The New Pornographers find hope in contentment on Continue as a Guest
Sometimes, when Carl “A.C.” Newman is in the studio, he starts going through old voice notes and hard drives. One time, he came across a song his former New Pornographers compatriot, Dan Bejar, had written for the band’s 2014 album, Brill Bruisers, that wasn’t released. The chorus stood out, with its beautiful line: “We sit around and talk about the weather/My heart just like a feather/Really really light.” Newman decided to write a song around it.
“I thought it would be funny and conceptual to interpolate a song that nobody knows,” Newman tells the Straight, on the line from his home in Woodstock, New York. “Sometimes it’s fun to just approach it from a different way. Even if I’m going to arrive at a rock and roll song or a pop song, it’s fun to take some circuitous path to get there.”
“Really Really Light”, buzzy and bright with thumping drums, is the first single off the New Pornographer’s forthcoming record, Continue as a Guest. To Newman, the heart of that band that made Brill Bruisers almost a decade ago—also the last time Bejar was officially part of the supergroup, save for 2021’s live performances of landmark albums Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema—still feels very much the same. Since forming in Vancouver in 1997, the New Pornographers have always been what Newman describes as a “studio project”—a collective of musical savants who experiment and throw ideas around until something interesting sticks, and turns into that perfect indie power pop they’re renowned for. Continue as a Guest features longtime contributors Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, John Collins, Todd Fancey, and Joe Seiders.
“But, at the same time,” Newman notes, “the music on this record feels new to me and I don’t why, exactly… I feel like what I want to hear now is different. I spent more time on the vocals. I find myself being a lot more concerned with the vocals. I find myself being a lot more concerned with lyrics. But that’s just me. I realized I wanted to make something different.
“Like, relearning those old records,” he continues, “especially some of the songs on Mass Romantic—I’m singing them, and I’m trying to learn them and I’m learning the arrangements, and I’m thinking, like, ‘Who was this guy? I know it was me, but what the hell was I trying to do here?’ I feel like, ‘Oh, this is cool, but it’s not the kind of music I would want to make now.’ But I guess maybe that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to try and change and evolve through the years.”
The album’s title, Continue as a Guest, along with feeling like a wink at the band’s sometimes-revolving roster, speaks to this evolution, in terms of being a musician and trying to make an enduring career of it, especially when one’s been at it for so long.
“I just thought about the idea of, like, you’re years on and you’re just doing your thing and you just have different expectations,” Newman explains. “And that’s the music career and also just life: you settle in and you realize people are always striving towards something. And I think some people spend their entire lives trying to get someplace that they’re never going to get to, and some people just get to a place and go, ‘This seems all right, I’m going to stay here.’
“So, I think,” he continues, “it was about that idea: ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got my home, and my life, and my family, and my little career. This feels all right, I’ll just stay here.’ Sometimes, I’m afraid people are going to read it as a suicide note, but it’s not really. I think it’s a very hopeful idea.”
It runs through many of the songs thematically. “Really Really Light,” especially during times of the pandemic—“which we’re still in,” Newman notes—feels aspirational in the way of, one day, we’ll be able to just talk about insignificant things again. Similarly, the melodic singalong “Last and Beautiful” dreams of places someone would want to go to in the world, but questions what it’s worth if they don’t have the people they love with them.
The feeling is further driven by the musical landscape, which is warm and expansive. “I wanted that on this record,” Newman says, “because I think, especially the first few records, although we were always a pop band, there was something kind of angular and almost abrasive in our music. As fun and melodic as it was, there’s a lot of hard angles in our music. It’s fun trying to figure out ways to smooth it out and still be yourself.”
Much of that quality can be attributed to the addition of Zach Djanikian’s saxophone, which ripples brightly through songs such as “Marie and the Undersea.” Djanikian is a friend of Newman’s, an “amazing musician” who also plays guitar and bass on the record.
“I think his saxophone, it changed a few songs in a great way,” Newman says.
That includes “Angelcover,” which has soprano sax at the top of the song.
“Sometimes a little musical element is introduced in a song and you think, okay, now I know where to go with this one.”
A similar thing happened with “Firework in the Falling Snow,” a glimmering album highlight co-written by Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis. Newman had a couple of ideas and, feeling a little stuck, reached out to Dupuis, who he admires as a lyricist, over Twitter. It was very much a cold call, he laughs, but she got back to him quickly with some lyrics that were “really great.” Newman cut them up, as is his style, but there was one that stood out that he kept intact: “firework in the falling snow.” Newman couldn’t believe nobody had ever written that line before. The words fit together so perfectly, it felt like an old saying.
“Again, it was something where I thought, okay, that’s the centre of it. That’s going to be the title. It’s going to be called ‘Firework in the Falling Snow,’ ” he says. “And sometimes that’s all you need, something grounding that feels like the foundation. Now I know what the song is about.”
It evoked a hopeful image that lingered while Newman worked on the song, which became about love and how it survives. As he describes it, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the New Pornographers themselves: a band of collaborators who have been friends for nearly 30 years and still find new inspiration in each other.
“I was thinking about when you’ve been together with somebody for so long and it transforms—and it turns into something else, you know?” he says. “When you meet somebody, it’s never the same five years later than it is in the two weeks that you first met. Things are exciting and electric and you think, this is the greatest thing. And then, years pass and you realize, oh, it’s changed. But you still love them.”
Continue as a Guest is out on March 31 via Merge Records.