To Evangeline is Alister Atkin’s second album and follows the considerable acclaim that gathered around his debut In Time, an album he made with mates Brendan Power and Tim Edey. For this second outing he’s assembled a hot new band of local Canterbury players, which includes a couple of ex-Penguins, who rejoice in the appellation The Ghost Line Carnival. The recruiting of a new crew, has also prompted a rethink on strategy as Alister reckoned in order to make the most of the assembled talent, To Evangeline would need to be a more collaborative effort. To that end the band jammed and rehearsed, knocking the song ideas into shape. He also determined to work quickly and not obsess over perfection. As a result To Evangeline was recorded in just three days. Perhaps he’s blessed with a fair wind, or perhaps he’s just good at making decisions, but either way it’s all turned out very nicely indeed.
The album carries with it a certain amount of Atlantic hopping and finds Alister torn between the UK and Canada, notably Toronto where his wife to be (at the time of writing) was living and her family home in Wolfville Nova Scotia. Now that the long distance love affair has reached its happy conclusion, I’m wondering whether this record counts as the first offspring of their relationship. There is more than a suggestion that the patter of little Atkin feet is not far behind, but that’s by-the-by and best stick to the matter in hand and the 11 songs that make To Evangeline a great listen.
Alister takes up the story of the change in modus operandi telling me, “In many ways this was a quick album to make when compared to my debut In Time. I started writing new songs not long after that album was finished and soon realised that I had enough material starting to take shape to work as an album. It all came about quite quickly really and my directive for this album was not to think about things too much and not get caught up in searching for perfection. Working quickly, writing and recording quickly became the essence of the record. It was also important that the music could be played live.”
The live feel comes through the record and there’s a sense of things being captured as they should be. The playing is spirited and the arrangements satisfyingly straddle a line between the complexity that good players can add, without recourse to an obvious production sheen and a relaxed spontaneity. Alister seems happy to give credit to The Ghost Line Carnival and has highlighted their empathy with his ideas, songs and stories, many of which were cooked up traversing the Atlantic. It feels that the band has metaphorically travelled every mile, willing companions on Alister’s journey.
He offers a little insight into their working methods, explaining, “I put this band together with the idea that it would have a particular sound with the mixture of violin, trombone and accordion. I realised that if we could write together then it might be more appropriate and perhaps sound more convincing. It would also be different from the stuff that I might write on my own.
“So we started a series of jamming session meeting up in my workshop in Canterbury, which I simply recorded on my iPhone. Pretty quickly I built up this bank of demos and listening to them I’d hear a really cool idea or musical phrase that I’d take home and work on. An example is say the opening riff of Shipping News. I had a recording of the four of us playing just that, but when I played it back later, it inspired me to write the rest of the song around it.
“Working with the band in this way was fun. I’d never written with anybody face to face. I had done some co-writes of songs with Chris Difford, but that was swapping files back and forth on the internet rather than being in the same room.”
When I ask for a little more detail about the players he highlights Russ Grooms (bass and vocals), as being someone he’s played with for 10 years or more. Geoffrey Richardson will need no introduction to any familiar with Canterbury but he and Annie Whitehead (Trombone), are the ex Penguin Café alumni mentioned up top. Lee Cornwall is a guitar client, who also happens to be a nifty cajon player. That just leaves Aidan Shepherd, who as well as having his own band Arlet (FRUK review here) and being an accordion and piano wiz, has sufficient Gum Tree curiosity to go from buying a fridge to joining this crew, via an ad that Alister had placed.
Talking about the studio experience and the recording Alister tells me, “The surprise was how quickly we got everything done, plus how much we all enjoyed it.” But of course stripping everything back has its own challenges as he reveals, “The thing about playing live is that I’m singing and playing guitar at the same time, so if there’s a problem with either of those, you can’t go into the track and do a quick fix. But still the songs only took between three and five takes each to get the final versions.
“I quickly realised that I needed to make compromises because it was the feel I was after. In some ways it lays the record open as people could easily pick up on the imperfections, but I hope they get the same feel from it that we did, as that’s the key.” He concludes “In some ways, this record was about learning to let things go.”
I’d go as far as to say that on Seadogs, you can practically hear the creaking of the rigging and the cut of the bow through the briny spume. At times there might be a disarmingly ramshackle feel, but if you’ve ever fallen for the likes of Slim Chance, the Transatlantic Sessions, even The Band and Van Morrison’s more pastoral moments (even Astral Weeks), you should enjoy an honest mix of songs that manage to connect with every emotional junction box through the course of To Evangeline.
Perhaps it’s the perception a strong personal streak running through these songs. Alister admits that 90% of his writing is autobiographical, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that might seem. He confides, “Most of my songs are about me, my life or what has happened to me. When I’m writing, however, I’ll often come up with a melody or a chord sequence and just start singing words that fit over the top of it. I won’t always be able to pinpoint what they are about, but it’s as if I’ve tapped into something subconscious and the song will start to take its shape around just a few words or different lines and phrases.”
There are stories and flights of fancy too. San Diego is a bit of a gem and Alister admits, “It’s about a good friend of mine Craig McAvoy. We were in bands together back in school, learned to play Eye Of The Tiger together and stuff like that. But he’s a great musician, an amazing banjo player, also whistles and all sorts of things. He did end up moving out to California and gigging a lot. He came back and became a teacher and I guess I’m just taking the piss out of him a bit. He never met Willie Nelson and as far as I know never smashed his guitar up either, so that’s a weird one, I don’t know where it came from.”
It’s worth noting that Alister is a guitar maker of some renown and he continues, “Part of the reason why I make guitars is because I love songwriting. I’ve met some amazing songwriters and I always ask how they go about it. I know some people can be quite deliberate in the way they approach a song.”
We agree, however, there’s a strong Canadiana streak running through the album, although he struggles to wrap his tongue around the rather ungainly word of my devising. He cites both Joni Mitchell and Neil Young as two of the greats, but more surprisingly adds, “I was always a big Rush fan, in fact I still am.” Even before travelling out to be with the woman who he’s since married, Alister travelled. “I’d written my first album before meeting my wife, but when I released that I started to go to Canada quite a lot. My bother was living near Toronto, but across the border in the US and my wife to be had settled in Toronto after returning from working in the UK.
“There are many great guitar makers in Canada and there’s lots of music going on. Especially in Nova Scotia, which is a bit like being in Scotland and Ireland, with lots of sessions happening everywhere. It’s very easy to immerse yourself in music if you spend any time there, and I was like a sponge soaking it all in.
“The real influence on the album is the town of Wolfville, where my wife grew up. It’s right next to the place where the early Acadian settlers arrived and is tied into their history and the conflict between the French and the British, which led to mass deportations by the English. The cover is a statue which is in the grounds of the visitor centre there outside the church. “
I’m really lucky to have this big extended family there, my wife’s family and all of the people they know. Nova Scotia is a very happy place and a big party province. They have what they call kitchen parties and families, friends and neighbours will gather together. Out will come the Keith’s Ale and there’ll be music going on somehow.
“It’s also one of the Maritime provinces along with New Brunswick, St. John, Newfoundland and Port Elizabeth Island, so the sea is a major part of life there and people like Stan Rodgers have written many songs about the area. It rubs off when you’re over there.”
The sea certainly figures large as you can see from titles like Shipping News, Sea Dogs, Lobster Claws. But two of the longer songs, the segue from Geoffrey’s instrumental Lighthouse into When You Go Away and the brooding, climactic Rolling Thunder, prove the most storm tossed moments
Perhaps it’s his naturally adventurous spirit, perhaps it’s new found comfort in his life, but Alister may have taken some risks in the making of this record, yet it’s a testament to some good fortune or just some good decisions, maybe even a bit of both, that this album is so good. Maybe it’s lessons learned from the making of his debut, but whatever the process, Alister is clearly the richer for his travels and for the new life he has found. By whatever magic he works, those riches have found their way into these songs and To Evangeline, carries that magic through. It certainly has me under its spell.
Review/Interview by: Simon Holland
To Evangeline is self-released 17th March 2014 Order Direct from Bandcamp Here