This is the story of a tumultuous musical romance that wouldn’t die if you locked it up and threw away the key. It was 2005 and a blistering combination of socialist politics, cheap rent and bad weather was spawning countless young bands and an inimitable breed of dark, sprawling pop music that would put Montreal’s plateau-Mile end neighborhood and its music in the international spotlight. Meanwhile, in the shabby but hardly chic west end, four musical ingénues seemed blissfully unaware of the pressures of indie-cool. Instead, they were rediscovering their parents’ soft rock LPs and crafting their version of the countrified So-Cal ‘70s sound. In cheap vintage party dresses on countless Friday nights, they sang and played together in coffee houses and downtown bars till the wee hours of the morning because it felt important. While embracing the hippie-rock penchants for cigarettes, cheap wine and old guitars of their heroes, their real obsession was the music. Their diligence about vocal harmonies and songwriting made them more akin to the singer-songwriter heyday of mid 1970s’ California than to Montreal’s indie movement, and this is how they unintentionally set themselves apart. Soon, their Friday night hang had a name, and became a career, because despite their anachronism, they didn’t want to do anything else with anyone else. Their name was, and still is, Ladies of the Canyon.
Fast forward five years, two EPs and a debut album (Haunted Woman, Warner Music 2010), the Ladies have departed from the twangy vintage AM radio hits they came of age devouring. They’ve grown their own sound over three years of highways, bars and motels. They are now as broken-in as their rock-and-roll-cool contemporaries, but with trained voices and older, played loud, guitars. They have become the serious musicians from all their vinyl records, and they work every avenue to make their music heard. They have bridged worlds and genres to find their place, earning in the process the respect of their peers. Ladies of the Canyon are the band who in the past two years were nominated for a CCMA, temporarily relocated to Nashville to write a country record (that they decided not to record) and then turned around to be backup singers for Broken Social Scene and the Dears. They are the band who during the last soft-seater tour of their first record, while it was still spinning on country radio, played a few Led Zeppelin covers instead of their own songs because they wanted to know what it felt like to play the best rock and roll songs ever made.
Over the past two years – whether it was because of the freedom of experimentation while living on the road or the scourge of trying to have their complex harmonies heard over the loud monotonal thump of the mainstream – Ladies of the Canyon have softly gotten louder. They’ve exchanged their well-worn traditional themes and sweet romantic reflections for the harder truths of life, love and sex, history and mysticism, and all the things that go bump in the night. Meeting producer Mark Howard (The Tragically Hip, Lucinda Williams, Vic Chesnutt) in May 2012 was the beginning of what would become Diamond Heart, the culmination of the Ladies’ hard work and musical searching; their sound redefined. Mark was the natural choice to serve as wrangler of Ladies of the Canyon’s eager minds, restless souls and untamed hearts. His engineering experience was peerless, and his investment in traditional record making and great sounds appealed to their hardwired “old fashioned” sensibility. From a common musical understanding, a mutual bond was quickly drawn. The Ladies were to Mark just the troupe of misplaced Laurel Canyon bohemian soft rockers he had been informed about in the peaceful easy sounds of their debut album. But they were grown up now, and inevitably darker. It was Howard’s mission to break Ladies of the Canyon out of the box they had struggled to fit into in the first place.
On the same secluded farm near Burlington, Ontario, where Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris had rehearsed weeks earlier, Howard set the stage – a literal stage, in a huge barn – for Ladies of the Canyon to record weeks of live jamming. Surrounded by tools of inspiration – microphones that Howard last used to record the voices of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and rows of vintage guitars with long histories – they were ready to redefine themselves. The songwriting trio, bassist Anna Ruddick, singer/lead guitarist Maia Davies and singer/guitarist Jasmine Bleile, were joined in the studio by LA session superstars Jimmy Paxson (Stevie Nicks) and Jim Wilson (Rollins Band) to flesh out their brave new sound. Drummer Tara Martin was a major addition to the band midway through the production of Diamond Heart in the fall of 2012. Between bonfires, heated discussions of the whys and wherefores of great records and sipping bottles of slightly nicer wine than they had in the beginning, the group tracked 12 hours a day to find the perfect sound to bring their musical time machine home. The songs themselves were written both individually and as a collective conscious, in the séance-like group writing process the Ladies have developed over years of cohabitation and shared experiences. The resulting songbook is a tapestry of raw feelings, painful recollections and blind faith in love – all with a heartbeat-like undercurrent of urgency. Opening track “You and All Your Famous Friends” tells the story of a soured love affair with a celebrity frontman’s palpable ego. The Buckingham-Nicks like romp “Let’s Take the Night” encourages abandoning yourself to the addiction of temporary love. Swampy rocker “She Crossed the River” is a harrowing tale of the isolation of familial abandonment. Like the heartfelt plea of the only surviving song from their hazy days in Nashville (“What We Had,” a duet with Max Kerman from The Arkells, co-written with Jimmy Rankin), Ladies of the Canyon are truly “built to last.”
This is the story of Ladies of the Canyon.
This is the story of Diamond Heart.
This is the story of a tumultuous musical romance that wouldn’t die if you locked it up and threw away the key.