Spending every waking moment with the people you work with can get old fast. But holed up in a two-bedroom apartment hundreds of miles away from their homes in Guelph, Ontario, is how The Folk—a decidedly un-folk indie group from Guelph, Ontario—recently spent the past four months in Montreal’s Mile End district while writing and recording their follow-up to last year’s We All Say. In the middle of a difficult period for the band, the stay doubled as an opportunity to regroup and reconnect—to confront their demons head on, reconcile, and grow, dealing with their misgivings by displaying them for each other to see through conversation, song writing, journaling, and recording. “I think it was therapeutic,” guitarist Emma Bortolon-Vettor reflects. “You’re around everybody, you’re observing everybody, and you’re interacting with each other and you’re still talking about the same subject matter as a result.” Keyboardist Mark Ferrari thinks back on the time as a “reset,” explaining that “going into the two rooms that we had for four months solved a lot of problems and gave a lot of understanding to a lot of our interactions with each other. As opposed to getting on each other’s nerves, we just realized how everyone worked together, which was really good.”
Confronting the whirlwind circumstances orbiting them throughout their stay (a dying newborn, internal squabbling, social anxiety, mental illness, the exit of a bandmate) and drawing connections between them, they emerged from their time in the studio at Thee Mighty Hotel2Tango with Every Colour, Present Wonder, a new full-length that documents the dialectic process of dealing with adversity, ultimately presenting a resolved outlook that finds solace and healing in the promise of the present. To them, the record furthers a system of collaboration the band has been pursuing since its inception. Between 2010 and 2014, the group produced a trio of concept records—two EPs and one full-length—that comprise what the group refers to as its Communication Series, a trilogy of releases consisting of songs that are all written from separate individual perspectives that take turns responding to one another. It’s that communicative, inclusive approach that makes each release from this band a rich document of this circle’s progress.
On September 18, the Folk release the next chapter of their story, Every Colour, Present Wonder, but listeners can get a preview of what’s in store with the first single from that release, “Fire in the Back Room,” premiering below. Noisey checked in with three of the four core members that make up The Folk brain trust (a rotating cast of extras helps them fill in the gaps live) to see where they’re all at.
Noisey: The press release for this record describes the individual songs as glimpses into the personalities that make up the band, covering subjects like death, dysfunction, and the struggles of overcoming mental illness. Are you comfortable talking about how you connect with this subject matter?
Sara Bortolon-Vettor: Yeah, totally. For me, personally, I’ve gone through quite a bout of mental illness over the past few years. More so manic-depressive things—I’m bipolar as well, so that’s been sort of a struggle for the past few years. It’s tough to overcome that. I’m really happy though, right now. I’ve been in a really good routine and keeping a healthy mind.
Emma Bortolon-Vettor: I think because we all lived for close to four or five years in the same building, we all ended up seeing each other a lot, and when you’re younger and you’re going through a lot of different ways of accepting your reality and trying to deal with whatever it is that is your enemy mentally, it starts to affect everybody else and as a result everybody kind of tries to work into it as well. Myself, I went through a bit of a depression. I mean, when everybody goes into their 20s, I feel as though everybody goes through some sort of existential crisis, but I think as a result, if one person had something… not “wrong,” but was going through a change, everybody else was equally affected, so there were a lot of ups and downs in high amplitudes, but everybody went through it at the same time. So it really was a bit of a phenomenon, because it wasn’t just one person and everybody being an observer. It was everybody equally trying to be an observer, but also trying to act their way through it as well. So it created a lot of material to write about.
Mark Ferrari: I don’t know if I have any legitimate mental [illness]… I’m about to go into something that might investigate whether I do, but when I think about connections to the song writing specifically… I can’t speak for Liam [Magahay, bassist] because he’s not here, but when I think of his contributions on like, “Fire in the Back Room,” it seems to be about opening yourself up, and I know he went through a lot of… I don’t know if I’d call it “depression,” but some kind of fear of the world in some way. We all lived in this building and I lived with Liam, and we sort of grew with each other and I went through a lot of seeing him deal with a lot of stuff as well. Sometimes my writing’s commenting on what he went through, in a weird way. There are all sorts of things happening and we’re all cataloguing our thoughts. It’s not one single voice. It’s a lot of reactions and interactions.
How does that manifest elsewhere on the album?
Emma: There’s a verse on “Avery” that’s a commentary on mine and Sara’s relationship at one point. Because at a point it was almost deteriorating because I didn’t know how to react to Sara at times, and Sara at times didn’t know how to react to me, so there was a lot of frustration, but [Sara] had to bear through with it.
Sara: That song’s about losing life, as well. Mine and Emma’s relationship we had together at a very dark time in our lives in which… you know, we’re very close, we’re sisters, we play in a band together, we’ve been playing music together since we were seven, and to be able to work through that time in our lives was remarkable, but dark times. And that song encapsulates that moment in time, which is good – it’s good that those sorts of things happen, because you obviously learn a lot.
Emma: But yeah, “Avery” is essentially a commentary on mine and Sara’s relationship. I felt like I was always sort of walking on eggshells for a while and I wanted to eat that discomfort. It’s about this paradox where two lives are killing each other by living together, but at the same time, one of our friends, their daughter was six months old and she was dying. And it was just weird and guilt ridden where you’d be like, “Oh, well think about how Avery’s feeling right now,” and you’d have to be like, “Oh yeah, she’s dying.” So it was just one way to sort of sum up struggles in that way.
You spent four months writing and working on this record in Montreal’s Mile End. What was it like spending that much time with the subject matter?
Emma: I think it was therapeutic. I had finished school and I wasn’t really in a good headspace. And when we had left to go to Montreal, I knew that it was gonna be, “Okay, cool. I get to just only focus on this and work my way through it.” And a lot of it was writing in my journal of how I felt esteem-wise, how I wanted to be esteem-wise, and how my relationship with Mark, Liam, and Sara was right then and what it was before and how there was a hope to change through it. And I think as a result of living in proximity… I mean, shit. Three of us shared a bedroom for four months. You know, every once in a while you get the futon, but there ended up being moments where you would have to function as a whole, despite the fact that you would have these internal things that you wanted to address, but you couldn’t, because it was completely interior. So in a way it really was therapeutic because you’re around everybody, you’re observing everybody, and you’re interacting with each other and you’re still talking about the same subject matter as a result. Because I think all of us went into our insular moments and just brought forth lyrics as we went. So it was cool being on the same page the entire time despite the fact that everybody was thinking of their own personal connections with each other.
Sara: Yeah. It was great living in Montreal. We had such a wonderful time with all of us in such close quarters. It was just fun, you know? We had an amazing time just writing music together and stuff like that, but by no means were we partying every night and stuff like that. We were really hanging out with each other and really collaborating and being creative and figuring out certain things towards certain songs and the concepts behind certain stories that every single one of the members individually is contributing to the whole. All of us are songwriters in the band. You have those elements on the record where you do have more individually based songs and stories, but it’s “the Folk” because all four, all five, all six of us are playing all together.
Ferrari: I sort of saw it as a reset. We’ve had some tough times getting over things like some internal squabbling and a lot of stuff, and finally living together—we “half” lived together before, which was almost worse, because we weren’t close enough to actually do things. So actually going into the two rooms that we had for four months solved a lot of problems and gave a lot of understanding to a lot of our interactions with each other. As opposed to getting on each other’s nerves, we just realized how everyone worked together, which was really good. Also just learning how to make a record a bit more properly was a really important thing that we did there. We used Pro Tools ourselves on Sara’s laptop and made a dummy version of the album essentially before we went in, and we had the time to do that because we just had a month and a half to spare before going into the studio. So instead of going out and being goons every night, we just stayed in and recorded the album before we recorded the album, which infinitely helped when we went in to make the album.
Did this process generate any moments that surprised you about your bandmates?
Emma: I think I learned a lot about how Mark and Sara are really good at listening to each other in order to figure out their harmonies. I’d never really watched them before, I’d always just said, “Okay, I’m done my part, you guys can do your thing and I’ll come back and it’ll sound magical. I guess I got to know everybody’s process behind how they write and how they decide to play. Like you, Sara, you’re very methodical in how you play, yet I know when something wasn’t right, you’d go, “No, stop. Not right, I gotta do it again.” Liam, he really listened towards time. I guess that makes sense because he’s the bassist… just stuff like that, that you never got to see because you would just do one-track recordings where you’d play all together so you were just completely blindsided by what each others’ process was. That was pretty cool.
Sara: I really realized how caring everyone is. It really touched me. I mean my sister’s my sister, and Mark and Liam are my best friends, but I learned that at a very basic level, I’m surrounded by very caring and very passionate individuals.
Collaboration and open dialogue seem like crucial pillars for the Folk. Before recording this album you put out a trilogy of releases you called the Communication Series.
Sara: Well that was sort of something I conceptualized a few years ago around 2010 when I was learning about communication theory in university. That concept—the trilogy and the instalments—has to do with communication at a very basic level. And our deduction from that is the communication that we have together in small quarters. The actions and reactions that we have to specific things. And we’ll reduce that even more and say it’s the actions and reactions of human-to-human connections. So the first EP was You Say, I Say, and that was also a very collaborative three-song EP, and then there was Say It Again. It’s sort of funny “You Say, I Say and then Say it Again,” and then the ending is We All Say. That album encompasses that truly collaborative direction that we’re going in with our band, and the EPs before then sort of highlight specific songwriting from Emma, myself and Mark, but they’re all very collaborative. It’s the communication that we had together throughout those years—a documentative archive.
Emma: I think they’re also moments in time, too. Because You Say, I Say, we all just got to know each other and we hammered it out in the second year we all knew each other. So this was still pretty young friendship, and then Say It Again was our third year, fourth year knowing each other, and then with We All Say there was a little more comfort into it. So there’s a bit of a growth in the way that those lyrics are written and written about each other, so I think what I really enjoyed about having something called the Communication Series where these steps through which we grew as a band but not necessarily the band that I like to think of ourselves as now and a lot of it was talking at each other and talking with each other and eventually figuring out how we could communicate fully and have conversations. From a dialogue context, I feel as though our current album is probably the most conversational—rather than talking at, talking back, and talking at the same time with each other.
Sara: Shit, Mark and I start to sound the same on this record. We’ve been around each other so fucking long and have been friends and so close that our voices, together sometimes, you can’t tell it apart.
Emma: It deals with how you grow with reciprocity, too. Right? This was a highly reciprocal album.
How do you feel those records prepared you for this undertaking?
Ferrari: I think that we learned how to take home recording as far as we could logically take it. I feel like we’re still writing about similar things; I don’t think our overall band direction in terms of what we’re writing about has changed from the Communication Series. I think it’s an easy way of dividing the production style at this point, because working with our friend Nick [Biffis, producer] was a very insulated, do-it-yourself, build it as it goes type of environment, and we sort of took that idea of we can do “whatever we want” into a studio as much as we possibly good, so it sort of gave us our own knowledge and hopefully a comfort level. With working with a lot of this stuff, even though we didn’t necessarily know how to work a studio itself, we had a person to work with that and our ideas and be able to present them with confidence and maybe know how something might sound in the end, because we’ve worked by ourselves on this type of thing before.
Emma: I think it taught us how to work efficiently, too. Because when you write a lot during school, there are moments where you would go to school and you would come back from class and you’d say, “Okay, sweet. I’ve gotta finish this shit off,” or, “I’ve gotta burn CDs” or something. So eliminating that school standpoint, it was awesome, because you could say, “Oh, sweet. I have 12 hours to really hone in on a part now.” I think it gave us more time to practice, and being able to work between school and band, it taught you how to just really fit in what you really needed to do, but when you eliminate school, you had all that time, but the same thought about efficiency in order to get even more done.
Sara: I had very simple thoughts about our concept for the trilogy up until now, and I think we learned a lot about ourselves and not to devalue the skills that we have. I was in school for recording over two years, and I was taught by Brian Moncarz and had a great time there, but I was devaluing my own skills in a sense. But the beauty of recording now and recording on a MacBook or whatever, you have Garage Band, so everybody can make music, and that’s beautiful, because who are we to say that one piece of art is better than another piece of art. So that’s what I love about the fact that we have this kind of access to create music on anything, and that’s what we’ve done individually, even outside of the band. So now it’s sort of come to a point where we’re deciding it would be great to try this ourselves, and I think that’s what we’re gonna do after this record.
Given a sense of the circumstances leading up to this record, it’s encouraging to see you guys really reckoning with the present. That theme stands out pretty obviously in the title, but you also really explore it with “Our Lives Lie.”
Emma: That song is about wondering what my grandmothers would’ve spoken about with their husbands during the time that they knew that they were passing. And what was amazing about it is that I see them now in their ways of just completely adapting to widowhood and being their own persons, and in a way I see them as their own characters that much more than when they were with my grandfathers, mainly because they were taking on the roles of caretakers. Yet, it was that same idea of, “Do you want to be living together or dying together, when if it’s better to just live apart and be fully alive in that concept, because holding onto the past is ultimately what’s going to kill you. And I know that they had those conversations. They had to have had those conversations. But it’s still very much applicable to anything that you do. If you’re dying living together is there gonna be any point to holding on to it (whatever that is)? On the album more generally, before we left for Montreal, I asked everybody in the band, “Would you rather starve and tell stories, or feast in silence?” It sounds kind of lame, but everybody who’s in the band now stated that they would rather starve and tell stories. And I think that that was this idea that knowing that in the current present moment, now, there is that drive to want to be able to do whatever it is that you’re going to do in order to be happy rather than hold onto something that might be seen as sustenance for an element of what you think your identity as a band is, but it’s not. And so hence why we’re starving and telling stories and not feasting in silence right now.
Ferrari: For me a lot of anxiety lies in holding onto memories and presuming that what you think is going to happen, based on what has already happened, will happen again. And when I’m ruminating on being in the present, it’s probably coming from that sentiment that you should leave your memories behind because you can’t always trust that they’ll lead you on the right path when you’re trying to make a decision later on. You need to be open to anything that the world gives you, essentially, and you can only get that by being fully committed to being in the present, although memories are something that create exactly who we are.
Is there anything else on your radar beyond this release?
Emma: I think the biggest thing that we’re going to do together following this release, is make an album by ourselves. It’ll be fun. More music will come of this, I am sure. It’s going to go back to that collaborative nature.
Sara: Playing shows and making records together. It’s also an outlet that’s wonderful for mental health because it’s stress-free with your friends, jamming.
Tom Beedham is an arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.