What gives a song its "feel"? How can you detach from someone in a way that isn't hurtful? How can you incorporate your audience into a performance without forcing them? These are the kinds of questions Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island-based musician and performance artist Russell Louder is sensitive to and asking, and the answers they're finding are helping put them on the map in a Canadian city not known for its electronic music.
Growing up on the East Coast, Louder had the benefit of parents who played Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel around the house, while also learning guitar and getting classical training in voice. At 17, they moved to Montreal to work with their older brother, Leon, as an assistant at his recording studio. While Leon made everything from commercial soundtracks to experimental electronic music there, it wasn't until a fateful stay in Iceland two years later that Russell began to write and record on their own.
Now after releasing a handful of songs on SoundCloud, which oscillate between structured, emotionally-direct pop and sprawling techno, Louder is gearing up for a busy 2017. Their first EP, the self-released, pop-focussed Think of Light, arrives this Saturday, while the more experimental and beat-driven Bridge will be released later this year via Montréal-based label Unfulfillment.
Today, THUMP's premiering "Never Lost" from the former, which could fit in a mix effortlessly alongside Canadian artists like Austra and Majical Cloudz. The track begins with a dark, melancholic groove, but it doesn't take long for Louder's voice to fill it with light. The words are personal, sung with a kind of croon over-top the anchoring, lithe mix. Have a listen below as you read our interview with the 21-year-old artist about their beginnings, the upcoming EP's themes, and the queer community in PEI.
THUMP: So did you first start making electronic music in Iceland, or was that happening with your brother at his studio as well?
Russell Louder: I wasn't making any music at my brother's studio, I was doing stuff like music research. He would get the idea for a storyboard, and he would say "we need something that sounds like this, this, this and this, the theme of the commercial is this," and he would send me off. I would spend hours a day surfing and researching music, and figuring out essentially what made a "feel." So that was really interesting, being able to incorporate fragments of things and arrange them. Not in a plagiaristic way, but just literally copying the feel of something and understanding where that comes from, and why certain chord progressions make you feel this way and others make you feel another way. I didn't start making music until Iceland, which was February 2015.
What did you have available to you in that studio space? What helped to inform the sounds you were working with?
When I was in Iceland, it was a really awful time, to be honest. It was really dark and I was in a really bad place, so the music is this really brutal ambient stuff. It was a shared studio space with five other bands, and I basically used my laptop. I had a Macbook Pro and started off with Garageband, and then that turned into using Logic. I would just use the microphone on my computer—it was really janky—and I would put vocal filters on percussion and make melodies with the percussion. I wasn't playing any instruments.
It was very conceptual, weird, kooky shit, but it was a really cool way to learn how to build a song. I created this project called Romeo Blue, which I would never show anybody now, because you could tell I was just figuring my shit out. It was funny because I come from a performance art and visual art background, and so I felt I couldn't create a musical project without conceptualizing it first. Even though it was really bad [laughs].
Is that how Think of Light developed?
In a way it was an exploration. There was a theme, it's about relationships that were different but painfully similar. Just processing that and the disillusionment, which I guess is pretty normal for a 21-year-old. Lyrically and conceptually, it's not that rigorous, but it was definitely an exploration in learning how to create songs that have a certain feel. They're all really different from each other but there's still that string of continuity I think.
Looking at the album art, is that a self-portrait?
Yep, that's a self-portrait. I'm a visual artist too. I do all of the things.
It's interesting that you're obscuring your face and you can't really tell if you're putting the shirt on or off. Are these songs about growth and transformation?
Yeah. The common theme is not really knowing how to detach yourself from something. I guess that's where the album art really connects. I had that image up my sleeve, and I wanted to use it, but I couldn't figure out for what. As I was scrolling through all of these images that I had, I was like "whoa, that is the one." It's about learning how to detach in a way that isn't hurtful to you.
The first three songs are sort of, not brutal lyrics, but they're not super "let's be friends" happy. The last song is totally different, it's like this acoustic counterpart calling back. I was really surprised by that one. All of the others were really cerebral and playing with instruments and computers, that one happened in like, fifteen minutes. I wanted to do a song with a lot of harmonies. I love doing harmonies with myself, I think there's so much to explore.
Do you work in some of your more visual art side with your musical practice?
Always, always. I hope I can do it more as I get more comfortable with my live setup, because that's still something I'm trying to figure out. Usually I'll be in costume or there'll be a weird element. I don't believe in forced audience participation, but for example, when my friend Cedric and I do this live improv thing, we usually have a performative aspect. For the last one we just bought sixty or seventy dollars worth of bubble wrap, and we were just wheeling it out to the audience, and they were popping it on the 2s and the 4s. I like doing silly stuff like that, that can break down that barrier. But at the same time, they don't have to pop the bubble wrap if they don't want to.
What's the music scene in Prince Edward Island like?
PEI is a great place and a really interesting place to make work, but you have to make an escape plan, especially during the winter. Storm tip culture. It's one of those places where you can tell there's nothing else to do in the winter but practice your goddamn instrument. There are great bands here. In terms of like the diversity of the scene, as a trans person I find it, not frustrating, but like there's a lack of representation.
It is changing, there are a lot of really cool women-fronted projects that are coming up, queer musicians, and there's a really amazing all-ages scene here. A bunch of queer music kids are coming out of that and that's really amazing to see happen. I thought that it would be really hard to get into the music scene here, because island mentality is a thing and it is hard to get into circles, but it's been really welcoming.
Are there bars or clubs that are queer-friendly in Charlottetown?
Well there are no queer bars per se, but there's one bar, Baba's, that's like the alternative bar of PEI. My experience with the venues here has been that they're relatively safe queer spaces for the Maritimes. There are events put on by Pride PEI, like dances and that's sweet, but the queer scene here is very much a baby. You have to be very optimistic while also scrappy if you're living on PEI as a queer. There's a lot of adversity that you face on a day-to-day basis, and you don't realize it until you go away. That's another reason I like to leave, to sort of reset. It's a work in progress, but I love it here.
What can you tell me about your involvement with Scream Choir?
Scream Choir is a project that was initially developed by two artists, Coral Short and Sarah Wendt, and I was the vocal coach for it. The original performance of Scream Choir took place at [Montreal's] Notre Dame Basilica for Encuentro in 2014 when I was 18. We had three initial performances where they were the developers of the project.
Abortion access has only become recently available in PEI, so before when it wasn't available, we were holding protests. I was not involved with the legal or organizational grunt work apart from Scream Choir. There were several of these grassroots entities that came together via Abortion Access Now PEI to try to get our current provincial government to allow abortion access on island. There was one such protest happening, and I thought it would be amazing to do a Scream Choir. So I emailed Coral and Sarah, and asked for their permission to conduct and perform this Scream Choir in front of the Gentlemen's Club in Charlottetown, and they said yes.
That wasn't what got abortion access on PEI, but what did was a group of power femmes coming together and essentially threatening to sue the provincial government. Now we have a clinic in Somerset, but it's just the beginning of the conversation. We need to talk about who's working at this clinic, is it going to be a safe space, is it going to be trans-friendly, are the people working there wanting to work there and wanting to help, and not deter? But it's a huge milestone. Change does happen on PEI, but you really have to work for it.
Michael Rancic is on Twitter.