Published Sep 06, 2018"I remember the crisis in my early 20s of feeling like I didn't have a voice, like a guitarist with her guitar tone," Ariel Engle tells Exclaim! "I felt like I could do all kinds of stuff, but I couldn't hear who I was. I haven't asked myself that question in a long time. I can't tell you what it is, but I open my mouth and it sounds like me." The musician, who records as La Force, is speaking from Broken Social Scene's tour bus, traveling through Oregon on the penultimate leg of their tour in support of Hug of Thunder.
She is about to release her debut record, an album which began as an AroarA record with her husband, fellow BSS member Andrew Whiteman, before "it became obvious, I think probably first to him and then to me too, that I needed to make this my own record.
"An essential thing is that he won't be touring with me, he's not in my band," she continues. "So that's a huge change for me — it's an identity shift. I've always been that — I'm a pack animal, so it'll be very different." The La Force live band, which debuted opening for Feist in May, features Evan Tighe and Dan Goldman, with headlining performances scheduled in Ontario and Quebec this month.
The themes on her self-titled debut are reflective, writing stemming from the duality of Engle's experiences: she became a mother at the same time as her father was gravely ill. "It's one coin. It's the fragility of life in how it's fleeting and also, of life force. I just felt like I was both the crest of the wave and at the bottom of the ocean simultaneously. So, I think the record deals with those themes, because that's where I was. And people say, 'Write what you know,' and that's what I knew. I still feel it, I'm still in a form of it, but I think maybe the peaks and valleys are a little more level than they were at the time."
The album is warmly produced and feels vulnerable, its production at once familiar and experimental beyond traditional pop and rock structures. Engle attributes this to her lack of formal training, which allows for minimal constraints during composition. She wrote a couple of songs with one of Whiteman's guitars held upside down, since Engle is left-handed. "One of the things about being self-taught-slash-not taught is that I…" she laughs, "It's always new. I never really learned how to do it right. I often feel a rhythm differently than Andrew, which has led to interesting stuff with AroarA, especially."
Engle began developing her voice within Montreal's music community: "I adore Montreal — I don't live there for the climate, but I love the culture." However, she doesn't consider herself part of an "experimental scene," given her background as a vocalist and collaborator. "It's not like when you join Broken Social Scene and like, that's a community — it's very tangible and you know who it is."
She sang as part of Egyptian-Canadian artist Sam Shalabi's Land of Kush project, where her voice was challenged by scored compositions featuring quarter-tone scales. "I've sung in Arabic — not that I speak Arabic," she laughs. "I have a profound love and admiration for Middle Eastern music. I'm not the kind of person who knows lots of details — I don't read liner notes, but it just speaks to me. And I think that maybe listening to that music has had some trace effects on my music."
One of the projects in which Engle defined herself as a vocalist has been HYDRA, which includes Feist and Daniela Gesundheit. "HYDRA was magic. It felt because there was no… it came with no expectations, no preamble, it just happened, and it felt very powerful for me being with Leslie and Daniela. I not only love them as friends — two of my closest friends — it's just exhilarating to feel that we can make good music together. We call ourselves — I'm the devil and Daniela is the angel, and Leslie dips into both worlds." Engle is currently opening for Feist solo in Europe, where Gesundheit will join them; "impromptu singing" is likely to occur.
"I am really attracted to, and I hope to in future, make music that's more trance-y and about getting into a state of mind, rather than song structure," Engle enthuses, referencing "The Tide," her album's drone-inspired opener. "I think that's my outsider interpretation of some of the trance-y North African music that I have liked to listen to."
Despite the highly personal nature of the subject matter on La Force, Engle has been careful to retain space between the music and her own experiences: "I wanted to be honest without feeling like you were walking into my diary. I don't keep a diary, but it doesn't have to be everything. I mean, there is obviously some construction, some distance. But it felt real to me."
La Force comes out September 7 on Arts & Crafts.