Playing a solo date while on tour with The War On Drugs, Elizabeth Powell of Land of Talk finally sat down again for a long talk with QRO. Around a decade ago, QRO interviewed the singer/songwriter (QRO interview), and has been trying for a follow-up ever since. In the conversation, Powell talked about the tour, opening vs. headlining, touring now vs. touring then, returning to making music as Land of Talk, latest record Life After Youth (QRO review), not feeling old, her Canadian home, leaving people wanting more, stage banter pedals, needing a guitar tech, speaking like yawning, acid reflux, and much more…
QRO: How was the show last night in Portland?
Elizabeth Powell: Beautiful. It was great.
It’s funny, because it took a lot of effort to whittle the set down into an opening set. But I love the change of pace, in that it’s a quicker pace, it’s more just about getting all the songs out. And it’s more about The War On Drugs; it’s more about ushering them in, honoring a band that I love so much.
Great theater – State Theatre.
EP: I love it all. I love it all, for all the different reasons.
Each one brings a different kind of mood to it. This, I love the intimacy of these smaller, headlining clubs. And I think this is what I would want, as a music listener, when I go see a band that I’ve invested time & money into, this seems to be the most conducive to an intimate interaction with a band and audience.
The big shows, though, oh… The beautiful theaters, all of the people helping you load in, all those amazing helpers. And then the sort of majesty of bigger venues.
And, obviously, once you get to that point the pay is pretty beautiful too.
And the festival shows, those are great. Do you know how many shows I’ve played where I get to watch the sun set? Vancouver Folk Festival, playing Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ontario? Last summer, playing the last show of the night in the beer tent, and everybody just sweaty, standing on picnic tables, and people with their babies. That, you can’t get that…
Each one offers it own neat little…
QRO: How does touring now compare to back in your earlier days, of a decade or so ago?
EP: Um… The touring is all the same, the same amount of drive, geography hasn’t changed, you know what I mean? Tectonic shifts haven’t shifted; everything’s the same.
But, I think having gone away from it, and now being able to come back, is a very special and rare thing. To be able to come back to something that you were already so lucky to have happen before. To be able to return to a supportive fan base, to return to the industry with open arms, and to play all these shows – there’s a bit more gratitude happening, I gotta say.
More grateful, even with a nine-hour van ride, and the transmission blows out, and everything’s going pear-shaped, there’s still this like, ‘Yeah, but I almost didn’t do this. I’m here.’ It’s just more meaningful.
And it’s nice to just go back and see all – it’s nice to play Philly again, it’s awesome to play Brooklyn again. You get to see all the towns I came up in. It’s beautiful.
QRO: You live outside of Toronto?
EP: I moved back to my hometown, north of Toronto. A little town called Orillia, and it’s actually kind of in an inlet between two lakes, the Twin Lakes, one of which is the lake that I cite in “Some Are Lakes”. That’s “What started at a summer lake,” that’s the song about my parents, who met on Lake Couchiching. “Some Are Lakes”, ‘Summer lakes’, that’s the one.
And now I live on that lake. I get to watch the sunrise every morning – it’s beautiful.
But yes, it’s a seven-hour drive from Montreal, and I’ve been doing that drive rather regularly now. ‘Oh, if only I could also afford a little pied-à-terre in Montreal…’ But so far, crashing at friends house – is also a really nice excuse to see your friends. Because as you get older, you don’t have an excuse…
QRO: Your new record is titled “Life After Youth” – do you feel old?
EP: It’s funny – we were talking about that today. We were talking about stories that happened fifteen years ago, now. “Whoa – we’re at the age where things happened fifteen years ago!”
Life After Youth is actually more about letting people know that there is a life after youth. It’s almost the opposite of feeling old. Not ‘life starts after youth,’ but they say, ‘Life is for the young’ and all that – it’s sort of a play on that. ‘The world is built for the young,’ and that’s true, and that’s beautiful, and it’s saying there’s also life after youth. There’s life after twenty-seven.
QRO: Especially with all these millennials who are younger than us…
EP: And those are all my friends!
To be able to come back to something that you were already so lucky to have happen before.
Moving back to my hometown, and then my dad having a stroke, and then me taking a baking job, I would bake in the morning, five ‘til noon – and then I would take care of my dad in the afternoons – I got to work in this bakery with all these young people. I got so blessed, I felt so lucky, to be able to have this kinship, or this sisterhood, with all these other works, who range from nineteen to fifty-four.
I kind of realized, after a certain age, everything gets ageless. When you’re younger, you’re so scared of getting older. And I think, as a woman, too, that’s so loaded.
I just want to let people know not to be scared. I’m having a really good time going out there, and enjoying myself even more. I gotta say, enjoying myself more now, than I did – enjoying, enjoyment; I actually feel ‘joy.’
Whereas I think before, there was more elation – it was the ‘wild years,’ wild, rock ‘n’ roll, and there’s all this intensity, but there was something not grounded about it. And now I just feel like, ‘life happens.’
Life After Youth is also life after even my dad’s stroke. There’s life after whatever you think’s your youth – it’s all relative. If you listen to older people, if you’re lucky enough to spend time with older people, like elders, and you listen to their stories, they all feel young, you know what I mean? Like, in their sixties, ‘Oh, I remember when I was in my forties – that was my heyday…’
So I think the idea is: keep going. It’s supposed to be kind of a motivator. It’s funny, I’ll see little kids wearing the shirt, and then I have parents wearing the shirt, grandparents…
And the world is so fucking ageist, society, and I just want to let everybody know, you don’t gotta subscribe to that. Don’t let society fuck you up.
Life After Youth is actually more about letting people know that there is a life after youth. It’s almost the opposite of feeling old.
QRO: Do you think it’s particularly ageist in music? If you’re not the ‘hot new young thing’…
EP: That’s just society.
I’m loving in like film, and comedy, finally it’s becoming part of – things are changing. Back in the day, what was it, Peaches were opening for The Strokes, and she was only in her thirties, and people were commenting on that. I read an article about that.
QRO: I just saw her at Riot Fest (QRO photos) – she was amazing!
EP: She’s an inspiration. No matter what fuckin’ age she is – if she was nineteen out there doing it, if she’s eighty out there doing it, it’s what she’s doing. And like Buffy Sainte-Marie – if you think of anybody. And there’s actors, too.
We’re all kind of getting more accepting, or, I don’t know, we’re calling bullshit…
QRO: You were one of my first interviews when I started doing this (QRO interview), so I thought, ‘If she feels old, I feel old’ – because there are definitely times I feel old…
EP: And that’s okay! We’re all gonna die; part of that’s getting older.
In a way, I find it’s nothing to fret about. By feeling old, that’s society fucking you up. By saying, “I feel old,” what’s old? What are you picturing? What’s your version of old?
By feeling old, that’s society fucking you up.
QRO: Since returning to touring & all, have you seen fans & friends from your ‘old days’?
EP: Yes! It’s wild, it’s awesome to see – I’m not gonna ‘name names,’ but there are so many people I remember before social media, from e-mail, or MySpace…
And they travel! There’s this one woman, who used to come to all our shows, I can remember selling her her first Land of Talk t-shirt, I remember our interaction in Cleveland. And then she moved to New York, and started coming to the New York shows. And she’s always at the front, I know her face…
I know your MySpace handle, and your e-mail, and now your Instagram. It’s funny how technology also…
QRO: What about places – are there places, even venues or festivals, which you’ve only recently returned to?
EP: Baby’s All Right we were super excited to go to, Bowery [Ballroom – QRO venue review]. I love playing The Independent in San Francisco.
It’s always about the people who run it. It’s always about the people, always. It’s not about the actual brick & mortar.
When you go down the stairs here, to the kitchen, there’s a sign above the stairs that says, “The Customer Is King.” There’s just really into service. They just always want to make sure that you’re treated really well.
That means a lot when you’ve had a rough travel day, you’ve had a crazy two weeks, or somebody’s really sick, or somebody’s back’s thrown out. It means so much when people are actually… It take so little, giving you eye contact & acknowledging you.
So those venues.
I know your MySpace handle, and your e-mail, and now your Instagram.
QRO: I’ve always noticed that Canada has a ton of outdoor summer music festivals…
EP: Totally. And then this summer, because it was the Canada 150, so there were even more festivals. It was like the ‘festival of festivals’…
QRO: Every city in Canada has a folk festival…
EP: Orillia has the Mariposa Festival. I was listening to jazz/blues radio on the drive back from Montreal a couple of weeks ago, and Oscar Peterson was interviewing Bonnie Raitt, asking her about all her favorites – she got her start on the Canadian festival circuit. She cited Mariposa Festival, which is in Orillia. Everyone has played there – I think it was gone for a while, but it’s back.
So I’d love to play Mariposa – I’m there every summer anyway…
We had Way Home, which was on Concession 8, and I grew up on Concession 10. I could have biked there! It was a wicked festival, and it’s dead now. The first two years, it was banging…
I just started being redrawn back into music once my dad had his stroke and recovering, and I obviously needed to self-soothe, self-heal.
QRO: What made you decide to return to music making, as Land of Talk?
EP: I just started being redrawn back into music once my dad had his stroke and recovering, and I obviously needed to self-soothe, self-heal. I was helping me, and introducing that to him and my mother, making him a little iPod playlist, watching what impact it had on him. Music was back in me.
Admittedly, before I was doing stuff, I just wasn’t picking up guitar. I was still tracking stuff under the moniker ‘Vagweigan’, more like producer, producing songs that are more dance-based, slow. I just got into electronic stuff.
That was sort of what I was doing, and then something about my dad kind of got me leaning more – I just started picking up the guitar. I’d still been getting my creative juices out, but under a different moniker, and a whole different genre. I was definitely, obviously staying away from what I was ‘born doing,’ and had been doing under Land of Talk, guitar music, but then something about just needing to get to the heart of things, literally, and figuratively.
And then, meeting up with Besnard Lakes, playing in Toronto, and Bucky [Wheaton, drummer] reaching out to me, it just became undeniable, irrefutable – “Yeah, of course, we just need to make a record.” I think, maybe, I was waiting for that.
QRO: How did making Life After Youth compare with making prior records?
EP: It actually felt like home again. It felt like we went back to doing what we do best. It felt great. Back a Breakglass [Studio]. It felt like old hat.
QRO: Was there more pressure, as your ‘return record,’ or less, since it’s so long since your debut?
EP: It’s funny, for better or for worse, I don’t feel pressure. When it comes to my music, it’s like, what you hear is what you get, because that’s what I need to say. The only pressure is my own pressure to make this song. And regardless, I did this when I was thirteen, writing songs – it’s the same approach.
I believe, if I’m writing something, and if I’m feeling it, that’s my offering. That’s an honest offering. There’s no pressure, you know what I mean? Maybe there would be pressure for the labels that sign me, to try and make money, but it’s not my pressure.
QRO: I did notice that you’re on the same label as before, Saddlecreek…
EP: Because they’re family.
Again, it was all very much a homecoming, in a way. It’s like I went away, and then I came home. But in a weird way, I went home, and then came home – it’s like everywhere is home… [laughs]
QRO: Most importantly, do you still get state funding from the Factor Program?…
EP: No… [laughs]
We were talking about that in the van, “How is that not happening yet?” It just hasn’t happened yet. I guess you just have to ‘prove’ yourself again, like now that I’m starting up again. ‘Man, there is money out there!’ There is money out there…
QRO: You were the first person who told me about that…
Land of Talk playing “Loving” live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on June 14th, 2017:
QRO: I suppose the set list is still focused on Life After Youth. Is it tough picking which ‘older’ songs to also do?
EP: Yes. That’s the thing – it was hard, whittling down the set for War On Drugs, but I think we’ve perfected it. ‘Cause it’s new song, then “Some Are Lakes”, then new song, and then something from Cloak and Cipher (QRO review), and then new song, and then something from Some Are Lakes (QRO review).
QRO: Do you do that alternate new and old?
EP: It just so happened that that’s how it worked out, with the way my guitar tunings go. The capo, and guitar switches – so it’s just perfect. “Yes You Were”, “Some Are Lakes”, “Inner Lover”, “Loving”, “Yuppie Flu”.
Because maybe we don’t play for ninety minutes. I like to leave like sixty minutes for the most part? I think is a nice– then you leave people wanting more.
Recently, there was some article that just reinforced my belief. I think it was a music writer, “Please, for everyone’s sake, leave the audience wanting more. Don’t overplay.” You can make that fatal error of just playing too hard.
But then also, if we were playing for ninety minutes, we’d be able to play the whole new album, and then do the hits. But I always feel like, ‘I don’t want to take up too much of your time.’ [laughs] ‘You get it… You don’t need more of this…’
QRO: Do you try not to do too much stage banter?
EP: [laughs] Last night, right at the end – I didn’t do any banter, we were just ‘clack, clack, clack,’ ‘go, go, go!’ And right at the end, after we were introing “It’s Okay”, the last song, I said, “Okay-I-just-want-to-say, it’s-such-an-honor, to-be-opening-for-The-War-On-Drugs – I-promised-I-wouldn’t-talk, because-the-banter-sucks, okay, never mind…”
QRO: Specifically for a opening set…
EP: You can’t banter. It’s funny.
It’s easier to banter at these small shows. There is a connection, there’s a human connection, and you’re all kind of vibeing off each other, so you get this little relationship happening.
If I have nothing to say, I won’t say anything. And I don’t feel like I ‘have to’ fill up the space.
I saw something on Instagram that was like, ‘The Banter Pedal’. Like a ‘banter foot pedal’…
Land of Talk playing “It’s Okay” live at Mercury Lounge in New York, NY on September 11th, 2008:
QRO: Are there songs that you’ve forgotten how to play – and maybe get a shouted request for?…
EP: Oh yeah, if it’s not in the set, and I haven’t practiced it – holy schnoz…
There’s a song from Fun and Laughter (QRO review), “As Me” – Jace [Lasek] & I did that. I don’t even remember. Over a really short period of time, and these songs just kind of came out of nowhere. All in crazy alternate tunings – of course, didn’t write them down…
“Sixteen Asterisk”, I had to re-outfit a guitar, because it’s tuned to a C, the low string – I forget what we had to do. The guy had to like put in a different nut, just to be able to accommodate that song, and it’s awesome, but it’s too much…
QRO: At Bowery Ballroom show (QRO live review), someone said to their friend that they wanted to hear “Sixteen Asterisk”…
EP: I love playing that song, just that’s a whole ‘other guitar, and I’ve already got four guitars. Sometimes it just becomes about like, efficiency, or pragmatism.
QRO: Unless you’re like Lee Ranaldo, and can have fifty different guitars…
EP: Man, I would love to… The War On Drugs situation, when I was standing side stage last night, watching them, watching their guitar tech. Just would be drooling… ‘Oh my god, one day – one day I will have a guitar tech…’ And I won’t be wasting everybody’s time, switching guitars, putting the capo on, tuning, making sure – that already is happening when you’re playing the song that you’re playing!
QRO: And how is your throat/vocal chords? I know that you had polyps…
EP: They’re pretty great. I don’t know what happened. I healed. Resilience.
It was funny, ‘cause it got all blown out of proportion. They said I had surgery – ‘No, dog, I just stopped burning the candle a both ends.’ Stopped saying yes to non-stop touring.
I saw a vocal coach – I learned how to speak. I used to talk [low register] really low – and that was a huge part. That, and acid reflex. Apparently, ear, nose, throat specialists, that’s the first thing they always address. ‘First of all, you probably have acid reflex, so make sure you prop your pillow up, and we’ll gonna give you a prescription.’ That was the first thing she did, without even looking at my vocal chords.
And she immediately sent me to a speech pathologist, who immediately was like, “You’re talking like you hang out with way too many people. You obviously hang out with a lot of men, who speak in a lower register.” Yeah, that’s true – my brother and my father both have [low register] really low voices. So there’s probably a little bit of mimicking that happens.
She’s like, “You want to [yawns] yawn, and then wherever your voice is, that’s where you want to hang out.” So I speak differently, which really helps.