Back to their Spawning Ground: Plumes returns to Ottawa to release their album Oh Orwell
Plumes’ singer/songwriter Veronica Charnley opens her new album Oh Orwell with the grand words “Love is like seaweed / You can’t push it away / You can’t stop it from coming back to you.” These references to love in tracks like “Seaweed” and “Oh Orwell” should not be underestimated, however, as Plumes’ sophomore album projects a subtle exploration of the more complicated side of love, in chronicling the real-life romantic relationship breakdown between the ensemble’s founders, Veronica Charnley and Geof Holbrook, as they separated during the recording process.
Plumes’ sophomore album projects a subtle exploration of the more complicated side of love
“A lot of the album was recorded at Schloss Röhrsdorf, a castle near Dresden, Germany before the breakup,” Charnley explains to me over our Facebook chat. “After we’d moved to Paris together and he’d decided to leave me, I realized it would be up to me to release it – no one else could! I recorded the vocal harmonies in my bedroom in Paris and some parts in a studio in Les Halles and enlisted Toronto producer Saam Hashemi to produce and mix it.
“I remember calling Saam in Toronto from a noisy Parisian street and feeling relieved to hear a familiar voice, and to know that I wasn’t completely alone in the task of finishing the album. In retrospect some of the lyrics, though written before the separation, seem to foreshadow the times to come. For example, in “Spawning Ground”, the lyrics ‘I changed skin and bones to be on my own’ really describe the kind of monumental transformation that took place in me after the breakup.”
Oh Orwell is imaginative and innovative: while the music certainly has a pop music feel, the chord progressions quickly wander out of the standard three chords
The band describes itself as a neo-classical / indie-pop crossover project, “blending classical music techniques with pop sensibility.” Oh Orwell is imaginative and innovative: while the music certainly has a pop music feel, the chord progressions quickly wander out of the standard three chords, and the arrangements with guest musicians accompanying Charnley’s sweet soprano vocals are not your conventional rock instruments, sprinkling trumpet, French horn, trombone, alto saxophone, harp, viola, clarinet and bass clarinet throughout the tracks. The music is adventurous and never leaves the listener bored or complacent. And yet it’s still undeniably pop music, catchy, melodic, and very prone to causing ear worms where you’ll be humming tunes like “Love and Overlooking the Fire Hazard” for days.
As a result, this blend of pop influenced by classical is infectiously fascinating, seamlessly continuing this cross-genre tradition from Plumes’ previous self-titled album from 2012. “I mostly play in pop music venues and audiences are intrigued and often remark that the songs take them places they didn’t expect,” says Charnley. “It seems to be a treat for classical musicians to play my music because a lot of them love pop, and it’s a departure from what they usually do. I also have a band made up mostly of jazz musicians in Paris who like to play my music for the same reason but there’s also enough complexity in the music for them to sink their teeth into and have fun with.”
Although now based in Paris, France, Plumes has a solid local connection, as Charnley is originally from Ottawa, where the city instilled strong influential roots in her. “I went often to the National Art Gallery for exhibits and chamber music concerts and I also as a teenager liked going to punk shows at 5 Arlington. The city gave me the option of indulging in “high art” and more (for lack of a better word) visceral forms of expression.”
Songs like “Spawning Ground” refer to the notion of home. I asked Charnley where she now considers to be home for her, given Plumes’ previous bases in New York, Montreal, and now Paris. “I’ve tried to define that for most of my adult life and for a while I thought home was a person, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t feel completely at home anywhere. It’s probably part of what motivates me to write, to take refuge in the work. Recently I stayed for a few days in an old stone house in Occitan (in the south of France) attached to a Gallo-Roman church. Something about the solidness of the stone walls and the connection to history made me feel deeply grounded, at home. I slept very well there at night.”
Still it seems like Paris has formed a supportive base for Plumes’ music. “There’s a great respect for musicians in Paris, like it’s considered to be a valid occupation. It’s kind of nice to have this special status and to feel a bit more like some kind of art princess.”
It’s a relief to see that the experience of heartbreak has not halted the Plumes project, as Charnley plans to continue her musical journey even though Holbrook has now left. “For the past few years I’ve been studying composition and arranging in France so I’ve slowly taken on more of the role that Geof used to play in the band. He’s a tremendously talented musician but we can’t work together. I’m open to collaborating with other composers but for now I find it quite rewarding to write my own scores and to collaborate with musicians who improvise.”
Despite Plumes’ current base in Paris, Oh Orwell can still be seen as having strong connections to Ottawa, with its album graphic design done by local artist Julie Cruikshank. Charnley looks forward to her return to Ottawa for her album release party at Pressed this Saturday. “I’m really happy to be back in Canada (I arrived a couple of days ago and it had been a couple of years since I’d been back). It’s great to connect again with old friends and I’m looking forward to sharing songs I haven’t sung here yet!”
Plumes will be launching their album Oh Orwell in Ottawa at Pressed (750 Gladstone Avenue) on Saturday, September 14, with Daily Alice and Ronnie Slogan. Doors open at 8pm and cover is $10.