Montreal's Braids talk writing their new album, finding inspiration through Alanis Morissette, and just recently discovering Drake was on Degrassi.
Photo Courtesy of Victoria Masters
Nine out of ten bands would probably use an album that nearly won the Polaris Music Prize as the blueprint for all their subsequent recordings. For Montreal’s Braids, however, that honor seemed to be the impetus to become that one other band. After their debut album, Native Speaker, was shortlisted for Polaris, the band went in a completely different direction with their second album, Flourish // Perish. Jettisoning the hypnotically intertwined guitars that navigated Native Speaker’s elaborate dream pop, Braids reinvented their sound by fully embracing a growing interest in electronic music. Flourish // Perish showed such remarkable growth that it was even too advanced for their keyboardist Katie Lee, who left the band before the album’s release. Although Flourish // Perish didn’t quite receive the same adulation as its predecessor, it did allow Braids to naturally progress the way the remaining members—Raphaelle Standell-Preston, Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith—felt they needed to in order to keeping going.
For their third album, Deep In The Iris, Braids once again made significant adjustments. Beginning with how and where they recorded the album, the trio wanted to avoid the stressful times they underwent for the last album and reconnect not just as a band but as friends. The solution? Extended retreats to various tranquil spots across America to stimulate their creative juices. The plan most definitely worked for the band, as Deep In The Iris is a brave new chapter for Braids. This time around nothing was hidden behind studio effects and computers, allowing the songwriting and production to blossom organically. The most perceptible difference, however, is Standell-Preston’s vocals, which have been pushed to the foreground, allowing her the freedom to speak loudly and clearly about issues the band feels are in need serious need of addressing, specifically the treatment of women in areas such as pornography, abuse, and slutshaming. Noisey spoke to the three members of Braids about the influence of Alanis Morissette, why it was necessary to write a feminist anthem, and how their new album features songs fit for playing in front of a campfire while roasting marshmallows.
Noisey: There was a lot drama happening with the recording of Flourish // Perish. How was recording Deep In The Iris different?
Raphaelle Standell-Preston: We wanted to enjoy the process more.
Austin Tufts: There were a couple of big differences we had in mind going into it. Like Raph said, being more conscious of the process, and enjoy every minute of it. As opposed to struggling through it, saying, “We’re gonna make a record,” and then trying to make a record but not enjoying the process. This one was very different from that. And going into it we knew we wanted to have a much stronger focus on the songwriting. We wanted to write songs that could be played on instrument. Like you can sit around a campfire, pick up a guitar and sing one of these songs front to back.
RSP: That’s a pretty funny thought: sitting around a campfire singing these songs! [Laughs] I’d like to see that happen.
What challenges did you run into with this record?
AT: I think it was a very different experience than anything we’ve ever done, so getting used to that. But I think to be honest we were conscious of all the challenges and hardships we went through on the last one that we did as much as we could to rid ourselves of that going into this one. I think the issues we had going into Deep in the Iris were just the natural personal things we go through as human beings, as opposed to the ones we go through in the process of writing a record. We realized a lot of the issues we had writing Flourish // Perish—
RSP: Was writing predominantly with a computer we found to be really limiting, and just returning to instruments and being musicians, connecting with one another. It was fine if we didn’t even come out with a record. It was more about trying to reconnect as individuals and bandmates, and to explore writing songs, and enjoy writing songs.
So, if you didn't have an album finished by the end of the process would you have been fine with that?
RSP: Yeah. Idealistically we spoke about that, but who knows because that didn’t happen.
Taylor Smith: I think our goal wasn't to write and record a Braids record, but to go and tear down boundaries between us and experience something beautiful and uplifting, a period of growth for us as people and musicians. And to just mess around and experiment each day and to see what felt right. So, if that meant playing something that was uncharacteristic for us, that’s what it was. I mean, we wrote some rock songs along with the songs that made it on this record.So by focusing on process, rather than the end goal of making a record, we tried to rid ourselves of the expectation that at the end of the day we needed to walk out the door with ten songs that fit in 45 minutes. Rather the expectation was to have a beautiful experience together, and if a record comes out of that beautiful experience, great! And if not we’ll try again. Learning from the last process where we forced a lot of things, and pushed through a challenging time, we understood that this time that if it was challenging we were doing something wrong. So if the retreat resulted in us not coming up with songs, it was a swing and a miss, but a necessary one in the bigger picture.
Taylor mentioned tearing down boundaries. Was there tension in the band?
RSP: No tension, but I had been touring a lot with Blue Hawaii and we just hadn’t seen each other in a long time. And just touring in general; you’re so close to one another but then at the same time artistically disconnected. Because you’re so close, you also want some space and you’re not allowed to get that. Usually, by the end of a tour people are in their own little bubble, trying to preserve themselves. I think we had experienced that and needed to reconnect as friends, first and foremost. The first few weeks we were in Prescott, Arizona we just went on walks, had talks, roasted marshmallows and chopped firewood and went grocery shopping and cooked meals. We had a good friend Nick Hederlend come up, who has done our press photos in the past. We just had a nice time getting back together.
AT: Another way of breaking down boundaries was just realizing that, as proud as we are of Flourish // Perish, we just felt that throughout making it we had grown a little intense and there was a lot of weight and heaviness in the band. Touring that band there were some breakdowns and lofty expectations, and we had to take a step back from that going into these recordings. We had to get back to reality and rekindling the natural state of our being.
How did the various locations you visited - the mountains of Arizona, a farm in Vermont, and a gorgeous location in upstate New York—influence the sound of this record?
RSP: For me, lyrically, the farm in Upstate New York had a lot of impact. There was so much space and beauty. I was able to reflect a lot and do a lot of meditation. The ample rolling hills, the cows, we were all so happy there.
AT: I think the songs written in the NY location were very different from what we had done in Arizona. In Arizona we were completely isolated in this very rustic cabin you had to drive 40 minutes up a dirt road to get to. It was a tiny small town and we didn’t see anybody for seven weeks, other than our friend, Hederlend. In Upstate New York we had all of our friends from New York City and Montreal come stay with us. It was a lot more energetic. We were going swimming in waterfalls. In particular, the song “Happy When,” came out of that place, specifically from Raph’s meditation and that type of lifestyle we led. There was an energy that I experienced there while we were tracking, when “Miniskirt” and “Happy When” were beginning. I think a lot of the more powerful parts of the record were hashed out there, because there was so much more energy with our friends being there. And then in Putney, Vermont, the songs were mostly written and we needed a beautiful place to go track. Our friend Martin let us borrow his beautiful, turn of the century home, which had this Steinway piano we recorded everything on. That was a prerequisite: finding a place with a big, interesting piano to record. We wanted these very exposed, characteristic sounds for this record to fit the homemade, vibe-y retreats. That place was incredible because it had these huge bay windows overlooking a valley, with all of these cows. You could see three different states from that room! And there was a very old, wise man from Kenya staying at the house, a friend of the family that owns it. He acted as our ambassador there. We would cook on the barbecue together, he’d cook goat, and he’d tell us stories of when he worked at the UN and living in Kenya. It was a pretty magical experience. That whole vibe was about cultivating the moment to actually track. That was one thing we were conscious of with this record: try and capture that raw intensity of when you’re writing something.
Photo Courtesy of Landon Speers
To me this album is all about three things: Less reverb, more of Raphaelle’s voice and an emphasis on rhythm.
RSP: I really wanted the vocals to be heard for once. Like obviously heard. That was really important to me after listening to Joni Mitchell and my guilty pleasure, Sarah McLachlan. And Alanis Morissette! Oh my God, yes. I totally forgot how into her I was at that time. I just love those lyricists and how their lyrics are heard.
TS: I think also a big result of the less reverb came from writing in bigger spaces with louder speakers. So instead of working in a small, anechoic chamber, which is what our studio is like in a Montreal, a little box, because we were working with natural reverb in the room and captured that in a lot of the recordings. It helped us to not drench everything in reverb and get that sense of space.
AT: And more of Raph’s voice was a huge thing for us on this record. It was also our first time mixing with someone else, Damian Taylor. He’s done lots of great work with Björk, the Prodigy, Austra and the last Doldrums record. He lives down the street from us. He moved to Montreal to work with local people, and he’s been a huge supporter of ours. RSP: He just pumped up the vocals. And we were thinking, “Oh my God! They’re so loud!”
AT: Nobody had ever heard Raph’s voice, and Damian was saying, “If you have a singer with a great voice people should hear it.” And it was a bit of a paradigm shift. We had done a large amount of the mixing before we took it to him, and thought we could already hear a lot of her voice. But then when we went into his studio he just turned up the vocals so much! That was the first thing he did, was to rebalance the vocals with Raph’s voice on top. And it was like whoa, it was so much more powerful.
RSP: At first it was unsettling, but then it was like, “Okay, this is my voice. This is what I sing. We’re going to hear it and listen to it loudly.” [Laughs] It was shocking, but Damian’s confidence in it was affecting. We were very happy with how they turned out.
One song that really stands out is the single, "Miniskirt" because its this really powerful song because it speaks out against the double standards a lot of women face. What inspired you to address these issues now?
RSP: I think I was just ready, as a woman at this point in my life; getting older and discussing what I do experience as a woman and what I’ve gone through. I think just the fact that we had created really safe spaces where we could be vulnerable and raw, it was a time where I could get out my feelings.
AT: Those lyrics were written in Putney, in a supportive environment where anything could be said. And I think it was super interesting because the process for that song was very different for us. A lot of the song had been written first, like the underlying rhythm and synths in Upstate New York. And we had completely different vocals and drums, and it was just this loud, intense, cathartic thing where we would turn the PA up as much as we could. I was just playing so hard, and we created this different energy.
RSP: It demanded intensity. And it demanded a lot of emotion, and the instrumentation was confrontational.
AT: When Raph brought us the lyrics she said, “Is this okay?” And we were like, “This is fucking amazing!”
RSP: You want them to feel comfortable, what you’re putting out there, especially in the band.
AT: Once we realized the strength and singularity of what she was singing, we really parred back the drums. That’s why the first half of that song is just piano and voice with some synths.
Can you explain the line "I'm not a man-hater, I enjoy them like cake"?
RSP: To me it’s very self-explanatory, because I think feminists are oftentimes misunderstood as man-haters. And I knew that what I was saying had undertones of feminism within it, and so I’m just stating that I’m not a man-hater. I enjoy loving men. I enjoy having sex. And that’s basically what it’s saying, I enjoy them like I do cake.
So you like cake a lot?
RSP: [Laughs] I really love cake and I guess another thing to about enjoying men like cake, it’s also making a reference to a woman who is sexually adventurous, which the song talks about with “I’m a slut, a bitch, a whore.” If you do, like Taylor Swift, appear to have more than one boyfriend, you get called all sorts of things. It’s an homage to that. Go Taylor go! I love that ‘screw you’ song of hers.
Yeah, “Blank Space” is great. Are there other artists out there you feel are doing a good job of speaking out for women? You mentioned Alanis Morissette earlier.
RSP: Björk, definitely, especially with this latest campaign. She’s said all of her costuming is an open wound but it looks a lot like a vagina. And also FKA twigs. She doesn’t necessarily address it, but in all of her art you can see it. Her most recent video she gives birth to this crazy, beautiful fabric, and her fingers are all spindly on her belly. Also Grimes has been super strong. The lead singer in Lower Dens wrote an interesting article in Cosmopolitan talking about gender.
One last thing: I noticed Taylor sneak in a juicy confession that you guys recorded some rock songs. What’s the deal with that?
RSP: We started a project that was called Hilary K. We weren’t Braids anymore, we were Hilary K.
The name sounds like a Degrassi Junior High character.
RSP: You know what? I actually just discovered Drake was on Degrassi and I freaked the fuck out. [Laughs] I was so surprised!
Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter - @yasdnilmac