Although 2013 has been a big year for reunions, there have also been a noteworthy number of first-time collaborations, such as Devon Sproule & Mike O’Neill, who released their first album as a duo, Colours, in October on Tin Angel Records. Devon Sproule has spent the past decade and a half blending Americana with a Jazz aesthetic. She’s gained critical acclaim for her solo albums, as well as a number of noteworthy collaborations, most notably those with husband and singer/songwriter Paul Curreri, who have lived and toured across numerous corners of the world since marrying in 2005. Mike O’ Neill is a Canadian musician, best known for his work with the band Inbreds. Sproule and O’Neill first came together while working on a somewhat avant-garde video project in which Sproule cuts together, digitally, herself and an additional musician singing a single song a postmodern kind of duet. This went on for some time and eventually Sproule joined O’Neill in Toronto to record their full-length album, which was produced by Sandro Perri. Their collective effort reminds me of a very organic take on the ‘90s best kind of indie pop… think Liz Phair but far more sincere and far less cynical… Devon Sproule was recently kind enough to take some time to tell me about how she and Mike O’Neill have been working together and what she has planned for 2014.
Izzy Cihak: Your latest release is a collaboration with Mike O’Neill. How would you characterize your process of writing and recording together?
Devon Sproule: It was a new thing for both of us, writing with someone else. We’re both a little sensitive to criticism and it resulted in an interesting way of working. One of us would demo an idea for a song, send it to the other, and then the other would re-record it and send it back, changing whatever we wanted to change, instead of actually critiquing it. We recorded in Toronto: long days, lots of Vietnamese food, mind-bogglingly good and hilarious musicians, Sandro Perri producing like the wind.
IC: Do you think there’s a possibility that the two of you will put out more work in the future?
DS: I don’t know but I know that the experience will affect whatever I do next, particularly in helping me enjoy the process of writing.
IC: How do you feel like the finished product compares to your previous releases? Were you able to explore things which you hadn’t previously?
DS: Mike and I are both way into writing melodies, but in different ways. My melodies are more meandering, whereas his are simpler and catchier. At least half of the songs started with him sending me a verse and chorus melody, and a few lines of lyrics. After that, I would ask him lots of questions about the subject, trying to figure out what he was getting at, and then I would finish the lyrics based on those ideas. Usually I would end up writing another musical section for it also, or going back to him for new chords, say, for a bridge or something. So I was working with melodies that were totally different than ones I would have written, and having license to use whatever words I wanted, and to change whatever I saw fit. Like solving a really fun puzzle, instead of creating something out of nothing. And having access to a whole other brain full of ideas and stories and memories.
IC: What were the most significant influences behind Colours?
DS: Ontario, Austin, Halifax, Thom Gill, Sandro Perri, Paul Curreri, birds, Debussy, Mike’s mom, Berlin, The Tin Drum, Tremblant, Fishers Island and the Long Island Sound.
IC: Do you have a particular favorite track on the album? I actually can’t decide between opener, “You Can Come Home,” and closer, “The Shallow End.” I’m guessing the two of you put a lot of thought into constructing an “album,” with a beginning, middle, and end…
DS: Yeah, you’re right that sequencing the songs took ages! And I’m the same: I really have a hard time choosing a favorite song. I definitely have some favorite parts. I love the end of “Walking in the Folly,” when Thom and Robin start singing. I love Ryan Driver’s synth solo in “Colours.” I love the epic ending of “Nobody Tells Me a Thing.” And the swell of “The Shallow End.” I think the most successful duet on the record is the very short second song, “Magic in the Panic.” The chords change to accommodate the different registers of voices, and the voices themselves hand the melody back and forth, helping tell one story.
IC: What have been your highlights of 2013, in addition to the release of Colours? You’ve done quite a bit of touring.
DS: Doing a tour of village halls in Scotland was a highlight, especially going to Shetland again. On the other end of the spectrum, I did a crazy fashion photo shoot in Toronto that was fun. Flare Magazine. Fashionable but friendly. Good old Toronto.
IC: You’re currently living in Austin, Texas, but you’ve kind of lived all over the world. How would you describe Austin’s music and arts scene? What drew you to the city?
DS: Austin calls itself the live music capitol of the world and it’s totally not joking. But Paul and I ended up there because of the people, even more so than the music. A lot of our friends there are musicians, or music supporters, but it’s much more of a community than a scene, people sharing their lives with each other, collaborating with each other, instead of competing with each other. And the food is great.
IC: And what do you have planned for 2014?
DS: The band Bernice and I are planning a North American tour. Fingers crossed it works out. And maybe a weird gig at a London library? I keep hoping for Australia… One of these years!