Half Moon Run last played Ottawa in January 2020 and the sold-out show was a triumphant homecoming for frontman Devon Portielje. Catching up with Portielje, it’s clear the band has been through a lot during the pandemic, and yet has continued to evolve and is on the cusp of even greater things.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: Thinking back to your performance in Ottawa [at TD Place] in January 2020, what are your memories of that show?
Devon Portielje: It was euphoric. I used to watch the 67s play there when I was a kid, and I even saw the Senators there. It was just an awesome moment. And I don’t even know if the coronavirus had made any headlines at that point, but it certainly wasn’t really at the forefront of our mind. My nephew was there, my parents were there. It was really special.
After that show, things kind of went sideways around the world. But you seemed to adapt quickly with your “isolation” videos on YouTube, performing different versions of your songs. How did those come about?
It’s really funny because the quarantine wasn’t mandatory at that point. A television show in Montreal invited us for an in-person performance, which was still allowed at that point because TV and news were considered essential. And I was thinking, “If I leave the Outaouais, I don’t know if I can come back,” because they were shutting down Quebec.
I said, “What if we just record it remotely, piece it together and then send that to the TV show instead of showing up?” That’ll be more socially responsible, more health-conscious. And I don’t have to leave my cabin and go out into the pandemic. We still didn’t know how serious the disease was. The TV show was like “Great, let’s do it.” We made the first video and it was actually pretty good. We decided to release it publicly and do a bunch more in that format. So it was born out of necessity.
I was blown away with the production, and the way it was stitched together. The fact you could get those impeccable harmonies while doing it remotely, that had to be tricky.
The hardest part for me was actually getting internet to send it to the next guy! I was the first one, so I would play the song and usually it was only one or two takes for me. And then I would go stand in the rain on the top of a hill and hold my hand up to get a signal to send this video off. Often it would take like an hour or two. One by one, each band member would play along, and then Dylan mixed it and either I or Dylan would put the video together.
You didn’t really seem to take a break during the pandemic: You had the Seasons of Change EP, these isolation videos, and then the Inwards and Onwards EP this year. I guess you made good use of your downtime?
This spring was one of the most prolific writing periods we’ve ever had. Getting to stay in the same bed for more than two or three weeks for the first time in 10 years was much needed. We were able to recover from those years for a little while. Then you start reflecting and become more internal and thoughtful, and then the music kind of comes naturally. It was helpful to the process when you’re not so busy touring all the time. You have time to write and time to record.
Seasons of Change landed smack in the middle of the pandemic, with a very relatable theme. Were the songs written before the pandemic, or were they of that moment?
I wrote the song “Seasons of Change” in like 2008, actually. But sometimes things line up that way, and that’s the beauty of some music that’s a little bit ambiguous. The entire EP was actually already in the bag, pretty much ready to go before the pandemic. It was mostly leftover material from A Blemish in the Great Light plus some other stuff. We were planning on releasing it in fall 2020, but the pandemic came along. Then we released the “Grow Into Love” video on that TV show, and all of a sudden it just seemed like the right time to release it.
Then you followed that up with Inwards and Onwards. That EP seemed to have come out of introspection and a sense of having spent time either isolated or just inward-looking. How was the writing process?
That was also really quick and wonderful. Because we couldn’t bring a producer in or go somewhere… we just thought it was so nice to write some material and just record it in our rehearsal space and do everything ourselves without the financial or logistical burden of recording. And yes, you’re exactly right. Inwards and Onwards is a play on the phrase “Onwards and Upwards.” When your external world is limited, it’s time for reflection and you can go into the universe within. Almost all of that was written in the context of the pandemic. It also harkened back a bit to earlier albums. Ultimately with Inwards and Onwards, we had nothing to prove except to ourselves, and we liked the raw sounds. It felt like a bit like the first album when we were three [members]. It wasn’t just the pandemic for us. It was also our fourth member Isaac Symonds quitting the band. We had to re-locate our dynamic between us as a trio, which was a wonderful experience. But it was also scary at first.
Are there any songs that you’re having to reimagine as a trio?
Yep, a lot of them. Everything except Dark Eyes, which was before Isaac joined. So everything between then and now has to be reimagined. A lot of bands play some tracks off their computers and they play along to it. We never wanted to go that route. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; we just don’t like it. You have to leave out some elements and be clever with the stuff you keep. [The other band members] are great musicians. When they’re so used to playing this piano part and they can add in a harmonica or guitar or a background vocal, they can still have an emotional performance.
Half Moon Run perform at RBC Bluesfest tonight at 9:15pm at Lansdowne Park. Weekend and day passes for the festival weekend are available here starting at $66.