Ace of Wands: The WL Interview

Purveyors of: Doom Lounge?

File next to: Beams, The Weather Station, PJ Harvey

Playing: Wavelength Monthly Music Series, Saturday March 30, 2019 @ Monarch Tavern. Get your tickets here!

Toronto trio Ace of Wands stir up up soulful indie-folk with driving post-punk and classical violin in their sound, a wizardly brew complete with some fabulous outfits. Led by singer-songwriter Lee Rose, triangulated with Anna Mernieks of Beams and drummer Jody Brumell, Ace of Wands recently released their impressive debut album, Lioness, which deserves to be finding its way into heavy rotation on your listening devices. WL’s Jonny Dovercourt chatted with Lee to help spell things out.

Hi Lee! How is the springtime sunshine treating you today?

Hey! It’s such a relief to feel like spring might actually be here. Winter has really got me down, so I’m looking forward to being outside again.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, how you got your start in music and as a songwriter?

My experience as a songwriter feels relatively new, though I’ve been playing music all my life. I started off on piano as a little kid, then started playing violin when I was about 10. Since I grew up learning to play other people’s music (and in the classical world I was trained to be very rigid about my interpretations), learning to trust in my own abilities to write melodies and lyrics was a bit of a stumbling block. I also spent the majority of my teens and early twenties playing in a band with my older brother where he was the principal songwriter, so I spent those years singing his songs.

I guess a combination of insecurities and a lack of faith in myself kept me away from really diving into songwriting. But in the last two years working with Ace of Wands, I’ve really felt free to explore the emotions and melodies that have felt bottled up in me for much of my life. I keep feeling like I have so much to say! Or sing about. And it’s nice to have a platform for that now.

So, I love biographies. Can you tell me the story of how, when, and where you connected with Anna and Jody to form Ace of Wands?

I met Anna when Beams and my previous band Rival Boys played a show in Sudbury at the Townehouse. I remember feeling this instant connection with her — like a kindred soul-mate kind of friendship. It was pretty special. And seeing her play music and sing was just fuel to that fire. I knew as soon as I was without a band that I wanted to collaborate with her. I met Jody when he and I were in Ron Hawkins’ (Lowest of the Low) backing band going on a tour opening for Blue Rodeo. He and I connected right away. There were so many inside jokes and there was so much hilarity going on that it made our musical collaborations instantly fun and full of energy. That tour was a catalyst for so many changes in my life, but my friendship with Jody has always been strong. When I wanted to get a full band together to play my songs live, working with the two of them just seemed obvious.

What’s it like sharing a band member with Beams? Do you all need to maintain a complicated Anna-availability grid?  

Ha! Actually, in the end both Anna and Jody are exceedingly busy working musicians. Beams is on the road a lot, and Jody works pretty much exclusively as a session drummer and so is busy almost every night of the week gigging. But somehow we manage to carve out time for Ace of Wands. They’re both really committed and creative musicians to have in a project. I’m very lucky. We also understand that each of us is not in competition with the other as musicians. We all understand that any success we have with other projects we are involved in will help Ace of Wands, and vice-versa. That kind of supportive and encouraging mindset makes the whole thing pretty easy.

How do you define the Ace of Wands sound at family gatherings or when talking to people outside the music scene?

I remember when I was first starting to think of Ace of Wands as a serious project I started calling it “Doom Lounge” on grant applications, after a joke Anna and I made up. In a funny way it kind of stuck as a way to define it. I read an article on Wikipedia about “Lounge music” being defined as a genre of music popular in the 1950’s and 60’s “…meant to evoke in the listeners the feeling of being in a place, usually with a tranquil theme, such as a jungle, an island paradise or outer space.” I thought this was actually very appropriate to describe the music I write, since I spend a lot of time thinking about being “in” the song. My lyrics are very visually driven, and I am often trying to transport the listener to a different place as they listen – whether it’s a physical location or just a feeling. The world “Doom” being an unalterable fate, albeit something bad, or a certainty. When I was first starting to write for Ace of Wands I was in a period of such a deep and dark depression that I was certain I’d be doomed to be sad forever.

But in all seriousness, I tend to describe Ace of Wands as Gothic Rock or Melancholy Pop Rock. We sound like PJ Harvey, Elliot Smith, and something undefinable.

Where does magic fit into Ace of Wands’ sense of worldbuilding?

This is such a cool question. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my musical output fits into the world, whether it matters, whether it can be or do something beyond being something people hear in the backgrounds of their lives. When I think of the band’s namesake, the Ace of Wands; the card in Tarot that revolves around new ideas, inspiration, growth and possibility; I am always thinking of a bigger picture. I believe that the power of art is in the sharing. Using art as a method of communicating my own pain and joy to others allows me to tap into that thing that I call magic. Or Sprit. Compassion or Empathy. The thing we all share as humans living in this world. The Ace of Wands Tarot card is a catalyst for personal exploration and growth, for creating something living from dead and for following instincts. It’s a catalyst for taps into this magical thing. And this is how I want to engage with the world.

Lioness is a very confident sounding debut album. Can you tell me a bit about the writing and recording process? Is there anything thematically linking this set of tunes?

We worked with Toronto producer Mike Rocha for this album, and his collaboration and influence really made the record what it is. He encouraged me to perform my parts as “live” as possible – taking guitar and vocal takes simultaneously, not editing too much (if at all), and really trying to capture what was raw and real (and possibly out of tune) about how I play and sing naturally. It was really confidence-building, which for a debut record is so important. I was very hung-up on whether my guitar playing was good enough, solid enough etc. He took a different approach that focussed more on the quality of the songs and the writing. And his confidence in me led to perform better. In the end, we recorded the songs in “reverse order” as we called it, tracking vocals, guitars and bass first and adding drums at the end. I loved recording this way because it meant Jody could play to the intensity of my vocals and the vibe of the songs could be set before drums came in. All the songs follow the same theme of self-discovery. As I mentioned before, when I first started writing for Ace of Wands, I was really struggling. I felt so much despair about my life and so much judgement and hatred for myself at the time, and it all came out in the music. Each of the songs explores a different aspect of my journey over the last two years. The grief, anger, rage, sadness, despair, longing, loss and hope. It’s all there, even though sometimes I’ve resisted it’s presence.

We’re excited to see you play this Saturday, opening for Buke & Gase along with Obuxum! We hope you feel the same. Do you want to tell everyone why they should be excited as well?

I am excited to play on Saturday too! I have been listening to Buke & Gase for a few years now and have always been so interested in their sound. They are writing really engaging hooky melodies over top of completely strange and off-centre instrumentation and vocal arrangements… and that’s pretty much how I would describe the kind of music that moves me. I’m excited to feel all the feelings when I watch them! I am also really excited to see Obuxum who I’ve never heard until now. She’s doing some really interesting things with her productions and the music immediately hooked me. It’s going to be a great night!