Andrew Whiteman, the male half of the married musical duo, on Quebecois culture, folk poetry, and why poor people write the best songs.
His latest muse is an American poet in Paris.
Though he’s best known as a core member of perennially disbanded Toronto collective Broken Social Scene, Andrew Whiteman has always marched to the syncopated beat of his own drummer. A globally minded rambler and magpie-like collector of creative sparks, he’s used musical projects like Apostle of Hustle to explore and express his esoteric interests in everything from Cuban tres music to Chilean activist and artist Victor Jara. But for his latest endeavour, Whiteman found inspiration in a somewhat unlikely place: the University of Pennsylvania website. Well, technically, he was poring through PennSound, UPenn’s online archive of spoken-word recordings, when he stumbled upon Alice Notley, a celebrated American avant-garde poet and erstwhile Pulitzer finalist. “I knew Alice Notley’s name, but I’d never read her,” he says over the phone from his current home in Montreal. “I discover a lot of new poets by listening to them read first, and hearing her cadence, I was like, ‘Holy fuck, who is this?’ It was like [hearing] Sly Stone or Van Morrison for the first time. And then I found her books.” One of those books, as it turned out, was In the Pines, a fever-dream sequence of poems from 2007 in which Notley described the experience of a woman being treated for Hepatitis C. After asking Notley’s permission, Whiteman and his wife, Ariel Engle—who perform together as AroarA—used that poetry as the skeleton of their own album, also titled In the Pines.
Quebec is a slippery culture.
Whiteman has done his share of travelling, both with Broken Social Scene and on his own, but he always used to hang his hat in Toronto. That is, until he hooked up with Engle, a born-and-bred Montrealer. “Ariel’s lived in Montreal her whole life and she loves Toronto, so she would’ve been happy to go there,” he says. “But we flipped a coin and I won, so we got to come here.” Whiteman is thrilled to be consummating his longtime flirtation with Quebec and its culture, which he describes as “slippery. It’s one of those mysterious things where the more you read about it, the more you think you understand, but you don’t actually understand it.” In an effort to combat that lack of comprehension, Whiteman’s working on his French, using music (what else?) as a tool. “I’ve been trying to find French music that I can stand. Black people’s French music is fine, I dig it—its roots are often African and Haitian and stuff. But white people’s French music is really harsh. It’s not like Spanish music.” His latest find: Brigitte Fontaine, a singer he describes as “amazing” and “such a freak.”
Poetry is a portal to folk music.
AroarA’s In the Pines is haunting and lush and weird and whispery and percussive; the pair interpret Notley’s hallucinatory imagery through multilayered vocals and patchwork instrumentation. It’s often achingly pretty—Engle’s rich, burnished vocals sit in fragile pockets of ringing guitar notes or float over earthy piano arpeggios and homemade percussion. It sounds closer to, say, experimental art-rock or chamber music than to the work of dust-bowl troubadours like Woody Guthrie, and yet, at its core, this is folk music. “Well, you wouldn’t find any folk-music records in my library—or on my iPod,” Whiteman says, laughing. “But at the same time, I’m perfectly postmodern. I don’t listen to folk music, but I kind of feel like I make it. Alex Lukashevsky, who’s opening for us [in Toronto], is my favourite songwriter, and he has a great line: ‘Poor-people music is the best.’ It’s true, man.”
His money’s not on any of his buddies to win the Polaris.
The 2013 Polaris Prize shortlist includes a number of Whiteman’s pals, such as members of Metric and Young Galaxy, and other acts he greatly admires. But when it comes down to it, he’s not rooting for any of them. “And now, I’ve segued to my plug for A Tribe Called Red,” he says. “They should win the Polaris. My friends are on that list and I love them. I’ve watched Colin Stetson [play] twice this year and it destroyed me how good he is. I think this is the toughest Polaris yet, because there are so many good bands—everything from A Tribe Called Red to Purity Ring to Metric to Colin Stetson and Godspeed. How are you going to justify anyone winning? There’s so much good stuff in there. Anyway, I still think A Tribe Called Red should win—they’re amazing, and they’re smart dudes.”
AroarA play the Music Gallery on Sept. 5. 197 John St., 416-204-1080, musicgallery.org.