Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Feb 1st 2010 4:30PM by Tabassum Siddiqui
Listening to Calgary indie ensemble Woodpigeon, you'd never get the sense that songwriting was initially frontman Mark Hamilton's secondary choice for storytelling -- the film student started the band after realizing music was a much quicker outlet for his richly detailed, highly observational tales of home and away.
"I just realized it was much easier to be able to sit down and write a three-minute song instead of having to go through an entire production just to tell a story," Hamilton explains. An ode to his maternal grandparents, who emigrated from Austria to Canada following World War II, Woodpigeon's new album 'Die Stadt Musikanten' is at once intensely personal and appealingly universal -- ranging from whispery folk ballads to rock-tinged numbers with orchestral flourishes, it feels like a cohesive narrative work, much like an intense film.
"This record tells the story I wanted to tell," Hamilton says.
Hamilton began writing for the album in Germany a few years ago before recording with his usual rotating cast of players at home in Calgary. (Woodpigeon can morph from Hamilton solo to a tight quartet to a sprawling collective featuring some of Calgary's finest players, depending on the show or recording). Picking up where previous Woodpigeon efforts have left off, 'Die Stadt Musikanten' takes Hamilton's deft sense of melody and pushes it beyond merely pretty folk-pop confections -- there's an appealing edge and heft to the new material that draws out Woodpigeon's pop smarts beyond anything they've done before.
"It felt like an achievement making something long. Since it was inspired by my grandparents, it was important for me to be able to sketch out their history -- otherwise it would be like making a record for your mom and putting out an EP with only two songs on it," he laughs.
"I wanted the record to be weighty and heavy enough to fit them," Hamilton continues. "[My grandparents] had really interesting lives -- they went through a war, had to leave the country they were from, get on the boat for days, then ride the train across another country to finally settle in a new place. If we can't give one hour out of respect for that, then our culture is way too ridiculous," he quips.
It's clear Hamilton has spent much time mining his ancestors' past for clues to his own present, admitting he often feels more at home in Europe than even his current home base of Calgary, where he's known as a key figure in that city's fertile indie music scene.
"My entire life I've thought about how my grandparents' past took them from their homeland to this new place, and I've always been eager to go in the other direction," Hamilton points out. "I kept thinking about how so much of the world's timeline was ruptured by what happened in Europe this century, how a lot of people were displaced. The thing about displacement is that the person who has to move somewhere else isn't the only person displaced, but so are all the people who follow them.
"My opa and oma spent the rest of their lives taking about how Austria was the most beautiful place they knew -- but they lived here, you know? My grandparents essentially were forced to leave; they had to get out. I can't even start to comprehend that trauma," he notes.
While it's clear that trying to make sense of his roots provided Hamilton with a deep well of ideas to draw from, it's unlikely the incredibly prolific songwriter (who's released three full-length albums and seven EPs since 2006) is about to run out of material anytime soon. In fact, the new record comes packaged with a second disc, 'Balladeer (To All the Guys I've Loved Before)', an EP of newer tracks (including some recorded with super-producer Steve Albini during Hamilton's recent artistic residency at the Banff Centre) that's nearly as long as the album itself.
"I spend a really long time on one thing, but then do others really quickly," he explains. "When it comes to songwriting, I go through these bursts -- I'm actually in a fallow period right now."
In the same breath, Hamilton mentions he hopes to release three more EPs this year alone, including one of material from the Banff sessions, and another recorded recently with Arcade Fire producer Howard Bilerman in Montreal.
"I pull a lot of inspiration from a band like the Kinks -- during that time, bands were often putting out two or three albums a year," he points out. "There seems to be two different approaches: people who are constantly working on stuff all the time, and others whose brain works in cycles, coming up with maybe ten songs every three years or so."
"It's been noted how 'long' our record is, but there just seems to be this notion that people can't handle something that isn't bite-sized or immediately digestible," he continues. "Sure, some people are going to pick out a song or two to listen on their iPod, but I think there are still those that want to sit down and listen to an album as a fully realized work. I'm lucky in that I can tell my labels I want to throw in an EP with several more tracks and they don't even blink. Being able to keep making music and getting it out, that's exciting for me."