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Tuesday, 19 April 2011 07:00

Dearly Departing: An interview with Amy Cole of the Rural Alberta Advantage (with bonus MP3 download)

Dearly Departing: An interview with Amy Cole of the Rural Alberta Advantage (with bonus MP3 download) / Garry Tsaconas
Written by Matt Champion

Shortly after departing for a tour to support her band's newly released second album, multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole of the Rural Alberta Advantage was kind enough to take a few moments out of her day for some good conversation and a brief glimpse into how the RAA comes up with such powerful songs.

And don't miss the download of a new track by the band at the end of the interview.

Matt Champion: Let's start with a little about you. Did you always want to make a career of being a musician or was it something that just happened over time?

Amy Cole: For me personally? No, I never thought I'd have a career being a musician at all. I took music when I was a kid just because I liked it, I guess. As a kid I started taking lessons and getting involved in school plays and things like that, but it was never something I thought would become something I did with my life at all. The way things have gone with the RAA, you know, we were doing it for fun and people started liking it. We decided to just record something and maybe get to play a music festival and it kept building and building, and now it has become what we're doing. But no, it wasn't a plan of mine at all. It's just a happy kind of accident, almost. [laughs] Not that we haven't put any work into it happening, but it's for sure not something that has driven us professionally.

I know in the band you wear a lot of different hats musically. What duties do you handle other than backing and harmony vocals?

Oh, in terms of what I play? I play keyboard, I play percussion, the harmonies are a big thing for me. We've always been searching for a way to satisfy getting, like, a good lower end into our sound since we're only a three piece and we don't have a bass player. I recently started playing the bass pedals and that's been going really well so far too. I guess that's one more instrument in my arsenal. Oh, and the glockenspiel too.

I was wondering about that since I know that you don't have a full-time bass player and there were a few tracks on Departing that have a pretty distinct bass line to them.

Yeah, now we've got that with the bass pedals. I guess I'm kind of the bass player now. We've worked it out that way. We got it right before our first show in New York at the end of December, around Christmastime. I've just sort of tried to learn all of the songs. I just sort of listened to the records over and over and tried to map out the bass parts and then we all got together when practicing for this tour to try and fit it in. We're really happy with the way it's been going. It sounds really awesome and we love it. Yeah, I'm really excited about it.

That actually segues into my next question. I know the RAA started with five members and now it's down to you, Nils [Edenloff] on guitar and vocals and Paul [Banwatt] on the drums. Do you find that you have more freedom musically with a three piece?

I think that's definitely true. Having less people there's definitely more freedom. We weren't a five piece for very long, but when we were it was kind of a struggle of who's going to do what. There were times I remember playing live shows where two or three of us weren't actually doing anything in a particular song. It was, like, what's the point of having all these members if everyone isn't contributing something valuable to every song? I think with a three piece it works out really well. Paul has the freedom to come up with the crazy beats that he has that maybe he couldn't have if there were more people and more elements to consider in a song. If there's just three of us Nils can write his lyrics and melody and pick his instrument, whether it's guitar or keyboard, to build the song around and Paul can come up with basically whatever he wants on the drums. I listen and try to fill in whatever might still be missing, if it's a harmony or a different keyboard line, if it's more percussion or whatever. I feel like we all have a lot of freedom and that's why we like this band so much.

I noticed when listening to Departing that since you're a non-traditional three piece band, assuming that traditional meaning guitar, drums and bass, there's actually a lot more going on than you would expect to hear from just a three piece outfit.

Right. I think that's true for sure. We try to make it as interesting as possible and do, I guess, the unexpected. We're not trying to be like "Oh, let's do something crazy and unconventional," but that's how it kind of works out in terms of how we write the songs and how we perform them live. It's not something people are used to seeing, which is kind of cool.

How would you describe your live performance to someone who hasn't seen you before?

I don't know. [laughs] I guess I would say that it's very energetic. I mean, all three of us are trying to bring as much energy as we can to our performances. I think we all work well together and play off each other. It's interesting, because there are times where we'll be switching stuff up. Sometimes Paul will come over to where I am, sometimes I go over to where he is. We try to keep things as interesting as possible. I guess if I had to pick one word I'd say energetic. We really try to give everything we have in terms of playing these songs for people. We really try to connect as best as we can to the audience. If you don't it really kind of feels false for everyone involved so we try bring, you know, a real feeling and real emotion to our performances and we hope it gets back to us from the audience's reaction.

Since you mentioned bringing the energy to the audience, does the RAA approach recording differently than performing live?

I think so, sure. I think it is different recording than it is performing live. I think Nils would tell you that in terms of his songwriting he needs to feel it, that emotional connection to his songs or else it won't work live. Of course that's the same on a record. Why would you bother listening to a record that didn't move you in some way? In that way I think it is the same, but it is different in that it's longer and we're perfectionists. Live I don't think you'd describe us as, you know, we're not masters of technical precision in terms of our musicianship. Live we focus on the energy and feeling rather than focusing on playing everything exactly perfectly, where on the record we do try to take care that nothing super wrong is going on, so I guess in that way it's different. Otherwise I'd say it's the same, in terms of trying to build something that makes an emotional connection to the listener.

That actually brings up another question. When in the studio, so you record everything live in one take or do you any behind-the-scenes editing? I ask because when I listened to Departing it sounds like you didn't really put in anything extra, it sounds as if you recorded it live.

[Laughs] Cool! We definitely try to capture the live feeling, we hope it sounds like that. But in terms of recording live off the floor the only song that was recorded live off the floor was "Good Night." All of the other songs followed a fairly traditional recording pattern, I guess. We would lay down the drums, we would often play it live together, like Nils and Paul would play together just to make sure it was right but in terms of actually recording it most tracks were recorded separately. You know, vocals were recorded last, drums first kind of thing. I wouldn't say we used any weird tricks, but there are some overdubs on the record. We took great care to make it sound as much like a live performance as possible because that's the kind of music that we make. Even on Hometowns we brought in other people to play, you know, a cello line or a horn section whereas for Departing we really didn't. It was like, "OK, what do we do and how do we get that on record?" Making it as authentically as possible is the way we worked this time around.

I was going to ask you about that. There is a subtle difference in sound between Hometowns and Departing. Hometowns had more of a rock feel to it while Departing seems to have songs that feel a little more open and have more detail in the background. Was that a conscious decision or was it just how your music has progressed since you've been playing together?

I don't know if it was a conscious decision to have more elements going on in the background, I think it just happens. When we're all working on a song together we have different ideas, like the songs don't come out fully formed. We didn't have the songs completely finished, ready to go and recorded them exactly as we'd envisioned them, that's not how it works. There were many times where we'd be in the studio and just not quite know what to do with a certain part. We'd be like "Let's just try this, let's try that," add things or take things away. That happened with Hometowns too, but less so because we'd been playing live for so long that we did pretty much know how the songs were by the time we got into the studio. There were times with Departing where we'd say, "Let's try this, let's try that, let's tear the song apart since this isn't working at all," and go back and start over again. We'd be working on things at home and bring them in, you know, and have arguments over what sounds better here or there and build it that way. I guess there was more going on in the background because there were a lot more ideas, but in the end we really tried to do the same thing and give songs a lot of space and let them breathe and let the most important parts of the songs shine through.

Do you have anything you'd like to say to the KDHX audience and your fans who are going to come see you perform?

We're just really excited to come back to St. Louis. It's going to be tons of fun, I think. We're really enjoying the tour and have been happy with the way things are going so far and we really can't wait to come back and play the new songs for everybody. We're really excited!

The Rural Albert Advantage appears at the Firebird on April 22.

Download "Stamp" from the new album Departing on Saddle Creek Records.


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