Ladies of the Canyon had a three-take rule in the studio when they were recording their second album.
The edict was handed down from the Montreal four-piece’s producer, Mark Howard (Lucinda Williams, Vic Chesnutt), whom they recruited to infuse their sweet, harmony-drenched brand of folk-pop with some harder, electrified edges.
Howard set up studio in a secluded barn near Burlington, Ontario, replete with a stage for singer/guitarist Jasmine Bleile, bassist Anna Ruddick and lead guitarist/singer Maia Davies to jam as if performing in a club.
“Mark's whole approach is you do three takes,” Bleile explains.“You sort everything out first. You arrange the song. You got it down. It’s three takes. You got it. That approach adds a huge amount of genuine, resonating feeling.”
The resulting album, Diamond Heart, pushes the Ladies’ twangy ballads into a grittier direction that recalls the 1970s SoCal soft rock of Fleetwood Mac. The goal was to give a pulsating heart to the pointed and empowering attitude fuelling their songwriting.
“The first record was very much ‘Woe is me, pretty little love songs, I’ve been jaded and I don’t really know what I’m doing,’” Bleile explains. “It was like a teenaged rant. This record is more about taking control and doing what we wanna do. Like, ‘Oh, I cheated on you? Sorry honey, I went out and I drank too much and cheated on you repeatedly when I was on the road.’”
Formed in 2005 and named after a Joni Mitchell album, Ladies of the Canyon came of age performing romantic, country-tinged folk tunes on the Montreal coffee-shop circuit. Their songs reflected the bohemian 1960s and ’70s SoCal rock albums stacked in their parents’ record collections and attracted interest from the Nashville country scene and a major label, Warner Music Canada, which released their debut Haunted Woman in 2010.
They started mixing cover songs, like Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” into their sets on tour and liked the energy and the visceral reaction the songs inspired in their audiences.
Bleile, Ruddick and Davies started songwriting together for the first time, pouring often rueful and cathartic tales of friendship, breakups and substance abuse into the lyrics. The album opens with “You and All Your Famous Friends,” a take-down of a famous ex-lover, while “The Change” chronicles a breaking free from a manipulative mate.
“It’s about washing your mouth out of that bitter taste and moving on to where you really want to be,” Bleile says. “It's about casting off the darkness and the shadows but also exploring a darker side of ourselves.”
Another major change was the addition of drummer Tara Martin, who joined halfway through the recording process last year. Although Stevie Nicks’s drummer Jimmy Paxson is the primary drummer on Diamond Heart, Martin — a long-time friend of Davies’s from the Montreal indie music scene — worked on three songs and will keep the heavier grooves going as the band gears up to tour.
A fan of hip hop, Martin describes her drumming style as “simple and tasteful.”
“It’s generally difficult to play pop music and rock music well when you’re a drummer. I think the tendency is to overplay,” she says.“I try to keep it laid-back. I’d rather play less fills and crashes, less noise, and focus on the groove and the time and locking in with Anna, the bass player.”
Playing in a band with three other women was also a departure for Martin, who began drumming a decade ago and has performed with a variety of singer/songwriters, solo artists and bands. But touring with a group of women was a novel experience.
“I’m always kidding around with the girls that I had to manage my expectation at the beginning,” she says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything with three other girls, but everything takes four times as long as you think it’s going to take.
“Making a restaurant reservation. Making a decision about what colour scheme we’re gonna use in the video. Going shopping,” she adds, laughing. “Now take my expectations and multiply by four.”
That patience may also come in handy when it comes to the business side of being a band of four women in an industry known for being a boys' club.
“One of the greatest and most insulting things I've ever heard was from a major label executive who said, 'Oh, I don't like chick bands. I don't sign them because they don't stay together,’” Bleile says.
“That’s coming from the top of the food chain.”
Still, Bleile is not convinced that the tastes of record executives is the only reason for the obsession with balls-on rock radio, a medium Ladies of the Canyon hope to crack with Diamond Heart.
“How many women do you hear that are being played on rock radio that is contemporary music? I can’t think of one,” she says. “Is that because we're socialized that way? I don't know. Maybe our ears are tuned that way from a very young age? Is it the guys calling the shots or is it the public calling the shots because that's what they want to hear?”
Growing their audience will be the Ladies’ next challenge after Diamond Heart comes out, but Bleile and Martin remain resolutely focused on the music and taking the newfound inner bad-ass attitude from the studio to the stage.
“I just want to do what I do and do it well,” Bleile adds.