On a dimly lit evening under brooding skies, four people sat across from each other at a candle-lit table outside Snug Harbor in Charlotte, North Carolina. Only three of the people, the two members of Canada’s Memoryhouse and their touring partner, knew each other. They generously agreed to sit with a music writer who was intimately acquainted with the pair’s hazy and idyllic brand of pop music. Interview questions by Brendan Kraft, photos by Jeremy Fisher.
QRO: Okay, so I’m sitting here with Denise and Evan from Memoryhouse, and Adrian who is performing with them. What we’re gonna do is ask a couple questions and however long you feel like responding, whatever answers you feel appropriate; just say what’s on your mind. So let’s get started.
QRO: Memoryhouse was founded on the idea of going out in the Canadian countryside and taking pictures and videos, then interpreting them through music later. Based on the touring you’ve done in the US and Europe so far, do you think your music would sound much different if you had started this approach while living in another place?
Evan: Well, first of all that’s a really awesome and very accurate interpretation of how it started. It really was me and Denise riding around the countryside in different small towns in Canada where we grew up, just areas around where we grew up. And yeah that’s exactly it and I don’t think anyone’s gotten that so far. Something that specifically detailed…
QRO: Well, we’re just getting started.
Evan: Haha, okay. I don’t know about the atmosphere but when I’m in America I’ve just been thinking about America nonstop and I’m not making this up – a lot of the songs I’ve been writing have been about America. It’s such an often romanticized concept, just driving around the country. You have Jack Kerouac, who is one of my favorite authors, doing it.
and since I’ve gotten here even the most mundane things like going to get gas at the convenience store at the Walt Whitman gas station outside Jersey. It’s this weird thing that clicks with me. So I’ve been really appreciating it and writing a lot about America lately. So it has affected me, immediately, so I’m starting to see what turns up. I can’t speak for Denise and her photography so maybe she can enlighten you on that.
Denise: I guess recently when we’ve been on the road it’s based more on immediate visuals. Our photography isn’t really based on location or subject matter, it’s more colors and feelings. I don’t think it has a subject matter, so it’s hard to say that it’s based on here…
Evan: When we’re here it’s very based on the now, everything we’re experiencing now is very immediate. So for the first time Memoryhouse is based on the moment rather than looking back on the past event like a past photograph. That’s a new experience for us. We’re constantly thinking and reacting on our feet for the first time.
QRO: The Memoryhouse project has gained a lot of notoriety despite a fairly small catalog of occasional releases, and the largest EP release has been put off a little bit for now. Do you think both your personalities work better with this smaller, more non-traditional model of creative output?
Evan: It’s funny because we ourselves write so much, have written catalogues of material. We’re very conscious of what to release and how to release it. We don’t want to limit ourselves to one medium, and one way we chose to address that is by doing a new release called "A Choir of Empty Rooms", which is sort of a photobook catalogue of Denise’s photography as well as ambient and drone music that I composed for it. So I think that we write a lot but we like to look at nontraditional ways of releasing it. Maybe sidestepping the very immediate nature of the internet and music delivery on the internet by taking a calm, measured approach to how we release the music.
QRO: Do you think the ability to publish as you create and directly interact with fans through the internet has changed the creative process you use to create the music?
Evan: I think so, yes. "The Years" I always call a happy accident because it was an exercise in passive writing. We weren’t writing in anyone or any particular audience, it was just very intimate song sharing between us. We didn’t anticipate anything like this to ever happen to us. But since doing that we became, not self aware because that ruins it, but we became very conscious of what we want our music to say so all subsequent material will reflect that. Now we’re taking more time and really fleshing out arrangements and making sure everything will speak volumes about what we want to achieve with Memoryhouse. That’s why I always consider "The Years" a prologue to the actual Memoryhouse that has evolved from there.
QRO: One of your signatures has been to pair some of your most gorgeous work with visuals created by others as a tribute to your work. Do you consider videos created by Jamie Harley and others to be simply an interpretation or have they become a reflection of your own input?
Denise: I know in a lot of cases it’s a reflection. Jamie Harley’s visuals I think have become a huge part of how people see Memoryhouse and what we are. Even people who’ve seen our official "Lately" video will always comment on how Jamie Harley’s video was the one that they really connected with. I think having people who aren’t assigned to make videos for us can really see what it is a lot better.
Evan: I think it gives us a more intimate connection with the fans, in that it’s no longer about us and how we relate things, it’s a shared experience between us and the fans. Jamie Harley himself really understood our aesthetic so well and since the earliest videos we had a really great creative relationship with him and we are continuing to work with him. He’s as much a member of the band as me or Denise.
QRO: So far there have been several excellent remixes of your work, such as the Millionyoung remix of "To the Lighthouse". You guys have said before that you look for a specific aesthetic to your sound as an accompaniment to Denise’s photographs. Do you feel like these remixes violate the original intention of the music?
Evan: I think what’s interesting about the remixes is that they’re all so subversive in that they’re really nothing like the original work. "To the Lighthouse" has such a slow gallop to it whereas Millionyoung is referred to by people as a ‘clubbanger’. It’s just the opposite of our intention yet it somehow is pure in its own intentions. I think I really appreciate that, that he didn’t try to make it a generic ‘this is a Memoryhouse remix’, he made it his own. Same with Teen Girl Fantasy. So as long as you’re creating original art with our music then I’m all for it.
QRO: Your project was begun as a combination of Evan’s compositional talent and Denise’s interest in photography. How did you both discover that Denise had such a saccharine singing voice and Evan had this wildly addictive pop sensibility?
Evan: (Laughs). Honestly, it was an accident. I think one night we were hanging out and really bored. I picked up an acoustic guitar and started playing "These Days" by Jackson Browne and I begged and begged Denise to sing until finally she gave in. I think I secretly recorded it the first time, was listening to it, and I finally got her to sing some vocals for it.
. And by putting words to the music we’re writing it just made it really different and more direct which is something we really wanted. We wanted to reach people, human beings out there…in a sterile environment.
QRO: You like to experiment with several arrangements of different tracks. At this point only the track "Lately" has had its various versions made public. Is there a plan to continue to make alternate versions of tracks available to fans, and why did you choose "Lately" to experiment with so heavily?
Evan: I think with "Lately" I just loved playing the song on piano and it just came to me one day that maybe we should try it out like that. We were practicing for rehearsal with Adrian, whose a film maker. He was going to film us doing a stripped down arrangement, so my immediate idea was to translate it to a very basic setup with just piano and voice. In terms of releasing other version of songs, I’m all for it. I think it would be cool to release a small, online release of "The Years", just a stripped down version of the songs. Because they do all start from the core of just a very intimate recording of her voice and a solo instrument. I think something that would show the fans of how the songwriting process evolves and becomes more elaborate.
QRO: The rain is getting distracting, let’s roll with this and head for cover. I’ve only got three more questions. [group picks up and rushes under the porch]
Your band shares a name with an album released by the modern classical composer Max Richter. Did you originally intend to create that same hauntingly beautiful class of music?
Evan: Absolutely. I think that I looked at Memoryhouse by Richter as a kind of imprint of how we want our pop music to sound. It’s just very cavernous but very intimate and very melancholy and I just love that that’s what we sound like. So absolutely.
QRO: For this next one if Denise would give some input, this was written with you in mind. There’s a really wistful lyrical content on tracks like "To the Lighthouse" and "Lately" that show Denise’s talent for creating a tremendous beauty through painful longing, and the hazy atmospheric soundscapes serve to intensify those sentiments. Is there some part of each of you or your lives that lets you tap into those emotions?
Denise: I guess how we worked on "The Years" was a lot of it was written by Evan and then because I first started singing on that EP. It was a really emotional experience for me, the entire EP, because I was terrified every time I sang on every song. So I think that kind of comes through.
QRO: Really? Have you gotten kind of used to it now being on the road…
Denise: I’m getting…I’m almost there. But recording that EP was terrifying.
Evan: I think, yeah, there’s a recurring theme of duality. "The Years" is a work of great conflict between passion and duty or responsibility. How you’re looking back but living now… It’s hard because of lot of it is reflecting on past problems that everyone can relate to, whether it be something specific or something vague from the childhood. I think it’s looking forward to the position you are now and where you want to be, while looking back at what makes you who you are. So a song like "To the Lighthouse" is about your complacency with your existence now, keeping in mind what got you to this position in the first place. With the lyrics ‘seeing houses in the sky’ it’s seeing things that are very materialistic that seem right in front of you but you’ll never reach it. You’ll never be able to attain those things yourself, and you’re reflecting on why you’re living this really passive existence. Which is why there’s lyrics like ‘slept to waste the time’ on "Sleep Patterns"; wherein you don’t know what you’re doing yourself right now and you’re very conflicted on who you are and where you want to go with yourself.
QRO: So one last question. Can you describe the moment you each realized that this project was extremely special and you wanted to make it such a huge part of your lives?
Evan: For me I guess it was the recording of "Lately" because it was during a period of really great struggle for me. Hearing Denise be able to translate that to something… I don’t want to call our music transcendent but the way she sang on a song I’d written was transcendent. How she was able to take these really self-loathing, self-hating sentiments and turn it into something just genuine and most importantly relatable. I think that that is why a lot of the strong supporters we have is because people can relate to us. Because Denise’s voice and what she’s singing, she makes you feel comfortable and safe. She makes it sound like whatever you’re going through you aren’t really going through it alone. When I heard her sing those words on that song I realized we had to make something of this.
Denise: I guess for me it was when people started attaching visuals to it. Seeing how people could understand what kind of aesthetic we were going for, how everyone was starting to get the same feeling from the music. It shows in how all the videos we have have the same atmosphere. People are in our headspace, and it’s an interesting way to connect with people.