Puzzle Solving: Alvvays Interviewed

Molly Rankin on songwriting, 'Blue Rev' and loving the quiet life...

Sometimes bands just smash it right out of the park. Take Alvvays. Third album ‘Blue Rev’ landed last year, some five years after its predecessor. Yet the Canadian band seemed to use their time wisely – critics lined up to applaud it, fans swooned at their indie pop thrills, and a certain Belinda Carlisle was left enraptured.

Hitting the road, Alvvays played a batch of intimate UK tours, blending material from their self-titled debut and 2017’s ‘Antisocialites’ with their acclaimed third LP. This week they’re back in town, with the Canadian guitar pop hit squad set to hit a venue near you.

With Alvvays breezing back into London, Clash caught up with singer Molly Rankin to chat songwriting, finding some perspective on ‘Blue Rev’, and why a little nerves is always a good thing.

What are rehearsals like? Is it fastidious? Fun?

It’s fun! We like to be around each other and play the songs. We’re getting more comfortable with the record, too. Now we have a bunch of shows under our belts it’s like, muscle memory. You enjoy yourself more when you know how to play the songs! (laughs)

It removes the element of danger, though. Maybe that’s how jazz musicians operate?

I mean, that would be cool! It’s not something I’d ever be able to do. Our rehearsals are usually really long days.

So, the Alvvays jazz-fusion record is off the table.

If one of us did it, I’d say it would be Sheridan! (laughs)

Did the reception given to ‘Blue Rev’ give you a lot of confidence?

It helps to have a positive energy surrounding what you’re up to. In order to do what touring is, which is essentially… camping. I’m always just so blown away by people’s interest. I was not sure people would care if we re-emerged, so it’s a pleasant surprise and it really does help.

Have you been working on new ideas in the rehearsals?

Not so much in the live shows. A lot of ideas didn’t make the record, so a few ideas are floating around right now because we’re writing all the time. There are always new things.

I’ve already taken a couple of trips to different Ontario locations to be in my own solitary mode… failing loudly without annoying the neighbours. Alec is working all the time, and I’m always on the hunt for something with a hook.

Are you quite hard editors, then?

Yeah! But also this is our longest record. To be fair, the songs are two minutes long so maybe it’s not… sprawling. But yeah, we’re fastidious, and we’ve got a rigid editing process. Maybe too rigid at times. But also, some things we just didn’t get time to finish.

Do you feel songs have a specific time in your life? Sometimes you won’t be able to finish it but the song will click into place somewhere down the line?

Sometimes you can just plunk a chorus into a new idea that you’ve been listening to in your brain for a long time. It never sees the light of day and suddenly it makes sense. But also, we have songs that never quite turn into anything fruitful.

Love that expression: ‘plunk a chorus’!

It’s elegant, right?

Do you view music as building blocks? Are these like Lego pieces?

Yeah. That’s not to say it isn’t about emotion. Sometimes I get my back up about how much or how little things move around. Alec and I both look at making songs as being a puzzle. And the melodies and the stories and all of the little hooks they are designed to lift you emotionally, and usually it’s not used if it doesn’t do that. So all of the parts – whether they’re ungracefully plunked into different songs – they are all emotional shifts that can still resonate. That’s my strategy. I have all these melodies that make me feel something, and they can all move around while eliciting that response.

Were there any moments on ‘Blue Rev’ where you had to really stick to your guns?

There are so many of those! It’s really funny. I feel like I know what I want pretty much out of the gate, and there is this cycle that exists in Alec’s eyes of going down a certain road for the sake of going down it. And sometimes those quests go on for a full two days, and I’ll be sitting there like: we need to stop! Having said that, there’s a few roads we went down that I’m grateful for. It’s not a heavy thing, but I usually know how something is going to end up early on. Sometimes you have to go through that process before everyone else knows it.

Is that one of the great things about songwriting as collaboration?

Oh yeah, I love having an editor! And I know Alec does, too. It’s great having someone to bark at you, when you’re laying down tapes beside someone who is more outwith it all than you. I love yelling ideas to Alec – just little ideas. We’re in the position where if we do that, it’s not hurtful or scary, it’s just creativity.

‘Barking’ and ‘plunking’ – the Alvvays story! On a different note, how do you look after your voice on the road?

The songs – now – have such a wide range vocally for me, that I really just don’t talk as much as I used to during the day. I don’t subscribe to any routine other than knowing what’s right for me, and to just eliminate any unnecessary communication. I don’t like tea or anything like that, it doesn’t really help.

Is that one of the benefits of working with people you know so well? They can instinctively give you their space.

I think everyone appreciates that. We do such a long soundcheck – I usually soundcheck for an hour, and sing for a full set. So everyone knows that’s a lot. It’s good to be close. We all have our little things that we know to be aware.

I mean, a huge thing – and this is so mundane – but certain people don’t sleep, and other sleep really well. Kerri and I could sleep in a bath tub if we needed to! Everyone else has really idiosyncratic sleep habits.

You still get nervous before you go onstage?

Oh yeah! All the time. I started out being so nervous that I couldn’t remember anything onstage. That was such a mountain to overcome for me. I can revert to that sometimes. We refer to it as the gremlin… who’s sitting on your shoulder telling you to play the wrong chord! So if we have a blip, or a bad set, we all laugh about the gremlin. So, I do get nervous but a little bit is great.

You don’t want to be too comfortable onstage, either.

No! And also we don’t drink before we go onstage, to let people settle in to their nerves. It’s a different story afterwards, though!

You hellions! Has touring, and gaining extra space from its creation, allowed you to gain further perspective on ‘Blue Rev’?

I really don’t believe I’m capable of knowing what I’ve made. It took so long to build the show, as there are so many sounds that we’re now still picking up different pedals and amps, refining things all the time. I feel like those songs are really fresh and enjoyable.

Is there a particular song that has really found itself in your shows?

I really love ‘Belinda Says’. It’s really satisfying when the band all enters together. ‘Lottery Noises’ is fun to play – it’s a bit of a rager!

Do you still find yourself being inspired by other songs and pieces of music?

Yeah. Normally it’s older music. I do just invent stories. Sometimes I’ll read a line in a book or hear a line in a song, and it’s not that the line gets used but the line can trigger a whole new perspective that I haven’t explored. It becomes this whole new dialogue. It’s really fun. I couldn’t personally draw from my own life – I feel like I live the life of an old man… who goes for walks and watches the NBA! It’s fun to create a whole new world.

Do you consider your songs to be little narratives?

That’s pretty much all I do! And I hope it’s impactful. It has to pass my test, and I have to trust that it moves me in some way. 

You heard a lot of folk music growing up, which has a similar narrative sense. Did aspects of that seep in, do you think?

Sure. And especially melodically. For a song to have survived centuries it has to be really strong melodically. All you really strive for is to have different hooks and melodies survive in someone’s mind for a long time. I’m not exactly like, Gordon Lightfoot or someone, it’s not as enriched as that. It’s through a pop lens. 

You’re coming back to London this week, are you looking forward to returning to the city?

For sure! We have a lot of friends there. Touring right now is more of a calculated risk, but I think we’ve found the right pattern. And UK crowds are so fun. 

Finally, what do you think the experience of making ‘Blue Rev’ taught you that creating your other records didn’t?

Well, I guess I thought we would never make another record. And I feel like that now… so I know that feeling is just an illusion. I should probably just take my inner voices with a grain of salt – from that perspective!

‘Blue Rev’ is out now.

Catch Alvvays live in the UK, g’wan:

24 London O2 Kentish Town Forum
27 Bristol Dot To Dot Festival
28 Nottingham Dot To Dot Festival
30 Manchester New Century
31 Glasgow Galvanizers

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine