Four years after Sun Leads Me On, which opened the gates to Europe, Montréal-based quartet Half Moon Run is poised to release its third album – one that will become, whether the band likes it or not, a test. Will A Blemish in the Great Light be the vessel through which the title prophecy becomes true, namely, to break into the American market and headline an arena tour? After all, they only need one big radio hit… “That’s exactly what our label’s people tell us,” says HMR’s Devon Portielje.
“I hope it doesn’t sound too dry when I say it, but what we’re after is good songwriting,” continues Portielje, Half Moon Run’s main composer, singer, guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist. He adds, to flesh out his statement, “Does our songwriting evoke the right emotions? Is the listener quickly bored by what they’re hearing? It’s a very delicate balance between a song that’s just repetitive enough for people to remember, and a song no one will remember.”
And that’s why, he goes on, “we rehearse our songs tirelessly, play them live and endlessly re-record them before we release them on an album; we want to eliminate anything superfluous and focus on the more emotional sections… [I write] 95% of the songs, but I often ask Conner [Molander, multi-instrumentalist] to choose between two lines in a verse, and he has the last word. I write on guitar and piano; mainly on guitar, because I’m not as talented on piano. I’ll often transpose a guitar melody on the piano to see what effect it has on it, and how it sometimes provokes new chord ideas.” The ideal scenario occurs when Devon already has a verse or two, a chorus, a melody, and then the rest of the band grabs that proto-song and fleshes it out with arrangements and rhythms.
Half Moon Run is currently touring Europe, but the band has never actually stopped touring since the guys spent the whole summer testing new material on their audience. Half the songs on A Blemish in the Great Light, for which the recording was completed last spring, have been played live. “It’s a critical phase of an album’s creative process, and it was much easier before we became popular,” says Portielje. “We played the songs on our first album extensively before recording them. People had no expectations since they didn’t know us. That’s how we test our material: ‘Ah! this passage of that song doesn’t seem to move the audience.’”
“I realized that when they were played on the radio, our recordings lacked depth; they came across as too soft.” — Devon Portielje of Half Moon Run
“I’m discovering that I’ve become a lot more unbiased about our songs when we’re playing them live,” says Portelje. “It’s very different from playing them in a rehearsal space. We can feel the energy level go up or down while we’re playing. After each show, we take about 15 minutes analyzing it, and how the public reacted to our songs.” One could venture the band’s fans have an influence on Half Moon Run’s songwriting, “but we could never say it officially, because of copyright issues,” laughs Portielje.
On A Blemish in the Great Light, Half Moon Run has adopted a more dazzling lyrical approach. “I remember being in a store at some point,” says Portelje, “and the radio was playing softly in the background… Then I thought someone had turned it off, but it was one of our songs playing. I realized that when they were played on the radio, our recordings lacked depth; they came across as too soft.” “Oomph-up the production” was the mission that HMR gave to veteran producer Joe Chiccarelli, who’s worked with the likes of Broken Social Scene, Eleni Mandell, The Strokes, Mika, White Stripes, and many more.
References to classic pop-rock songwriting are plentiful on this third offering, with many a tip of the hat to The Beatles and James Taylor, to name but a few. “Issac [Symonds, multi-instrumentalist] listened to a lot of soft-rock from the ’70s, we love that style of music,” says Portelje. “It’s very studious songwriting; there are thousands of influences and micro-references on the album, so it becomes hard to say one is more important than the other.
“Take [the single] ‘Favorite Boy,’ for example; I really wanted it to sound like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams.’ That drum sound! I found an old magazine article online, where the engineer who recorded ‘Dreams’ explained, and even provided a drawing of, how he set up and mic-ed the drum kit, and how he built plywood walls around it to give it a live sound. We tried and tried, but we couldn’t replicate that sound!”