Call & Response: The Wilderness of Manitoba
Local folk ensemble The Wilderness of Manitoba make really pretty music that always puts me in a better mood whenever I need to fight off the doldrums.
Started by Will and Scott of Provincial Parks and Delaware House, this acoustic project is seriously augmented by vocalist Melissa and Stefan on cello. They make flawless four-part harmonies and collectively create a special vibe in any room they play - whether it's their basement (where they recorded their new EP Hymns of Love and Spirits), the garage out back (Delaware House), or on a stage around town (they recently opened for The Rural Alberta Advantage to a packed Horseshoe crowd).
The Wilderness of Manitoba play Wavelength tomorrow night. I spoke with the band about their sound, their new EP and winning the rock lottery.
blogTO: Why is your new EP called Hymns of Love & Spirits? What kind of "spirits" are you singing about?
Will: The band was conceived in the fall, and we were fascinated by the imagery of ghosts, churches, great halls, and such. Also, the last place we lived was seriously haunted and we definitely sing about those spirits.
Scott: It's called Hymns of Love and Spirits because that's essentially what it is, a collection of songs written while we were all experiencing some real changes in our lives, losing loved ones. I've always felt a connection to the First Nations idea of the spirit, and the power and respect that it commands. We're a spiritual band.
I like the cover illustration. Is there a story behind it?
Melissa: Will found the illustration on a San Francisco illustrator's blog a long time ago and we contacted her about using the image for our album because we all loved it so much. It pretty simple and straightforward, like our music. For me, it's a beautiful but sad image because the woman seems to be holding on tightly to the caribou as though the contact is fleeting and he is about to disappear. I think it also gives the sense of something quite spiritual contained in the interaction between humans and nature. I guess the image could also lend an edge of environmentalism to the album if people choose to think about it in that way but mostly I think it highlights our collective love of the outdoors and nature, which inspire a lot of our writing and music.
Are you surprised by the attention Wilderness of Manitoba have been getting so far?
Stefan: It's a bit surprising how smoothly things have gone, since we really just started up around the winter time. People really seem to connect to the music and it definitely helps that folk music is kind of "in" right now. At the same time, we've all been playing solo or in various bands for a while now and that experience really helps - not only when it comes to performing, but also recording, booking shows, doing promo and really having a clear focus on what we want to do.
You recorded this new EP in your basement, right? Is working down there getting easier for you? What was the biggest challenge you faced while making this project?
Will: Yeah, the whole thing was recorded here. We'd get together on random winter nights
and have some tea, then record and play music together. It was just a really enjoyable process and came really easy since we did it at out own pace. It's kind of funny, but we really had no obstacles to overcome at all - everything with this band just seems to flow naturally. It also helped that we recorded several other bands down there, so we've become really comfortable with that space.
How did you decide what instrumentation would be featured in these songs? For instance - did you seek out a cello player or did you decide to include cello because you hooked up with Stefan (did I get his name right)?
Stefan: Instrumentation is usually one of the things that comes most naturally. I met the guys at The Rock Lottery (an event where 25 random musicians form bands and write and perform material all in the same day), and I guess they felt like I could add something to the project, and the cello was just a really natural fit. We really just went from there: I learned the banjo; Scott started bringing in some looping and effects; we decided to start bringing in percussion...
There's always an audience for mellow music but lately bands like Grizzly Bear are really blowing up. Is mainstream success something you folks are working toward?
Melissa: I think it's fair to say that we all listen to bands like Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes etc., and we really like them, but this mellow style is something that we have all gravitated towards in one form or another for a long time. The songs that we write in solo situations tend to be more folk-oriented than anything else so I think what it's really about is just loving the folk and singer/songwriter music that we grew up listening to and wanting somehow to recapture that feeling in our own songs. Whether or not it brings us success, well, that could be interesting but that isn't the intention - we just really love writing and playing these songs and the fact that we have found each other and can do that together as a group is pretty amazing.
You've recently added a drummer, right? Does that make your live show more "upbeat"?
Stefan: The idea was always to focus on percussion rather than having a "drummer". It really sets a great atmosphere and we all try to work together to make sure it sounds natural. It helps a lot that Sean is really good at feeling stuff out. Having said that, it also helps when you play a bigger room to be able to kick it up a notch and vary things dynamically.
Will's mom wrote one of the songs on your EP, right?
Will: The song "Evening" was written sometime in the late sixties. My mom gave me
a recording of it and some other tunes that she did in New York in 1968, on my 25th
birthday, and I've wanted to do something with it for a long time. I sent it to the band asking if we could cover it, and Stefan recorded his own version of it and we all liked it and it just went from there.
When's the next Delaware House show?
Stefan: We actually just had one that's kind of still going on right now. We're taking a little break from the shows, but we'll be back with some great friends in the fall.
Call & Response is a series of Q&A's featuring bands from or playing in Toronto. Photo: WoM.
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