Aaron Powell explains "downer pop" and how being alone in your own lane can be a good thing.
Photo by Greg Sweetapple
For a long time, Aaron Powell (as Fog Lake), was the only person making lo-fi music in Newfoundland. Hell, he might still be the only person on the island province making music that sounds the way his does. What originally started as an ambient/drone project morphed into a more accessible variant that he calls downer pop. They’re deceptively simple, often fragile and somehow harrowing and uplifting in equal measures. It’s a sound developed in isolation but always ready to connect, in the same valence shell as Alex G, R L Kelly and other young bedroom artists that emerged post-summer ‘09 from that weird haze called chillwave. But while many were looking for the right combination of genre tags on Bandcamp to garner notice from one of the many fly-by-night music blogs, Powell posted his first batch of songs not expecting anyone to ever hear it. “I just figured I’d throw it up there and maybe someone might listen for a week or something and then it would be forgotten,” he says over the phone from his hometown of Glovertown, Newfoundland. He laughs modestly at that, as he often does when he talks about his music, with a tone as if to say I can’t believe it ever went farther than that. When I laugh along he drives it home with the same tone. “That’s true!” he exclaims.
But people did listen, and people are still listening. In 2013, Majestic Casual (an electronic and pop leaning Youtube channel that was terminated over yet another case of internet-grey copyright infringement while this article was taking shape) shared the title track from his first proper full length album farther reaches. That a channel typically racking up views for remixes and summery electro would even share something as somber and introspective as “farther reaches” is odd enough, but Powell still doesn’t know how they even found his music. “I remember that moment. I was delivering pizzas and noticed this huge boost on visits to my page and I kept getting all these notifications. I looked it up on Youtube and was like ‘Holy Shit’. I was confused,” he admits laughing again. The song went on to accumulate over 300,000 views and served as a big boost Powell didn’t see coming. “It gave me a bit of a feeling like it was something I could keep doing. At the time I wasn’t sure I was going to keep going.”
Powell grew up in Glovertown, an isolated but scenic coastal town in Newfoundland without a single venue, let alone an art scene. “We had to think of creative things to do as kids because there really wasn’t much to do. We’d make movies and the more I got into editing and making films, the more I got interested in the audio side of it. I realized how important sound was to film.”
Powell remastered his first two collections of songs and combined them on his Bandcamp as an album called there’s a spirit, there’s a soul, which culminates in 9 ambient songs with hints of Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind score. Since then he’s released three albums that have moved further into indie pop territory. “I loved the idea of creating something hypnotic with repetition, but I didn’t really care where the song went as long as I could follow the direction in my head,” Powell admits. “They were improv. I would write very quickly, always in haste. I wanted to capture a feeling very closely, as soon as it happened rather than letting it go.”
His latest album victoria park, released this past June, is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s structured and thought out, but never calculated. His songs still slip through your ribs to the core, but they’re a little punchier now. Gone are the whimsical instrumentals in favour of familiar verse and chorus movements, even if the lyrics don’t always play out that way. Songs like “bury my dead horses” chug on moody strums only to be invaded by serrated riffs and slashes, and the first single “shanty town” undulates on a waterbed of wonky synths, referencing the artists that influenced him as he learned guitar and piano.
“I was really into Elliott Smith and Cat Power and Sparklehorse. The less is more thing really hit me…the songs had to be really personal and intimate. I think those artists made me feel more confident to see what kind of atmospheres I could get out with limited music knowledge.”
That Powell even got into those artists is surprising. Sure, Newfoundland’s capital St. John’s plays host to a music scene, but most of it leans toward radio-friendly indie folk or rock. But back in his formative years when he’d skip school to scoop samples off the internet, forming atmospheric experiments from a tiny basement room, Powell would come to meet Warren Hildebrand on a music forum. “I posted my really early work on that forum and I remember meeting Warren on the forum and becoming a big fan of what he was doing with Foxes In Fiction…just a normal Canadian dude from Toronto who just got up and decided he was going to start making music and hearing what he was capable of. That was maybe my first real inspiration.”
Hildebrand’s Orchid Tapes has now released Fog Lake’s last two full lengths including a cassette bundle for 2014’s virgo indigo. The inclusion of Fog Lake to Orchid Tapes made a lot of sense and placed him alongside other artists that were creating engaging music single-handedly from the ground up. Still, many of those artists already had fan bases established from other projects, and most were based in cities like Toronto, Philadelphia and Los Angeles where the development of music described as both lo-fi and intimate might be more easily understood by listeners. Powell did attempt to escape the isolation of Glovertown by moving to St. John’s to see if there might be an audience for his sound. “I was expecting to find people that were doing the same thing and there weren’t any at all,” Powell recalls. “I started to feel disillusioned. It was all indie rock and indie folk, and that’s great, there were a lot of great musicians. But at the same time, I was hoping to find a little niche or corner I could maybe fit into.”
There were people there that had heard his music though, and as he started to play them in live settings, he began to experience something many artists experience, but are perhaps more affected by when sharing music that is not only personal but often from a dark place. “People had this preconceived idea of how they expected me to be,” he says with a noticeable tinge of discomfort brought forth from the memory. “Putting yourself out there like that makes you more targeted.”
He also learned that judgement is immediate when playing in front of a live audience. “When it’s online you can hide behind a computer screen and you aren’t present for the judgement. I think I hate the end of the playing a set most…having to be present after you’ve played a set. All of the judges have faces and they are staring at you. Especially in Newfoundland, I’ll peer out and see a face in the crowd sometimes looking my way like ‘What the fuck is this?’ It’s a genuine fear and one that Powell admits with his familiar unassuming laughter.
Looking back, Powell seems torn about his time in the city. He realized he wasn’t a city person, but upon returning to Glovertown he’s learned that he might not be as introverted as he once believed. “The hardest thing about writing lately is the isolation. I think you need to be around people to write music. In a city there’s constant stimuli. A lot of my music comes from a more laid back, quiet place, but it’s hard to be a musician and want to live in the middle of nowhere.”
Luke Cummins is a writer living in Hamilton - @xtrmnnchlnc