Leif in the Lyrics
Leif Vollebekk on Songwriting and Keeping It Fresh on Stage
Sometimes people just stumble into music; other times they seem born into it, music in their blood and in their bones.
For Leif Vollebekk, an Ottawa-born, Montreal-based musician, the latter is probably the most fitting description of his entrance into the music world.
“My grandfather played music,” he said. “Whenever I saw him, he’d always be playing and when he died, I started playing all of his instruments. I learnt them one by one; I started with the violin, then the guitar, the piano and the harmonica.”
Vollebekk started out humbly—playing gigs in local bars.
“I did little shows that weren’t really shows. They were mostly casual,” he said.
It wasn’t until he recorded and released his debut album, Inland, in 2010 that Vollebekk started what he described as “properly” performing live. After the release of his first album he quickly went global and toured in North America, Europe and the U.K.Looking back on his shows on two different continents, Vollebekk admitted that his experiences, as well as the crowds, were different all over the world.
“Quebec is different from the rest of Canada,” he said. “Ottawa is different from Toronto, but in the U.K. it’s just totally different. The more north you go, like Scotland, it’s amazing.
“Especially in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, people will come and talk to me after the show. They would say something like, ‘You said this, this specific line’ and they really got [my music].”
Vollebekk welcomes fan feedback—especially after a show. Vollebekk said people will tell him how much they loved a song, how it made them cry or how they connected with it.
“When someone remembers a line from a song, it means a lot,” he admitted.
“The only record I have out there is quite old, so I feel like I’ve changed a lot. It’s not like I’ve become an entirely different person on this new record, but it does have a bit more emphasis on the songwriting.”
Lyrics are an important part of Vollebekk’s work. When he was younger, he listened to a lot of songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
“At the time, I didn’t understand why people were listening to them,” he said. “[Then] I realized that the lyrics had a lot to do with it. It made me realize the songs are always better if the lyrics are strong.”
When you’re as invested in your songwriting as Vollebekk is, the frustration of a blank page staring back at you can be your greatest enemy.
“I usually wait to have something pop into my head, it’s really frustrating,” he said when asked about his songwriting process. “I wish I had a method. I wish I could go to an island like Leonard Cohen and just write a book.”
Vollebekk left his hometown of Ottawa four years ago, and has been living in Montreal ever since.
“One of the biggest reasons for moving to Montreal was because there are good musicians here,” he said. “I knew I would get my butt kicked and learn something. I was hoping to find some good players and I think I found some of the best musicians in the world here.”
Speaking of the musicians he works with, Vollebekk added, “I wouldn’t trade them for anything. They’re the best people in the world, and I’m really glad I found them.”
After roughly two years of touring, Vollebekk has just finished recording his next, as-yet untitled album. The release date has not yet been settled, but he says it should come out this coming winter. From Vollebekk’s perspective, he feels his new album is a significant shift from his first one, which was released nearly three years ago.
“The only record I have out there is quite old, so I feel like I’ve changed a lot,” he said. “It’s not like I’ve become an entirely different person on this new record, but it does have a bit more emphasis on the songwriting.”
Once the album is released, Vollebekk plans to continue touring. Like every other artist dedicated to their craft, Vollebekk puts a lot of himself into his live shows.
“When I play a song live, I need to play it in a way that’s still fresh to me,” he said. “As long as the lyrics are there, the song is still there.”
However, Vollebekk admitted that he has upset fans at times who’ve felt like his live performance differed too far from the album versions.
“If they heard me play it as close to the record as possible, they would have been really disappointed, too,” he said. “Because then I wouldn’t have been into it.”
Plants and Animals + Leif Vollebekk / Nov. 16 / Corona Theatre (2490 Notre-Dame St. W.) / $24.90