All musicians know the drill: as soon as someone finds out that you’re in a band, the first question is always some variation on “What style of music do you play?” Wade Ouellet, frontman for Vancouver act the Written Years, has a ready-made response to that common query.
“Our first reaction was always to say indie rock, but that is such a large umbrella that it really didn’t tell anybody anything, including ourselves,” the singer, guitarist, and keyboardist says during a sit-down interview at the postage-stamp-size Dose Espresso Bar on West Broadway. “So at a point we were like, ‘What better describes what we’re trying to do?’ And we said, ‘Winter music,’ because I feel like in winter there’s sort of this separation between the sheer beauty of seeing a sheet of snow versus the sheer annoyance of driving through it, or walking through the slush, or shielding yourself from rain in Vancouver all the time.”
That’s a fitting metaphor for the sound captured on the Written Years’ self-titled debut album, released independently last year. Recorded by Ryan Worsley (Dear Rouge, Tough Lovers) at his Echoplant Sound studio, the LP comprises eight painstakingly crafted songs with lush arrangements of crystalline guitars and keys set over ballsy bass and drums. The songs surge and dive, buoyed by melodies as uplifting as any you’ll ever hear.
There’s a certain shade of darkness at the record’s heart, though. The lyrical themes include separation, loneliness, and yearning to find a place to call home. Ouellet reveals that these songs were created over a six-year span, during which he went from being a high-school kid in Nelson to a 20-something Vancouverite.
“That’s one of the most crucial parts of life,” he says, noting that his maturing outlook accounts for the length of time it took to finish the songs. “From the point when you’re 17 to when you’re 23, you’re not really the same person. So within that time you’ve got to rethink things: ‘What have I learned since I wrote this? This isn’t really relevant to me anymore.’ ”
In other words, The Written Years is a document of something that just about anyone can relate to: the process of growing up and moving out into the world beyond adolescence.
“That’s what the single, the first song, ‘It’s Not Your Fault’, is about—basically, deciding who you want to be, leaving your hometown,” Ouellet says. “Because that’s when I left Nelson. You kind of pursue a different lifestyle in that, isolating yourself from where you grew up and your friends there, and perhaps even aspects of yourself that you left there. There’s a very specific change there, and that’s what that song is about. It’s kind of cathartic.”
It certainly sounds that way, built on a propulsive rhythm and centred on the frontman’s convincingly emotive vocal delivery. Like the rest of the record, “It’s Not Your Fault” features Kodie Krogh on guitar and Kane Enders on drums. Krogh has since left the band, to be replaced by Brian Dyck; bassist Alex Rich completes the current lineup.
Incidentally, fans of Scottish indie stalwart Frightened Rabbit should note that Ouellet’s voice bears a certain resemblance to that of Scott Hutchison, minus the Selkirk accent. When the Straight mentions this, Ouellet says it’s not the first time he’s heard it.
“People kept comparing my voice to the guy from Frightened Rabbit, and I’d never heard of them before, except from my brother,” the singer says. “He was always saying, ‘This band’s great,’ but I never checked them out. And after a while of hearing it, I was like, ‘Okay, who are these guys?’ I checked it out and I actually liked it a lot, and I guess I’m flattered to be compared to them.”
At the very least, the Written Years and Frightened Rabbit seem to share an affinity for a particular season—the Scottish band did, after all, release an album bearing the title The Winter of Mixed Drinks in 2010.
“To be honest, it isn’t summer music,” Ouellet says of his own group’s bleak but beautiful output. “We aren’t writing Top 40 pop hits. If Sublime is summer music, we’re definitely winter music.”
The Written Years plays Fortune Sound Club on Friday (January 16).