from the fact that moving my body is critical for my health and well being in every sense. But also for my ability to understand things that are happening that seem really difficult to understand. Sometimes I reach a point where if I am really upset or frustrated or confused or hurt about something that I can’t process, I get thinky about it and that almost never works and then I hit a point where I have just built up so much internal combustion over it that I need to release it. Sometimes that’s dancing, often it’s running or walking.
The really clichéd answer to this is the prairie kid idea. If you grow up in the sky, with the sky all around you all the time, then you need that perspective to really ground you. I really feel like that. I like being out in Parc Jarry where you can pretty much see the whole sky around you and can put your problems, your thinky problems, in perspective.
This isn’t really that important there’s the entire sky and I’m inconsequential in comparison to the entire universe. It just pulls the rug out of those feelings of being unable to access or process a problem or an experience. If I get out in space and I’m able to sort of plot myself on a map it helps me to understand my position. It helps me to process and approach things that otherwise I couldn’t.
So there’s an ideal representation of space but also your creative community seems to be particularly localized. Can you talk about how that developed and where those relationships came from?
I moved to Montreal in 2010 and started playing music here but things really picked up with Public Transit. It was the first sort of thing that happened where I started to meet a bunch of people and grow closer to a bunch of people. I started collaborating with you and Joni Sadler and playing shows and also starting to help with Loose-Fit. When it was super active we were putting on a couple shows a month or a show a week. Just the sheer number of people who come through the door who you meet.
At a Loose-Fit show, I met Tim Keen, who got me into the jam space which we use right now, which is another sort of nexus for meeting a lot of people. It was a slow process but by playing flute in this weird improvisational noise jazz band with two people you really trust, it was hard to not feel really open to possibilities. It felt like a good diving board for meeting a lot of people and collaborating with a lot of people. Then Tim Keen and I started Mands and Kaity Zozula joined and then Nennen started doing things in 2014. Public Transit, Loose-Fit, and the jam space were the sort of nodal points.
You printed the lyrics in both French and English, what informed that decision?
Thanks to Vincent Rondeau for the translation. I’m an English speaker living in Montreal and so much of what’s around me happens in English. The community we’re a part of has bilingual elements but I think it does veer towards mostly English-speaking. I have found that when I put myself in situations where I really put up a boundary. I’m like, no I’m going to speak French, I’m going to try this in French. It improves my abilities as a French speaker and it also shows me something new about the people around me and the world around me.
I was listening to a Bruce Cockburn record, I cant remember which one, a while ago and I took out the lyric sheet. I hadn’t actually had my hands on a Bruce Cockburn LP before and he prints his lyrics in both English and French. Seeing that I was like “Wow, this is really interesting.” I have had a lot of conversations about translation with friends who are translators of poetry and I think that one of the most interesting things about lyrics is how many ways people interpret them and how many different things people hear in it. When you write it down you can be thinking about something but I think the best lyrics have enough room in them that people can come in with their own experiences and feel reflected or witnessed in those words in ways that the lyricist couldn’t have ever planned for. I think translation is like throwing a bit of fuel on the fire of that process.
Even reading the words that Vincent wrote when he translated the lyrics was fascinating because there were all these resonances of meaning that were there but I hadn’t thought of before. It really changed my understanding of some of the songs. It is really thrilling to have something you made become unrecognizable to you because someone else has interacted with it. That is an experience that I love and one that I was really curious about – being able to just open the words up a little bit to this whole group of people who are all around me. Not to say that French speakers can’t understand English lyrics.
The fact that I live in Montreal means that I speak French on a daily basis and I try to think about how the world around me is Francophone, I actually really value that. I wanted to interact with that French speaking world a little bit through my art. In the past I have written lyrics in French but I’m still not brave enough to actually write a song in French.
Before we started this interview you mentioned discovering new aspects of your neighbourhood. Beyond your collaborators, what else inspires you in Montreal?
I dunno, I think just having the opportunities here. I feel like there is so much here. There are so many people. People sometimes talk about the Montreal music scene in the singular which I think is like a nonsensical idea. There is so much and that feeling of abundance, like, you can put on a noise show on a Sunday afternoon and 30 people will come. That’s pretty incredible to me, coming from Edmonton. There is always someone releasing something or doing something or writing something that I am excited by. That general feeling of momentum across people and projects is something that I find really inspiring.
Montreal is really visually rich. There’s a lot to look at and a lot to lose yourself in. Just going to the Jean-Talon market and staring at vegetables for half an hour does a lot for me. And also the kinds of things that I’ve just started to really feel, like other art forms. I’ve always been curious about visual art and poetry and writing and I’ve always been intimidated by those things or how little I knew about them. I have been starting to find that particularly visual art and dance and poetry are starting to most clearly present ideas in my mind for the kinds of things that I want to write. So Montréal obviously is great if you want to reach out and find those things here. There’s a lot to chew on.
Are there any particular projects or anything that’s resonating with you right now?
Well, I find Lungbutter really inspiring as a band. I like watching them. And also Grace’s poetry was in Alex Pelchat‘s Chercher Noise zine. There’s something about Grace’s expression, whether it’s drawing or writing or vocalizing, that gives me this sensation of being hit, like internally being struck by the lucidity and also emotion of what they say. They put a lemon twist in a word or series of phrases that is just heartbreaking or just throws the whole everything that’s come before it in the phrase into question.
Yeah, so, recently I have been thinking a lot about that. And Kaity’s guitar playing I find inspiring as well. Her careful attention to tone is inspiring. I tend to be impatient about that stuff. I tend to go for chords or content rather than how a tone sounds. I think the patience to finding a set up and getting it to a point where you can manipulate it really skillfully is something that I admire.
I also really like the tape that Tim Keen recently released as Silk Statue. That’s been a really cool thing to hear and has a lot of textural ideas that I am really finding myself inspired by.