Culture & Conversation

A battle cry for Canadian folk music

olenka

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers is a difficult band to describe. Visually, the group reminds you of Newfoundland’s Hey Rosetta!, fully equipped with six members and a string selection. But their sound is quite different, and the London, Ontario-based band really crosses the gambit on tone and style. Officially, they’re classified as indie-folk, but the brass horns and waltz-y sounds heard on all three albums leads the listener to question where exactly Olenka and the Autumn Lovers fall within the Canadian music scene. I caught up with frontwoman Olenka Krakus to discuss the diverse sounds and stories that pervade the band’s music.

Your albums tend to include two very distinct sounds. We hear major contrasts between “Ballad of a Lonely Bear” and “Iron Pump” (from 2008’s Olenka and the Autumn Lovers) and “Odessa” and “Motel Blues” (And Now We Sing, 2010). How important is it that these sounds meet and that your listeners experience this type of distinction on the same album?

It’s very important. In terms of my creative experience, I don’t feel limited by genres and I would say that I am more inspired by my environment than anything else. I really enjoy exploring similar themes within a lot of different types of music. Many of our songs deal with characters that are brought to life through the sounds of a lot of different instruments, and this is our way to have people explore human experiences through sound. This really speaks to how similar our experiences are…I enjoy creating startling contrasts in order to force the listener to recognize some obvious similarities.

Is it also a way to bring together both your European and Canadian backgrounds?

Yeah, definitely. That was something I was consciously exploring on the first album, and now I find that it has become a point of inspiration that has carried over in all of my writing. My Polish background constantly puts me in a state of nostalgia and I catch myself almost romanticizing the setting that is tied to all of the songs and melodies that I heard as a young child. My Canadian upbringing led me to embrace country and folk music, but I was also very much interested in the punk aesthetic. So the cross between country/folk and punk left me interacting with louder, more politicized music while also embracing music that deals with love and loss. But I like to acknowledge the similarities between both of my backgrounds. Polish music includes aspects of intense politics and the folk-blues songs are told from the perspective of an individual caught up in a political environment. Even though the individual is the focus, what’s going on in the periphery is really important, and more often than not it’s embedded in a very dense political context.

You guys bring in a lot of brass and string instruments. How do think that challenges the typical folk sound?

As far as the overall sound of Canadian music, especially in terms of the larger collective bands, our arrangements don’t challenge anything so much because classically inspired bands have been around for decades. But in terms of the folk genre, and in particular with the singer-songwriter sounds, the typical arrangement tends to be guitar and bass, so I suppose the strings and brass that we use can definitely be distinguished from that.

I’m a big fan of Baroque and of classical instruments and larger arrangements. I love the way that classical composers like Bach will compose for individual instruments, and in a lot of those pieces you get to hear the intricacies of instruments. This forces us to explore instruments as voices, so they are not there to simply compliment a chord, but they stand individually. A lot of it also comes down to how much I loved the Beatles when I was young. I would sing [along with] the string melodies more than the vocal melody because each sound really stands alone.

Even though I don’t know how to play any of these instruments myself, I have a real sense of their power. The sound of the cello is so similar to the human voice and it is so intense that it acts as an entirely separate vocalist. The brass instruments are closely tied to military music and they give off this sort of rally cry. We really enjoy bringing these elaborate arrangements into folk music because it brings up emotional relationships musically rather than just in the lyrics.

There’s this preconception that folk music almost exclusively deals with either landscape or love. But we got a lot of political history in your songs. How do you think that challenges what people expect to hear when they listen to your albums for the first time?

I see folk music as the music of the people. There is a long history of what constitutes as folk music. You find songs about exploring personal relationships and family and community dynamics. We heard Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan writing political songs and then later exploring their personal voices. For me, it’s always about the personal voice in a political context and I guess that’s because I believe our environment dictates our values, whether we are aware of it or not. In my songs I want to explore the ideologies that influence a character just as much as the emotions they are emitting.

The present day folk music audience is not challenged by a lot of folk musicians now. A lot of people have this idea of how folk is supposed to sound musically and so they focus on mastering those sounds. When it comes to the content, a lot of them spend most of their time talking about themselves and their love affairs. There are so many songwriters that are very self-involved and all we get is love song after love song.

Can you name a few?

Laughs – No, rather than point my finger or mention names, I prefer to respond with a creative act. If you want to challenge this tradition, which is what I hope to do, you have to expect the audience to want more by giving them more. What we should be doing is not base our focus on the investigation of the self but also on the investigation of community. One of the best ways to do that is to let people see through the eyes of a character, which pushes them to rethink or renegotiate how they understand the world to be working. “Mama’s Bag” kind of does that in a way because you don’t quite know who the speaker is so you have to explore the context. You’re left questioning the family dynamics, which leads you to think about the political context.

Some of your songs are told as if they’re old fairy tales, which is a very interesting form of songwriting. How did that start?

It was something I ended up consciously exploring on the first album with “A Story of the Forging of Little Olek’s Social Realist Spirit”, which is not just a song about an Eastern European setting, but a song about storytelling and storytellers. I think for me, it’s a matter of continuing a tradition and the lineage between folk tales and folk songs and how these folk narratives exist. I don’t think that a lot of those folk stories are necessarily for children, and I like to extend that by putting intense histories in a child-like setting. These fairy tales that we heard as kids are so crucial to how we view society and they really shape our ideas at a very impressionable time. The idea is to try to recreate that sense of storytelling in order to elicit a sense of nostalgia, and of wonder and magic. Once we elicit that relationship with the audience, we couple the child-like form with very adult-themes that bring up questions of ethics, morals and politics.

What do you think about the Canadian folk music scene as it stands?

I think there are a lot of overtly talented musicians in the folk scene and in the Canadian music scene in general. I definitely don’t think that enough of intellectual engagement is available in the music I hear. I like being intellectually challenged and I find there are a lot of simple themes and cliché imagery.  Even a lot of the song structures and melodies give off a very simplistic message. I don’t know if I can fault the community for that because it’s real and the community responds to it. I mean, clichés exist because they’re true. But you can’t blame a musician for being taught to play music in a way that has been the same forever. There a lot of people that act as critics and they don’t have enough of a discernable background to really contribute to any sort of shift in the music scene. I think that’s the responsibility of the critical community to descend quality from mediocrity.

 

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers will be performing at Divan Orange this Friday, October 14. To win a pair of tickets, visit Rover’s Facebook page and ‘Like’ the post about this article.
For ticket info, visit
Indie Montreal.


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