“When I was younger, I constantly questioned my style; nowadays, I’ve understood that it’s when I don’t overthink it that I’m truly myself…” Leif Vollebekk is lucky: he only needed three albums to arrive at this fundamental revelation. Not that his previous albums were banal, for from it: Inland and North Americana, two ambient folk gems, earned him rave reviews here and in Europe, where he was when we reached him for this interview. Following a gig in Paris, he had just arrived in Brighton for more concerts, part of a tour alongside American singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov—“an amazing guy in the vein of Leonard Cohen”, says Vollebekk. Based on the reactions to Twin Solitude, his latest album released at the end of February, Vollebekk could easily headline his own tour, to which he says, “could be, but I like the idea of reaching an audience that’s not mine, plus being an opening act is a humbling experience.”
“The first take is always the best, because when I do a second one, it’s like I become the spectator of my own song.”
With his calm and delicate spoken voice, Vollebekk’s singing voice – often compared to that of Jeff Buckley – is surprisingly intense, with an elegant tremolo. His voice is agile and spontaneous, and its beauty is enhanced by a rough touch that he doesn’t try to polish off. “To me, the first take is always the best, because when I do a second one, it’s like I become the spectator of my own song,” says Vollebekk. “As a matter of fact, I end up kinda listening to my memory of that first take in my head. That’s when I start over-analyzing the song, and thinking about how to improve this part or that part of it: there was a nice crescendo here or a nice decrescendo there… Then you start copying yourself, and the original imperfect beauty of it fades away.”
Clearly, Vollebekk likes spontaneity. Indeed, the vast majority of Twin Solitude was recorded live with the whole band – and yes, indeed, almost entirely in one take. “I showed the chords to my musicians and we dove in,” he says. “Except for the strings, which were overdubbed – as well as “Vancouver Town” and “Elegy,” the sound of which I wasn’t satisfied with, and re-recorded in one quick session – I’ve always kept the free spirit of the first version.”
Vollebekk also uses this highly instinctive approach for his lyrics, which are much more impressionist than narrative. “The great Russian film director Andreï Tarkovsky once said something that made a big impression on me: my movies will never be symbolic, but always metaphoric,” says Vollebekk. “OK, I know it sounds pedantic to quote Tarkovsky, but it’s a way to express the fact that I want to create images and feelings, not messages. Words can have many meanings, and I don’t want to set their meaning.”
Although Vollebekk’s songs often seem to be floating in ether – and indeed, one of his songs is titled “Into the Ether” – they’re also often anchored in a specific territory: Telluride, Big Sky Country, Michigan, Vancouver… all places that can easily be located on the map of the mythical North Americana. “I don’t know where that’s from,” he says. “There were a lot on the first album and I tried to avoid that on the second, but it just came back on its own! It’s strange in a way, because I prefer songs about fleeting moments, yet moments that I can re-live every time I sing about them.”
Multiple meanings and evanescent sentiments are all well and good, but what about the album’s title, which – coming from a young man who sings in English, is from Montréal, but was raised in Ottawa by an Anglophone father and a Francophone mother – inevitably reminds us of the “two solitudes”? “I actually hadn’t thought about it at first, even though it’s part of who I am,” says Vollebekk. “In the rest of Canada, I feel really Francophone, and the reverse is also true. I’m very comfortable with my double identity.”
But no matter on what side of the linguistic fence he finds himself, Vollebekk has less chance of ending up alone.