There’s much to enjoy on her second release as folk noir gives way to the natural world.
The horns are a surprise. And a treat. Twice on her evocative new album, Getaway, Toronto artist Abigail Lapell is joined by the instruments. Rebecca Hennessey plays trumpet on the gentle, mournful Sparrow for a Heart and the more raucous Little Noise, while Tom Richards’s trombone adds even more texture to the latter tune.
The horns are a surprise because they’re not what you’d associate with Lapell’s personality-laden folk noir style, which netted the singer/songwriter/guitarist a Canadian Folk Music Award (Contemporary Album) for her sophomore record, Hide Nor Hair, in 2017.
On the other hand, the instruments are of a piece with the bigger, more embroidered elements in the new record, elements that Lapell offsets smartly with touches of minimalism. “I like having that balance on the record,” she says. “I had more funding and more flexibility to bring in horns, and there’s just so many players compared to stuff I’ve done in the past. That gave me a lot of freedom."
“I like to sing loud,” she continues, “and sometimes that feels disproportionate to a solo performance. It’s nice to have the energy match the emotional intensity I feel at times.”
Lapell’s sonic expansion on the new album also owes a debt to two artist residencies at the Banff Centre during 2018.
Being surrounded in Banff by everyone from electro-acoustic artists to jazz composers positively impacted her work, giving her an opportunity to get outside of her own head and to be inspired by the ambient eclecticism.
The Banff Centre wound up contributing a player to Getaway as well. Cellist Peggy Lee, a faculty mentor, plays on the album’s closing track, Shape of a Mountain. Written in the Rockies, it’s a haunting track, one that blends images of both isolation and self-sufficiency as Lapell’s voice—which has been fairly likened to Natalie Merchant’s and even Sandy Denny’s—is first chilly and distant like the mountain peaks then warms and opens as it moves down to the foothills and out through the surrounding valley.
Lee’s cello, along with the violin of Aline Homzy, lends a cinematic touch, underscoring Lapell’s musical exploration of the cold, warmth, and mystery that shape both nature and the human heart.
That cinematic quality comes naturally to Lapell. For a long time, she wanted to be a filmmaker and used to shoot Super-8 and 16-mm film. She says that, growing up, she drew a lot and made “weird animations,” skills that she has applied by designing the album cover for Getaway, creating promotional postcards for the record and shooting a video for the track Down by the Water.
Creative bounty informed the new album in other ways. She expanded her coterie of players to include folks such as Christine Bougie (Bahamas) on lap steel and Jake Oelrichs (Run With the Kittens) on drums.
Over the past couple of years, she’s also had the happy dilemma of a large catalogue of unrecorded material. “It’s almost become a problem because you don’t want to leave anything on the cutting-room floor,” she says, adding half-facetiously, “Maybe I should give them away to people.”
If sonic expansion, new accompanists, and a boatload of material have helped defined the excellent Getaway, so has nature. Unlike the horns, that’s no surprise to those who know Lapell’s music, where the natural world courses through many of her songs.
“I had lots of mandatory nature activities that I did not enjoy growing up, but now they’re my best memories of childhood,” she says. “My dad would take us camping and cross-country skiing. When my dad died (a decade ago), it became kind of an obsession; I wanted to do canoe trips all the time and go camping.”
On the new album, nature informs not just the title but entire songs such as Down by the Water. Singer Dana Sipos joins Lapell on the tune, which has echoes of traditional folk (“Where will you go my darling daughter? / Down the river like baby Moses?”), a melody and rhythm like flowing water, and acoustic guitar notes that suggest, variously, bird song, sun sparkling on the river, and falling tears.
“Down by the Water is inspired by renewal, so it’s a hopeful song,” she says. “But it’s also a little dark because in the spring there’s lot of rot and garbage you have to get through before you can get to whatever’s coming.”
Sparrow for a Heart is similarly rooted in nature. A gorgeous, impressionistic tune, it opens simply with just Lapell’s guitar, synth flute, and voice, eventually thickens in texture with Hennessey’s trumpet and Lapell’s own overdubbed voice, and ends on a single, quavering note that could be the flight of a small, departing bird.
“It’s a bit of a dirge to me,” says Lapell. “That image of a sparrow for a heart: I picture a bird that’s a vulnerable little creature.”
There’s much more to enjoy on Getaway: snatches of southern rock on Devil in the Deep; accordion on Runaway; and Lapell’s piano on Leningrad, a tune which, despite her aversion to interpreting lyrics, she says is loosely based on the life of Lyudmila Putin, the former wife of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The entire album, says Lapell, “revolves around the idea of getting away. I like the tension because a getaway could be relaxing like a vacation or it could be getting away from the scene of the crime, that sinister vibe.” It could also be getting away to the unearthly, as in the eerie, swirling UFO Song with its X-Files sound. It was inspired by a fellow she met in Saskatchewan who claimed to have had a supernatural experience.
“We played a show at his barn and it was full of UFO paraphernalia and art. I thought it was kitschy and funny but as the night wore on, it (became clear) it wasn’t just a joke to them. “You feel so vulnerable being out in the middle of that flat, endless horizon. The image of that prairie sky filling with the light of a UFO, I thought it was a cool image. I feel there’s a very universal instinct to be looking into the night sky and searching for something.”