Among the contenders of this year’s Polaris Music Prize, Braids’ Native Speaker (TMT Review) represents an interesting position. Braids built the album on a mix of Lush-style shoegaze, baroque reminiscent of Broken Social Scene’s seminal You Forgot It In People, even a bit of the dream pop redolent of Animal Collective’s Feels. But what makes it stand out is Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s bold lyrics: She portrays an honest, sexually enlightening take on transitioning into adulthood and isn’t afraid to talk about relationships as they are rather than as she wants them to be. While Braids would lose out to mainstream icons Arcade Fire, the fact that their debut made enough impact to make the shortlist should not be understated.
But the response to the album was not always positive, particularly to the lyrics. Prior to the gala in Toronto, TMT spoke with Ms. Standell-Preston about the success of the album, but more importantly about the notion of dealing with adulthood and sexuality.
First off, congrats on making the shortlist. I was hoping to interview you after the Polaris Prize presentation thing, but I guess this’ll do. How do you feel about being selected?
Good. [Laughs] In terms of the feeling I get, I feel good. But perhaps more on an intellectual level, I feel very grateful that I have more of a place in the Canadian music scene, and more of a recognized place. I feel like people have understood the album, and gotten a lot from it.
I remember first seeing you some time ago at NXNE in Toronto. I recall you being sick or something at that particular show. What exactly happened?
Oh! I got food poisoning. I went to a barbecue, and I don’t know if it was just because it was really hot outside, because I know one other person felt sick too. But I just started vomiting, it came out of both ends, and I felt really sick and had the shakes. But I had a bucket on stage, and the show must go on. It was fine! [Giggles]
It felt really interesting to play music in a really intense physical or emotional situation, such as being sick, being really sad, or being really happy. It was a very intense performance for me, because I was trying to keep it together and was focusing a lot on my body because I was sick. So yeah, it was interesting.
Well, I’ll have you know that, while in the crowd, a couple people had said, “If she projectile vomits, we’ll applaud to that.”
Yes! [Laughs] That’s what I hope for.
I also recall loving you guys despite the fact that I’m pretty certain the engineer failed to provide output for your guitars. Another man in the crowd mentioned you had similar issues previously, only without keys. Is this a common problem with playing live?
No, it’s not usually a problem. Definitely, in some venues, bigger venues especially, it’s very difficult to have a band with the amount of inputs and complexity that we have. We’re not an easy band to mix: Katie [Lee] will be playing the keyboards, and it will be coming through Taylor [Smith’s] guitar amp because Taylor is taking Katie’s output and running a bunch of effects through it. So it switches all the time, and the engineer is getting signals from all these different places and he’ll be all, “I don’t understand why this keyboard is coming out of this amp,” because we rarely have time to perform a line check and explain all these little effects to him.
So it just depends, I guess. I feel the younger engineers are really excited for our setup and usually really on top of it, just because they’re kind of new, or they understand new music better: Not just bass, guitar, drum, and vocals. There is a lot of filtering, or vocals or guitars with effects. They’re kind of more used to dealing with a new sound. Sometimes, when we have older sound guys, it is very difficult, because they like doing it the way they learned how to do it in the 70s or some other time.
But we’re going to be getting a sound engineer, probably not on this upcoming tour, but the tour after that. It’s definitely a big goal for us. Right now, we don’t really have the money for it yet, and I feel like we haven’t had enough time to find somebody that we’re comfortable with. These sound guys are with you every single day, and they have to fit in your group, especially a group like Braids, where the four of us are such good friends. It’s really, really difficult to introduce somebody new to the lineup. So, definitely not this trip but next trip.
“I’ve never been told to limit myself in terms of my self-expression. So I think I’ve been blessed in the sense that I know how to describe what I am feeling pretty well, and I know how to not twist it.”
Let’s talk a bit about Native Speaker. Continuing on the engineering theme, I’d honestly like to know: What equipment did you use to make something sound that good for $500? Or am I missing something?
The only thing that cost us $500 was getting it mastered and renting drum mics, and renting a snake to run from our jam space and recording area in another building to the studio in our house in Outremont, Montreal. But everything was done with our own stuff: The drums were done in a garage, and it took us about three months to record them, because me and Austin (Tufts) took a lot of time trying to figure out how to record drums and get a good drum sound. And the rest of the album was done multi-track, where I’d just plug my guitar directly. I was doing tons and tons of vocal takes, sometimes 200-300 takes for a 20-second section. We had this little section in the studio that sticks out, and that’s where the washing machine was. So we covered it with a blanket and foam, making it a really dead area. I had received a cheap Audio-Technica mic from my uncle a few years ago, and we used that for vocals.
So it wasn’t an extravagant recording by any means. We used what we had. What changed it and made it sound really professional was Logic [Pro]. I understand Logic to a certain extent. Taylor and I were both producing the record initially, and then Taylor just got super into it, and understood everything about Logic, so he became more of the producer for the project. He knew where the reverbs needed to fit, where the delays needed to fit, and he became very skilled with mixing it. It started to take form in a natural way, and it took a really long time, and it took a lot of patience…
So the primary resource was time.
Yeah, for sure. We didn’t have a lot of time, which is why it took so long. Austin, Katie, and Taylor were all in school, and I was working and playing shows all over Montreal, meeting people in the Music Scene, so to speak. We didn’t have that much time, but we tried to pull our weight, putting in 10 hours a day, and even after school.
Also, I hear a lot of different influences in your vocals, the most obvious that springs to mind being Avey Tare. But, there is something else there. What could you tell us about that?
Well, I think it’s something that I try to embody, even with Native Speaker without even knowing it. During Native Speaker, I was learning how to sing and what my voice could do, and I didn’t understand my own personal style that well. But a lot of it was about obtaining urgency in my voice: Feeling an emotion, learning how to access it, and convey that motion through my voice. So that was a big inspiration for me, and that inspiration was brought on by Björk and Karen O, two women I look up to greatly. They have this sense of urgency, and how they convey emotions that you would look past in a normal day. Like, say, feeling sleepy in a line, and just going on that feeling and singing a line that is making you feel like you felt in the grocery store where you were feeling very sleepy in line, and you were feeling a little bit impatient because people were taking so long.
For me, it’s a lot about accessing emotions and showing them through my voice. Definitely in the last little tour, I’ve been working on my range a lot more. I don’t have any particular artist in my range. Again, Björk, because I think she is the most talented artist of our time. I mean, I’ve read from more classical composers on how they think she is more talented than most opera singers in terms of her arrangement and range, and her variance on the voice. But other artists that really influenced Native Speaker are Karen O and Avey Tare. Panda Bear a little bit, because I really like how his really long notes sound. But those were the main influences.
“I don’t think in the album I’m upset with becoming an adult. I think I’m attacking boys, and the idea of relationships.”
You’ve talked quite a bit about this album being a sort of life transition for you. Could you go into more detail about this?
Sure. The record was recorded in Calgary and in Montreal. The idea for the album occurred while in Montreal, after having moved there. That period was filled with transition and a life change for us. This is especially because it was like moving into a new city when you’ve turned 18 or 19. I had turned 19 when I moved to Montreal. It was just a time of change, and the recording happened while that change was going on. And I think that the change we were experiencing in our life became a part of the album.
You seem to be a bit critical of the notion of adulthood in general, at least from what I hear. Is this more a discomfort with such a transition, or is there something else to it?
Hmm, that’s a very interesting question. Could you describe to me an example, or what the notion of adulthood would be?
Well, listening to the album today, one thing that springs to mind is “Plath Heart,” and it sounds like you are concerned with the potential of motherhood, the whole “golden hole” verse in particular. I feel like such lyrics express a certain discomfort.
No, not at all. That lyric is definitely about the beauty of childhood. Basically, what that song is about is, at the time, I was a frustrated teen or young adult, and I was having my fair share of relationships and some of them were really frustrating and some were great. I think in that particular relationship, I just found it to be very limiting on me. There was a lot of control in the relationship and stuff like that. And basically, it’s like [starts humming the song and clapping the beat]…as graphic as it may be, a lyric like “Then it slides like the golden baby/ With my dark hair eating men like thin air.”
It’s basically about exploring your sexuality and having a baby. [Laughs] It sounds like such a good joke. But I mean, it’s like delivering a child without knowing who the father is. It’s the experience and process of having a child, and being solitary in the fact that you are a woman, and once you have a child and the child is inside of you, you don’t need the man at all. You needed the man for that one instance, but then you can go on raising it in your own way.
But that’s really just a part of the lyrics there. The song more so pertains to being frustrated in a trapped relationship, and perhaps being a little upset with men. I don’t think in the album I’m upset with becoming an adult. I think I’m attacking boys, and the idea of relationships. Definitely at that time, I was a little skeptical of monogamy. But as I’ve grown older, I have learned how to treat people, and now I’m in a very serious relationship with a boy as my partner for about three years now, and I understand how to be kind to people, and how to be giving, and how to make sacrifices. A lot of Native Speaker was about finding that for me, and finding that peace, being with someone you really care about and treating them really well. I guess that is what you were aiming at with your question: When you come into adulthood, that’s when you learn all these things.
Going back to sexuality, there is an overwhelming element of straightforward, ordinary sexuality in this album, straight from the start. The lyrics and delivery sound perverse at times, but in a positive, confident way.
Yeah, very much so.
What brought about that?
Well, my friends or my family definitely never limited me. I’ve never been told to limit myself in terms of my self-expression. So I think I’ve been blessed in the sense that I know how to describe what I am feeling pretty well, and I know how to not twist it. I am pretty good at telling it how it is, and I think that’s what my poetry is like. And at that point, I was having a really good time discovering my sexuality in the grand scheme of things. Of course, some relationships were bad, but I was definitely enjoying my life, and enjoying what I was doing.
Looking back on that time, I was doing some wrong things. But at that time, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong. I always felt like I had the upper hand in relationships that I had or just in life in general. I felt pretty good about what I was doing. Perhaps that is the reason for not negging on myself in those kinds of situations. In Native Speaker there is a lot of blaming the other people because the other people are doing the wrong thing. I know that, after Native Speaker, I went into a very dark time in my life where I was just reevaluating the person that I was and the way I treated people. While Native Speaker was going on, I really didn’t have that second voice in my mind telling me that perhaps the way in which I was living my life wasn’t very wholesome.
That may be one of the reasons that, in the way you described it, that I wasn’t attacking the situations themselves in the lyrics. So I hope that makes sense to you with that big explanation. [Laughs] I never talked to anyone about the lyrics or my life as much. Nobody ever asked. I definitely haven’t had to articulate it too often.
“But I just started vomiting, it came out of both ends, and I felt really sick and had the shakes. But I had a bucket on stage, and the show must go on.”
Yeah, I mean, the big thing for me is that, one of the big things I have discussed with my friends is that, especially in America, there is this large overall discomfort with the very notion of human sexuality. As a consequence, a lot of the things that you can say are awful about our culture, including the commodification of sexuality or the use of explicit pop songs or billboard advertising or whatever, I feel they exist because we can’t make sexuality this ordinary thing. We have to make it extraordinary, which to me is ridiculous and silly. So that’s why I asked about that: You have a completely different perspective on that, which I admire. It’s rare to see something like this coming from a female vocalist.
Well, thank you. I got ratted on a lot for Native Speaker, and it really hurt my feelings when it first started happening. People were taking away from the album that all it was is, “She has a trucker’s mouth.” Oh, because I said the F-word a couple times? I felt like what my mother had been [saying] for years was something like, “You can say absolutely anything as a man and get away with it.” Now, I don’t think like that, but it definitely felt a little bit like that when Native Speaker came out. As a girl who was talking about sex, I was just ragged on immediately. Getting mad, I really had to step back and think “Okay, those folks are definitely not getting it. It’s okay to say the F-word a couple times throughout the album.” This one critic was saying how the lyrics are of me being horny, or something like that. Come on! We’ve all had sex now, and we’ve all had boyfriends and girlfriends; be a little bit more honest to yourself. Most people enjoy having sex.
It’s just kind of frustrating. I actually felt kind of slutty after reading some of the reviews, and I thought, “Oh, I’m not that kind of person.” I thought I was describing it in a really creative and beautiful artistic way. Like with the song “Native Speaker” is about being a good person and loving them really wholesomely. People definitely missed that a lot, and they just couldn’t accept it and saw it as, “OK, this is a young teenage girl who is very angry, is having sex, and likes swearing.” It definitely hurt my feelings. But now, I’ve come to terms with it, accepting that people might interpret the album that way, and realize they didn’t put their thinking cap on.
You definitely point out a major hypocrisy in rock music that still exists. I mean, the riot grrrl movement tried to address it, but I don’t think that people got the message, in that there’s still this appropriation of gender roles going on…
Well the reason is, especially with the riot grrrl movement to me, is that you cannot be a regular enough girl. You have to be a riot grrrl, you have to be out there and flamboyant. There’s a whole image and a whole personality that goes with a lot of feminist movements throughout history. Like in rock music, with your Ra Ra Riot and your Le Tigres in that you see them painting mustaches on them, they’re kind of being a little obvious about it and they’re boxing themselves in as being really different. Whereas for me, being feminine and sometimes being a feminist means being as womanly as I want to be and as sexual as I want to be. In other words, trying to be a normal person, but also OK with being a woman and accepting myself, and not trying to separate myself from men, or separate myself from prissy women that a lot of feminist girls would look down on.
I mean, my mom wears a lot of make up, and she is one of the most feminist girls I know. She talked to me about that a lot during my time at University: Telling about how she would go to Uni with a little make up and her hair all done up, she would be wearing nice clothing. And everyone would be scoffing at her: For my mom, to fit in with the feminists at the time, she had to have a certain type of image of a short haircut and glasses. Because she was a made-up woman, nobody really listened to her points. So I guess what I try to do is be as regular as possible and not put myself into one of those boxes. But, of course, everyone expresses their femininity and their dislike of inequality in their own way, and if some people feel comfortable by expressing themselves with a group of people, then that’s totally fine.
You covered a lot there, especially what I wanted to discuss, so there’s that. In any case, what are your plans with the Polaris, should you win it?
We’ll probably put the money into the next record, or see if we need money for the next record, or something like that. I don’t know! [Laughs] I think we’ll make the best of it. If we win, it means that we mean a lot of things to Canadian music, and that’s great. But it’s already put us more on the map as a Canadian band and doing something for Canadian culture. I mean, it’ll be great if we won, but if another band wins, then that’s fine.
[Photo: Marc Rimmer]