The sun had just tucked in behind the buildings lining upper St-Laurent Blvd., Parc des Amériques – playing home to the St-Ambroise Fringe Festival – had emptied most of its occupants into the surrounding neighbourhood, and the weather had finally decided to play fair, rewarding this last evening of the Fringe with a beaut suitable for reflecting on the frenzy of the week previous.
A large group of performers, festival volunteers and assorted hangers-on sat happily, methodically killing their beers. Then from behind rose a voice, powerful and plaintive, and choirboy pure…
“Their shadows searching in the night/ streetlight people/ living just to find emotion/ hiding somewhere in the night…”
“Don’t stop believin’/ hold onto that feelin’/ streetlight people…”
It was Jake “Freekin’” Smith – singer and multi-instrumentalist for Montreal indie-folk-pop four-piece Lakes of Canada – singing and playing what looked to be the Floyd Landis of steroid-stuffed ukuleles. There were almost more tuning pegs than instrument. For this writer, the scene became one of the defining moments of the Fringe, and an enduring memory.
“Yeah, that was super fun,” laughs Smith. “We were drunk, too!”
The suped-up ukulele, it turns out, is properly called a “charango.”
“A charango is a South American instrument,” explains Smith. “It’s kind of like if a mandolin and a ukulele had a baby, ’cause it’s got doubled strings but it looks kind of like a ukulele. And it has nylon strings, not steel, but it’s got a weird tuning: G, C, E, A, E. And it’s not ascending, and it’s all within one octave.
“It’s really weird.”
Lakes of Canada are starting to get their game on in a big way. In addition to their first American tour – which will commence shortly, following dates in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal – the band’s five-song debut EP, Broken Mirrors, was released only two months ago (and has sold an impressive 400 copies, mostly off the stage, since), a FACTOR grant is being finalized, the band will begin work on a full-length album starting next month, and plans are already afoot for a major cross-Canada push early next year. This band’s ass would seem to have a fire beneath it…
“We started Lakes of Canada last August, and things took off pretty quickly,” says Smith. “But then I had some personal things that happened and I had to deal with that for four months. When I got back we basically decided that we want to tour this summer, we want to apply for a FACTOR grant, and we want to get our debut full-length out in the fall, so we said, ‘Let’s just do it.’”
In March they enrolled a new band member, began rehearsing three-to-four days a week, and started booking a boatload of shows. “We’re playing pretty regularly these days,” says Smith, “and we played our first festival at the Fringe. We just decided that this is what we really want to do. We have a sound that is marketable and that we can really get behind, and so we’re hitting the ground running.
“I think we’re fortunate in having what we have, and I don’t want to squander that.”
It will come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen the multi-talented Smith – who is naturally adept at all things strings – perform that he only picked up a guitar for the first time two years ago.
“I had played some pitched percussion, piano and clarinet before, but had never really found an instrument apart from vocals that really spoke to me. And then I picked up a guitar, bought one two days later, and was playing ’til my fingers bled. I was playing six hours a day for the first six months. And even now a slow day for me is two hours, and that’s on top of band practice.
“I’m really, really into stringed instruments in general.”
In terms of other musical training, the 26-year-old Smith draws on two decades of choral experience (he starting singing in choirs when he was six), youth orchestra and, er, band camp.
Band camp? (“This one time, at band camp…”)
“Oh yeah!” laughs Smith. “In fact, every member of the band went to band camp. We all have a classical music background, so we’re all big music nerds.” Speaking of which…
The aforementioned charango features prominently on compelling and propulsive new single Old Man, which sees the band moving away from the gentler, more introspective musings of the Broken Mirrors EP into territory that is decidedly more up tempo and upbeat. It’s a new direction born of rapid evolution.
“We’re always asking for feedback on our music,” says Smith. “When we first started we were a trio, didn’t have a lot of drums, and we were a bit quieter, a bit more mellow. And one of the big pieces of feedback that we got, based on a couple of tunes that had more of a driving beat, was that people said they wanted more of that, more of a beat and more of a catchy kind of hook to get people up. And as it turned out, it was a natural progression because that was the direction we were already going.
“We’re now calling ourselves choral-folk-pop. Or Simon and Garfunkel meets Fleet Foxes,” he laughs.
Lakes of Canada as part of Les Nuits de Montréal at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, performing with Deer Ashes, Dear and Anna Atkinson at Theatre Ste-Catherine (264 Ste-Catherine E.) tonight, June 30, at 9 pm