“I want my music to defy trends and be timeless.” Such is the commendable mission upon which singer-songwriter Alejandra Ribera embarked when she began writing songs for her third album. This Island is a great inward journey that the Toronto-born, Montréal-based artist – her mother was Argentinian, her father Scottish – gifted to herself.
“I love to explore the recesses of the human heart to harvest an optimistic poetry,” says Ribera. “I was moved by a speech Tilda Swinton gave on the topic and by a study about the movement; there is infinite potential that exists between suspension and liberation.”
If it all seems quite abstract, to Ribera it’s as clear as a mountain stream. Her 10 new songs are a befitting collection in the wake of La boca, produced in 2014 by Jean Massicotte (Jean Leloup, Arthur H), which contained her SOCAN Songwriting Prize-winning song “I Want,” which she wrote. Her first EP, Navigator, Navigather, launched in 2011, had already announced her humanist groove, which revealed the tightly-knit links of her fertile imagination.
“I spent three weeks in Paris, in January 2015, to get back in touch with myself,” says Ribera. “I lived in the onzième arrondissement. I couldn’t understand what the people around me were saying and I quickly became homesick,” she confides, in her very acceptable French. “I felt stranded on an island, hence the album title. To comfort myself, I started writing [lyrics] by imagining parallel universes where people came to me to talk. Then the Charlie Hebdo attack happened: for three days straight, all I could hear were the deafening shrieks of the sirens driving by my window.”
Inspired by the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, she titled the last song on the album “Orlando.” On that song, Ribera reaches for her upper vocal range to capture our souls and puncture our skin.
“The first time I sang it for my musicians was during a soundcheck, while we were touring Canada with Ron Sexsmith,” she says. “We came up with it in about 45 minutes and played it for the audience that same night. Ironically, we were doing the final mix for that song when the Orlando massacre happened. It’s mysterious and bizarre!”
And as with many an imaginary island, This Island has buried treasure – and it’s a fabulous bundle of musical loot. The singer’s tone of voice on “Undeclared War” sounds just like Beth Orton, wrapped in the same softness and sensuality. “Led Me to You” is a little gem of Americana that would surely cause said Sexsmith to rejoice. “Will Not Drown” is peppered with trumpets, Spanish lyrics and handclaps. It’s ingenious and resourceful: folk songs, languid ballads, luminous melodies; everything falls into place to form a unique and singular, brilliantly produced universe. It’s one of those albums you listen to in a single sitting – after which you clearly feel that, as the artist intended, This Island is indeed timeless.
“I wanted to stay away from the current recording methods,” says Ribera. “I quickly realized that playing the previous album’s songs in a more intimate environment, night after night, brought it the missing link: the osmosis between the musicians, playing live. It was immediately clear in my mind that the next record would be recorded live in the studio.”
So seven musicians gathered in a rural Ontario home for the recording session. “We went straight to the point,” she says. “I wanted us to have a lot of space. We spent a few weeks in that house, creating the demos for those songs, with a skeleton crew. Then, we sent this raw material to [producer] Bryden Baird (Feist), who added sonic colours and a few other instruments sprinkled here and there, like the trumpet and percussion.”
Ribera’s trusted road companions, Jean-Sébastien Williams and Cédric Dind-Lavoie, then worked on the arrangements, and Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow), was tasked with the final mix.
The “making of” video for This Island can be viewed below, and on the homepage of her website, alejandraribera.com. From the opening, the stage is set, in the rural environment, the house; you wish you were there. What a way to set the table for such a feast.