Leif Vollebekk: Off the Grid
“The best drum machine ever is a human being,” says Leif Vollebekk, underscoring the organic aesthetic of his fourth LP. With the soulful New Ways, the Montreal native aimed to escape “the grid” of modern music production: rejecting rigid metronomes in favor of the wavering pulse of a drummer, recording live to tape instead of endlessly editing in software. “The computer or the click track is a robot, so you’re working within robotic time,” he reflects. “You can be human within it, but I want the human to be on the outside.” New Ways exudes humanity. Over the fluid, oceanic piano chords of “Never Be Back,” Vollebekk alternates between a raspy Ray Charles moan and rapid-fire Kendrick Lamar triplet rhymes—occasionally just ahead of or behind the beat, depending on where the groove takes him. “It’s basically only about the feel,” he says, noting the record’s discarded placeholder title, The Way That You Feel. Given how gracefully these songs flow, it’s surprising to learn the album nearly didn’t exist. Discouraged by the collective shrug that greeted his first two LPs, a pair of folky projects more blatantly inspired by his formative hero Bob Dylan, Vollebekk contemplated pivoting to another career altogether: “I thought, ‘If this doesn’t work, I might hang it up for a little while,’” he recalls. “Nobody needs another record, and I don’t need to keep recording when people aren’t coming to the shows.” He decided to go out on his own terms: Ignoring any kind of outside perceptions of his music, he wound up crafting his 2017 breakout, Twin Solitude, a set of “chill” ballads that generated an influx of Spotify streams, TV syncs and a shortlist nod for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize. New Ways, then, was built on the foundation of that goodwill. He wanted to “connect with people,” to be less meditative and “solipsistic.” So he used a bare-bones recording process that broke down almost every barrier between artist and listener: In the studio, he played and sang accompanied by a live drummer, later embellishing the tracks with unobtrusive bass and strings to “shape” the atmosphere. Having “cleansed his palette” of balladry, he moved away from “ethereal” sounds into a vibe slightly more upbeat, tighter sounding and direct. “For the longest time, I thought I wasn’t supposed to have feel,” Vollebekk says, reflecting on his sonic evolution. Now that feel is everything.