Ariel Engle steps out solo as La Force

LA FORCE with MURRAY A. LIGHTBURN at Adelaide Hall (250 Adelaide), Thursday (September 20), 8 pm. $19.50.

To see Montreal singer Ariel Engle in any of her many musical guises – as the current main female vocalist with indie heroes Broken Social Scene, previously in dramatic duo AroarA with her husband (and BSS bandmate) Andrew Whiteman, and now stepping out solo as La Force – is to be struck by the compelling power of her otherworldly voice.

While she’s been a mainstay on the Montreal scene for the past 15 years, Engle’s more recent projects have finally pulled her into the spotlight – but going solo wasn’t necessarily the inevitable next step.

In working on the follow-up to AroarA’s well-received debut, Engle says she and Whiteman often found themselves at odds during the recording process.

“At some point, I think it was a combination of doing Broken together, and then being parents [to a young daughter], it became evident that something had to give and we couldn’t do absolutely everything together,” Engle says while vintage-shopping in Montreal with Stars’ Amy Millan, waving to Dears’ frontman Murray A. Lightburn as he drives by. 

“It wasn’t a good dynamic – and we get along, so it was a bit odd for us. And then [Whiteman] eventually was like, ‘You know, maybe you just need to do this alone.’ And I think what he was saying was something I knew to be true, but I hadn’t admitted it to myself.”

Engle turned to Plants and Animals’ Warren Spicer to help produce what became her self-titled debut as La Force (out now on Arts & Crafts), reworking about half the tracks from the AroarA session and bringing her own new songs into the mix.

BSS bandmate Charles Spearin also produced some early sessions at Stars’ rehearsal space in Montreal and his Toronto garage and recalls trying to capture the many “really, really good ideas” as they took shape. “Ariel’s sense of melody was equalled by her eclectic taste in musical elements, which made the whole process kind of exciting,” he says.

The final result is an intimate record that’s at once timely – TBT touches on social media ennui, while Ready To Run evokes the current global migration issue – and deeply personal.

“I take ‘write what you know’ to be a good starting guideline,” Engle says. “I experienced a real loss of innocence with becoming a mother, and how it wasn’t what I expected. Of course I adore my child, and I can’t imagine a life without her, but to become a mother is equally dismantling as it is affirming, and I feel like I wasn’t prepared to feel that way. And then my dad died during the making of the record, as well. They were opposing forces – even had I not become a mother, losing a parent just completely changes the landscape. It was the biggest shift I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Engle’s upbringing heavily influenced her love of music and understanding of the world – as ESL teachers, her parents travelled with the family all over the globe (including China, Indonesia and Scotland), always touching back down at home in Montreal, where her mother worked in a record store.

“We had probably a thousand LPs – for collectors, that’s nothing, but for the average household, that’s something,” she recalls with a laugh. “I associate the smell of speaker foam with being entranced by music. 

“Some of the earliest memories I have is of [listening to] Aretha Franklin. The feeling that a human – and a woman – could make that kind of sound, evoke that kind of feeling, was incredible.”

The vital potency of the female voice not only underscores what Engle is trying to convey as La Force, but is also a primary inspiration in her life and work. 

“Some of my absolute greatest, body-tingling musical pleasure has been singing with other women,” she enthuses. “I think about some of these long-hold harmonies [her supergroup with Feist, Whiteman, Spearin and the two members of Snowblink] Hydra would do – visceral, total-body reaction. That’s transcendent for me. And then having this really close relationship to these women only deepens that for me, and also gives me licence to be amongst them.”

Long-time Broken Social Scene fans and members have marvelled at Engle’s ability to seamlessly step into the huge shoes of the band’s “Holy Trinity” of female singers, Feist, Millan and Emily Haines, on the group’s latest album Hug Of Thunder and on tour with them over the past few years. 

“There is a timeless quality to Ariel’s voice. It’s like a heavy fog floating from ancient cauldrons,” enthuses Millan, one of Engle’s closest friends. “It creeps past invisible walls to unlock some sadness you had long forgotten about, but upon hearing her, realize she is the one to mend it.”

“[BSS’s singers] are all different from each other, so I felt like I just had to be me,” Engle says. “I felt included, and I felt that people were responding well to me, but that’s because I wasn’t apologizing for being there.”

The many years of musical collaboration and experimentation have given her the confidence to raise her voice in a new way, Engle says.

“I care about people, and I sometimes just despair that there’s not enough care, and there’s too much greed. And that’s part of why I wanted to name myself La Force – because in French, power is a feminine word. I wanted to remind myself and others that [strength] can be soft and kind and just.”

Ariel Engle’s Top 5 Toronto Spots

Ariel Engle’s Top 5 Toronto spots

While Engle might be a lifelong Montrealer, as a member of Broken Social Scene and frequent visitor, she’s also an honorary Torontonian. Here are her favourite places to stop when she’s in town.

1. Horses Atelier

“Not only do I adore the women who design this collection – their clothes make me feel effortlessly elegant.” 

2. Nouveau Riche Vintage

“I wandered into Andréa [Lalonde]’s pop-up shop on Queen West last year. There I found a 70s silver lamé jumpsuit that I sometimes dare to wear. She has a great eye and deep knowledge of vintage.” 

3. Nunu

“A great Ethiopian restaurant on Queen West. I adore eating there – it’s a regular pilgrimage. I first went there while pregnant and Nunu herself explained her name, meaning ‘come, come’ – the words her aunties were saying to beckon her earthside.”

4. Kensington Market

“Speaks for itself. May it remain funky forever.”

5. With friends

“But truly, Toronto is about the people Iove. I spend most of time in their kitchens – it’s my second home.” | @TabSiddiqui

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