Natalia Yanchak is not just some woman in a band. She joined the Dears back in their beginning stages as the keyboard player, but also as an organizer and visionary. Her vocals add a sweetness to the strong, warm baritone of frontman Murray Lightburn along with a raison d’être for the romantic yearnings that are a hallmark of so many of their songs. They are now married with a young daughter, and the band is as strong as ever. The new release, Degeneration Street, was performed start to finish in a few live gigs last fall, and the group onstage looked like it was having a blast. Before heading out on tour again, Yanchak chatted over the phone from her home in Montreal to update PopMatters.
When exactly did you join the band and tell me about those early days with the Dears?
I joined the band officially in 1997 or 1998. I had met Murray [Lightburn] at a bar — I was DJing at a local haunt in Montreal, the infamous Biftek, which [is] overrun by students now although it was back then also. That’s what they call a steak in French, biftek, but it’s not a restaurant so I don’t know why it’s called that. Murray had come in and he sat at the bar and for some reason he just poured his heart out to me. It wasn’t like it was love at first sight, I was kind of like “Oh, poor guy”. We had some mutual friends who introduced me to the Dears and to Murray so I went to see them play a show at this hole-in-wall kind of place called the Barfly. They were looking for a keyboard player but after I saw them I was totally skeptical. I was like, “It’s going to be terrible.” But it was amazing — I thought it was great.
So then I joined the band, and I was the more pragmatic one to Murray’s creative force. I was the one who said, “So… we have to put out a record. We have to have band photos. We have to play shows. We have to do this.” I also had a radio show at the local college [McGill University], co-hosting this all-Canadian rock show. I was listening to a lot of music, writing record reviews for Vice and other local stuff. I was very immersed in that other side of the music industry that a musician might not think is very important, especially when they’re just getting it together. So I sort of brought that angle to the band.
Was keyboard always your instrument?
That was definitely the instrument I felt most comfortable playing. I’d been playing organ in some other bands around town. When I was much younger I took Suzuki violin lessons — I learned how to play the recorder and then I took piano lessons as I got older. In my teen years I picked up the acoustic guitar and did some of my own DIY 4-track recordings. I had this friend that lent me this Arp AXXE synth, my first analog synth I ever used. It’s such a pure analog synth, really the basic building block of what an analog synth is, so it was fun for me as a teen to mess around with that.
Going back to the band, the group almost called it quits after your third CD. How did things come back together?
We had recorded our first CD, End of a Hollywood Story, which came out in Canada in 2000 and then we recorded No Cities Left, which came out in Canada 2003. It didn’t come out in the rest of world until later. There were a couple years of us just focusing on Canada. So it was a really long time between those two albums. There was a lot of touring and people getting to an age where maybe being in a rock band isn’t what they want to do for the rest of their life, which is totally fine. You can’t make anyone do what they don’t want to do. Murray and I were faced with the question of “What are we going to do? What should we do?” Definitely the question was asked, “Should the band be over?”
For me, it was really a realization of how I’d been playing this role in the Dears since 1997 so it predates all these people who have come and gone. That’s always been the tradition of the Dears. It’s always been about capturing the essence of the Dears, not about the individual ego of each person. For me it was a soul-searching period while we were making Missiles [from 2008], about who I am and who I am in the Dears and what the Dears is and what it means. I kind of realized, it’s not about me and it’s not about the people that are leaving the band but it’s about this amorphous entity that is the Dears. It’s also about connecting with people in so many different ways — emotionally, spiritually, or however the music connects with people. That was more important than any of the personal bullshit that might be going down. That realization, which is going to come off as sounding so extremely pretentious but whatever, is how the Dears are bigger than me so therefore the Dears must continue. It must carry on.
You’re embarking on another tour in support of the new release Degeneration Street. When you played NYC last fall, I saw you playing it straight through from start to finish along with some hits for an encore. Is that the plan for this tour?
No, the dates this spring are more conventional sets, although we are getting quite nostalgic about some the songs being left off of the set. Because we couldn’t play all the songs and be able to play the all the hits, you know?
Well, not every band can recreate an album live straight through like that — it’s very impressive. How did the idea to do this come about?
I think it came about when we started making the album. Even though we had all played together during our careers, the six of us who are in the band now hadn’t played on stage together. And that energy is something that is very crucial for us. We decided before we went into the studio that we’re all going to start at the same point where we’re all learning the songs from nothing, kind of equalize everything. It’s not like, “Well we’ve been playing ‘Lost in the Plot’ for over ten years so all you new guys, you’re going to have to learn ‘Lost in the Plot’ and it’s going to be amazing, right?” So we started from an equal point, where we’re all going to work on these songs together.
When we were at a certain level of completion, we went to Mexico City and played these songs. That was the first time we had all played together on stage, playing this album from start to finish for three nights. As soon as we got back from Mexico City, we loaded straight from the airport into the studio. So we brought that live energy, not only as the band but also the energy from the audience into the studio with us. I think that experience was really important to us as a band to be a band. And then we continued to do the other residencies in Brooklyn, Toronto, and Montreal to really solidify our vibe, for lack of a better word.
Has becoming a mother changed your playing at all or your approach to music?
I don’t think it’s changed my playing at all but it definitely changed me on a spiritual level and I’m not a religious person. I don’t adhere to anything. But having a kid is profoundly spiritual. It’s so primal that it’s life affirming. I’ve had the most life-affirming moments in my entire life. It’s also a supremely positive act, you know? And I think if anything that gave me the motivation and courage to carry on. It put things into perspective, especially when the band was falling apart. I was a new mother so there was a lot about life that was changing in an insane way. It’s just not all about you — it’s about someone else now. And that put a lot of bullshit into perspective. I think if anything that carries on today. I know that what I have to do on stage and what I have to do when I’m performing is not about thoughts. It’s about channeling something: this musical energy, this musical connection that’s on stage. And that hasn’t changed. But what has changed from being a mother is the will to carry on and the drive to be a better human.
It does seem to make sense to have a woman up on stage for all the romance in the songs, for example in “Lost In the Plot” the lyrics are “Don’t mess with our love / Our love is so much stronger.” There are so many deeply romantic songs in the Dears catalogue but do you have a favorite one?
The thing about that is my favorite song always changes. For a while it was “Never Destroy Us”, then for a while it was “There’s No Such Thing as Love”. There have also been songs that have been released but have never really seen the light of day. There’s some songs that Murray wrote before I joined the band on cassette tape that are amazing. So my favorite song of the moment is “Degeneration Street”. Because I’m kind of living it — living the album but also the spirit of the album, which is all I’m focused on.
What about the songwriting process of the band — does Murray come with something that’s already sketched out?
Well, this album came together as a total collaboration for the first time in the Dears’ life. It was basically a lot of home demos done on laptops being sent back and forth between Murray, Patrick Krief, and Rob Benvie, who are the main songwriters of the album. It was just ideas back and forth until it was solid. Then the rehearsing thing and working on it — this is the first time that these rough sketches came from three different places rather than just from Murray. I came in with the arrangements and in the aesthetics. A song will get to a certain point, then I’ll give it my listen and I’ll have lots to say. It’s mostly about arrangement, “We should use this instrument to do this line” or production stuff like that.
And where did you record Degeneration Street?
It was recorded last May through the beginning of June at a studio in Montreal called Mixart, which is an awesome studio–kind of the unsung hero of Montreal. It’s got amazing gear and the guys that run it are super cool. We recorded it with an engineer from L.A. named Dave Schiffman, who’s awesome. He engineered it and we were working over Skype with Tony Hoffer. Tony came in as a sonic referee since we had the three songwriters and all the ideas from everyone else in the band bringing stuff in. Tony was the impartial moderator to all the insane ideas we had.
So you’re going out on tour to SXSW then over to the UK and Europe, is there any place in particular you’re looking forward to playing or seeing?
It’s weird because we haven’t done a European tour since 2007, which is crazy. But every now and then I just miss London. I don’t why, maybe because we’ve spent so much time there I just miss it. It’s bizarre because I’m not a fan of English food although you can find good there. But I think that’s the place I’m most nostalgic for. But we’ve definitely noticed how much fun we’re having on stage and it’s been a long time for us that it’s been that way. So it’s a new beginning for us.