Land of Talk: A long way from home

It's taken relentless touring and three different line-ups but the Canadian trio Land of Talk are finally getting heard. Lead singer Elizabeth Powell shares all with Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture

"There have been times when I've felt a long way from home, and close to the edge. But then something good happens. You play a great show or write a good lyric, and you think to yourself, 'OK, this is why I'm here. Let's do this'."

Elizabeth Powell, the 27-year-old singer and driving force behind the Canadian indie-rock trio Land of Talk, is recalling the occasions when she has considered abandoning her career. Life can certainly be tough in a fledgling band, with the endless touring, the separation from loved ones, and the uncertainty of whether any of it will pay off. Lucky for Land of Talk, then, that they are finally starting to get the appreciation they deserve. Their debut EP, Applause Cheer Boo Hiss, was released to widespread acclaim last month, while word is gradually getting around about their incendiary live shows.

According to fans, the main reference points for Land of Talk are Cat Power and PJ Harvey, although recent comparisons to indie hipsters du jour Rilo Kiley seem closer to the mark. Applause Cheer Boo Hiss, described by one critic as "a seven-song punch to the gut", is a work of rare assurance, combining muscular college rock with stripped-down indie pop. Powell comes with a distinctive voice that can veer from an enraged wail to a melancholic murmur in the blink of an eye.

In the flesh, Powell is similarly charismatic at once determined and thoughtful, and fiercely protective of her craft. She grew up in Guelph, Ontario, the daughter of a liberal mother who has the distinction of being North America's first female alligator wrestler, though she now works as a psycho-geriatric consultant. "She just had this placating technique with alligators that turned into a bit of a sideshow," explains Powell. "She just tickled its belly and it went to sleep. It wasn't like she was in the ring in a bikini, wrestling it to the floor!"

It was with a similar fearlessness that Powell took her first steps towards a musical career at just four years old, learning the violin after hearing the violinist Stphane Grappelli on the radio, though later ditching it at high school in favour of the considerably cooler bass guitar.

On leaving school, Powell moved to Montreal to study music at Concordia University. "I hated it. They made me do all these theory courses when I had already learnt about music on my own terms. At that stage, I was too old to have any patience with it. For a while, I moved into sound engineering, but then just dropped out altogether."

At the same time, Powell was playing the Montreal circuit as a solo artist, but she struggled to stand out amid the swathes of "coffee-house girls with guitars". Salvation arrived in 2004 in the form of a drummer, Bucky Wheaton, who had seen Powell perform and was looking to start a band. The pair bonded instantly over their admiration for Fugazi, Nirvana, Ben Folds and Weezer. They were joined by the bass player Blake Barkell to form Land of Talk, and almost immediately headed out on tour, stopping only to make their debut EP on a meagre $1,000 budget. "I would arrive in the studio with what sounded like a folk song, and then Bucky and Blake would put their mark on it. We would have two or three, or even four, versions of each song and we would eventually settle on one that worked. It would be a chemical mixture of everything."

Land of Talk relied on word of mouth and relentless touring across Canada and the United States to build an audience. Bloggers went into overdrive singing the praises of this new Montreal band. Early in 2006, the band finally signed a contract with the small label Maple Music, and, a few months later, with One Little Indian in Europe. "I've been blessed with the best label in terms of flexibility and enthusiasm for what it does," says Powell. "One Little Indian has Bjrk, which in my view is a great reference point as she's an artist who works entirely on her own terms. As far as I'm concerned, there is a huge advantage in not signing to a major label. At the smaller record companies, you get to work with people who actually care about the music that you make, and not the amount you sell."

There are elements to being a working musician, however, about which Powell is less enthusiastic. Since she began touring, for instance, she has found it impossible to write songs. "When everything started happening for us, it was both a blessing and a curse. The attention was great but it was like a conspiracy to ensure that I would never be alone ever again. I'm not interested in just churning out the next album. I guess I don't want it that bad. Now I've come to realise that I have to make a rule with everyone I work with that I have to take some time out, every now and then, just to write."

Powell isn't the only member of the band to suffer from the rigours of live performance. Following a gruelling tour culminating in a show at the South By Southwest festival in Texas, Wheaton decided that the cost to his personal life was too great and announced that he was quitting. "It was sad, but I could totally understand where he was coming from," says Powell. "Being on the road is the most draining thing I've ever done in my life. You're not being paid, you're not seeing your family. There's no point at the end of the day where you get to go home and unwind. On a human level, it's not natural. If you're not interested in developing an alcohol or drug addiction, it's pretty tough. You've got to have a strong constitution or it takes its toll."

Powell is clearly a sensitive soul but one senses a steely core. While she says that the business side of life in a band doesn't appeal, she's not afraid of doing a little hiring and firing when the situation demands it. Land of Talk has already had three bass players in its short life (the latest is Chris McCarron, and Wheaton has been replaced by Eric Thibodeauon on drums). "I think I have high expectations of people," says Powell. "I need that chemistry and I don't want to have to always explain what I want in the studio. I'm also not very good at pretending that things are OK when they're not. If it doesn't work then you have to change things."

It's still early days for Land of Talk. Certainly, the money has yet to start rolling in. Powell is still paying her mother the money she loaned her daughter to record the album, and currently subsists on a 15 a day. But despite her hand-to-mouth existence and the band's ever-changing line-up, she is optimistic about the future. The next album is already written and ready for release next year.

"Maybe things aren't how I expected them to be, but I've learnt a lot in the last few years," she reflects. "I've realised that I really do know what I want now, and I know how close I am. The fact that I'm giving interviews in London and talking about the album that I've made is amazing. To have got this far is pretty cool."

'Applause Cheer Boo Hiss' is out now on One Little Indian; Land of Talk will be touring the UK in February (