Esmerine: “A Dog River”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Esmerine_A_Dog_River.mp3|titles=Esmerine: “A Dog River”]
Cello/percussion twosome Becky Foon and Bruce Cawdron, of Montreal’s Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, began recording minimalist chamber music under the moniker Esmerine about a decade ago. Two instrumental albums and numerous (sometimes collaborative) performances later, the duo has doubled to include percussionist Andrew Barr and harpist Sarah Page and completed its third full-length album. Both developments can be attributed to the late Lhasa de Sela, a Montreal vocalist and common thread between all four band members.
Lhasa passed away due to breast cancer at the age of 37 on January 1, 2010, and in her remembrance, Esmerine created La Lechuza, a beautiful, moving album. With several guest artists (including Colin Steton, Sarah Neufeld of Arcade Fire, and Patrick Watson) and the addition of steel drums, violin, harp, and saxophone, La Lechuza is a testimony to Esmerine’s musical progression.
ALARM caught up with Foon, Esmerine’s cellist, to discuss the band’s expansion, its new record, and its inspiration.
What was the initial motivation to create your own musical project as Esmerine?
We (Becky and Bruce) met recording the first Set Fire To Flames record, Sings Reign Rebuilder, in 2001 and became really interested in exploring the world of cello and melodic percussion. Bruce and I started to improvise together quite a bit, which then naturally evolved into writing songs. About a year later, we decided to record our first record at the Hotel 2 Tango in Montreal.
During the six-year time span between Aurora in 2005 and La Lechuza, was Esmerine on a hiatus, or were you just waiting for an appropriate time to start another album?
Bruce and I had been playing the occasional Esmerine show in Montreal since our last round of touring in 2005-06, inviting various guests to join us for some of them, but we hadn’t been thinking much about future recording. Lhasa asked us to open up for her in Montreal in 2009, which we did as a duo, and that’s where we met Sarah and Andrew, who were in her band at that point. We really hit it off, and soon after we invited Sarah and Andrew to join in an Esmerine show (where Lhasa also sang on a song), and everything evolved very naturally from there.
How has your compositional and instrumental approach evolved since Esmerine’s debut record, If Only a Sweet Surrender to the Nights to Come Be True in 2003?
Certainly, it’s a more dynamic and iterative process, simply due to the larger group with more ideas (and more instruments) being brought to the table. Sarah plays harp and dulcimer, and Andrew plays drums, marimba, gamelan — these are very complementary instruments to the “melodic percussion” foundations of Esmerine.
What opportunities has the transition from a duo to a quartet offered you as a band?
Now, due to the fact that we are a quartet, we can develop arrangements much more in a context of live playing and group improvisation, which is really fun for us, where previously Bruce and I would be doing a lot of multi-tracking to get there.
How did Lhasa influence you, personally and musically, and in what ways has that influence continued since her passing?
We all laughed a lot with Lhasa, and she definitely was a huge inspiration to me musically. It’s hard to summarize anything about this without sounding trite, but Lhasa had a true sense of wonder and love for life that was very special and powerful, and she continues to have a profound impact on everyone in the group.
What role did music play in helping you to cope with Lhasa’s loss? Do you feel that the process of making La Lechuza was somewhat of an analogous journey with your own coping processes?
I find it very difficult to describe or even understand how life experience manifests or translates itself into music. La Lechuza developed very organically, and there definitely was and continues to be a strong chemistry between the four of us. We were starting to make music together with Lhasa, and creating this record was also a chance for us to bring to fruition the ideas we were starting to develop with her.
How do you convey emotion — especially something as deep-rooted as mourning in songs like “Walking Through Mist,” “Sprouts,” and “Au Crépuscule, Sans Laisse” — without using lyrics and vocals? Was that a contributing factor in choosing to incorporate vocals on La Lechuza?
I suppose the main thing that has actually changed since the two previous records is that we have started to incorporate vocals on this record. Much of the singing on La Lechuza is linked to the album paying tribute to Lhasa. But we are mostly known for being an instrumental band, and [we] enjoy exploring a musical language while trying to convey emotion without the use of words.
Considering that “lechuza” translates to “owl” in Spanish, and the owl imagery / Owl Conservatory link on the “Snow for Lhasa” website, what is the significance of the owl on La Lechuza?
Lhasa loved owls, and we really wanted to do something for her — honor her in some way on the one-year anniversary of her passing. We wanted to give people the opportunity to make a donation in memory of Lhasa, and launched the Snow Day for Lhasa site in her memory on January 1, 2010. When Lhasa died, it snowed for four days straight in Montreal. The donations are going to help protect Snowy Owls in Canada.
Esmerine has previously worked with several guest artists, but with La Lechuza being such a genuinely emotive album, how were the collaborations on this album (Patrick Watson, Sarah Page, Colin Stetson, Sarah Neufeld) different than others?
We feel really honored and grateful to all our friends who helped this record see the light of day. Patrick Watson’s generosity and talent was an amazing contribution. Patrick recorded most of the record, so it was a very natural process for him to collaborate musically as well. He was also a very dear friend of Lhasa’s, and together, we all wanted to compose a kind of lullaby for Lhasa (which developed into “Snow Day”). Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson are very close friends and musicians I play a lot with in different contexts, so it feels really special to have them on this record.
What’s next for Esmerine?
We are planning a fall European tour and hopefully some North American touring as well. We also plan to do a few special shows that feature some guests that also play on the record.