It was a dream about a pink beluga whale in a swimming pool that committed Vancouver singer and multi-instrumentalist Leah Abramson to her latest musical project.
Recalling her nighttime narratives after chancing across an LP of orca calls recorded near B.C.’s Alert Bay, the self-described “sound enthusiast” quickly found that she could re-create whales’ haunting noises with her theremin. She soon became obsessed with marine mammals.
Setting up a residency in Alaska to gather field recordings of cetaceans’ ambient environments and camping for two weeks at a bay that orcas are known to frequent, Abramson was lucky to capture on tape the sounds of whales breathing as they rubbed their bellies over the stones of the shallow waters.
Now on the cusp of finalizing her latest offering, Songs for a Lost Pod, the ambitious musician has combined scientific research, nonfiction writing, and whale vocalizations to create a number of poignant tracks.
“The songs are mainly linked by theme on the album,” Abramson tells the Straight on the line from her Vancouver home. “One that really stuck out for me was the idea of connection and family. When I was researching, I discovered so much about whales’ social structure, and often the pod is the most integral thing to survival. A single orca, for example, doesn’t normally live very long.
“I ended up writing a lot of the songs from the marine mammals’ perspective, which meant that most of the lyrics are written from a ‘we’ viewpoint rather than an ‘I’ outlook. In turn, it made me look at my own life and see how important connection is to humans. Some of the tracks are about orcas being captured, and there are some echoes there with my family’s Holocaust survival history. The more that I wrote, the more I realized there was this hidden back-and-forth between the human and animal world.”
Aiming to make her songs as authentic as possible, Abramson went to great lengths to replicate the whales’ experiences and best imagine their everyday realities.
“In this project I tried to get out of my own understanding of the world,” she says. “I did a scuba diving class, even though I have asthma. I wanted to feel what it was like to stay underwater for a long time, or breathe like a fish.
“I was researching whale brains, too,” she continues, “so I was thinking about communication and how whales experience things. There’s a line in one of the album’s songs, ‘Pender Harbour’, which goes, ‘Our jaws are aching with her name.’ That explicitly relates to the fact that orcas ‘hear’ through vibrations in their jawbones, and that each orca has a signature whistle, which is sort of like a name. Each lyric is very thought out, and there’s a lot of significance behind the words.”
A collaborative project, Songs for a Lost Pod involved Abramson sending her notes and field recordings to various artists, who would create a musical backing track. Sometimes receiving work as minimal as a guitar drone, and sometimes given a near-complete song with intricate melodies, Abramson would then record her own vocal and piano parts over the top, creating crisp and harmony-rich arrangements.
Providing her partners with only one rule—that any whale sounds, including whale song, could not be recognizable within their composition—the singer’s delicate creations are both highly listenable and immersive.
Now set to perform the songs live for the first time this week, Abramson has called on eight singers and a band to try to re-create the ambitious recording project.
“It’s a lot of people on-stage,” she says, “but most of the songs have many vocal parts, and because the tracks are written from a pod perspective, it’s nice to incorporate that aspect of community. This is my own musical family—my own pod. I’ve been rehearsing with these singers for a couple months now, and I don’t know how to describe the feeling. I feel really supported and amazed at people’s willingness to try things, and to give their time. It floors me.”
Leah Abramson plays the Wise Hall on Thursday (March 30).