Interview with Aaron Powell of Fog Lake
Conducted by: Emily Costantino
Fog Lake’s seventh album, Tragedy Reel, comes through as Aaron Powell’s most powerful and well-crafted album to date. Alongside the same haunted vocal layering, a new sonic field emerges within Tragedy Reel. A minimalism blotted with sparse percussion and looming Casio synths. A truly beautiful and urgent listen.
During the past month, Aaron and I went back and forth in a conversation about this latest release. Tragedy Reel was officially released on April 23rd through the independent label Orchid Tapes. Meeting Aaron, albeit virtually, it became clear that the control this album posits is in fact masterfully held by Aaron himself -- a thoughtful and prolific songwriter based out of Newfoundland, Canada. The interview that follows is a snapshot of a much longer dialouge, as we approached the subjects of craft, ritual, limitation and redemption -- coming to understand the motivations behind Aaron’s latest record.
Purchase Tragedy Reel or pre-order physical copies, here.
Stream the LP, here:
What is it about Newfoundland do you think?
At this point I’ve spent most of my life there, in Newfoundland, specifically in a small town sort of in the middle of nowhere. In a lot of ways I’ve wanted Fog Lake to sound like what living in rural Newfoundland feels like. Whether that is describing the dense backwoods, the ocean, or the silence and solitude of it all. I guess being out there can be so mind-numbingly boring at times that there really isn’t much else to do other than to get lost in your own mind.
I think many artists found themselves in the same situation this year, moving back to where they grew up, either temporarily or indefinitely. Although, most I know went ‘home’ and were somewhat crushed by the experience. You wrote an entire album...
This album came together much more effortlessly than my previous albums, thankfully. I had written and demoed a few songs in the summer of 2019, which was a very intense time in my life personally. Once that dust had finally settled for the most part, a few weeks back at home that following summer and I felt like it was the right time to revisit those songs and to build an album around them.
I genuinely struggle to find inspiration for writing songs when I’m anywhere other than Newfoundland. Growing up, there really wasn’t much else to do except work on creative things -- so it eventually became a refuge for me and an escape from the meaninglessness and alienation of it all.
It feels impossible to listen to Tragedy Reel and not feel paralyzed by its lyricism (in the best way possible). So many tracks I would replay after the first listen because the impressionistic quality warranted another go, sometimes several goes. Those spaces you create feel so... alive.
It always remains a goal of mine to be cryptic in my lyricism, because I think all of my favorite songwriters have a way of making their music feel not completely aligned to their own lived experiences, so in that way the listener is able to reshape it to fit their own. I think if you get too specific in what you are trying to say, building that bridge between the songwriter and the listener becomes a lot more difficult.
Some songs tell what feels like a single story -- like “Latter Day Saint,” one of my favorite tracks on the album -- while others feel a bit more nonlinear. Was your lyrical practice any different this time around?
Tragedy Reel is a lot more conceptual (at least on a narrative level) than my previous albums. It has more of a “beginning, middle and end” than other records I’ve done, much of those which I feel ended on cliffhangers, in terms of personal closure or catharsis at least. I’d like to think that it’s my first record which tells a more complete story of things I had only briefly touched upon in earlier works, but had still inspired them heavily. “Latter Day Saint” is the only song on the album to me that is mostly linear storywise while the other songs touch upon about a decade’s worth of significant personal events and the emotions surrounding them, almost like an attempt to write my own “coming-of-age” story perhaps.
I think as artists, we are often retelling the same stories. Trying to say it “better” or fully capture it with each iteration. And like you said about certain experiences, especially those centered around a trauma, they can feel almost impossible to put to words. I always wonder what happens once an artist feels a sense of completion with a certain story/ event that preoccupies them. Have you ever felt completion in this way around a major theme in your writing?
I think with Tragedy Reel for the first time I felt like I had finished telling the story I had been loosely reflecting upon in previous releases. It’s a bit bothersome when certain muses and flames feel like they’re finally extinguished. But I also like that it opens a new door and gives me a massive opportunity to evolve sonically and lyrically, which I’m excited about. Even if some stories in my life come to an end, I can say with confidence that I’ll never feel like I’ve completed my artistic journey or like I’ve said everything I’d like to say.
Well, this album feels like a massive step forward on that journey. Especially it’s composition. I mean, sonically it separates itself from some of your previous records. How did that sound come about?
My close friend and one of my favorite songwriters Kenny Boothby of the band Little Kid once told me that they always have a certain rule for each record they make, whether that be something like “no distortion” or “only songs in the key of A.” So I took a note from them, the same one which they applied on their album Flowers, that rule being “no electric guitars.” I guess that would make Tragedy Reel the most ‘folky’ album of mine, but I really don’t enjoy trying to categorize my own music too much.
I’m always interested in how taking something away or adding an arbitrary rule can suddenly become this generative experience. I think your choice to take some instruments away allowed for a certain felt spaciousness in the composition. Are there any other practices or rituals you engage in to keep working?
I have some fun rituals and stuff I do for sure. Sometimes when I have a bad writer’s block I’ll literally take a whole day and try to write and record an entire album, at least 8 to 12 songs, and do it as stream-of-consciousness as possible. Then I’ll burn the songs off onto a CD and go for a drive late at night, listening to them for the first time. Of course all of the songs end up being half-baked and unfinished, but there’s always at least one or two songs that have a memorable hook, or a few bars of lyrics I really like. It’s a lot of fun. Some of my favorite songs I’ve ever written have come from that practice.
That’s really badass. Anything else...
Sometimes I’ll find old archival footage on youtube, even old family video tapes and whatnot. I’ll project it onto a screen and put it on mute. Then I’ll try to write a song that captures the way those moving images make me feel. I find when I write music to images it really helps me focus and gives me a feeling to work off of.
Ahh, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I read others online referring to the “harrowing nostalgia” of your work. There’s totally a cinematic quality to your writing. And Tragedy *Reel*… Not to be lame, but that title alone communicates so much.
I always feel like I want to evoke the feeling one gets from watching old family videos or looking through a photo album. A lot of the drive I have to make music comes from how I feel that it’s detrimental for me mentally to create little time capsules that I can go back to, in order to compartmentalize intense or negative things I’ve felt or have had happen to me. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a bad tendency to be melodramatic and romanticize my own struggles to the point where I imagine them in my head to be ‘Shakespearean’ in their scale of tragedy. Then, in moments of clarity I just laugh and realize how insignificant and trivial it is a lot of the time.
In the biography that I was sent for this album it described the album as a vehicle for ‘forgiveness’ and ‘repentance.’ I connected this to the process of catharsis you were describing, that creating this album was actively releasing you from something -- a feeling, or history. It reminds me that so much of what shapes our actions, and as artists our creative choices, are the bondages we are experiencing at that time, what we need to be set free from. If, as you said, there was some kind of starting point and end-point to this album, an arc of sorts, where did you end up? Were you set free? Or do you think the process of making art can even do this, actually set us free from a thing...
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this. When I’m in the midst of making something that I feel is deeply personal and important to me, it can feel like I’m doing something that’s going to have some kind of major impact on my life, like in the way people perceive me or the way I perceive myself. But then when everything’s said and done, I realize that music, while an extremely powerful thing, isn’t going to mend anything on it’s own. I almost feel cowardly hiding behind my songs sometimes. There’s one line in Leonard Cohen’s song “Bird on a Wire”: ”I swear by this song / and all I’ve done wrong / I will make it up to thee.” That one always gets me. Sometimes I genuinely feel like a song is going to right some kind of wrong, or set me free from some kind of psychological bondage, but in the end it’s only just a song.