Sarah MacDougall wanted her new record to sound like a view. It seems abstract, but it’s actually a pretty concrete idea when you hear her out.
“Last time I played Atlin they took us up in the helicopters and when we were over the glacier and Atlin Lake, that’s the moment I was like ‘OK, I want to make a record that sounds like this,’“ the Whitehorse-based singer told the News on July 5. “That’s the idea of it and the glue that holds it together.”
“It” is All the Hours I Have Left to Tell You Anything, MacDougall’s fourth studio album, and it succeeds, she said, in capturing that sense of something immense that she felt in the air over Atlin.
The nine songs on the record have a similar sweeping style — one that uses big drums, strings, synthesizers, and lush, layered vocals to give the songs a sound that MacDougall describes as epic.
“I think the main thing was I wanted to be epic and intimate at the same time,” she said. “And the way to do that was to have big drums and big bass and kind of put the voice at the centre.”
While she had this idea in mind, she said nothing was forced on to the songs. They just went where they wanted to go under the production of Marcus Paquin.
MacDougall, whose first album came out in 2009, had always wanted to work with the Montreal-based musician and producer behind records by Stars, The National, and Arcade Fire.
After a Skype session “to make sure that we liked each other as people”, she travelled to Montreal to record, with a backing band that included bassist Anna Ruddick (who plays with former Constantines frontman Bry Webb) and Wintersleep dummer Loel Campbell.
MacDougall was working from demos she’d recorded in Los Angeles, but in Montreal, she said they spent a lot of time working on the rhythms of the songs, building them up into the sound on All the Hours.
Her last record, 2015’s Grand Canyon, which won a Western Canadian Music Award, had a few songs with that same sound. And while it was a natural step to take it even further on this record, MacDougall said she doesn’t see it as a big step.
This record may be sonically bigger and more poppy, but MacDougall said it still sounds like her.
“I always had this philosophy with my songwriting, that the beauty of being the singer-songwriter is that you change your band, you can change your sound, but you’re always writing your own songs.”
“They are all my songs and it’s always my voice and my lyrics and the way I write is the focus so, for me, it’s completely natural and I don’t really see it as a big step or anything.”
If there is a theme, she said it’s found in the sound. Lyrically, there’s no intentional cohesion other than the things she’s been thinking about in the last couple years. That includes everything from life and death, to love and aging, to trying to stay present in a world full of an overwhelming amount of information and insanity.
That attempt to stay present may be part of the reason landscape initially inspired the music on All the Hours. It often does, said MacDougall, who has lived in Whitehorse since 2010.
“It’s hard not to be inspired by the landscape here,” she said. Anytime she needs to reconnect and think about things, she said she goes out into nature. Here, it’s easy to do. A short drive will take you away from everything, and a walk up the clay cliffs downtown gives you a nice place to sit and just look at things.
“Just getting out of town slightly, you can see a lot of beauty,” she said.
MacDougall will be completely disconnected when her first single, “Empire,” is released.
In a kind of coming-full-circle sense, she’ll be performing a lot of the new songs for the first time when she plays at the 2018 Atlin Music Festival from July 6 to 8 (“It’s kind of strange to be in a place that’s totally off the grid when a single comes out,” she said).
The record will follow in the fall, and MacDougall, who had taken a break from touring last year, will go back on the road to promote it.
Details of that tour will be posted online at sarahmacdougall.com. “Empire”can be found online (including on Spotify and iTunes) beginning July 6.
Contact Amy Kenny at email@example.com