The Rural Alberta Advantage On Evolving With New Members and Inspiration

Toronto-based trio currently hard at work on the band's next album.

Toronto-based folk rockers The Rural Alberta Advantage will release a new record in 2017, this much we know. While we’re not sure when the band’s fourth full-length will be available, the trio has unveiled two new songs and road-tested new material since the fall of last year.

The band underwent a personnel change in September of 2016 when longtime keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole departed and Robin Hatch stepped in. Since then, The Rural Alberta Advantage have shared songs “White Lights” and “Beacon Hill,” which have effectively served as an assurance that all is well with the reformatted lineup.

Singer/guitarist Nils Edenloff, drummer Paul Banwatt, and Hatch spoke to Indie88 about their unconventional approach to releasing new album material, drawing inspiration Edenloff’s connection to his wildfire-devastated hometown of Fort McMurray, and new directions.

Indie88: What was the genesis of the unique approach planned for releasing material from the forthcoming record?

Robin Hatch: The process was pretty organic. When I joined the band last summer, the primary focus was to prepare the live set since there were some festival plays coming up, and we’d work on writing new songs during any downtime. I think what started off being more about time commitments and convenience ended up being a trigger for a reminder of the band’s roots of touring new material and working out kinks on the road. Releasing songs as they come together through these shows, emphasizing the live performance and being able to involve the immediate fan feedback we get has been a great way to get music out there in more of a real-time way.

Indie88: The song “Beacon Hill” touches on themes centred around last spring’s devastating wildfires in Fort McMurray, Did those events have a significant impact on the creative process for other new material?

Nils Edenloff: I feel like inspiration tends to come at the oddest of times and sometimes it’s hard to pin down exactly what impact certain events have on the songs that ultimately come together. It’s not like I was watching the news of the Fort McMurray fire and thought, “there needs to be a song about this,” however as we were working on what would ultimately become “Beacon Hill,” a lot of thoughts I had about the fire kept coming up and it became more apparent what the song was about for me.

Our music tends to come from a very personal place and you never know when an event will make its way into the songs. As of right now, I can’t really predict the impact that the fire in Fort McMurray will have on other material going forward but then again when I left Alberta the last thing I figured I would be doing would be writing homesick songs about a province that I chose to leave. But here we are.


 
Indie88: I read in an old interview that “Departing” was RAA knowing who you were and “Mended with Gold” was the band at its most confident. How has the lineup change affected the band’s identity?

Paul Banwatt: Amy was a big part of the band—in the early days the lineup fluctuated a lot, but things came into focus when it was the three of us, so Amy will always be part of our identity and our story. But we’ve been a band for over 10 years now, and so I think change has also been really good for us. Robin’s been a friend for a long time and is just an unbelievable musician and creative force. She’s helped push us in new directions, and her voice and musicianship is really apparent in our new material. It’s exciting because we still feel like the same band, but with a renewed energy that she’s bringing to the music.

Indie88: Themes like growing old and/or change are common in your material, was there an elevated element of that in working on new material this time around?

Robin: In my experience with the band so far, the songs have mostly been stitched together more through their musical components.

We actually performed at The New York Times back in November, a couple hours before the US election results started coming in. It was interesting to be a fly on the wall, witnessing the nervous energy of the staff. The following night, we played for a crowd in Brooklyn who seemed more than a little shell-shocked by the election results.

The contrast between the curious excitement at The Times, and the quiet sense of defeat in the audience in Brooklyn will stick with me; the way news can shift the mood of an entire population is interesting. On a less depressing note, we played in Chicago just after the Cubs had won the World Series after 108 years, and everybody there was walking around on Cloud 9. Change can still be exciting.

It’s probably inevitable that the new songs will deal with change in some regard, although I’m not sure how different that is compared to the writing process before I joined the band. Certainly having a new band member is a kind of change for Nils and Paul, but on a broader level, the change happening globally lately definitely feels elevated.

Indie88: You shared a playlist of inspiration for the new record’s first single “White Lights,” what’s been the most surprising source of inspiration for the band in this process?

Paul: When we were just starting our writing process we tried bringing in some outside help to see if it could take our music in a new, better direction. It’s not something we’d ever seriously considered before, and honestly, it didn’t really work out. I guess the most surprising thing in that sense has been realizing that the music really needs to come from us. I’m sure every band would say this, but I don’t really think we sound like anyone else. And I think that comes from the fact that we’re all drawing strong inspiration from such different places.

Our writing happens in fits and starts. We’ll sputter along and then all of a sudden some little bit of inspiration will trigger something out of nowhere. We’ll bang our heads against the wall for months sometimes trying to elevate a catchy hook into something more special. Then some word or idea will pop into Nils’ head and we’ll suddenly be playing an entirely new song built around it. We used to think that was a problem that we needed to fix, but I think we’re getting more comfortable with the idea that it’s just the way writing happens for us.

Here’s a look at the “White Lights” inspiration playlist that The Rural Alberta Advantage shared with Indie88.

Paul

The Dodos – “Don’t Try and Hide It”
I could pick 30 Dodos songs. The guitar/drum/vocal interplay is always so perfect and beautiful.

Telekinesis – “Car Crash”
Just a perfect poppy song .

Hop Along – “The Knock”
I like interesting voices, and Frances Quinlan’s voice is like a raspy version of Liz Powell from Land of Talk.

Local Natives – “Past Lives”
I just love how Local Natives use rhythm, dynamics and soaring vocals to create these shamelessly emotional and epic songs.

Nils

The Walkmen – “On the Water”
I’ve been a fan of The Walkmen from the very beginning however You & Me is probably one of my favourites. The whole record has this feeling of emptiness and distance, its also feels like an intentionally mature step forward from the noisiness of the earlier records. Regardless, I really love the sound of the whole record, man that guitar sound is just great.

Gordon Lightfoot – “Black Day in July”
I was recently listening to The United Artist Collection and, while it wasn’t the first time I’d heard “Black Day in July,” I was totally thrown by how I never really paid attention to how chaotic the drums are on it. Its like the whole song is a drum solo, but at the same time it still feels like it perfectly supports the song.

Paavoharju – “Italialaisella Laivalla”
I feel like this song is a perfect example that sometime you don’t really need to understand the lyrics of a song to truly feel it. I don’t have the foggiest idea of what the song is actual about but I’ve got a pretty good idea.

Mountains – “Telescope”
I picked this LP up on a whim when we had a night off in Washington during the album release tour for “Mended with Gold.” I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is about this song that gets me but there is this mix of minimalism and drone that is super hypnotic. The songs starts off with a folky strummed acoustic guitar before it descends into this ambient electronic haze, regardless I’ve been listening to it a lot.

Robin

Tom Petty – “Refugee”
This song is basically the template for tasteful keyboard work… Benmont Tench’s organs perfectly complement the mood and colour of this song, like sparkling yellow-orange paint lines on a freshly-paved highway.

Rush – “Subdivisions”
Not sure there exists a better use of the synth bass pedal. And what a keyboard solo! Coming from the Toronto suburbs myself, I feel very close to this song lyrically, and I do love a smooth time signature change. Wish I knew how to program an Oberheim like these guys.

Martha and the Muffins – “Echo Beach”
Before Toronto named a lakefront venue after this song, “Echo Beach” was meant as a metaphor for finding inner solace from the daily grind. I like the catchy riff, arpeggiated stuff and flute parts, and singer Martha Johnson’s vocal timbre is something special.

Peter Schilling – “Major Tom”
I’ve been hearing this song on the easy rock station in Toronto a lot lately… The chorus melody sounds like something Beethoven might have written. Almost brings a tear to your eye! Okay, the rest of the song maybe seems a bit phoned in, but that chorus is New Wave gold.