Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Interview: Madison Violet (part I)

Madison Violet are a Canadian singer-songwriter duo who do enough country-esque songs to qualify for inclusion on this site (and it's my site, so I get to decide anyway!). The duo - who are Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac - have released four albums and just get better and better all the time, both in songwriting and performance.

I first saw them play in January 2008 and, like everyone else in the small crowd, was entranced by what two guitars and two voices could produce: simply, they're magic. And they're currently on tour in Australia so I urge you to go and see them. Last week, ahead of that tour, it was my great, great pleasure to speak to Brenley MacEachern (at right in this photo). I was especially interested in talking about the very long, firm songwriting partnership she has with Lisa and how they make that work.

Is that Lisa?
Oh, you actually were supposed to get Lisa but she’s actually super under the weather today and is having a hard time even talking. She’s got a nasty cold so I’m taking care of the interview today.

Oh no, that’s quite all right, I’m very happy to talk to you, Brenley.
All right.

I was actually – I was going to say to Lisa, I interviewed her brother Ashley, many years ago when his first album was out and I was living in Vancouver for a year. So when I first heard about you guys, I saw you play in a little church hall in Hornsby in Sydney about four years ago, I think, and I remember thinking that there can’t be too many MacIsaacs who are in music from the Maritime Provinces [of Canada].
Well, there actually are but there’s not that many that play the fiddle, I guess.

That’s true. So you’re both from the Maritimes, is that right?
Well, my roots are there, my father is from the same town that Lisa is from, it’s a community of 330 people. So we kind of – we actually had no idea, when we first met, that our families knew one another but when we found out where she was from, then it was – she had to know all my family, she knows them better than I do.

And I think you told a story when I saw you play – you mentioned that until you met Lisa, you hadn’t met someone else who was from such a large family, because either in your generation or the generation above that there were sixteen children or something.
Yeah, my mum is one of ten, my dad is one of sixteen and then Lisa has fifteen and eighteen on her side. So, yeah, it’s kind of a crazy-sized family.

Is that kind of common on the east coast of Canada amongst those Irish/Scottish communities, or are you two unusual?
Well, I think it is fairly common, although whenever we ask people if anyone has got a bigger family, no one seems to. So, I think maybe it’s not as common as we had first thought that it was.

So, you two – your writing partnership really fascinates me – I actually do think of you as being Lennon/McCartney-esque because you’ve got this long-standing collaboration that just gets stronger and stronger with each album, and so I’m really interested in how you can collaborate for so long and so consistently. How did that start and do you ever write songs without each other?
Well, when we first started writing together, Lisa kind of came from the fiddle sort of Celtic background, so she wasn’t writing songs, and I had already written a couple of records with my old band Zoebliss, so I was sort of – the role I played was writing the songs and then Lisa started playing guitar and then all of a sudden started. I think the first song she ever wrote was a song called 'Prayed', which was on our Caravan record, and then we started this collaborative effort and it just – I think because Lisa and I have some really kind of crazy similarities, in that we both have been able to sort of finish each other’s sentences and it’s almost like we share one brain, it makes it really easy to ... I come up with an idea or she comes up with an idea and the next – and we already know how it’s going to end because the other person is there to do it. This last record, wrote, I think, one song just on her own — it’s called 'Going Away' — and I wrote a couple of songs just on my own, and I think it’s just because we had some more sort of – there was a little more separation between when we wrote on the road, then we weren’t together and I think that that was kind of a new thing for us.

It sounds like you never have any arguments about song writing, but you must find that this is really unusual, that you have this synergy with each other. I can’t imagine you’ve come across too many songwriting partnerships, or even creative partnerships, that are like this?
You kind of just have to leave your ego at the door, I guess, and I’m not saying that it’s always blissful. Sometimes one of us will have an idea and the other person is kind of like, ;Well, I don’t know', butbefore you can get sensitive about it, you just have to realise that we’re trying to create together, and if one of us isn’t loving it, then it’s probably – it’s not going to be a presentation of both of [us] – the story that we’re trying to tell. So it’s better that I just write the song on my own or she does and then that’s the story. But more often than not, we just – if she doesn’t like something that I’ve come up with, quite often, I don’t really like it either, I was just getting lazy, you know what I mean?

So, it’s good to have her to tell me that I’m lazy and vice versa.

When you were out in Australia last time I think you got a hire car and you just drove – I remember you telling a story about where you were driving and I thought you’d probably seen more of Australia than most Australians. It seems like you’re constantly on the road and I was wondering how that amount of performing changes how you perform and write, but also how you relate to each other?
Well, we had to make some serious changes. When we were in Australia first time we bought a car and we drove ourselves from gig to gig, and think we did forty shows the first time we were there. Now, when we go, we still do a lot of shows but we have a tour manager who does all the driving and we also have a bass player that usually comes with us. So the team is a little bit bigger out on the road so you get a little more time to yourself, and I think that that really sort of enables us to keep going. We do get tired, we do get weary, we’re trying to sort of – I mean, even on this tour that we’re going on, we’ve actually taken days off in between that we could have probably played every single day, but we turned down shows so that we could just have some time off in between. So, we’re taking a little vacation while we’re there, because we need it. We do sometimes get at each other. We do get along very, very well, but there are times where we want to scratch each other’s eyeballs out. So we have to take care of that.

It doesn’t surprise me - it must get pretty intense. Your dynamic on stage ... I saw a couple of gigs when you were out here last, and I’ve actually never seen so many people buy CDs at the end of a gig, it was almost like you had this little girlie fan rush but a lot of them were guys — it was quite interesting to watch — and I was one of them, I’ve got to say. But it’s almost an alchemy, I guess, that happens in performance, in any performance, but with you two, that sense of synergy really comes through and I get the sense that for you guys, no two gigs are ever the same but there’s always the sense of it flowing.
Yeah, I mean, if they start to feel like the same, then we quickly change it. We can do the same set list for twenty shows in a row, because that's kind of what you do, but somehow the show is never the same. Like, there may be some stories that we want to share night after night, but the way we share them is always different because of the different energy in the audience, it’s not the same numbers so it never comes out quite the same, and the reaction is always completely different. So I think our show is very much a conversation, and maybe that’s why people – and we do sell – I don’t even say this to brag, it’s kind of like we’ll finish a show and we’ll be settling up with the merchandise people and they’ll be like, 'Wow, we’ve never sold this manyCDs at a show'. And maybe it is that it is a bit of a conversation back and forth between the audience and ourselves and they want to leave with a memory of that, I don’t know. I mean, it’s not really a memory of that because it’s the record, but it’s ... do you know what I mean? Like it’s – sort like they want to leave with a piece of the night.

I went to a show in Canberra as well last time you were here — I loved your gig so much when I saw you in Sydney that I said to a friend in Canberra, 'They’re playing in Canberra, I’m coming down', and I took this friend and another friend who lived down there, they both who had no idea who you were. I think they were kind of partially interested, but at the end of the show, they were rushing over to buy CDs.
[Laughs] Take all your friends. Bring all your friends all the time.

Well, I will! And talking about your records, I thought the first two were great and then I heard your second two and they’re quite different musically, but also there was a real sense, I think, by No Fool for Trying, that your voices were actually coming closer together — not that you couldn’t harmonise before, because you absolutely could, but there was just a sense that they were really together and I don’t know if you felt that, but that’s what I noticed.
Yeah, I think it just kind of happened organically, the more – we kind of had that synergy together when we first met and I think we just started to blend and [our voices] were like very tight right from the get-go, but as we started to play together for years and years, and hundreds and hundreds of shows, it just got incredibly tight, just because of playing. And, actually, it’s funny, because when we went in to make No Fool for Trying, we went in with a different producer this time, Les Cooper, and he wanted us to kind of try to sing not so tight, you know what I mean? Just let it – loosen it up a bit, but it’s impossible for us, it’s not something we try to do, it just is. And to try to not sing what’s coming out naturally, is like – it’s impossible. So, yeah, I think he kind of wanted us to be a little more loosey-goosey and so when we were harmonising, they weren’t like bang on, but they kind of just are.

When you sing together so many times, I don’t know how you would stop being tight together like that because your voices would just be used to each other. It’s probably not even something you can consciously control at all, even if someone sat you down and said, 'Right, you’re going to sing this and you’re going to sing that'. Having seen you two play, I think there is another dynamic at work that’s completely subconscious and that’s what really brings it together.

Part II of this interview will be published tomorrow.

Madison Violet are touring Sydney, Melbourne and other places in NSW and Victoria. For information go to:

The latest Madison Violet album is The Good in Goodbye. But they're all great!

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