After detaching ourselves, with some difficulty, from fifth and sixth listens of the bittersweetly catchy songs of Toronto-based indie-pop quintet Alvvays, we wonder if a montage of our young adulthood would yield an equally perfect mix of friends who could finish our sentences, impassioned first loves, and a few infamous parties. A clip of lead singer Molly Rankin and fellow bandmate Kerri MacLellan exchanging grins of self-deprecation as they share a seesaw in their music video for “Adult Diversion” demonstrates a new standard for youthful beauty, one that includes that je ne sais quoi sometimes known as “quirk.”
But the sweet arcs and dips of Rankin’s voice, which peaks in a smoky crack before pausing for breath, work with repeating lo-fi melodies that fan out a rainbow of emotions to reveal lyrics that don’t shy away from the unfashionable, awkward, or unavoidably tragic aspects of day-to-day life with self-awareness and humor. As Rankin explains, “I seek inspiration from someone like Stephin Merritt, who has a sense of humor, so even though some of the lyrical content is kind of bleak or pathetic, it’s meant to be taken in a lighthearted manner. It’s not a diary by any means, but the lyrics are all taken from realistic situations. Alcoholism and depression and parties and relationships seem to always exist in whatever I write,” she laughs.
Rankin is the daughter and niece of the famed band The Rankin Family, a multi-award winning folk family collective and source of Canadian pride that began with neighborhood céilidhs (traditional Scottish social gatherings) in 1970 in the small island town of Cape Breton, where Rankin also grew up—and apparently has now been passed the torch. With the release of an EP in 2010 and show openings for bands like Peter Bjorn and John and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart under her belt, the release of Alvvays’ debut LP early next year will be a milestone for Rankin, and also as her first official output as part of a band.
Over the phone, we spoke to Rankin about growing up on an island, the joys of collaging, how to prepare for a first LP, and theoretically relocating to Switzerland.
AGES: 26 (Molly Rankin), 27 (Kerri MacLellan), 29 (Alec O’Hanley, Brian Murphy, and Phil MacIsaac).
HOMETOWNS: Hillsdale, Cape Breton (Rankin, MacLellan), Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (O’Hanley, Murphy, MacIsaac).
CURRENT LOCATION: Toronto, Canada.
ON HOW TO PRONOUNCE ALVVAYS: Always. But I think a lot of people hope for Al-vahys. It’s entertaining, and we don’t really mind either way.
ON GROWING UP WITH A JOB-MARKET-CONSCIOUS MUSICAL FAMILY: I think everyone in our family was encouraged to get an education and have something very stable due to the changing of the times. It’s constantly a—not a risk, but it’s so hard to predict how things will go [in the job market]. [My interests] were encouraged, but music wasn’t pushed, by any means.
ON BEING CANADIAN: I haven’t read Anne of Green Gables. I think everyone else in the band has, though.
ON WHY SMALL ISLANDS ARE BIG ON MUSIC: I think Cape Breton is generally a very musical place just because in our specific part of Cape Breton there’s just nothing else, there’s no movie theater or mall. It’s very rural, so I think a lot of people have traditionally always picked up instruments as a form of entertaining. Now that the Internet is in full form, I don’t know if it’s as common.
ON NOT GETTING TOO COZY WITH THE INTERNET: I was an angsty teenager, but I wasn’t savvy enough to blog. Alec is pretty savvy at that stuff, he’s got a lot of experience with Internet tact. I have no filter, I just say what I think. That’s why I don’t do much social media.
ON BRINGING THE BAND TOGETHER: I met Alec at a show—I went to see my friends play and he was playing the show as well, so I met him a while ago, years ago, and then we sort of just kept in touch. And then he went to high school with the other boys in the band—all of those boys are from Prince Edward Island. Kerri and I grew up next to one another in Cape Breton, so it’s like a merging of obscure islands in the east coast.
ON ART APPRECIATION: I had kind of an intent to go to art school, but it just never happened. I ended up doing a year and a half of theater instead, just because I didn’t have enough time to get an art portfolio together. It’s not necessarily something I would have been great at anyway. But any time we have to do art for a website or for music or a single or anything, it’s always kind of fun to do it yourselves—I don’t see why you wouldn’t anyway. We do a lot of collaging, mixing old photos with new fonts and messing around with colors and different textures and stuff.
ON MUSICAL INSPIRATIONS: I have a foundation in the classic divas of female ballads, and I know Kerri does too. Anytime we get together, we inevitably end up YouTubing Whitney Houston singing the American National Anthem. It’s hard not to sound like a cliché.
ON THE TRANSITION FROM AN EP TO AN LP: It’s funny, because my EP never really got released. We just made it and pressed a bunch of copies, and now I don’t think it really exists anymore except for maybe online. But when we did that, and Alec was around for that as well, we didn’t have anything arranged—we had like four days, and we threw it together without really any thought of what it was or what the sound of it was, because at that point we had never really played a show. A couple years went by, and things just changed. We worked on the songs on this record beforehand with a band. We went over all the drum parts and knew what we were tracking before we went in there. So there was more thought and the vision was more clear as far as where we wanted to go with it and we got our producer Chad [VanGaalen] to help us out. We knew that we were going to have a unified sound this time, rather than someone just dabbling in different genres of what they like.
ON HOW TO ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT: I just emailed Chad. I had a plan to send him a box of really weird little creatures, but it’s funny, email is a bit more productive. He replied. I was a bit surprised. Email doesn’t hurt. If someone doesn’t respond to you, it isn’t soul-crushing.
ON FIGHTING STAGE FRIGHT WITH SILLINESS: I’ve started doing things now beforehand to sort of tame that down, because it can affect how you perform if you’re not in the right mind frame, but I think the more we play, the more comfortable I become with that. It also helps to just loosen up, shake around. Sitting in a ball in the corner on the couch before you go on doesn’t really work for me. But you should just do a bunch of silly things and jump around, have a beer. I’d say Phil is the most comfortable onstage, because he’s so comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t care what people think. Totally envious of him.
ON FUTURE RELOCATION: I don’t know if the States would ever let me live there, I feel like that’s a really complicated process. If that were possible I think it’d be cool to live in New York for six months. But isn’t Berlin supposed to be incredible right now? I think that would be an ideal place to live. Or Switzerland.
ALVVAYS WILL PLAY MERCURY LOUNGE TONIGHT, NOVEMBER 25, AND GLASSLANDS TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 26. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.