Leif Vollebekk is one of Canada's finest and most underappreciated singer-songwriters. This Saturday, as part of Pop Montreal, he's convened a group of friends for a Tom Waits tribute night called Shut Up and Eat Your Ballads. I spoke with Vollebekk about Waits, playing other people's songs and his "infinitely delayed" new record.
Drew Nelles: So what do you have planned for the evening?
Leif Vollebekk: It's going to be pretty ramshackle, which I think is a good thing. It's going to be a few of us: me, Brad Barr, Michael Feuerstack, Little Scream, Adam [Kinner], Kat Palumbo, and everybody sounds amazing. We're all going to do two or three songs each, and try to conjure up some of that old nostalgia for the late seventies early eighties.
DN: Whose idea was it?
LV: It was mine. I got asked to play the Breakglass [Studios] show, and because my infinitely delayed record isn't out yet, I didn't want to do a show and play a bunch of new songs without a record. It seemed like a bad time for me to play a show, but I really wanted to play and have fun. At first I wanted to do a Dylan record, but I was talking to Hans [Bernhand] and he was like, "Why don't you do Tom Waits? It's so predictable to do a Dylan thing." And I was like, "That's actually what I want to do. I don't know why I didn't think of that."
DN: What songs are you doing? Or is it a surprise?
LV: Laurel [Sprengelmeyer, of Little Scream] is going to do "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis." Laurel's actually going to kill it. The whole female-singing-male thing—she really picked it well in these two songs. Because usually it's Tom Waits singing like he's reading the letter from the hooker. But you know when, in a movie, they're reading a letter, and then slowly the voice of the guy reading the letter is cross-faded with the voice of the person who wrote the letter? It's kind of like that—she's the cross-faded echo voice. It's really something to hear her become this wayward prostitute.
DN: What attracted you to the idea of doing a Tom Waits night?
LV: There's two reasons. One, I kind of do things really methodically. I go methodically through artists. I went through all of Dylan's records over the last four years one at a time, and then I listened to almost all of Neil Young's records, and now I'm coming out of a Tom Waits period. I read Tom Waits on Tom Waits, this interview book, and it's really fascinating to see him as sort of a performance artist in these interviews. So I learned a lot about how he toys with perceptions of himself. And the songs really breathe on their own. You start playing them and they come alive. And I started stealing his piano licks and stuff, so it was a good excuse to play piano.
And the other thing is that I've been playing a lot of covers again recently, to get good again. All my musical skills came from playing the Beatles and Aerosmith in high school. And I wrote all kinds of songs when I was playing other people's songs because you learn so much about what you like. Having finished this record and working on new songs, I hadn't learned anybody's songs since five years ago, when I started playing music. So I've been trying to learn other people's songs and play them from the other side. We all get a little bit better when we play other people's songs because there's no ego involved.
DN: What can you tell us about the infinitely delayed record?
LV: The infinitely delayed record is the best thing I could have ever done, and the rest of my life will be a shadow behind it. It will come out in the winter, and I'm going to tour the crap out of it and hopefully people will like it. I'm really happy about it, which is a hard way to feel with a record.
Everything is to two-inch tape, and one song is to one-inch four-track. So it's kind of this lo-fi-hi-fi thing. Everything sounds clear and old. In a way, it's accumulating a lot of dust, which makes it sound like an old record.