LAND OF TALK opening for the ROSEBUDS at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Monday (May 28). $10.50. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Liz Powell isn't gonna be your rock 'n' roll pin-up.
You can't blame people for trying and they have. All legs and eyes and hair, with a tattered melodic caterwaul of a voice and a weakness for power chords that dates back a decade to when she was a gangly teenager in Guelph's punk scene, the guts and guitar behind Montreal power trio Land of Talk is about 5 feet, 9 inches of a label exec's wet dream come true.
But seriously, don't go there.
"Look at my face. Look at my fucking face!" she growls, bleary eyes bugging out under a heavy coat of thick mascara and periwinkle eye shadow layered on thick so it'll pop on camera. "I seriously don't know how women do this shit. I never wear makeup. I feel like I'm wearing a fucking mask. It's so weird and fake! Oh, shit."
Powell stops herself, realizing her flailing hands have managed to spill coffee on the floor of the galley kitchen, narrowly avoiding the high-waisted skinny jeans the stylist's snagged for the day.
It's Mother's Day deep in the heart of Liberty Village, and Powell's mom and dad along with a handful of crew members, label reps and hangers-on have been watching their daughter fake it on camera for the last hour and a half.
As the thundering drums, staccato chords and slithery mercury vocals of Speak To Me Bones, the lead track off Land of Talk's Applause Cheer Boo Hiss EP, echo off the walls of the warehouse studio, a lip-synching Powell dinosaur-stomps from mark to mark, glancing at her guitar as often as she sends dagger stares directly into the camera.
Less a frontwoman than a bandleader in the mould of classic alt-rock collectives, Powell has an alluring uncertainty onstage. When you watch her perform, holding her guitar like a shield, she radiates vulnerability cut with a steely edge that makes you think of Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Kurt Cobain.
"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have a guitar," she confesses. "Last year I performed one of my songs with Bell Orchestre at the Montreal Jazz Fest. That was just me in a dress, no nothing, and I... I actually didn't know how to move. The only thing I had to tap into was singing just for my dad in the audience."
Powell laughs, somewhat self-conscious.
"Even shooting the video, I'm like, "How do I move my body?' It's like you're on a fuckin' porno shoot. Cameras everywhere when you're trying to do something a little bit intimate.
"An audience full of people is even more intimate," she adds, "but these people are paid to be here, so who am I to be like, 'This is my song, my vision, my band! Look at me, look at my hair! Touch up my makeup!' It's kinda sick, and I kinda hate this part of it."
And it's kinda only the beginning, at least for Land of Talk.
At this point, they've only officially released seven songs three times over. Though their EP originally came out in March 06 on the not-quite-a-label Dependent, Land of Talk ended up retracing their initial steps when MapleMusic signed them and re-released the disc six months later.
The trio then Powell, bassist Chris McCarron and drummer Bucky Wheaton hit the road running, crossing the country with pals Holy Fuck and Shout Out Out Out Out.
"I know a lot of musicians who can afford to tour, and it's because there's money coming from somewhere else. I'm not slagging that. If I had a rich relative, believe me, I'd definitely be saying, "Yeah, my grandmother paid for all this.'
"So the label was the next step. And from the handful of labels in front of us, Maple seemed like the least insane and the most realistic."
Now they've got to do it all over again. Start-up label Rebel released the EP in the States in late March, and in barely two weeks Land of Talk are taking off for their first European tour and hopefully another deal.
At 27, this is Powell's second run at the music biz. Years ago, after building a solid foundation in the Guelph indie scene, where she collaborated with and worshipped a pantheon of peers like Jim Guthrie, Aaron Riches and Gentleman Reg Vermue, the naive singer survived a stint as a Toronto trip-pop chanteuse.
She was young and impressionable and ended up agreeing to shit everything from sexy-posing on a lion for racy press shots to the sissified sound of the project, called Ele_K that didn't sit well in her gut.
Now, however, you can tell Powell won't tolerate bullshit 30 seconds into a conversation.
"You don't realize how much power you actually have till you test the boundaries," she muses. "I was so used to saying, "I dunno, what do you think?' or saying no and then apologizing. There's a lot of manipulation that goes on."
In a big-picture sense, Powell knows what she wants. She just can't quite articulate it. She knows Land of Talk's on the verge of a big break she can almost taste it. But the girl is torn. A month ago, Wheaton, a fundamental part of the tight-knit threesome, quit the band.
"The road isn't for everyone, and it definitely wasn't for him," Powell sighs. "I can't even say he picked the perfect time, cuz when is it ever good for someone important to leave your life?
"But the optimist in me is trying to convince myself that now is better than ever and it's a bit of a blessing, cuz Eric's [drummer Thibodeau, Wheaton's friend and replacement] a little gem and he loves the road. And he's really breathing new life into the band, as cheesy as it sounds."
Wheaton's breaking point, she claims, came at South By Southwest, where Land of Talk played a staggering seven shows in four days. It was their first time at the festival.
But while SXSW may have signalled doom for one-third of the band, it was also the locus of a major epiphany for Powell, a life-affirming moment during a Blonde Redhead show when she suddenly realized, "Yeah, I wanna do this forever!"
"I was tripping out and dancing at a rock show like I haven't done since I was 16," she adds. "That means something to me, when I start doing this dance I used to do at punk rock shows, when I start doin' this thing," she raises her arms, "and this thing," she flings her hair around. "I fuckin' love it. I started feeling my body again, and it felt kinda sexy."
You get the sense that reconnecting with that pure rock 'n' roll euphoria she used to feel as a teenager is what drives the girl.
"I was talking to my friend Richard [Parry of the Arcade Fire], and he was saying the craziest part is that he's had these incredible opportunities but it doesn't actually sink in till two months later, when you realize, 'Hey, I performed with David Bowie and David Byrne!'
"I just want to be in the moment," she sighs.
In her fantasies, she gets to pull together all the kids she grew up with who are all finding musical success independent of one another, and take a travelling caravan of ex-Guelph indie stars on the road.
For now, though, she has to finish up her first video shoot.
"For me, this is the fantasy realm," she says, brushing off her jeans to head back into the studio. "And there's something sad about it. I like that veneer of mystery I like watching videos and thinking, 'Fuck, how do they do that?'
"Now that I'm on the other end, I almost feel like I'm doing a disservice to everything I thought was cool Sonic Youth shit, Nirvana.
"In some ways," Powell continues, "I kinda can't wait till we're doing the second or third video, or the second or third album. Then I won't feel like I'm faking it."
So much for being in the moment.
"Yeah, I know. I have to be present in it. Let's just drop acid!"
Lizzie tries to explain the tricky betwixt-and-between point at which Land Of Talk is positioned, career-wise, and how they manage to get it up to play the same songs night after night.
The story behind Land Of Talk's life-changing SXSW experience
Lizzie reveals the crazy fucked-up promises would-be suitors made the band when they were trying to woo Land Of Talk to sign with their labels.
Lizzie tries to describe the direction Land Of Talk is going in with their new material and how she's changing as a songwriter.
Music from Land of Talk
All My Friends
Speak To Me Bones
Videos from Land of Talk
Land Of Talk performing Sea Foam live at Fearless, 2007
Land Of Talk performing Summer Special on the DL Show, 2007
Land Of Talk performing Magnetic Hill on the DL Show, 2007
Land Of Talk live at SXSW, 2007
All My Friends
In Lizzie Powell's ultimate rock 'n' roll fantasy world, Land of Talk would be part of a massive indie rock mega-tour alongside all the talented kids she got her start with. In addition to pal Richard Parry's Bell Orchestre and Arcade Fire, here are some of the other acts that might end up on her dream lineup.
AARON RICHES Powell claims the former Royal City frontman's old hardcore band, Minnow (he was the one bashing drums), inspired her onstage persona. She played electric violin in his Nuclear Family Band. Last Seen Got hitched, disbanded Royal City and headed to Nottingham University to pursue a PhD in theology.
JIM GUTHRIE Along with PJ Harvey and Nirvana, Powell cites fellow Guelphite Guthrie's tremendous instrumental talent as one of the primary influences on her guitar technique. Last Seen Penned that insanely catchy Hands In My Pocket theme for the Capital One commercials (and provided songs for ALS Society ads), collaborated on post-Unicorns project Islands and is rumoured to be releasing a new solo disc this year.
GENTLEMAN REG The military brat and chick-rock aficionado rocked Guelph's all-ages rec room and church basement shows with Powell, who laid down vocals for his forthcoming album. Last Seen Appeared in (and on the soundtrack for) John Cameron Mitchell's film Shortbus, and just finished recording his follow-up to 04's Darby & Joan, which should come out as soon as he finds a rad label to release it (Three Gut RIP).
JAMIE THOMPSON The erstwhile Unicorn and ex-Island manned the kit in the Valentines, Powell's short-lived Guelph rock band with sound guru James Ogilvie. Last Seen Quit Islands a year ago. Collaborated with Island/Unicorn Nick Thorburn and Wolf Parade and Les Savy Fav members on curious Final Fantasy: Online, aka Internet one-off, as part of McSweeney's The World, Explained event in April. (Check it out at snakesgotablog.blogspot.com/2007/04/final-fantasy-online-aka-internet.html)