From the Longlist: The Pressures and Pleasures of the Sophomore Album

For today’s look at the Borealis Longlist, we spoke to artists who followed up an exciting debut with a stunning second album, about the pressures and pleasures of building on a great first release.

For today’s look at the Borealis Longlist, we spoke to artists who followed up an exciting debut with a stunning second album.

Greg Hewlett of Boat Haus, Len O’Neil of Green &Gold and Bryan Power of Pilot to Bombardier talk about the pressures and pleasures of building on a great first release, and give us a quick peek into their record collections.

Below are 3 sample songs off each of their albums. This year;s shortlist will be revealed in December’s print issue, and online here Dec. 1st.

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What Distinguishes the Sophomore Effort, from the Big Debut? Is There More Craftsmanship or Experimentation? More Patience and Wisdom from Already Having Done it Once?

Greg Hewlett: While “Coulda Swore” was the second album released under the Boat Haus name, it’s distinguished from the debut in that its the effort of a full band. The first album was closer to a solo project – I wrote and played the songs, and Jake Nicoll bolstered them immeasurably with wizardly production and percussion. “Coulda Swore,” on the other hand, was written, arranged, and performed as a unit after the coming aboard of Rodney Russell and Noah Bender, who along with Jake, again elevated the project into something I alone could never reach (thanks dudes). They brought the chemistry and chops that made it what it is.

Len O’Neil: I think if you’re marketing your music the Sophomore record asks you to improve on what you’ve done, but doesn’t give you as much time to do it. When you’re making the first one you have the luxury of cherry-picking your best ideas out of the pool of stuff you’ve been working on to practice your craft, and a lot of time to do so, whereas with a sophomore release you have to start from scratch. Moreover, while working on a debut, there’s a lot of energy that comes from the exciting prospect of finally presenting your work to your community. When you’re making your second one, you have to rally the same kind of enthusiasm that got you through the first, come up with material that integrates what you’ve learned since releasing that one, and improve upon what you’ve done before, and, do it all ideally within a year or two after the first. Again, this is assuming you’re trying to market your music. If you’re just doing it for a laugh I can’t see much of a difference between the two because they’d be both inspired by only an enthusiasm for the material and the joy of making music. They could be totally different and it wouldn’t matter at all in that case.

Bryan Power: It’s interesting.  A first album is generally songs that you’ve been working on from when you first start writing music. You’ve had years to try things out, throw them away, learn new tricks, and then assemble the greatest hits into what they call a debut record. I recorded 3 or 4 albums of music before the “debut” – plus there was a pile written but never recorded. For “Wild Bells” we had to start from songwriting scratch. Sometimes this doesn’t really work out, and I’m told that’s where the term “sophomore slump” comes from. I felt the songs were there pretty quickly so we had the leisure of spending time trying out arrangements. The ace was having Adam Hogan co-producing/arranging/playing. He is a wizard and a dominant influence on the sounds of the record. Plus he’s a good guy. 

What is One of Your Personal Favourites off the Album?

Greg Hewlett: A personal fav from the album is Seance. The energy animating that one represents the band at its peak.

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Len O’Neil: I think “The City Dance” is my favorite, in part because it came as a whole. I sat at the piano and wrote the whole thing in one pass. The language is direct and I think the chords move in an interesting way. We recorded it at 3am one night in one take, and released it the next day. It’s a personal and important song for me and I’m thankful for it.

Bryan Power: f I had to pick a favourite, it’d be “Wild Bells.” I die for Katie’s vocal part, the explosive guitar(s) at the break, Steve’s harmony after – plus Chris’s giant fills at the end. Ian’s patient bass line. Robbie’s swirly atmosphere. The song itself is simple but the magic comes from the sum of its performances.   

Can You Name a Notable Sophomore Effort in Your Album Collection and Tell Us Why It’s Notable For You? 

Greg Hewlett: First notable sophomore effort that comes to mind is Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement. Built on the charms of the debut with added depth and richness to the original sound. Shine a Light by the Constantines did the same thing come to think of it.

Len O’Neil: Given his recent passing, I’m going to choose Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room as a notable sophomore release. It’s starker than Songs Of Leonard Cohen, and employs sparse arrangements. It presents his voice and lyrics as the centerpiece of the record, and forgoes the sometimes garish and cliched surrealist folk production of his debut. It arguably doesn’t showcase as many great songs as Songs.

Bryan Power:  It seems that most of my favourite albums are the sophomore album. I’m 35 years  late, but I recently heard Wipers Youth of America for the first time and it’s been in my ears pretty consistently. My favourite would be a toss up between the Cowboy Junkies’ The Caution Horses and Neil Young’s Everybody Knows this is Nowhere though I’d steer towards the latter. Cowgirl in the Sand, Down by the River, Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. There are no throwaways.  

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