Discovering artists you’ve not heard about before is always exciting. I liken the experience to a new relationship, be it friendship or romance, for it potentially holds a similar pattern in its unfolding: surprise, curiosity, seduction, learning, teaching and surrendering. I learnt of Erin Lang’s music by chance. Chance was also a part of our meeting: less than a week after her being mentioned to me, she sent me an invitation to see her play in London (read the Live Review). I gladly accepted and took the opportunity to have a word with Erin to find out how she came to split her time between her native Canada and Europe, her love of mystery and her involvement with Hibiscus and Rosehips.
Cat On The Wall: Hello Erin. How are you?
Erin Lang: I am great! I just got a banjo for my birthday and I am so excited about that! It is such a strange funny interesting instrument… an exciting combination!
COTW: I discovered you and your music less than two weeks ago and I’m always pleased to find multi-instrumentalist female artists. Can you talk us through your musical background and the number of instruments you enjoy playing?
EL: Sure! It’s a bit long, prepare yourself with some water and food to sustain you! My first instrument was the Trumpet, we had to pick an instrument for school and it seemed bold and brassy and the opposite of my personality at the time (I was 10 and a bit shy) but more like what I wanted to be. I fell absolutely in love and learned every trumpet part on every record that my parents had, latin jazz, classical, it didn’t matter; as I learned to read music I worked my way through every song in the ‘Big Beatles Songbook’ I had taken out of the library. I am from a musical background, my Grandmother is an incredible pianist and my Dad a bass player for a big Canadian rock band so when I turned 13 a couple of my friends where starting a band. I picked up my Dad’s bass and asked him to teach me. He taught me how to pick out the bass part on records and a blues scale and I took it from there, it was easy since I had already done this with trumpet.
Being in the band with the guys was great, it was how I started writing parts and this became a new passion. I then wanted to learn guitar so I could write songs and not just bass parts but I hated my voice to this went on the back burner as I worked my way through glam and punk bands on the Toronto music scene after high school. I continued learning guitar and singing in little bits and then finally decided that I wanted to start my own band and record my own music. I met Roger (O’Donnell) and he had a nice little studio so we started working on songs together and it was so much fun exploring different sounds and being in Europe a bit more opened me up to a lot more musical influences. As I started recording my album in Germany and putting the live show together I realised I wanted more instruments, more sounds and I would need someone to play them. I had a song that I thought would sound great on ukulele and that began that love affair and a friend had an accordion she had bought at a pawn shop on a whim but she couldn’t play so I inherited it. I just start tinkering around with them and I love their voices they say so much to me that songs come out.
The strangest instrument I ‘play’ is the theremin, you play it by just moving your hands in the air around it and it is very tricky but great ear training! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theremin
COTW: You were born in Montréal and currently split your time between Toronto and the UK. Does this regular migration impact on your music, on the way you work?
EL: Well I work best with a deadline. The studio is in the UK so if I am working on songs I always want to get them down before I am too far from the studio, so in the last weeks before going to Canada I squeeze in a lot of recording which is great, otherwise I might never get them down! Then Canada is great for writing, I spend time at my parents’ cottage or on my aunt and uncle’s farm and always have a guitar and ukulele with me so I strum a lot and I always think of lyrics in cars on planes or trains (I think a lot of people are like this) so the more travelling the better! Also moving around allows you to see everything again with fresh eyes. I think this helps when writing music.
COTW: You’ve recently organised a charity event in the shape of an Afternoon Tea Party, Hibiscus and Rosehips. What brought you to set up the event? Is there a way we can still donate to the charity?
EL: I had the idea sometime last year wandering around in Toronto that it would be nice to open a tea shop one day, I had been to a friend in London’s birthday tea party in the afternoon in her sunny flat and thought what a sweet thing it was. Also last year I had the chance to play a couple of unusual shows in parks and places that kids could come and they loved it! Teenagers I meet complain to me all the time that they want to see me play but shows are always at night in bars. Then I got to know about this charity since I actually had Lymphoma last year and my nurse (and friend and avid music fan) talked to me about organizing musical events and asked if I would play. Before we got a chance to talk any further about it all these ideas came together and Hibiscus & Rosehips was born! I hoped she would think it was a good idea and she did of course. It was a lot of work but turned out really amazingly well. As far as donating to the charity we released a compilation CD also called Hibiscus & Rosehips and it is a wonderful album. It is available for $10 and all the money goes to the charity. Through the website there are other ways to donate as well. http://www.hibiscusandrosehips.com/
COTW: At the Hibiscus and Rosehips Tea Party regulars of the Toronto/Montréal and London music scenes such as The Youngest, Luxury Pond, Snowblink and Jesse Smith all performed titles. How did you choose the performers? Was it easy to convince them to participate?
EL: It was too easy! That was how the CD idea came about: I was approaching bands I love from all over the place asking if they wanted to play this show and they all did but because of touring schedules or distance it wasn’t possible but they still wanted to contribute so of course this turned into donating songs, wanting to be a part of the collective. Everyone I asked that was available to play on the day immediately said yes. The line-up was set in a day or two! Six bands was all that we would have time for through the afternoon so everyone I approached after that I just asked for songs and all the musicians were so generous and willing and excited!
COTW: You use the accordion (amongst other instruments); does it bear a direct relation to your Canadian roots and the fact you were born in city predominantly influenced by the French? Have you ever wanted to sing in French?
EL: I think it probably does have to do with being French Canadian and is deep in my subconscious! I have always loved the sound of the accordion but didn’t really think I could play one until it was given to me. I still don’t play it well (or easily, it is a hard one!) but the voice of this instrument does sing to me! I really want to do an EP of old French Canadian songs that I have come across over the years that I love but first I want to record ‘Mon Cœur est un Violon’ with my mother and my Grandmother… I think it would be so cute and powerful, and a lot of fun to do, those two are hilarious, whenever we are together I just laugh and laugh!
I have done a version of one of Roger O’Donnell’s songs in French, it might see the light of day at some point! I still have some work to do on it.
COTW: I find the mix between organic instruments and electronic beats quite striking yet complementary; they remind me a little of the music Matmos, Matthew Herbert and Rob Ellis are capable of. What are your influences between both types of sounds?
EL: I have always been a big fan of Björk and a few other bands who have electronic elements but it wasn’t until I met Roger that it started being incorporated into my music. When we met he introduced me to some more underground electronic artists that I found exciting like Tortoise and Plaid and with him producing and playing on my songs, that element began to surface in his drum programming and synth playing. The more time I spent in the UK in the early 2000s and playing with other artists like Ecce (Nick Lisher who played in my band and introduced me to a lot of music) the more I got excited about this sound. Then Roger and I discovered (with the help of Ecce) The Notwist and Lali Puna and Console all coming from this small scene in Germany and realized they had all worked with the same producer Mario Thaler. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to make my album with him in Weilheim and for Martin Gretschmann (The Notwist, Console) and Christoph Brandner (Lali Puna) to play on it. It was an amazing experience and with Mario, and Roger as musical director, I was really happy with how these different elements came together. My love of a bare, paired down, really intimate sound, the instruments like accordion and classical guitar and piano and the quirky electronics.
COTW: Next I’d like to understand the frame of mind behind your lyrics. They sound very personal, yet contain a degree of mystery, they sometimes tend to the dream world. How do you write them? What can trigger the writing process? Is it internal or external or both?
EL: I really like to keep things a bit mysterious, I think it allows people to relate to it more than drawing out an exact scenario. Also I tend to write about other people or how I see them than actually writing about myself and I am just intrigued with the mystery of people and relationships and perspectives. The dream world is real. I can look at my life and things around me and find such magic there it seems like a fantasy! Even the dark times become deep black forests and waning moons but they exist. My Mum was a puppeteer and encouraged so much imagination and creativity as I was growing up and I have met incredible people who share or open up this magical real life perspective more.
In that way I guess it is both internal and external in that something in real life will trigger the process but how I see it becomes the lyrics. I think of lyrics all the time, while driving or talking to someone and my mind wanders but I have to write them down and I am not that good at doing that. There are a lot of lost lyrics floating around out there as I pick up that cup of coffee and decide I should try and focus on what my friend is saying. Trains are the best butterfly nets for lyrics, I do a lot of scribbling on trains.
COTW: Finally, are you planning on touring mainland Europe in the near future as well as the UK?
EL: I would love to tour in Europe, I have the idea that it would be really nice (and environmentally friendly and good for lyric writing) to do a train tour. Hopefully this summer or fall.
You can buy Erin Lang’s album from her website http://www.erinlang.com(in the News section).
Visit Erin’s myspace: http://www.myspace.com/erinlang
To donate for Lymphoma Charity in Canada please visit http://www.hibiscusandrosehips.com/
Erin will be playing at The Queen Of Hoxton, London, with Gregory & The Hawk on 24th June 2009. If you’re in the London area, make sure you go see her play.
Interview by CB Lux