In the winter of 2008, after being diagnosed with a hemorrhaging polyp on her vocal chords, Land of Talk bandleader Elizabeth Powell isolated herself—she lived alone, rested her voice and communicated for a couple of weeks by scribbling messages on a notepad She kept writing songs, though, even as she battled the fear that her voice might never heal enough to sing them. Many of the songs drafted during that lonely winter make up Land of Talk’s new album, Cloak and Cipher (out Aug. 23 on Saddle Creek), the follow-up to the band’s 2008 full-length debut Some Are Lakes and last year’s Fun and Laughter EP. The record finds Powell’s voice back at full strength and as potent as ever, springing between a trusting purr and a betrayed howl. Featuring contributions from members of neighboring Montreal bands—including Arcade Fire, Stars and Besnard Lakes—it is Land of Talk’s most lush album yet, tempering Powell’s dire guitar riffs with strings, brass and piano. Powell recently spoke to Paste about her love of strained singers, writing the new album, the beauty of “rotating sonic scenery” and more.
Paste: Did you ever weigh giving up music after you were diagnosed with your vocal polyp?
Elizabeth Powell: I did. It’s the same as when my friend who is an upright bass player got carpal tunnel. Once what you’re doing—the main thing in your life—creates a chronic discomfort or pain, the first thing you think of is how long you can last. You realize your career and livelihood is being threatened, and you consider alternatives. But when I thought it over, I realized that I had nothing else I really wanted to do in life expect for music. That terrified me—the thought that if I lost my voice I was losing my one true shot at being happy. So it definitely changed my life. Not to overplay it, because I know a lot of people have been through worse, but there was despair there. The first thing my vocal coach said, though, is, “You’ve got to repeat positive affirmations.” I realized that in my mind I was dwelling on the possibility that this could be the end of my career, and that sort of thinking wasn’t going to help me. I was told to just believe I’d feel [better] and not to even consider the negative possibilities. And I also had to stop listening to vocalists who sang in strange voices, I had to listen to vocalists who have a calming voice, which actually disqualified a lot of my record collection. I couldn’t listen to Fugazi, or even Wilco, because of the way Jeff Tweedy sings—I think he even had to have vocal surgery, too. In trying to avoid strained singers, I also realized that they are pretty much all I listen to.
Paste: Did the diagnosis change the way you sang?
Powell: It more changed the way I speak. I have a speech pathologist and they measure your range, to figure out where your voice is breaking. She said the most detrimental thing I was doing is speaking too low in my range, making my voice really raspy. She said in my singing voice, everything was pretty much fine, save a lot of technical slip-ups, which was expected since I’m not technically trained. So I’m not sure if it changed the way I sing, but my voice feels better, so maybe that comes across a bit more through the singing.
Paste: What are the songs on Cloak and Cipher about?
Powell: Considering the state I was in when I wrote them, at the time I was spending a lot of time with books, because I couldn’t speak. I was obsessed with old books and taking them apart from their binding. I had all these pages scattered across the floor, and I would see a page from a book taken out of contest, and I would just isolate passages that sounded nice or images that looked nice, images and then put them on a studio wall. Then I would just play the music I laid down a year before and sing the words that came to me, because the lyrics are the last thing I do. It’s a lot of stream-of-consciousness. I guess some of the stuff I sing can sound like nonsense. I’m not as linear as a folk singer-songwriter. I’m not as wacky as Beck was when I was a teenager, but I do like to be a little bit cryptic—the album is called Cloak and Cipher.
Paste: Is that what the album title is a reference to, disguising your thoughts?
Powell: Cloak and Cipher was actually the title of one of the books I found at the Salvation Army. It was a book on cryptograms from World War II, and I found it just a month before the album was finished. I had already picked out another title that I thought would best represent the album, but my friend kept telling me Cloak and Cipher was really perfect. It really was a very serendipitous title. It really fit, especially with the artwork, which had already been decided on months before, and with my writing style being more stream of conscious and cryptic. That’s just the way I like to write. I think it makes it more interesting for the listener, but mostly I can’t hold a focused thought for that long.
Paste: Even the way you sing is very cryptic. There are some lyrics that come through very clearly, but a lot that are almost indecipherable, leaving the listener to project their own words onto them.
Powell: Exactly. And when I think back to the bands I used to listen to the most—Pixies, Pavement, Sonic Youth, Sebadoh, Nirvana—I realize I’ve barely paid attention to lyrics that I must have heard a thousand times. It was always just like (sings the opening bars of Pavement’s “Trigger Cut” with mostly made up words). There were a few lines I would grab onto, but I realized it was more the melodies and the way the instruments interact and the overall sound being generated by the band that I was interested in. Sometimes I see the singer as just another instrument. If you’re trying to stick to words on paper it can be a little bit confining. But I find a lot of things confining, I guess. (Laughs)
Paste: A lot of your songs teeter on the edge between “pretty” and “aggressive,” like you could play them either way. Do you plan out which way you’ll approach them before you record them, or is it more spontaneous?
Powell: How they turn out has to do a lot with the conditions we’re recording them in. I find the most aggressive song on the album to be “The Hate I Won’t Commit,” but in the beginning that song was supposed to be mostly acoustic, with piano. But then we got to the studio where there’s all this gear, and we just started jamming the song out. That’s how the songs are built, just by adding actual humans into the mix and adding their respective instruments, and playing off the sound of the room. I had this piano solo in mind for the song that I couldn’t quite get right. Then Patrick Watson, a great Montreal musician, came in and ended up asking if he could take a stab at it. He came up with this gorgeous, distorted piano solo that just completely changed the vibe of the song, but really made it work.
Paste: Land of Talk’s lineup has turned over repeatedly. Do you think you’ll ever settle on a consistent lineup, or will it always be rotating?
Powell: I guess it would be easier to settle on a consistent lineup if I could actually afford to pay people enough so they didn’t have to be juggling other projects. Land of Talk has always been the passion project, so I guess I’m at the mercy of what people can give. That’s the problem, really—I play with all these amazing musicians who have things going in their own right. In the beginning, I think I always expected to have more of a family, like a band like Sonic Youth, which has always been essentially the same lineup. I always wished for something that would last forever. But the reality is I do all the writing and composing. Early on we discovered when members weren’t going to be able to tour, and once I saw that band members weren’t sticking around, I got a lot more—maybe not protective, but I took a lot more ownership over the compositions and songs. My attitude became, “If you’re going to leave in a year, I want to make sure that I’m not carrying a part of your song in the band,” for both legal and creative reasons. It’s hard, because it’s not realistic for me to expect people to stay on as hired guns. Luckily I’ve been in a place where everybody’s fine, especially since I know to plan around it. I’m way more comfortable with it now than I was when our first EP came out then we discovered our drummer couldn’t be on the road.
Paste: How has that realization that you’ll probably never have a stable band changed the way you record?
Powell: If you look at the lineup on this record, just at all the guest performers, that’s something I never would have been open to, even on the last record. Before I was always very private about the recording process, in part because since I’m not technically trained I always wasn’t very articulate about explaining what I wanted from these songs. Working with other players has helped me change that, though. There are 100% more musicians on this record, and yet in a way I feel it’s more intimate, and there’s more of myself in it. I felt like I was making a lot more compromises when I wasn’t just assuming the role of bandleader, settling on parts that I would have changed. It sounds silly, since I was the last person to know, but it just took me a while to realize that I’m Land of Talk.
Paste: What’s your relationship with Broken Social Scene like these days?
Powell: Pretty nonexistent. I did those shows with them [in the fall of 2008]. Then they got busy and I got busy. The last time we saw each other, I was coming back from Ireland last week with my boyfriend, and the plane ride back was canceled and we were all stuck in the airport together. We mostly run into each other by chance like that. That was a whirlwind, short-lived, exciting time playing with them, though. Brendan Canning and I have been friends since I was 17, and it just so happened that our tour dates overlapped. So I asked him if our band could piggyback on his, and he said yeah, so long as I would sing all of Broken Social Scene’s female parts for that tour. It was a lot of fun. That’s a band that goes by feeling, and thank God they do, because there’s not a lot of artists that do that these days.
Paste: It seems Cloak and Cipher was recorded a bit like a Broken Social Scene record, with the door open for guests and incidental contributions. Do you think your time with that band influenced you?
Powell: Maybe, yeah. Working with Broken Social Scene definitely helped me come to terms with that whole idea of a rotating sonic scenery, where the only thing that remains the same is myself. It’s not as daunting, and it doesn’t feel as lonely. I actually feel more a part of the community now, because I have all these tentacles touching out into the Toronto scene and the Montreal scene. Sometimes, especially when you’re in a three-piece band, you feel like you’re cheating on your band when you play with someone else, but I guess I’m a free agent now.
“Click here to download Land of Talk’s “Swift Coin.