La Force, Ariel EngleHalf a decade after her debut solo album, singer-songwriter Ariel Engle relaunches her La Force project with XO Skeleton, a collection of nine exploratory pop songs that deal shamelessly with family and death. “This album ponders the meaning of life and how we still love those who’ve left us,” says the Montréal musician, on the phone from Geneva for the final concert of her European tour, opening for Patrick Watson.

Located in the heart of the album’s tracklist, the title track opens with these lines: ‘God forbid you should die’/ The life insurance broker said to me / I said, There’s one thing guaranteed / It’s that no god or goddess can keep me alive.” “Sounds like the opening lines of a country song,” laughs Engle, “or the beginning of a joke. It sets the scene; it’s very concrete.

“And it really happened that way,” she continues. “I don’t have a life insurance anymore because I think it’s ridiculous, but I’d signed up for one back then to give my mom peace of mind. I was on the phone with the company’s rep, and she literally said, ‘God forbid you should die.’ I then I said to myself, ‘Why don’t we talk about death? Is it taboo, even in your line of work?’ I have a hard time with that type of hypocrisy.”

Engle herself had to tackle the subject, with great honesty, after the recent death of her father. “The inevitable happened, as it does,” she says. “He’s no longer with us, but I still have the protection of the love he gave me all his life. That’s what gives me strength to this day: having been loved. Ultimately, no one is protected from death. We just need to accept that it will happen.

“I hold my daughter, I give her kisses, it becomes a sort of protection ritual,” just as her dear dad did for her. “That’s the double meaning of the album’s title, XO Skeleton,” she says. The exoskeleton, a shell that protects us from life’s vagaries, an armour “built from kindness and love,” she says.

Grieving oozes out of XO Skeleton, but so does reassurance, a feeling that is impossible to dissociate from Engle’s singing style. Her voice is beautiful, soft, and sensual, which allows her to bridge indie pop and soul. “What I offer people with La Force is my most standard and accessible music,” she says. “What I mean is that if I let my curiosity dictate where I’m going musically, it’d be a lot more left-field. The album has very sweet moments, hooky choruses, and the way I sing just comes naturally.”

Engle is also a member of Toronto’s Broken Social Scene collective, and she also co-founded the duo All Hands Make Light with composer and multi-instrumentalist Efrim Menuck, himself one of the co-founders of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The latter released, in the Spring of 2023, a splendid debut album of experimental pop, Darling the Dawn. “What I like about that project,” says Engle, “is that it sounds fresh. It’s a beautiful marriage between two people who come from different musical backgrounds. We create something we both like, but it’s still something hybrid, that’s interesting because nothing else sounds like it.”

La Force, Ariel Engle, XO Skeleton

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the La Force song “xo skeleton”

One can hear trace amounts of that project in XO Skeleton’s orchestrations. It’s undoubtedly less noisy and dazzling, but just as curious of the kind of sonic landscapes that can be explored outside of the realm of songs. Splashes of jazz, folk, and electronic music also colour the album, which was produced by Warren Spicer (Plants & Animals). “Warren was very patient with me,” says Engle. “We tried a ton of things while we were in the studio, and I kept what I vibed with. I don’t have any kind of formal musical training, so my creative process is always instinct-based, and that can also be a big downfall.”

Her songwriting process follows the same instinctive path. “The lyrics and the music come at the same time,” says Engle. “I almost always work with the same M.O.: I start with an old ‘80s beatbox, and play one of the pre-programmed beats, say, Samba or Rock 2. I pick one I like at that moment, and I start composing, generally with my guitar, my cigar box, or on a keyboard. I’m constantly collecting song fragments, so when I sit down to compose, not everything is entirely new. There’s always a part of me that already knows what I want to express in a song.”

One exception to that rule is the album closer, “Outrun the Sun,” “the one that clashes with the rest of the album,” according to Engle The song was entirely improvised and recorded in a single take, based on a text written by her husband, musician and poet Andrew Whiteman. “That song points in the more experimental direction into which I feel like going,” she says, before sharing that she’s already planning to get back in the studio very soon to record an EP.