Discussing Artistic Imbalance and Integrity with July Talk

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“We were down with [the release date,] to play [our band name] off it – especially for new fans,” says July Talk vocalist, Peter Dreimanis, of the chosen release date for the Toronto, Ontario band’s third full length album, Pray for It.

While the album’s timeline of completion makes for some serendipitous wordplay, the deliberately worded and musically-jarring nature the quintet’s newest 11 tracks is serendipitous for far less cheeky reasons. July Talk’s (Peter Dreimanis, vocals; Leah Fay, vocals; Ian Docherty, guitar; Josh Warburton, bass; Danny Miles, drums) new record boldly addresses publicly tumultuous issues of depression, economic disparity, racial injustice, and rage-fueled emotional instability, among other subjects.

Never a group to resign itself to generic topics or ubiquitous sonic character, Pray For It isn’t July Talk’s first venture into more serious narrative affairs. However, the collision of the band’s intentional message-driven songwriting and the torrent of socio-political breaking points in the months leading up to the release of Pray For It establishes the perfect storm for the album’s concepts to have even more impact than its predecessors. Speaking on a call from across the Canadian border, vocalists Dreimanis and Leah Fay delved into several facets of the motivations behind the music on Pray For It, as well as discussing what the band stands for and aspires to achieve as they move forward.

“I think with [Pray for It] being our third record, that really allowed us to do what felt right. In our first two records, we were battling at it as a live band, playing 200 shows a year, and [were] really focused on the sound that we create on stage together [as] the guiding force for what we’re recording in the studio,” says Dreimanis.

“What I think we’re connecting to – and this is a main theme on the record – is just that free will is a hell of a drug,” he continues. “And to sense the humanity within something is such a main line of energy that goes into you when you hear someone’s humanity and hear someone actually being themselves. Because I think right now, for so many reasons, free will feels to be in danger through algorithms and through just like, mass production [in] society and all of that. And I think as a band, there’s is huge pressures to kind of write for radio and try to develop the band in a cookie-cutter kind of way.

Fay on the other hand, pivots to fleshing out the nuts of bolts of the mindset July Talk held as the beginnings of Pray For It came together. The kind of scenario-specific focus mentioned by Dreimanis persists but when sitting down to actually write and craft the melodies and sonic shape of the record, Fay hones in on another mode of thinking and emotional objective that, though seemingly vague, actually helped the band to land on additional specificity with regard to what they aspired to experience in reaction to the music.

“In terms of finding sonic identity, there was also just a lot of listening to other songs without the idea of, ‘Let’s make it sound like this,’ and more just putting a song on in the studio or the control room or our little jam shed and being like, ‘At this part, I want it make me feel the way this [other] song makes me feel’,” says Fay

“And often,” she continues, “I don’t think that really has anything to do with what’s happening sonically but more just like, indescribable feelings and then trying to capture something that you can’t quite put your finger one but you know when you finally put your finger on it.”

Not intent on idly dismissing or pretending the current global chaos and social upheaval isn’t happening, Dreimanis makes a point to also acknowledge the value of July Talk’s own interpersonal bonds as an element of contribution to Pray For Its success as well. This is particularly noteworthy given the fact that the very chaos that failed to put a strain on the band makes up the inspirational foundation for so much of the album itself.

“I think we’re really healthy right now, just in terms of our relationships with each other, even though the world around us is totally falling apart. I think there’s a confidence that comes from healthy friendships and collaborative relationships. And I think that just really allowed us to follow our hearts with every song and let the songs really light the way,” says Dreimanis.

Still, discussing the abstract of what an artist strives for through the listening experience of an album is one thing but the objective observations that present themselves after all is said and done is another. The melodies, rhythms, and part prioritization across Pray For It varies greatly with or without guided context. Yet, beyond the sonic potpourri, the parallel depth of variety in the album’s narratives also shakes up the listening dynamic. Put together, the two sides of the songs often create fits of uneven contrast: upbeat melodies and sobering declarations; harmonious and floating vocals with serious emotional crises. It’s abrupt enough to almost force more attentive listening. While that outcome has its benefits, the incidentally unpredictable nature of the music is more to break conventional expectations given the band’s lineup.

“On our first two albums, and more so on our second album titled Touch, there was a real effort to [write] symmetrically, which I think it where I think the idea of asymmetry comes with [Pray For It]. It was symmetry in terms of catering to a facet that people really like about our band, which is that there are two singers and they sound very different,” Fay says, before elaborating on what the band typically works not to do, and when going into the writing stages of Pray For It, felt was of even more importance to avoid.

“[I]t was important to us that it never sounded like I was singing backups to Peter or that Peter was singing backups to me. [Rather] that [the music] was conversational, that these songs were conversational and that was the statement: that this was an equal playing field. With [Pray For It], there’s an understanding that it might scare people – especially like, old fans of the band who just really like hearing that kind of predictable back and forth. But I think this album was more about honoring nuance and what felt good and right for us as opposed to trying to predict what people want and then feeding it to them without even asking what it is that we’re going through and what it is that we need to honor and what it is that we find important in our truths and in our lives right now.°

It’s not solely about July Talk and the band’s internal vantage point though. Nor is Pray For It a collection of songs that simply runs the gamut of current world crises without stopping to really unpack and spotlight lesser asked questions in so many of today’s soundbite-sized conversations. Mid-album track “Champagne,” which features artists Kyla Charte and James Baley, isa high point in this collection of uncomfortable exchanges. Despite the easygoing flow of the music, the song is given space to directly and unapologetically challenge flawed notions around Black culture and the treatment of Black folks in music (Don’t tell me about my pain / over champagne / allow me to explain).

“I think that, in ideal terms, as a songwriter, you always want your lyrics and the themes you’re exploring to be referenced within the sonic decisions being made and I think that most obviously probably [comes through] with “Champagne.” We wrote that song with our friends James [Baley] and Kyla [Charter] and they appear on the song as well. It’s about privilege and the theft of Black culture in the music industry,” says Dreimanis, as he explains the rationale behind the specific move toward gospel stylization for the song.

“And so, writing this sort of gospel song that referenced this theft within this practice that we’ve been involved with for years [through] playing rock and roll but is all directly [tied] to Black culture for existing…it felt right to use all these samples and try to [apply] the stylistic tone that we were referencing lyrically so it feels like it all gels.”

Meanwhile, with songs like “Good Enough,” when the band is reflecting more inwardly but with a subject that just as well resonates with many in the public (in this case, Fay reflecting over self-worth and struggling with depressive spiraling,) the resulting iteration of sonic and lyrical contrast is being presented with a vastly different aspiration in mind.

“’Good Enough,’ was written in one of those ways where it didn’t really necessarily feel like I wrote it. It felt like what I needed to hear in that moment and in that way it was a very healing process to write or have come through,” Fay says.

“At the same time,” she continues, “in terms of having that have the best impact on the world and on listeners, I do feel really good about the fact that it’s a song that you could dance to 15 times before realizing that it’s a song about being in a depressive spiral and needing to get out of it. I think that is the beauty of writing collaboratively with a band and having five people to bounce things off of. Nothing that any of us ever write individually becomes a July Talk song and remains exactly what it was in its initial form,”

Though Dreimanis can’t speak to the song from the same place of internal conception that Fay can, his own interpretation of what the song ends up providing both musically and emotionally, further displays the solidity of July Talk’s interconnectedness, as well as a level of empathy not always visible in band dynamics, outside of an unexpected crisis.

“I’ve always really liked disguising darkness with light.” Dreimanis says.

“And in ‘Good Enough,’ to me, it came out of this drum machine arrangement that we were experimenting with. [The drums were] kind of taking it into this Blood Orange, sort of Bruce Springsteen sort of [place]. It’s like, there’s this feeling of this driving snare that just runs through the song that just never stops and then there’s a few moments where it just hushes down and you realize how dark [the emotions] Leah is experiencing in the song, really [are]. But, she’s sort of forced into [acknowledging] that the world keeps turning. That often how depression and anxiety and overwhelm really works. Life doesn’t stop and allow you to curl up in the fetal position. You have to keep moving. And so I think that suicidal love-ballad-kind-of-feel is best fit, and best surrounded by, these timeless synths and just a really driven back end. And I love the fact that music can tell you to [get up and move] while the lyrics are acknowledging your pain and allowing you to feel the way you feel,” he says.

While the thought processes behind Pray For It do start out in such a macro place – summarizing on the inequalities of society, the disparate treatment of different people and the problematic conflicts facing the world – July Talk manages to breach all their chosen conversations from changing angles, without letting the initial topical focus get too distorted or wide-reaching. Though “Good Enough,” for example, comes from a place of individual introspection, the song “Pay For It” takes another individual viewpoint and flips it around to try to reach someone who one might not expect to think or engage in the same way they do, as Fay explains.

“[‘Pay For It’] was a song that came from trying to grapple with the systems of oppression that I see around me that I despise so much and that I want to dismantle so badly,” she says.

“I guess to be specific, I’m talking about patriarchy. I’m talking about toxic masculinity. I’m talking about white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fat phobia. I’m sure I’m missing about 100 [others] and I take ownership over my failings in that. But regardless of which system “Pay For It” is specifically referencing, I do hope that it can speak to people on many levels and meet them where they’re at. I think it’s important to have people have the agency to take what they want from something,” says Fay.

One has to wonder of course, amid all this nuanced writing, careful consideration, and passioned urgency surrounding the subjects on Pray For It, how the album shakes out against the unflinching realities that a halted live music sector brings. Rising awareness of just how much musicians depend on touring and why seeing music as free commodity isn’t sustainable if the world wants its familiar level of entertainment, is only picking up speed with every passing day of a closed world. But even knowing that July Talk has achieved some level of success prior to the pandemic – enough even to consider breaking away from the conventional models of money-making – the band has taken the time to discern just where their perception of sincerity falls and how they intend to uphold the kind of personal integrity built into Pray For It, while allowing the band to aim for commercial milestones that will enable it to sustain, hopefully for many more albums and years to come.

“I think [we have] to acknowledge the fact that our understanding of the industry has always been that when we go and show up at a place with all of our gear in a van and we put on a show, that people will pay us to do that and pay for tickets to do that. And then it’s on us to go back to the cities over and over again so that we can try to build up a group of people that want to come and hang out each time. That’s in the sort of contract that we signed in doing the art that we do. I think also we need to acknowledge the fact that we’re a band from Canada and that there’s support coming from radio stations, coming from the government. And we definitely received that and so I think from a strictly philosophical standpoint, [yes,] music needs to hold value,” says Dremanis.

He continues, “I think that the lifestyle of touring is very much in question right now – in danger – and we don’t know when that’s going to return. [But] my favorite thing in the world is to see a hero on stage and to go and buy their LP and what not. That interaction is really special to me and I think that there is still room in our society to value that transaction between an artist and a fan. [At the same time,] I don’t feel entitled. I’m still happy when a streaming service spotlights our tune, you know? That’s a big way that we can get our music out there.

Should we be being paid more for our music? Everybody should. But I’m very comfortable and happy when we’re sort of prioritized by these giant corporations so that more people hear the music. Like, how could I be upset by that? Thousands more people being exposed to what we do?  That’s why we’re doing it. Trying to make people emote and feel things and dance. And so I’m very grateful as to how quickly music can spread through these services. I acknowledge that in the past, before these services existed, it was a lot harder to spread your band around and find fans and get signed and all that stuff. [Thankfully,] I think that [July Talk] is at a point now where we’re searching, and in the next year we’re going to have a lot more autonomy when it comes to our music and the way it’s sold.”

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