The question of digital versus analogue is the initial topic of conversation when Leif Vollebekk answers the phone in Montreal. But instead of discussing the advantages of glorious 24-track versus Ableton Live, the outgoing musician ends up holding forth on photography and what’s more satisfying: a great iPhone shot, or one taken on the rapidly disappearing medium of film.
Vollebekk admits to being no stranger to digital and the dizzying array of options offered by game-changing apps like Hipstamatic; check out the snaps that were part of the album art for his last release, North Americana, for proof of that. But it’s film that he still maintains a stubborn loyalty to.
“I’m not very good at photography, so I’ve kind of set myself up in a way that I don’t have to be,” Vollebekk says. “I just shoot film. Most of the roll is really awful, and then I’ll get two shots that I’m really happy with. With digital, I spend a lot of time on my computer editing them and comparing them. Shooting on film, when I take a photo I don’t even remember having taken it, and it’s nice not knowing what I’m going to get until it’s developed. Also, it makes me stay in the moment. I know I can’t take too many photos. And maybe it’s a testimony to how badly I’ve learned, but with the iPhone, the first photo that I take, I’m always like, ‘I can do better,’ so I take two or three more. But the first one is always better, because it’s what I saw and then shot without thinking about it.”
That last statement helps one get a handle on Vollebekk’s third and latest album, Twin Solitude. The singer has framed the record as being a breakthrough for him, the narrative being that he got sick of his old songs and became determined to reinvent himself this time out. So where he often sounded like a man gunning for a three-album deal with Saddle Creek earlier in his career, Twin Solitude is a record that doesn’t tether itself to one particular sound. Vollebekk comes on like an old soul trapped in a young body on the smoky, piano–flourished “All Night Sedans”, gets warm and reflective on the lovely, tape-hissed “East of Eden”, and camps out on the porch for the lazy-Sunday-morning jam “Telluride”.
“Yeah, there was a crisis,” he says with a laugh. “But that’s a normal thing where you get tired of your songs and go, ‘What am I doing? Who am I? What’s next? Because it’s not this.’ So you change. Also, because I was getting close to 30, I thought I was going to become someone else in my 30s, but apparently you just take who you were your whole life with you. I don’t know whether it was my sensitivity to media stuff, but I realized that I figured out who I am. I went, ‘I’m a guy who plays guitars and harmonica who writes songs in this tradition.’ So I decided who was in that tradition, and then wrote within those confines. And then I was like, ‘Uh, this is awful.’ ”
So he changed things up. Twin Solitude leaves one wondering whether he’s more enamoured of Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, or Ryan Adams or Nick Drake, the common denominator between all those artists being they drew up their own rules.
“I listen to the Velvet Underground, Ray Charles, the Beatles, and Radiohead,” Vollebekk says. “That’s my entire life, although maybe less these days. And my music had no traces of that. On this record, I don’t feel like there’s a genre that can be imposed upon it. I’m getting many different genres depending on what people who hear it are listening to.”
He’s also learned not to overthink things, something that he admits was a problem in the past. As anyone who’s ever driven themselves crazy messing with pictures in iPhoto knows, sometimes there’s an upside to keeping things simple.
“Most of the songs were done really quickly,” he says. “Like ‘East of Eden’ was one take. With North Americana, if I didn’t get the sounds that I wanted, I would change studios until I did. So I’d do five or six takes of each song. If I got a good take that didn’t sound right, I would throw it away. This time, I got all the right sounds on piano, drums down at the beginning. The rule was ‘Don’t play any music, don’t play any songs, don’t have any fun’ until that was taken care of. It was nice to do a take and not end up all fucked-up about it.”
Leif Vollebekk plays the Biltmore Cabaret next Thursday (May 4).