Assiniboine & The Red is the new album from Canada’s the Small Glories. The album arrives on 28 June via Red House Records. The title refers to the junction of two rivers, the Assiniboine (pronounced ‘uh-sin-uh-boin’) and the Red, in the duo’s hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. With a sense of place the overarching connection for the material, the pair work their way through a series of gorgeous, never overwrought tunes. Luft, formerly of the Wailin’ Jennys, and guitarist/vocalist JD Edwards worked with Neil Osborne as producer. A member of the Canadian rock group 54-40, he provides deft but subtle touches to the album.
The song “Alberta”, chosen as the latest single, leads off the album. Luft says that she and fellow Alberta native James Keelaghan (who co-wrote the song) found themselves reminiscing about their home province one afternoon while working on material for the new record. “We were writing out on Cape Breton Island, which is pretty far east in Nova Scotia,” she says. “A lot of people from the Maritimes have moved to Alberta for work.”
“There’s a lot of money in the oil fields up there. They have these disjointed lives. They go to work in Alberta for five weeks, and then they go home for two weeks. They might see their families only once every two months, or they try to convince their families to follow them out. It’s a love song for Alberta.”
She adds, “As we’ve been singing it, we’ve realized that it’s not about Alberta per se but it’s about anybody who has moved away, somewhere new, and they’re trying to find their community. They’re trying to find their people, and sometimes, what ends up happening, is that they fall in love with the place and then the people follow.”
With the pair’s harmonies buoying the deeply descriptive and poignant lyrics, as well as Luft’s trademark banjo lines, “Alberta” carries listeners to the titular place while also reminding them of the beauty to be found wherever they are. Whether from the plains or the prairies, the city or the countryside, one can find something that reminds them of home in this track and some sense of comfort in the Small Glories’ music.
Luft and Edwards recently spoke with PopMatters about the album and their love of place.
Did you conceive of this record as a celebration of place?
Cara Luft: A lot of songs on this record were written in situations when we’d been invited to co-writing sessions, and we were given a theme of home and place. We didn’t necessarily have to write around that theme, but a lot of us ended up doing that. As JD and I were compiling the songs to go on this record, we said, “What are the songs that we like and love and want to explore?” They revolved around the theme that we’d been writing around.
JD Edwards: The sessions that we had were influenced by that theme that Cara was talking about. There are a few things that didn’t have themes. Like when we wrote “Long Long Moon” and “Oh My Love”, that was a different session, and I think those songs came out because we wanted to write them; they weren’t necessarily intended to be about a place. But because we are who we are they kind of took on that theme. Then there’s “Pieces of Me”, which is a little bit different than the other songs, it’s more about the geography of the heart. But it fits in with this group.
CL: We really love the places that we visit. A lot of the songs that we chose are stories about other peoples’ homes and these places that we’ve gone. We’ve heard these peoples’ stories and have wanted to bring those stories to a wider audience.
JDE: There’s the idea of the troubadour, which I think we’re picking up on this record. There’s the myth of the traveler and bringing the news and the images and feelings from one place to the next. We’re bringing that news and the joy. We’re bringing the good news.
JDE: Not necessarily religious. Bringing the news from Canada down to the States.
I would have to think that is one of the best parts of being a musician, being able to travel and meet people.
CL: Hands-down. There’s also getting connected with different opportunities and communities which you wouldn’t necessarily have in a more normal job. It is part of the beauty. Even though we long to be home with our family and friends, we are grateful when we get to connect with these other people. We were just in Ohio and got to hang out with a really good friend of ours down there and see a friend of ours in Virginia. You wouldn’t necessarily get to see those people for lunch. On a Wednesday. [Laughs.] In May. You’d have to make much bigger plans.
JDE: One of the things I really like is when we show up in these new towns, places we’ve never been before, and we meet these new people, we find that there’s a lot in common that we have with these people. Of course, there’s definitely cultural differences but the people still wake up every day, put their pants on, go to work, come home, might have issues with family, might have issues with other relationships or whatever, but we all have this commonality, which is just a beautiful thing to know that we can come from Canada and connect with people on other levels. Not just the obvious things like politics or environmental issues. There’s all kinds of human things that we connect with.
There are a lot of times when Cara and I are packing up after a show, or we’re walking through the town just before the gig, and we meet people and they open up about their lives and they share. It’s a beautiful thing. I love being able to connect with people no matter where we are. We’ve been to the Arctic and we’ve been down to Texas.
CL: And Tasmania! [Laughs.]
JDE: Even all the way to Tasmania. That’s even a better one because it’s nearly pole-to-pole.
How do you approach recording? Because you don’t want to have an album that’s filled with too much instrumentation for this music.
CL: We’ve lucked out and have been working with a great producer, Neil Osborne. He’s from the Canadian band 54-40. They’re quite a well-known Canadian rock band. They’ve been around about 35 years I think. Neil, the lead singer and main songwriter in the band, is a rocker with a folky mentality. He believes in serving the song. To have him come in and produce a folk roots album might sound strange on paper. But it was really wise for us because he cares so much about the song.
His mandate, his very first rule was: We have to serve the song. The song was key, then our vocals performances. He would say, “I still want you to get hired at your bluegrass festivals.” [Laughs.] He never really wanted to overdo the production of a song. He didn’t want that to throw people off when we performed live. The recorded version of the song might have a few extra embellishments, but we still recorded the songs so that we could replicate that live.
Anything extra could only be put on if it added to the song and made the song stronger. It couldn’t take away. We also recorded our vocals together, live. We noticed, when we did our first record, that if we didn’t sing together we sang completely differently. We made sure that we sang all our vocals live on the floor so that we kept that energy and momentum. We were inspired.
JDE: I think if there’s any difference in one record to the next, it’s getting to know each other better. We understand each other a little bit more. We’re a little bit more comfortable working with Neil. Cara’s worked with him on some solo projects, so for me, it was just getting to know him better. I came to understand little looks or the way that he’d cross his legs.
JDE: Oh, he’s crossing his legs! He doesn’t like that! What was the question again?
CL: [Laughs.] Yes.
JDE: Wondering right off into the ether? We’re really good at that.
CL: There was one other thing about Neil: When I was in The Wailin’ Jennys, it was about singing a song to death. You lost energy and the life of the song. Neil said, “If you can’t get it in three takes, leave it. You’ve got to feel it.” He would say, “You’ve got to sell me.” It’s about singing with passion.
24 – Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada @ West End Cultural Centre
07-09 – Haine’s Junction, Yukon, Canada @ Kluane Bluegrass Festival
06 – Stony Brook, N.Y. @ Long Island Museum
07 – New York City, New York @ Joe’s Pub
09 – Middlebury, Vt. @ Middlebury Festival on the Green
10 – Saranac Lake, N.Y. @ Music on the Green
11 – Portsmouth, N.H. @ The Music Hall Loft
12 – Winston, Ore. @ Riverbend Live: The Small Glories & Red Molly
13 – Santa Monica, Calif. @ McCabes Guitar Shop
14 – Santa Barbara, Calif. @ Hound Dog House Concerts
19 – Perth, Ontario, Canada @ Stewart Park Music Festival
20-21 – London, Ontario, Canada @ Home County Music & Art Festival
26-28 – Canso, Nova Scotia, Canada @ Stan Rogers Folk Fest
02 – Kensington, Prince Edward Island, Canada @ Indian River Festival
03 – Clarendon, Ontario, Canada @ Blue Skies Music Festival
8-11 – Edmonton, Alberta @ Edmonton Folk Festival
16-17 – Lyons, Colo. @ The Folks Festival
18 – Grand Prairie, Alberta @ Bear Creek Folk Festival
24 – Green Lake, Wis. @ Thrasher Opera House
25 – Ontonagon, Mich. @ Porcupine Mountains Music Festival
30 – Whidbey Island, Wash. @ Oak Harbor Music Festival