In Her Element

By Chrissy Steinbock — Fri, 12/09/2014 - 09:11

This Saturday, local songstress Kaleigh Watts releases her debut album Smoke Lake at the NAC 4th stage. The album is described as an experimental project featuring “voice, organic textures, and field recordings of Smoke Lake's soundscape.. Having listened through many times over now, I can tell you that this is a collection of haunting songs that will stay with you. I met up with Watts to learn more about the making of the album, her creative process and why Smoke Lake was the right place for the recording project.

Watts is originally from a small town called Lakefield, (20 minutes north of Peterborough) and has been in Ottawa for the last four years, studying songwriting in the music program at Carleton University. Already, she’s performed at a number of notable area venues, such as the Black Sheep Inn, Raw Sugar Cafe and Zaphod’s and she’s shared bills with Ottawa favorites Lynn Miles, Three Little Birds and Kalle Mattson. After ten years of steady writing, performing and wanting to release an album, the stars aligned for Watts to record her debut album. Part of this alignment was Watts meeting and finding a creative kinship with Gabrielle Giguere (Her Harbour), who engineered and produced the project.

The album is named for the place at the centre of the project, Watts’ family cabin on Smoke Lake Algonquin Park, where most of the album was recorded. It’s clear that this is a place freighted with significance for Watts. “It’s a family place for me and it’s a place where I grew up. It’s always been there. I’m so fascinated by ancestry and where you come from and I think that played an important part of the album with the recording process being in the space because the cabin has been in my family for a couple of generations. It’s been a really special place for a lot of people who I’ve never even met. I feel their energy when I’m there. It’s weird.”

While some people describe the recording process as stressful and tedious, Watts describes recording Smoke Lake in playful terms saying, “we didn’t plan anything. I had all the music written before I went out there but as far as what we were going to do once out there, we just left it all up to the moment and I think that’s what was really special about the project. Gabby and I went in a boat and went to the other side of the lake and walked all of our equipment on a portage trail and set up microphone stands and equipment in the middle of the forest. But it was all, ‘oh why don’t we do this?’ And ‘well, this is a crazy idea but let’s do it anyway.’”

Smoke Lake features Watts’ soulful vocals upfront in the mix, supported by rhythmic fingerpicked guitar figures, piano and Wurlitzer, all enveloped by a lush sonic atmosphere of textural elements and natural sounds. There’s something spooky about the way the authority and low range of Watts’ voice combines with the poetry of her lyrics, making her sound like a seer, the tracks captured from a séance. The eeriness is greatly enhanced by the cast of unconventional sounds in the background. It is these kinds of sounds from sources unknown, after all, that evoke anxiety in horror film soundtracks. The track credits list an array of ringy and percussive instruments from chimes, glockenspiel and rumble stick to varying bells, and even a fishbowl. Explaining the phrase “organic instrumentation”, Watts explained: “There are a lot of bowed objects, like bowed glasses, we have bowed cymbal and glockenspiel. The only electronic instrument on the album is a Wurlitzer. There’s an instrument called lake ice mug in the credits. We went up when it was still cold and there was still ice on the water so we had to break through the ice getting up there so it was the sound of the mug hitting the ice and the sound . . . an instrument couldn’t make that” (listen for it on Savour). Then, of course there are the sounds of Smoke Lake’s soundscape which intermingle with the intentional sonic textures. As Watts says, “the field recordings are more to bring people into the atmosphere and to feel like you’re in the space when you listen to the album. I wanted people to get to experience what I’ve been so fortunate to experience”. The album’s vision of capturing the feel of a wild, isolated place seems like a sonic analog of other ways of bottling pieces of the wild like wildflowers pressed between glass or taxidermy and the record carries the same aura of rarity about it.

The release show Saturday will reflect the two sides of Watts’ musical personality, the acoustic, organic facet in the first half with a complete performance of Smoke Lake, and the urban, electronic-influenced side in the second half with a set of songs inspired by her time in the city. Watts will be joined onstage by drummers Alexy Guerer and Kira Montfort, who will endeavour to recreate the album, complete with the unusual atmospheric sonic textures and field recordings. The intimacy and sound quality of the 4th stage is as good a fit for Watts as the textured arrangements on Smoke Lake, and this lucky match promises a memorable show Saturday night. Hope to see you there.

Kaleigh Watts Smoke Lake Album Release Show
Saturday,  Sept 13, 2014
National Arts Centre 4th stage
Doors 7pm, show 7:30pm
Tickets $15 in advance, $20 at door

Physical version of the Smoke Lake will be for sale at the show. You can also buy the digital version through iTunes and Bandcamp.

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