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Tuesday
Sep182007

THE ACORN - September 5/07

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One of the drawbacks of being in the midst of an exceptionally strong year for music is that, by say, I don't know, September, people get rather tired/wary of phrases like "album of the year", "their best record yet" or "a career-defining work". At the risk of boring you all, however, I would have to say that Glory Hope Mountain by Ottawa's The Acorn is a career-defining work that is easily the band's best record yet, and quite possible an album of the year.

Before I lose your trust completely, allow me to justify my words. The Acorn began as the solo project of songwriter Rolf Klausener. Using plaintive harmonies atop of acoustic indie-folk mixed with electronics, the music was quite pretty but also pretty naive. The act slowly grew into a band and released some strong recordings, including Blankets, which became CBC's Bandwidth album of the year for 2005 (there's that phrase again!)

It was around two years ago though, that Klausener made a decision that has moved his music from collegiate, navel-gazing contemplation to the kind of studied, highly poetic work that may put him in elite company in this country alongside writers like The Weakerthans' John K. Samson (whose excellent new album Reunion Tour also came out this Tuesday. See what I mean? An embarrassment of riches...). That decision was to write an album about the journey that led his mother, Gloria Esperanza Montoya, from Honduras to Canada.

What makes this more than just an extravagant Mother's Day card--aside from the interesting tale that is the subject matter--is Klausener's dedication to the project. Conducting hours of interviews with his mother, friends and relatives, plus generous research into the traditional Garifuna music of Honduras, he and his quietly talented band spent years crafting a document rich in details both musical and lyrical. The end result is something very special: specific to the struggles of his mother, yet easily universal enough for anyone to interpret; woven with rhythmic reference to Garifuna music without ever overwhelming with cheap cultural appropriation.

Like any defining experience, Klausener himself seems changed by the events and eager for the world to hear this album. We spoke on the seemingly endless efforts to bring Glory Hope Mountain to life; avoiding the pitfalls in translating such a personal and, at times, harrowing tale to music; and the discoveries, good and bad, he made about himself in the process.

Soundscapes: During what most bands would call "time off to record", you guys have released a great EP (Tin Fist this past March), toured on-and-off, and had a steadily-building internet buzz about you.  It seems a lot of people have happened upon you in this time, to the point where I think you're going to have a lot of ears with this record.

Rolf Klausener: Well, I hope so, I certainly hope you're right. That would be great. I mean we're really happy with the record. Like, we're really, really, really happy with it, we're really proud of it. And in one shape or another we've been working on it for over two years, so it's kind of like, you hope with every recording that you do that more people are going to hear it. We have been touring and getting out there. We toured for Tin Fist, not extensively, but we did go across Canada a couple of times and it wasn't really necessarily any kind of trying to do something as a prelude to the record, but it was definitely part of the process. Whenever we have time to tour, we tour. But with this record, yeah, I really hope a lot of people do hear it. That was part of the reason that we did go hunting for another label, more specifically, people who worked full time at doing music. Basically because we were working with people who don't do it full time and we were starting to feel a lack there, and it was really important to us that as many people as we could get to hear the record did. We had to find people who were working full time, which was a bit of a struggle in itself...

SS: Yeah.

RK: ...but I don't know. I think I know what you're saying. I do get a sense when I read little blog entries and stuff, or if hear the song on CBC, so far all I hear are positive things from people who have heard it who I don't know. So that's really exciting, but you gotta take that stuff with a grain of salt. (laughs) That's just a few people out there who do meticulously weave through the music that's out there.

SS: So what did compel you to work on this story?

RK: Well, it's mostly there's a tradition on my dad's side of sort of documenting family life, and we have a family tree that goes back to the 15th century. So, my dad always imparted the importance of documenting family life. My father passed away when I was 15, and so when it came to my mom, I felt more and more that I really need to know about her life and document it. And I always wanted to write sort of a little biography of my mom to keep in our family records. And I thought about it more and more and thought, "Well, I'm not really that great a writer, maybe I'll put some music to it and make an album of it." And so I very nonchalantly tossed the idea out to the band and they were kinda like, "Yeah, sure, cool." And then, it wasn't something that we sat and discussed. It was an idea and I tossed it out, there was definitely some kind of, they probably thought, "Hmmm, kind of a weird idea..." But in the end, I started writing the grants and we thought about it more, and once I started interviewing my mom and learning the stories and telling the boys in the band the stories, then definitely I think everyone got a lot more interested. And so did I to be honest! (laughs) I didn't really know that it would work, but basically, in short, if you don't know anything about your family then certainly there's a desire at some point in your life to know about your history.

SS: Yeah.

RK: And that's what it was. An exercise in documentation and doing it the only way that I know how.

SS: When you speak of interviewing your mom, were there other people that you interviewed while putting this together? I assume that this was before you worried about any music. Was this the initial step you took?

RK: Yeah, for sure. We did a grant proposal and I started interviewing my mom in January of 2006, and did that for two months, every week, until I collected about eight hours of tape, and that was definitely the first step. At that point it was just kind of, let's see what kind of stories are there and if it was actually worth doing. I mean, I knew kind of surfacey stuff, but I didn't know any of the details of her life. So we started there, and then once I started getting the stories, I had to sit with them for a long time before I could actually get any ideas of where to go beyond that. I only started thinking about the music element months after I'd spoken to my mom. She didn't really grow up with native Honduran music around her at all. She grew up with Hendrix and Zeppelin and that kind of thing. It was more of musical curiosity, well, "What music did come from my mom's background?" So at that point I started talking to some ethnomusicologists and some people at Carleton University. But it didn't go really far beyond that. I talked a little with a record label in Belize, in Honduras, umm, but really the idea was to, I mean, the music research was totally secondary. The idea was to get stories and write songs based on the stories.

SS: Yep.

RK: The music element was very secondary, it kinda came in while I was working on it, "Ooh, might need to do some research on that." And then one day at Bluesfest last summer, I saw a Honduran artist from this record label in Belize and I watched him play and I was like, "Oh my God, those are those drums I've heard about, those heart drums." And so I started doing more research and cross referencing with stuff that I found at the Smithsonian Institute...

SS: Right.

RK: ...and kind of put all those things together. And I mean, the musical process, the incorporating elements of Honduran music was really, really, we took it very, very, (pauses) we were really careful not to try to emulate stuff too directly, because that would be pretty contrived and, y'know, we're not here to make a Garifuna record. We don't know the traditions, we're not claiming to want to appropriate them. It was more like, let's find a new palette to paint with, y'know?

SS: Right. So you mentioned that your mother didn't grow up with this music around her, with native Honduran music.

RK: Mmm-hmm.

SS: When you were researching this music and incorporating these elements into the songs you were writing, did you find that the music itself shed any light on the project? Did it open up things in her story to you?

RK: Oh yeah, it was really interesting. In some ways it was really metaphorical, but some of the biggest things were in researching the actual system of references in the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. I did a lot of research in that, and there were some other books that I yanked out, and so a lot of the culture and mythologies that surround the music, kind of morphed into my mom's story. My mom gave me a set of stories and there were lots of definite pictures and images in those stories, but when I started researching the culture, I started finding interesting ties to things that my mom said. I mean, my mom talked about 'blood', as in people's blood, the blood of your family, and there were definitely references to the body and blood within some of the texts. As well as the firefly metaphor that weaves its way through a lot of the songs in the album. That was taken directly from a Mosquito Indian tradition, where when a person dies, the shaman will perform this three-day long ritual. And at the end of it, they'll use a firefly to represent the soul of the departed and bury a firefly. And so, that metaphor tied in really well, I started thinking about when my mom's mom died during childbirth.

SS: Right.

RK: I thought well, "Maybe they performed some sort of funeral rite for my mom's mother", and when I read about that, I sort of thought, "Wow, that ties those ideas together." So, there was a lot of that and, there was this really nice marriage between things that my mom told me, images she gave me directly, elements of culture and tradition that I read about, and, ultimately toward the end of the writing process, I started seeing elements that related directly to myself and my whole family and my father and stuff.

So, it was kind of a weird process. There was a lot of geographical references that just popped as I was writing and coincidences where there was this wonderful serendipity. My mom grew up in this area where there was a mountain and a river and she ran away from it, and she ended up in Montreal, surrounded by a mountain and river...

SS: Yeah.

RK: ...and I grew up here in Ottawa surrounded by the Gatineau hills and the river, and there were all these wonderful ties that were just coincidental, but really beautiful. And it just made the idea of the journey of my mom going from one place to another, and ending up in an environment that was really similar to where she grew up, it was just really fun. There were so many moments like that. 

SS: It's been mentioned that this record is partly true, partly fairytale. Did you conscious have to work to strike a balance between the literal and fictional aspect of this story? Times that you looked at it and thought, "This is a little too out there," or "This is a little too exactly what happened"?

RK: (laughs) Do you write songs by any chance?

SS: Yeah. (laughs)

RK: Just kidding, that definitely sounds like a songwriter's question there. Of course, yeah, for sure. Some of the stories were incredibly, incredibly personal, particularly "Oh Napoleon". That was story where I think if had gone even a little bit more literal in the imagery, I think it would've been really upsetting to my mother, or kind of offensive, and really gratuitous and unnecessary. But generally, she trusted me to tell the stories as I saw them. And definitely, towards the end I think I spent--I mean it's kinda pathetic but--I spent about a month writing the lyrics to "Hold Your Breath" and, by a month, I mean literally sitting outside my house, I'd just got fired from my job, so I was sitting there (laughs) outside my house six or seven hours a day working on..., I remember this one week, the end of the week came along and the engineer was coming over to record and he was like, "Are you ready to record the vocal?" And I was like, (excitedly) "I did two lines this week!" And it was like, "Oh God, Jesus..." (laughs) But that was the biggest challenge for sure, how do you take some of those highly personal stories and make not too literal, like "Hey! Here I am, I'm born, and I'm going through some tough times, and now I'm gonna move to Montreal."

SS: Yep.

RK: And not make it boring or too literal. That was definitely the biggest challenge. And also to make the songs interesting melodically and lyrically, make the lyrics dance enough that I would find them interesting ten years down the road. That was also a very conscious decision. I was reading a lot of books at the time, and I was reading a lot of good lyrics, a lot of bad lyrics, and kind of taking mental notes as to what I liked and what I didn't like.

SS: Right.

RK: Metaphors that I didn't want to touch, y'know?

SS: Well, it's always gonna be harder too, when you're not just writing a song that's answering to a particular moment of inspiration, but you've got an entire project in mind. You have parameters within which to work.

RK: Yeah. And that said though, there was a couple of songs, well, a handful of songs, where I really, really, really, slaved over the lyrics, but then a song like "Glory", I came home from a practice with this other band I play in in Ottawa and I just came home and I was kinda drunk, and I just opened my notebook and I just wrote out the lyrics to "Glory" and there was no music, I just wrote out the lyrics and they haven't changed.

SS: Yeah.

RK: That's exactly what I wrote that one night in like three minutes. And I'm sure you know that joy of just spitting out something that you really like and are proud of in a few seconds.

SS: Yeah, it's enough to make you seriously second guess it later on! (both laugh) But, yeah, exactly. So, when you're in the process of analyzing one's own family, particularly when you're documenting events that you weren't there for, I mean, even though you interviewed your mother, you realize something about yourself when you see how you decided to fill in some of the blanks, or how you tell the story.

RK: Oh, for sure.

SS: What did you come out with about yourself in process of working on this record?

RK: Ummm, well, I kind of affirmed, reaffirmed, that I'm a huge asshole. Uh, that was definitely in there, I was like, "Oh yeah! It's true! I'm just like my dad, such a prick!" (both laugh) So, that kind of came out. Um, and I think "Low Gravity" is the song that kind of talks about that the most directly. You know, actually, to be honest, that was pretty much one of the main songs where I really saw a lot of myself in the song. But I realized I was just as stubborn as my mom, and I'm also, one of the things my mom has going for her is just her passion, and I kind of always have lived in the shadow of my dad's life, because he was this crazy U.N. emissary, and he traveled the world, and spoke fifteen languages, and growing up I was always like, "Goddamnit, I'm never going to do anything like that in my life."

SS: Right.

RK: And then, really focusing on my mom's life, I got to see what was really good about her, and subsequently kind of realized that the things that I was always disappointed in (about) myself, there was another side--my mom's side--and it dealt with passion and, not to be too cheesy, but perseverance and survival. Survival, especially.

SS: Right, right.

RK: I realized, y'know, I'm not really, I don't know what kind of life I'll ever achieve or what I'll achieve in life, or what I'll aspire to, but, it kind of reaffirmed the fact that passion and survival go a long way. The desire to survive is a really strong energy, and I guess writing about that for a year, you kind of start to think, "Well maybe there's some of that in me as well." But the biggest thing was realizing, reaffirming that I was a huge asshole.

SS: Well, it's a happy conclusion to build from.

RK: (laughs)

SS: It's an important realization, (laughs) and it's all context too.

RK: Right. You move beyond it, of course. Realize you're asshole-ness. (laughs)

SS: So, was there a big, weepy public apology to your bandmates and friends for all the things you had done?

RK: No, it wasn't necessarily to them at all, it was a pretty personal thing going on.

SS: Yeah.

RK: I guess, y'know... (pauses) This whole process also kind of reaffirmed my ability to make really good decisions, but after an incredibly long period of terrible indecision.

SS: (laughs)

RK: So, that was maybe less 'asshole', and more just 'unable to make decisions'. That was a big frustration for a lot of points in the recording process. Sitting on a song I had a feeling that I might not like, and realizing a month down the road, being like, "OK, we need to completely re-record the song." So I was constantly apologizing to the band. (laughs)

SS: Speaking of which, especially with a project of this nature, how much control did you exercise in the studio?

RK: Oh...

SS: Was it easy to trust the rest of the band with this idea, or was it something where you kinda felt like you had to hold on to the reins?

RK: You know, we (the band) talked about this last night, and they definitely expressed a sense that there were times when I had a certain idea in my mind and really wanted to make sure that it got committed to tape. Whether it was good or not, there were definitely times that I was really passionate about ideas, and directions that I saw for songs. The thing about this band is once it stopped being a solo project, you know, like with any band, they bring there own personality and colour to the band. And we all listened to a lot of the stuff that I researched and, you know, we discussed a lot of the research that I did together and we all took different things from it. I think that everybody applied their talents and their little superpowers in reference to the stuff that we researched and depending on what we were doing in a certain song, those guys could do their own thing. But the big thing was that a lot of the times we just didn't know where a song was going.

SS: Hmm.

RK: I mean, I was hoping to have everything written by January when we started recording, but that wasn't the case at all. We only had three songs ready to go...

SS: Right.

RK: ...and the rest were written over the course of the seven months while we were recording. And it was a really painful process and it was really stressful. And we're in two different cities, members from Montreal would come in kind of blind and not really know necessarily what they were doing that day. Like, "OK, I know we're doing a drum bed, but what do you want? I don't know what I'm going to try, give me some direction."

SS: Right.

RK: So, there were days where it was wonderful, where all this magic would happen in the studio and all these unexpected things, but there were other days where it was just painful. We'd sit and try a drum bed for five hours and have nothing at the end of it. The nice thing was that everyone was really conscious of the fact that they really had to let their egos drop, and provide what was needed for the song. And it was weird because we really didn't know what the song needed and a lot of the times, we didn't know what the song was until we started recording it. And it was only when we were halfway through the recording process where we would be like, "Ahh, OK, this is what it needs, let's do that." or, "This is where the song needs to go, it needs more energy."

So, in regards to how personal I felt, I really do test the band a lot and I don't, y'know, 99% of the time I really try not to tell them what to do, because, in the end I'll ask them to do something and they'll do something different anyways. (both laugh) Bunch of stubborn brats. But, y'know, they are really good at what they do, and I'm not there to tell them to be something that they're not. Even if we did try something, and that's one thing that we kind of got much better at on this record, is that we all did have to work outside of our comfort zone. So, everyone was constantly saying to each other, "Well, try this. Try it. We'll just try it." And so we were constantly trying things, and I think it that respect we were able to let all of our guards down and let our egos kindly walk out the door and just do what every song needed.