Plumes: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Haunting orchestral meditations coupled with pop-savvy inventiveness, lovingly crafted earworms abound.
File Next to: Sufjan Stevens, Art Zoyd, Belle and Sebastian
Playing: WL 628 aka NICE II – Friday Nov. 28 at The Garrison

Plumes are an off-kilter baroque pop ensemble that skirts the line between cerebral progressive rock and meditative chamber music, resulting in sombre, herculean epics. Formerly known as Flotilla, Plumes have expanded their sonic palate with an extensive instrumental overhaul bringing in clarinets, harps and violins to create a powerful synthesis of the orchestra and the rock band. Adam Bernhardt spoke to bandleader Veronica Charnley to find out more.

How did you first start making music?

I was a late-bloomer compared to my bandmates, since they are all classical musicians… I played some guitar as a teenager, but when I reached university age, I decided music was what I really wanted to do, so I did a degree in jazz voice at Concordia. It turned out that jazz wasn’t really my thing, but I’ve made my way as a songwriter since then.

How does a Plumes song come about?

Lately it’s been starting by me listening to world music for inspiration, because I like to draw inspiration from genres I’m not familiar with. Birds learn to sing by mimicking each other, and that’s what I do with music that inspires me – I try to figure out what’s really happening in the music, I riff off it until it becomes something else, something mine, and I put lyrics to it. Then I pass it on to Geof [Holbrook], my longtime collaborator (and husband). He puts his spin on it, writes down some parts for the other players and they put their spin on it… and that’s the Plumes spin machine.

What inspired the change of name from Flotilla to Plumes? Have your musical goals changed as well?

When we made what was supposed to be the third Flotilla album, we thought it just sounded different. And we picked up new members when some session musicians refused to leave the studio, so that prompted the new name also. And in retrospect, we really think about it as a different band … Flotilla was indie rock, and Plumes is more of a pop/classical hybrid.

On “Away From Home,” from 2012’s self-titled album, you sing, “Fitting yourself in a new home can take ages.” Having lived in Paris, Brooklyn and Montreal, Plumes are truly international – do you find that the cities that you’ve inhabited have had any impact on the music you create?

When I lived in Montreal, I was surrounded by musicians making original and interesting pop music and I also had a lot of classical musician friends, so that’s where Plumes’ pop/classical crossover style evolved. NYC was energizing because we immediately fell into a community of musicians who embraced us in away I had yet to experience in Canada… maybe we were exotic somehow. And Paris is just so gorgeous that I find myself very happy there, which makes it easy to make music. In general though, I think moving at lot makes you work a little harder to define who you are in all those environments.

I love swimming first of all and (on the new record, there’s a song called “Swimming with Astronauts”) and the idea of a lover swimming across a channel at night to visit a forbidden love and then swimming back before dawn so that his family doesn’t notice is really romantic. Myths are fun to write about because often they’re written concisely and you can add so much more with your imagination.

You’ve recorded two albums this year, both displaying different sides of your music, one emphasizing classical impulses and the other indie pop. Do you find it difficult to balance the two sides, or do you find that they complement themselves?

I thought that on the first Plumes record, the ones with only string quartet and voice, or orchestra and voice, sound like a different band. Now we do that stuff as “Plumes Ensemble,” whereas Plumes has the drums and guitars and synths. So in a way, balancing the two sides is so difficult that we had to split the band into two separate acts! But Plumes has that tinge of classical influence, and Plumes Ensemble still does pop songs… in fact we do “Away from Home”, with both acts… the two versions sound quite different, but it’s the same song.

Your new album features many of the works of 20th century composer Béla Bartók. What drew you to his music?

I was playing his children’s pieces on piano, and was enjoying them so much that I researched his vocal music based on Hungarian folk songs. They were gorgeous but a lot of the recordings I heard were sung by classical singers. I thought, since they were based on folk melodies, that I might try to record them in a vocal style closer to the original songs.

Having created your newest album with assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts, how important do you feel public funding is for Canadian music/art in general?

Well, these grants really allow artists to do things that are nuts. We made a chamber music record that has pop songs on it, but also 20th century classical repertoire… I don’t think there’s any label, classical or otherwise, that would be interested in that, at least not yet. But we were able to put it out there as a project, and maybe get people thinking about how to combine these things. And there’s so much music and so much art out there that I wouldn’t get to experience without our arts councils giving us that freedom… I want all that stuff to exist.

What can we expect from Plumes in the future?

We have a new album that’s all recorded, just working on mixing it. It was recorded at studio in a castle in Dresden (!) just before we went on tour in Germany. We’re planning to release that in the spring. Plumes Ensemble is doing a contemporary classical music festival in Winnipeg in April, called Cluster Festival, and hopefully doing some more festivals in the summer. And I’m working on some new songs, inspired by chants by Hildegaard von Bingen.

Interview by Adam Bernhardt