Montreal's Little Scream Makes Surreal Pop for the Optimist Soul
The Montreal artist talks about writing songs to dead people, nearly drowning in Brazil, and new album 'Cult Following'.
All photos courtesy of the author.
After a five year silence and one strange, serene opening instrumental named “Welcome to the Brain,” Cult Following—the sophomore record from Montreal’s Little Scream—launches into the warped, spacey funked-out rave-up “Love as a Weapon.” “When you’re all alone and crying in the rain,” she whispers over synth swells. “Just remember your greatest gift is to dance.” If there was ever a song to inspire a body to get down it’s this one, filled with sugary falsetto melodies that recall the late, great Prince, and a beat ’n’ bassline combo that’ll set heads bobbing uncontrollably. The rest of the album, however, breaks off into much stranger directions.
“I feel like that song is this piece of shiny bait that lures you in,” Laurel Sprengelmeyer, the mastermind behind Little Scream, tells me over beers in downtown Toronto. “It’s like the golden ticket in [Charlie and the Chocolate Factory]. You come to the gates and you think it’s going to be this magical adventure and you go into the candy land. And then it’s like, ‘now get on the boat.’ And then you get into the boat and it gets weird.”
It’s an apt metaphor for Cult Following, which features guest spots from musicians like Sharon Van Etten, Sufjan Stevens, and Mary Margaret O’Hara. It’s also apropos in regards to the chat that follows. Sprengelmeyer is an inexhaustible conversationalist, due to what I can only perceive as a boundless curiosity about anything and everything, but specifically about the way the mind—both conscious and unconscious—works. Cult Following moves the way her mind, like most minds, moves: in bizarre and beautiful twists, bouncing to and from unexpected and not always clearly linear paths. The record mimics this. It’s otherworldly in the most straightforward sense of the word, sounding and feeling like it’s actually been sent from another world, somewhere surreal and indefinable, not unlike a David Lynch film.
“I actually find [Lynch’s] stuff to be more true to reality than almost any other filmmaker, because what he does is move seamlessly. Our own consciousness—the way we perceive reality—is like, we’re here right now, I’m looking at these olives and limes and we’re talking, and then without warning our minds will switch to a memory, to another place where we are simultaneously. This is how we experience reality, and his films are like that: where you go without any warning or indication, from the scenario of the real world to a person’s internal reality, their memories or a dream.”
Sprengelmeyer’s real life experiences that come through on Cult Following are almost as surreal as any mindscape. Spiritual and religious imagery comes up a lot, and for good reason. She “grew up in a kind of Christian religious cult” as a Jehovah’s Witness. Born into the church, she was later actively recruited into it after her mother was excommunicated. “They indoctrinated me in this way where I was a project for the community basically, as a child,” Sprengelmeyer says. “It was very odd.” Her father was an antique dealer with a penchant for collecting occult objects, “like weird, giant bloody Jesuses and voodoo dolls.”
But one of the most lasting effects of her upbringing with the Jehovah’s Witnesses might be most clear in her “desire pattern based around not being able to do things.” On one of Cult Following’s standout tracks, the gorgeous, glittering alt-pop number “The Kissing,” Sprengelmeyer wrestles with a sexual tension that seems almost unbearable, aching to succumb to urges but fighting simultaneously not to give in to them. “If you feed this spark, it’ll burn down the bridge to the only place you know how to live,” she sings. “And well, that’s what I want.” It’s a glimpse into a mode of thinking heavily influenced by dogmatic mindsets. But it’s not necessarily a negative outcome. Instant gratification, Sprengelmeyer says, can strip things of their joy.
“At five in the morning, you want a mango from Chile? You can fucking go and find that fucking mango. You can get anything you fucking want at any moment. You wanna see any image that you can possibly imagine? You can look it up on the internet and find it. It’s a weird reality to exist in. How do you appreciate, and how do you still make things precious in an environment that takes the preciousness out of things because of sheer accessibility?”
Early inspiration for the record also came from her time visiting a friend in Brazil at a small community. “I went in there fully open to just experiencing the whole thing and just seeing what was going down,” she says. By the time she left, the community had begun to shift into a very cult-like ecosystem. “People were living on light instead of eating, drinking coconut juice and reading each others’ auras. A month after we left they all started wearing white. It’s the whole template. There’s a historical template for it and for whatever reason, it says something about how humans are made and how we make sense of the crushing reality of existence, that that’s the pattern we tend to fall into.”
Making sense of the crushing reality of existence is a burden Sprengelmeyer was almost relieved of. She was nearly swallowed up by the ocean when she was sucked into a rip current at the beach one day during her Brazil trip. “I had no idea what was happening to me and no idea what to do. So by the time I was just getting sucked out into sea, and had really thought I was gonna drown and the waves were crashing over me and I was gonna die.” Luckily, friend and longtime creative collaborator Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire) saved her. “He’s so tall and he could barely touch the bottom, and just inch by inch he dragged me back in from drowning and I’d actually given up. I was like, ‘I can’t do it, I’m sorry, I can’t do it, it’s too hard, I’m gone, I can’t do it.’ And he just pulled me in.”
She says she never made a decision for the sea to feature prominently, and that it must’ve been thanks to her unconscious mind that it does. The lyrics on the rousing “Evan” are eerily similar to the traumatic event: “And the waves are crashing and they’re coming in splashing,” she sings over a crescendo of strings and percussion. “And the waves keep falling, falling in faster/and the ship has no master/here comes disaster.”
Cult Following’s most evident realm is certainly that of the mind. As much as these surreal territories are universal to the human experience, they’re often so different that as listeners, we can only stand on the outside and look in on someone else’s personal spectacle. But the album’s most poignant moment is one of profound connection.
In September 2012, British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd posted a video on YouTube titled "My Story: Struggling, bullying, suicide and self-harm", explaining her experience of being blackmailed into showing her breasts over webcam and being bullied and physically assaulted. It went viral when she killed herself the next month. When Sprengelmeyer saw it, she sat down at a piano and wrote “Someone Will Notice” almost in its entirety. “It was just something that really, I couldn’t not respond to, and I wanted to reach out to her. And that feeling of like, it’s too late. She made this cry for help and we all failed her. Everyone failed her.” She discovered later that Todd played piano and wanted to have a singing career. “I just kinda felt like whatever was inside of that, she was communicating in that way. And I was communicating back in this way. And that’s what this song was.”
It’s not the only time she communicates with the departed on the album, but it’s not all darkness, either. Cult Following is full of bright, bold and beautiful sonic worlds. On the hazy, Springsteen-esque “Dark Dance,” Sprengelmeyer calls to a departed friend over friendly, pulsing synths: “I don’t care what they say, I’m alright/I want your dark, dark dance in the void tonight.” There may be shadows, but they can’t exist without a light.
“It’s the spirit of Motown a little bit, where no matter what you’re up against, you’re still gonna dance,” she says. “It’s like there’s some kind of survival linked to a rebellious joy. The record is balanced between these two poles and one is that no matter what’s going on, you just say ‘fuck it,’ and choose to be joyful.”
Matt Williams says ‘fuck it’ all the time. Follow him on Twitter.