With rave reviews for their new recording, they look to protest songs as they forge on.
The summer of COVID has hit, and we find Edmonton-based singer/songwriter Ayla Brook at an impasse.
To be fair, it’s more or less the same situation as every other band in 2020—the-year-when-time-froze. On March 13, he and his four-piece backup combo The Soundmen released a critically acclaimed album, Desolation Sounds, dropped literally on the day that all venues shuttered their doors. Regional radio took a shine to the single (I Think I) Hit My Limit, an insistent earworm wrapped around semaphore piano and sweet background harmonies, but with nowhere to play Brook and his bandmates have been out of luck.
“We’ve got our fingers crossed that we get back all of the shows we were supposed to get this summer for next summer,” sighs Brook, just back from working on a video with fellow roots musician John Guliak.
“There have been a few good things. Radio has been kind to us, and the reviews have been great, but at heart we’re very much a live band. We like to interact with a crowd. It’s a vital part of the human experience; if we’re to believe the scientists, we were singing before we were talking. Now we’re at the point of trying to stay in everyone’s attention span, which is so very short right now.”
Continually directing those short attention spans back at the album might seem like an impossible chore in these times, but Desolation Sounds is very much worth the effort, both for The Soundmen and music lovers. Produced by singer/songwriter Terra Lightfoot, with Edmonton-based musician and recording multitasker Emily Bachynski behind the engineering console, the record sees Brook and band upping the ante, both in terms of songwriting and sonics. While Brook has used a few different producers in his various projects, it was agreed that the band needed to have their musical perspective widened a little more this time around.
“We really wanted an outside ear, and we wanted someone who wasn’t a middle-aged white dude,” Brook laughs. Lightfoot was exactly that, a necessary corrective for five “middle-aged white dudes” heading down comfortable musical alleyways. It wasn’t so much about a complete musical overhaul as taking the time to discover where Brook’s songs could go when allowed to wander.
“There were a few moments where she was like, ‘you could do the bar-band thing, but let’s try for something special here’,” Brook explains. “The songs weren’t polished yet, and Terra had room to push them in directions she saw that we didn’t.”
Turns out Lightfoot saw quite a few directions in which to take their fresh, rawly arranged batch of songs. With Jon Auer (Posies; Big Star) behind the mixing board, Desolation Sounds contains musical multitudes, from a solo take on folk standard Little Birdie to the joyous, always-shifting Lift Me Up, careening ’50s rocker Cheap Microphone & an Old Guitar to the power-pop of A Little More Light. It’s Brook and his veteran band (Johnny Blerot, keyboards; Chris Sturwold, drums; Sean Brewer, guitar; Brent Oliver, bass) at the top of their game, shifting easily between genres, testing limits. Still, it’s an awkward time in which to release a great record.
“We’re doing what we can to stay connected,” Brook says. “Like, we’re making videos in our clubhouse and trying to brainstorm ideas on how to keep the ball rolling. Maybe do videos talking about our gear; who knows? A lot of musicians are realizing that they have a lot of different skills that they didn’t realize they had, and everybody is playing catch up with what they can do with their phones. There’s actually something about that that appeals to me, to be honest. Stick a phone against the glass on a coffee table and record a song to send out to the world. It’s fun, but we’re actually trying to get two steps beyond that.”
At the moment, Brook still isn’t sure what “two steps beyond” might entail, but he does know that livestreamed concerts, while fun, are quickly overcrowding the Internet.
“We did a streaming concert in the middle of March when things were still being figured out,” he recalls. “In one sense, it was actually great because we went from playing to a room of people to playing a global show. My sisters, nieces, and nephews in Yellowknife got to see it, and because it was early on we probably had more eyes on us than if it was just a normal show. It sucked that we couldn’t have everyone in the same physical space as us, though. You want to hug your friends, but you can’t.”
Aside from solo shows in socially distanced venues, we’re still a bit of a ways from everyone celebrating music in the same physical space, but Brook and the Soundmen are forging on. They’re practicing (with masks on), writing new music, and brainstorming new ideas. One of them is to record an EP of union songs, a project close to Brook’s progressive heart.
“We’ve been talking about it, and maybe if I say it in an interview we’ll be forced to actually do it,” laughs Brook, a longtime postal worker. “We’re all sort of front-line workers in the band, and the situation in Alberta is such that I feel it’s necessary to speak out.”
Brook is busy attempting to write his own protest numbers, but says that he’ll also be selecting a few songs from the IWW Little Red Songbook as well. “This government isn’t exactly making it easy on any of us, so maybe it’s time to speak out.”