Leif Vollebekk learns to let go

Since releasing his latest album ‘Twin Solitude’ in February, Leif Vollebekk has toured the UK twice, supporting Gregory Alan Isakov and Margaret Glaspy. Next month he returns for a series of headlining shows, including a performance at Moth Club on 21 November.

Ahead of his return, the Canadian multi-instrumentalist tells us about mesmerising audiences, Neil Young’s greatest record, relinquishing control to the songwriting process, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, teaching people new words, and his “terrible Lancaster accent”.

I’ve already seen you live twice this year and, even though it was just you on stage and you were the support act, both times you managed to keep the audience mesmerised. How do you do that?

That’s so kind of you. Audiences aren’t always quiet, and they definitely weren’t when I started. They’re kind of like wild animals… they have to choose to come to you.

What was the first live performance to engage you like that?

You know, I’m not sure. To be honest, I’ve heard it mostly with old live Dylan or Neil Young bootlegs. Or even Jeff Buckley’s ‘Live at Sin-é.’ You can hear a different quality of silence in those recordings. The silence is very thick, almost warm. You can hear all those warm bodies breathing, listening, but not saying a word.

You mention Neil Young. A recent “artist pick” on your Spotify page was his ‘Rust Never Sleeps’. What is it about that album you love?

‘Rust Never Sleeps’ is the greatest Neil Young record. A friend of mine who now lives in Vancouver read me the line “the rose clipped by the bullwhip” – and I went and bought the record.

I heard that he wrote all those songs in a period where he almost felt possessed. I think I read that he told his producer: “Look, I can’t stop,” and then he’d pick up the guitar, start playing, and it would be ‘Pocahontas’, from beginning to end. He just wrote it then and there. You can feel that. Everything is connecting on that record. Even the stranger lines that make no logical sense, even they connect.

What’s beautiful about it is that it’s all Neil. He’s not trying to be anyone else.

The ‘Twin Solitude’ bio mentions Nick Drake. How did he influence the new songs?

You know, I don’t think he really influenced the songs, but there’s a peacefulness, and completeness to ‘Pink Moon’ that his other records don’t have. It might sound strange, but I feel like Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ has it too. Both of those records have such a nice weight to them, so balanced. They say what they have to say and then they’re over. The influence I think would be that.

The album came together after a creatively difficult period. Was there anything you were aiming to achieve with it that you hadn’t on your previous albums?

Well, with this record I stopped aiming. I stopped trying to write a record. I just wrote whatever came. I still do that now. You have to relinquish control. And funny enough, once you do that you have complete control.

The album’s been out for several months now. Have any of the songs taken on new life or new meaning in that time?

The songs seem to stretch out a bit more live. They have lots of room in them to wander, which is all you can ask for in a song. But the core of them has remained unchanged. With ‘Into the Ether’, it took us a while to figure out how to play it live… the trick was to get quieter, not louder. I thought it was a hard song to play, but that’s because it’s actually the easiest. You just have to let go, which isn’t always all that obvious to me.  

Could you perhaps pick one song from ‘Twin Solitude’ that best captures what the album’s about?

I don’t think an album can ever really be about something. That would be imposing something from the outside that’s not really there. It’s more of a mood, really. All of the songs sort of blend into one another. It’s like they’re one long ballad that keeps winding down the road.

The song that seemed to stick out the most for everyone – including myself – was ‘Elegy’. In a way, that song saves the whole thing. Without that song, nothing would have happened I don’t think.

You’re back in the UK soon. On your last visit supporting Margaret Glaspy a couple of months ago, you said you’d be working on your “terrible Lancaster accent”. How has your relationship with the country and the audiences (and the accents) evolved since you first played here?

I’m so fond of the UK. I’m not sure if it has anything to do with the Queen being all over Canadian money or not. The audiences just seem to connect differently – it’s rather inexplicable really. I feel like they’re talking to me when I’m playing and helping find the right notes. And, of course, I adore hearing new expressions. I never grow tired of teaching people what a tuque is.

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