A Found Voice with Beckie Foon

by Brian Lange. Rating: Release Date:

I recently got the chance to speak with Beckie Foon, cellist and one of the founding members of Montreal’s post-rock band, Esmerine. I was immediately struck with how warm and receptive she was, brimming with positivity and charm. We spoke about the origins of Esmerine, the new record Lost Voices, and the world around us. 

Soundblab: Thanks for talking with me today.. You probably don’t remember me, but we met really briefly in Chicago when you were on tour with A Silver Mt. Zion in 2005. It was at this super dingy dive bar called The Empty Bottle.

Beckie Foon:  Oh yeah, I remember that place! Is that place still around?

SB:  For sure.  That place was so shitty.

BF:  (laughs) Yeah, such a shitty place, but had such great music!   I love those places.

SB:  The new album is really great.  But first maybe you could tell me a little bit about Set Fire to Flames and meeting [other founding member] Bruce Cawdron. 

BF:  With the Set Fire to Flames project, there were thirteen of us, and a lot of us didn’t even know each other.  I think it was 2001, that was the first time I had met any of the Constellation [Records] people.  I had just moved to Montreal a few years prior and I was really young and keen on collaboration so it was a dream come true for me to have that opportunity to play with all these incredible, talented people in this big mysterious old house, which was a different world.. just gorgeous.. really just improvising and seeing what came out of us, and that’s where I met Bruce.  I had just joined ASMZ, but it was really the beginning of making all these new wonderful musical connections in Montreal.

SB:  What was it that drew you to wanting to work with Bruce?

BF:  Besides getting to know each other there, we were both very interested in the marimba and cello combination.  I had never worked with a marimba player before and never really knew much about it as a musical instrument and its capabilities, and because they’re both wood instruments and melodic instruments with the marimba having this percussive element as well, we were like, “Wow.”  It felt very earthy.  We were playing a lot of loud music at the time because Bruce was in Godspeed and I was in ASMZ and we were fascinated about the idea of just exploring for fun.  The combination was so weird!  (laughs) I don’t know of any other marimba/cello combinations out there. 

SB:  Most people would group you into the post-rock genre.  Are you cool with that title, or does it not matter to you?

BF:  Post-rock, I think, is interesting because it shows a historical element to what was going on in Montreal at the time.  But now in 2015-2016, I have no idea how to categorize our music because every record we do is so different. I think part of our trajectory is really just who we are at that moment.  I think Lost Voices shows our Constellation roots, our Godspeed roots, our ASMZ roots, our Set Fire to Flames roots, our time in Istanbul, our love for classical music, our love for weird modern chamber music, our love for punk rock, you know what I mean?  If you really listen I think you can pick up on all of that a little bit.

SB:  Istanbul was going to be my next question.  What was it like having a residency there and how did that influence Esmerine?

BF:  The last record we did, Dalmak was recorded in Istanbul.  We went because we were offered a show there, and we had never been there before but at the time our booking agent was living there.  So we went, and it was really fun.  We played a really amazing show, it was one of those magical shows that you never forget.  We met all these incredible musicians there.  Everything was completely organic and a little mystical.  Then we were invited back and we thought, we had such an amazing experience that first time, why don’t we go back and stay longer and compose a record there.  Do something totally different.  So we rented this beautiful loft and brought in our friends that we had made and spent time composing and actually recorded there.  It was one of those things that could go really badly, or not, but we were so inspired by our time there and fell in love with the city, so we were up for the risk.  That time there was so influential I think it just comes out in our music.  But for Lost Voices, we didn’t want to make another Istanbul record but there’s definitely some influence from our time there, James Hakan Dedeo─člu for example, he recorded the record and he still lives in Istanbul. 

SB:  Going back to early influences, you mentioned your trajectory.  I don’t want to take anything away from any of the collaborators, but do you think someone like, say, Efrim Menuck has a strong central voice in the Constellation family?

BF:  He’s definitely had a strong voice as far as shaping the overall aesthetic, because he’s been around since the beginning since Godspeed and ASMZ have been so influential, but I think that genuinely there is a lot of talent in the pool of musicians in Montreal and on Constellation and because of that, everyone is their own being.  There’s lot of creative juices flowing so everything that’s created is totally organic based on connections amongst people. 

SB:  I always thought it was cliché to hear about well-known artists hanging out with other well-known artists, but then I realized that creative and talented people just find each other and naturally gravitate towards each other. 

BF:  Yeah, and it’s also people needing other outlets.  With Bruce and I, Bruce was playing loud drums in Godspeed and I was playing rock cello in ASMZ.  Esmerine was just a chance for us to explore other musical languages that we were feeling the need to express. 

SB:  That really comes through in Lost Voices, because it starts out really mellow and peaceful and when you get to the second track has that Bruce drum thing coming through. 

BF:  Totally.

SB:  Lost Voices works really well as a conceptual piece.  One of the great things about post-rock, for me, is that it is so open to interpretation.  As musicians, do you look for themes and messages in your work?

BF:  Being in an instrumental band, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to drift into a different dimension, or a different world.  For me personally, I live for that.  I live for music to transport me outside of this physical realm, because the world is so crazy, the dream world is kind of nice.  Music really provides that opportunity to just float outside of daily life.  That’s kind of the spiritual element that I like to tap into musically, and I like to offer that to the audience and those that are interested.  I love lyrics, but I love that opportunity when there aren’t lyrics to just get transported. 

SB:  I appreciate it when there aren’t lyrics, because instead of words telling me how to feel or what to think, it happens naturally.

BF:  Totally!  With Lost Voices, we called it “lost voices” because we wanted to make a dedication to extinction, climate change, and all the people and cultures that are no longer with us.. so, it’s a way of touching on that without writing super intensely and just taking time to acknowledge it. 

SB:  What else are you working on?

BF:  One of the other things I’m working on right now is Pathway to Paris which includes two concerts that will take place in Paris during the UN Conference on climate change.  So that’s been taking up a lot of my time.  It’s exciting.  It’s a great mix of people building commitment like Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, and Patti Smith and Thom Yorke are going to be performing. 

SB:  Wow, that’s great!  Do you feel that being in band, it helps you to underscore some of the things that you’re passionate about, like climate change? 

BF:  Yes, definitely.  I use it as an opportunity to raise awareness around it.  I don’t think it happens enough in the music world.  My next Saltland album is all about climate change.  And I have lots of lyrics!  (laughs)

You can read my review for Lost Voices here.

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