"A friend told me it was Saturn returns and that may be true. I was
about to turn thirty and I knew that if I didn't change direction I was going
to end up exactly where I was headed."
At the end of Leif Vollebekk's twenties, his own songs didn't
sound right. He had spent an entire year on the road, playing almost 100 shows,
but every night his favourite moment came only right at the end, covering a
song by Ray Charles or Townes Van Zandt. Every time he got home from tour he
took a hot shower and lay still under a window, listening to Nick Drake's Pink Moon, feeling saved, wondering why
his own music didn't give him that. Why the songs he had written himself always
felt like so much work.
He booked himself a secret show. One night only at a Montreal
dive bar -- not to play his own songs but other people's. Leif found a rhythm
section and they rehearsed once. Then midnight unspooled. Leif called it the
most fun he had ever had playing music: Ray Charles and Tom Waits over a locked
groove; Bob Dylan and Kendrick Lamar over a slow pulse. The light was dark blue
It was time, Leif understood, to make a dark blue and purple
record. An album of locked groove and slow pulse, heavy as a fever. And the
lesson he learned from singing all those other people's songs was that none of
those other artists seemed worried about anything except laying down their own
souls, flat out. "I used to think, 'This will be kinda like a Neil Young
song,' 'This will be kinda like a Bob Dylan song,'" he recalled. "I
kinda ran out of people to imitate. And then there was just me."
His first new song came to him on his bicycle. He wasn't
thinking, wasn't trying, but the rhythm, the chords, the melody -- it all just
fluttered up. He tried at first to let it go: the song wasn't meticulous
enough, it wasn't studied or conceived. The next morning it still came back to
him, incontestable. "I told myself, 'You're never saying no to a song ever
again,'" Leif said. "I realized I had been saying 'no' to a lot of
songs, over the years." Twin
Solitude is what happened when Leif stopped saying no. The songs started
coming so fast: fully formed, impossible. "Vancouver Time" took 15
minutes; "Telluride" took less. It was as if the songs were waiting
for him. Instead of obsessing about the details of recording, "I just
showed up to the studio and went, 'Let's see what happens.'"
What happened was, they got it: "Big Sky Country" and
its patient, coasting tranquility, "Into the Ether," which rides to
reverie with the Brooklyn string duo Chargaux. There's "East of Eden,"
an interpolation of Gillian Welch, which doesn't seem like it ever ought to
end. For a beautiful album, Twin Solitude
is deceptively brave, filled with unexpected refrains. "When the cards get
stuck together / so hard to pull them apart," Leif sings, "I think
your face is showing." Then: "Ain't the first time that it's snowing."
Yet in its heart, above all, Twin
Solitude is a gesture back to Leif's long nights under a pink moon, when a
record was the only thing that could keep him company. Besides a wink to Hugh
MacLennan's novel "Two Solitudes," this is the unlonely loneliness of
the album's title. "It isn't a record I made for other people -- it's the
one I made for myself," Leif said. "It's the album I wish I could
have put on."
Listen to it in a rental car in cold weather, with the windows
all rolled up. Listen to it laying by an open window. Listen to it all the way
through, alone. "By the time the last notes die away, all that's left
should be you," Leif told me. "And I'll be somewhere else. And that's