At a time when musicians are rewarded for releasing music as swiftly as possible, albums have increasingly become haphazard collections of an artist’s latest work. It’s rare to find an LP that’s concerned with how its tracks can combine to build a greater whole—which is one of the reasons that local songwriter Bre McDaniel’s debut offering stands apart.
Building on her initial EP, Light Pollution, which explores the dual themes of light and value, her first full-length, Howl, follows a similar framework. Choosing the characteristically British Columbian subjects of wildness and nature as her inspiration, McDaniel offers a diverse set of meditations on what the two concepts mean to her.
“Having a theme helps me to write, and to have art direction both visually and productionwise,” she says, reached by the Georgia Straight during a walk through Central Park in Burnaby. “It probably has something to do with my background in visual arts, and that I’m trained to think of art as a body of work, and that you have to frame your work somehow. Even with the idea of paintings in a room, the way you arrange them lets them have a sort of conversation. I want my songs to interact the same way.”
There are plenty of intellectual Easter eggs on Howl for dedicated listeners. Much of the album features field recordings from B.C., including birds and the sounds of the wind and sea—a choice that McDaniel says allowed her to explore her relationship to the land. Peppered with interludes and different production strategies—some songs are recorded outside, while others are slickly put together in the studio—the album masterfully repeats ideas across its tracks.
“The track ‘Ava’,” she says as an example, “is a recording of my sister’s youngest daughter. I wondered what a child’s response would be to thinking about these themes. Kids often have such interesting things to say because they don’t try too hard. I asked my sister to try and get their take, and one of the questions she asked was ‘What animal would you want to be?’ and Ava says that she wants to be a wolf. It was funny, because Ava actually means ‘bird’ [from the Latin avis]. There are a lot of field recordings and a lot about birds in the lyrics, while the wolf came together with the name of the album.”
Musically, the album is as deep as its thematic connections. McDaniel’s ethereal voice drifts along with accompaniment from acoustic and electric guitars, and occasionally violin, bass, and organ. Folky ditties contrast with full-bodied songs like “Pipeline”, a track that channels Arcade Fire at its most powerful. Some of the record’s uniqueness, McDaniel says, comes from her decision to use only female collaborators.
“I thought about going in that direction two years ago or more now,” she says. “I’m just becoming more aware about gaps in the music industry, and wondered, ‘What’s my way of exploring and participating in the conversation?’ I thought it could be an artistic constraint. I know a lot of guys who play electric guitar, and I could ask them, but I’ve never really tried to find the great session musicians who happen to be women. It made me come across talented people that I’d never met, like producers and mastering engineers. And then there’s some loose connection there to reconnecting to nature and the feminine voice. In mythology, the land is always female. It brings life and ferociousness, and rest and peace.”
Bre McDaniel plays the Railway Stage & Beer Café on Wednesday (November 7).
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