After two decades, Michael Feuerstack found things were getting a bit stale.
That’s why the Montreal-based musician decided recently to ditch his Snailhouse moniker the name he’d used to record eight albums of eloquent, wistful indie folk-pop since the 1990s — in favour of the name he was born with. But don’t think that makes his new album, Tambourine Death Bed, a radical departure. Sure, it may be the first album where Feuerstack’s name is front and centre, but the 12 songs, for the most part, mine the same musical vein that’s made Feuerstack one of Canada’s most respected songwriters.
With Feuerstack playing tonight at the Raw Sugar Cafe, and later this summer at the second annual Arboretum Music Festival, we thought it was as good a time as any to chat up the artist formerly known as Snailhouse.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: You’ve probably been asked this a lot recently, but why did you stop going by Snailhouse?
Michael Feuerstack: Yeah, I have been asked that a lot. And I’m not getting any close to a satisfying answer. (Laughs.) But I think it really just stems from not wanting to use it anymore. It’s really simple. People would ask me what my band was called, and I’d say Snailhouse. And it was ringing less and less true. It didn’t represent where I was at. I’d be talking about this mythical band, and at heart I’m really a singer-songwriter. I guess I just decided to own up to that fact.
Apt613: Is part of it getting older, maybe wanting to take more ownership of your music?
MF: Totally, sure, yeah. I don’t think that’s out of the question. I also it’s just a matter of getting older, and having done this music under the name Snailhouse for so long, it’s not unusual to want to change it up or shake it up. It’s been, you know, almost 20 years that I’ve been putting records out as Snailhouse. A lot of people don’t stay in bands that long. They don’t have to stand by creative decisions they made 20 years ago. It doesn’t happen that often. It’s kind of a rare situation. So for me, it just seemed as a good a time as any [to retire the name].
Apt613: Has abandoning Snailhouse and recording under your own name changed how you relate to your songs, how you write?
MF: I don’t think so. I think it’s the other way around — something did change in my relation to my music, and also in the way I make music, that’s sort of fundamental and kind of personal. It’s not evident when you listen to the music, but something did change, and I wanted to mark that change, with the name change. Rather than the other way around.
Apt613: What sort of change?
MF: Just sort of a deepening connection to my own reasons for doing it, the joy I get from doing it. The change is sort of me acknowledging that bond between me and my music has deepened, and not treating it lightly, not being flippant about it. It doesn’t sound as vague as I think it does. Or at least I hope not. (Laughs.)
Apt613: Your new album is called Tambourine Death Bed — what is a Tambourine Death Bed? How did you come up with that name?
MF: It’s a poetic phrase that conjures all sorts of images for many different people. It can be really dark, or it can be really humourous. And I like all those different variations and interpretations. I wouldn’t want to push it in any one direction. And that’s why I chose it — because it’s so multi-sided.
Apt613: It feels like there are a lot of references on the album to death, to aging, to getting older. Was it a conscious decision to explore that theme?
MF: Well, I think the themes, for me at least, the themes emerge [as I’m writing the album]. It’s not like I choose what I’m going to go after thematically and then study it. It’s not that pre-meditated. I write songs, and sort of let my mind wander, and I record what I do, and I weed out the stuff I’m not interested in as much. And I focus on the things that do interest me. And the themes just kind of reveal themselves.
Apt613: So songwriting for you is more of an organic process?
MF: Yeah, I can pretty definitively say that. I kind of just write and look through what I’ve written. And I’m [sometimes] surprised. My preoccupations aren’t always what I thought they were.
Apt613: Has it always been like that, or has your songwriting process changed over the years?
MF: I think it’s more or less always been like that. But there are definitely exceptions. Sometimes, I’d like to write a song about [a certain topic]. So you try to, and other times you just write a song and you realize it’s about one topic or another. There’s no rule or formula for what I do, but I think it’s generally true that I don’t begin with a pre-meditated idea.
Apt613: You collaborated with a number of people on the album, including Juno-nominated saxophonist Colin Stetson and Little Scream’s Laurel Sprengelmeyer. What inspired that?
MF: They’re just my friends. I love their music, and I love them as people. For me, there’s a social aspect to making music. I don’t want to just do it in complete isolation. I want to share it with people — especially when you have such talented, generous friends around who are interested in collaborating with you. It would be foolish not to. You know, you hang out with someone in real life and you have a good chemistry. If the circumstances allow, you reach out to those people, I guess.
Apt613: So you socialize, hang out in Montreal, and that just develops into the record?
MF: Yeah. I mean, during the course of this record, there was never a time when all of us were in the same room together. It was more like, I made this record and brought it to a certain point. And then I thought it would be fun to open the doors and invite people over to listen and contribute if they felt like it. So [it was] a very casual thing. Colin came over one day, two days, and we worked on ideas that he had. And same thing with Laurel. Jeremy [Gara of Arcade Fire] and I are old collaborators, and he mixed the record. It was more of a one-on-one thing.
Apt613: You’re playing the Raw Sugar Cafe tonight, and later this summer you’re coming back for the Arboretum Music Festival. Do you have a preference for intimate shows or larger festivals?
MF: Not at all. I think you can play an intimate show like Raw Sugar one night in one place, and another night in another place, and it can be vastly different experiences. The same thing goes for playing a festival one night, and a different festival one night. Playing Arboretum could be just as intimate and special as playing a 50-seat cafe somewhere. It all depends on the circumstances and the occasion, the audience, my performance, everyone’s moods, the weather, who plays before me, who plays after me. All those factors play together. I love that about performing: it happens in the moment. And it can’t be separated from that moment.
Michael Feuerstack’s Ottawa record release takes place Sat., May 25, at Raw Sugar Cafe. With Neil Haverty of Bruce Peninsula. $10, doors 8pm, show at 9pm.