Language Arts’ Indie Pop Carol to Sable Island
Perhaps it was fate that intervened to alter the course of Kristen Cudmore’s career in music, though it was more than likely the botched VISA. She was heading to Hawai’i by way of Nova Scotia to complete her Masters of Music when a paper-work error grounded her in Vancouver. Having given up job opportunities in Germany and US scholarships for some sunny schooling, Cudmore decided to remain in BC. Depressed and struggling with the transition, she tried to make it work with various jobs before heading back East. She got as far as Toronto where she formed her art-pop band Language Arts. Yet, through all her travels, she hasn’t strayed too far from her Nova Scotia roots.
“Sometimes I dream of moving home or working towards that,” says Cudmore. “I love the way of life there, even though it is tough. Although I am not sure living there full time is in the cards”
Though she doesn’t plan to move there any time soon, Cudmore and her band were happy to set up shop in a cottage off the Northumberland Strait to record Able Island, the group’s third release. The album is titled after Nova Scotia’s Sable Island, a place that averages about 250 visitors a year and is home to maybe five people and hundreds of horses. The recording process included taking ambient sounds with homemade microphones as they toured, recording in hotels, alleyways and basically anywhere that sounded interesting. If you listen under the lyrics you may hear wind blowing in a stove pipe during a nor’easter, the warm crackle of a fireplace and even the voices of the band’s fans on the track “With Me.” It’s all woven through threads of lonely, longing and seeking a sense of belonging in a place you can call your own with plenty of synth, some strings, sax and, of course, Cudmore’s breezy vocals.
Ottawa Life had a chance to catch up with Cudmore before the band’s Ottawa Show this evening.
Ottawa Life: So, you picked up the guitar as a pre-teen by listening to your uncle?
Cudmore: My uncle wasn’t much older than my sisters and I. He was in his Jesus phase. He brought a guitar to our cottage on PEI, trying to figure out how to make his big paws work on it to impress some hot twins on the beach that he knew from school. I heard him play and asked if I could try. I couldn’t believe how right the strings felt under my fingers. It was a magical moment. I kept hassling my parents to get me a guitar. They thought it was just my ADD, wanting to try something that I would soon give up. I remember sitting on the deck to welcome my grandmother for my birthday party. I was turning 12. She was having her smoke and, without thinking, asked me what I thought about my new guitar. I lost my mind! My parents hadn’t given it to me yet so she ruined the surprise. My mom was quite upset with her but I got my guitar!
Your music is so multi-layered. What do you find yourself drawing from most to evoke the sound and style?
I write on a looping petal and studied classical music. We would analyze orchestral scores. Sometimes I just see music in this way. I imagine the textures, counterpoint, harmonies and they all have a place in the story or represent something highlighting a feeling or moment or drawing importance to the dynamic shape. None of this goes unplanned but it also feels very stream-of-consciousness when it is written.
You’ve now settled in Toronto. Do you foresee more roaming or are you slowly making your way back home?
I certainly miss the beauty, the outdoor adventures, the amazing people and culture and the feeling of belonging which I haven’t felt since I left. But I would have to get really smart if I wanted to make a go of it as a musician there. My passion is to see Nova Scotia be a place where people can live and work again. I always scheme in my mind as to how to solve the problem and it just becomes a circular motion of thought. If I could be a musician in Nova Scotia I would be a musician in Nova Scotia. I can’t wait until the day that I come to a conclusion as to how I can make that my reality.
You call the recent album a Sable Island carol and dedicate it to Nova Scotia. After heading to the other side of the country and now living in the middle, what was it about the island that inspired you to write about it?
Sable Island is a desolate beauty, 300kms off the coast of Halifax, abouts. It’s constantly being changed geographically by the weather and the ocean’s force. It has a long history of being a place that looters, pirates and fisherman would utilize at sea. It then became a rescue station, a weather station and the home of over 400 wild ponies. It’s essentially a gorgeous beach in a crescent shape. It’s a piece of home that is made up of isolated mystery and scenery that is constantly being manipulated by the environment that really inspired my writing. I have always dreamed of going there but unfortunately one could only go there with special permission from Parks Canada.
The album had a pretty unique recording process as opposed to, say, the studio norm?
We would play from noon until the wee hours of the morning, 4 A.M. or so. We got smart with mic placements and how to use the space to capture it in the recording as well as us! We would record live-off-the-floor and do many different versions of the takes to make sure we could pull our best selves through the song. Then we would all agree at one point or another that a take felt good. Some of us were still deciding on parts as we went along so it was really an element of the moment. We had our amps in different rooms and mics all over the room and tucked up inside the cathedral ceilings. It sounded big and warm.
There is certainly a sense of roots on the album but, also, loneliness. Did you find yourself seeking a place to belong?
Exactly! Belonging is an important thing to feel. I constantly feel like an expat, as many Nova Scotians do. I feel a sense of guilt for not still living there but it took me leaving to learn that I felt this about home: that it’s where I belong and it is an incredible place to be from. Loneliness is a sickness and I don’t agree that being in a crowd means that you can’t be lonely. Sometimes you can feel even lonelier. As I age, I struggle with the concept of belonging and loneliness more than anything. It’s an epidemic among many people and has caused a lot of mental health issues. I just feel lucky that I have an outlet for these feelings through composing music.
Your second album Wonderkind seemed to find you in a sadder place in a time of your life that was pretty chaotic. Where does the new album find you?
I have turned a new leaf. Wonderkind was ridden with deaths of significant friends and the loss of trust with a true companions and an artistic patron. I learned to accept and move on and know that sometimes bad things happen and it is a chance to learn and grow. I have put that to practice and have diligently been trying to see things for the good they have instead of giving more weight to the negative. Having music as a way to expel that weight into something positive is what Able Island became. I am truly grateful for the people who have come and go in my life because without them and their influence, be it good or bad, I wouldn’t be me!
Language Arts plays Zaphod’s tonight at 8pm. Tickets are available online at Zaphods.ca.