Elizabeth Powell can't pinpoint the first time someone misidentified her as "Liz," but she can give you a million reasons why she hates it. The misnomer, which lives on in articles about the Canadian guitarist, singer, and songwriter today, is both trivial and telling — emblematic of the loss of control over her identity that drove her away from the music industry in 2011.
It's a place she'd been since the early 2000s, first as a solo artist under the name ELE_K* and then as the lead singer of a pop group called Doppelgänger. There she'd meet Mark "Bucky" Wheaton, a drummer with whom she would start a new band in 2006 called Land of Talk — which, after one EP, landed both a record deal and a slot on tour opening for the Decemberists.
Six years into playing together, Land of Talk — which also included Chris McCarron on bass — would be a staple in the indie-rock world, and Powell, according to a at the time, was the "glue keeping the Canadian music scene together." But after a series of setbacks starting in 2009 (including a hemorrhagic vocal polyp), Powell called it quits in 2011.
It was unclear to her fans, and perhaps Powell herself, if she'd ever be returning. But after a six-year hiatus that included working at a bakery and helping her dad recover from a stroke, she and Land of Talk are back this May with a new album — their third — titled Life After Youth. Ahead of its release, we talked teenage angst, baking scones, and the hidden beauty of Florida.
Abby Haglage: You grew up in rural Ontario. When did you first get into music?
Elizabeth Powell: My parents had me in Suzuki violin since, I think, I was three or four. Then I got into orchestra when I was old enough. I was never good, but I did it! I really loved playing. I always loved making up my own songs. I would never practice, I would just improvise these pieces. That lent itself more to a fretless bass, so I babysat for like a summer and bought one. I was listening to Sebadoh, Pavement, the Pixies, PJ Harvey, and they were all kind of informing how I was improvising on the bass. And then, I guess music heads seem to find each other — especially in high school.
AH: Ha, yes. So when did you first record something?
EP: I was doing solo stuff and I would jam with musicians, but I recorded my first CD, called I Think You Ought to Love Me More, on my four-track when I was like seventeen. Then I did my first cassette when I was like nineteen. I ended up selling like 30 copies, and one of those [copies] was [bought by] Richard Perry of Arcade Fire. He was a big supporter of me and spread the word through the music department at Concordia University. I lived with Sara, who was the violinist of Arcade Fire. They were always supportive. Then Bucky and I met, and he was like, "Hey, let's play some rock tunes together sometime — I hear you have some music that you write." He heard the tape, and then he and Chris McCarron left me a message saying "Let's make music."
I just wanted to see if I could have a normal life, you know? I wanted dogs. I wanted to go to the dog park. I wanted to just be at home.
AH: So that was it, Land of Talk was born. The band got signed, released two albums, and then a few years after that you walked away, in 2011, and haven't been back until now. What happened?
EP: I think I lost perspective. I was out of touch with just even an everyday life, just a normal life that wasn't on the road, that there was no upheaval. I didn't really have any kind of healthy personal life at that point. I just wanted to see if I could have a normal life, you know? I wanted dogs. I wanted to go to the dog park. I wanted to just be at home. Maybe I was also feeling poor in the creative department, feeling uninspired, hurt, and heartbroken. I was feeling like being "Elizabeth of Land of Talk in Montreal" was doing me a disservice. I wasn't being challenged in ways that I needed to, and I wasn't taking care of myself in a way. I wasn't really nurturing a side of myself that would be able to sustain a creative life. As an artist, I kind of stopped being an artist. I just had this natural instinct to, like, "ah, head for the hills." Except my hills [were] my granny's cottage.
AH: Where's that?
EP: It's a family cottage on a lake up here — which is a lake that I wrote Some Are Lakes about! That's where my parents met. This lake has a lot of history and a lot of meaning for me personally. It was also kind of nowhere. It was everywhere for me, but then it was like nowhere for anybody else. I needed to be nowhere.
AH: So you didn't write music during that time?
EP: No, no, I was just like, "Well then, I'm not going to do that for a while. I'm going to see if I can do other stuff." I can't do other stuff! I tried to become a baker. But then my dad suffered a major stroke, so I would work at the bakery from five in the morning till noon, then I would come home and do lunch with my dad. We would do physio, flash cards, reading, and I would take him to his appointments. He was doing a lot of post-stroke recovery stuff at the YMCA. It was a totally different life. I just completely stopped being a musician, and it felt really natural for a while.
AH: I read that you started getting into classical, ambient, and Japanese music during his recovery.
EP: Music was such a huge part of his recovery. It just became part of me coping with essentially losing a lot of my dad. He was always like a lion for me. He'd been the one who would make sure that I was taking care of myself on tour or that labels weren't taking advantage. He always was rooting for me. He was my greatest champion, so that was really hard because he lost his ability to speak. He had expressive aphasia. He would want to say something, but it just wasn't coming out. That was three years ago.
AH: And today?
EP: Now we speak. We hang out. But it was seeing how music helped him in his recovery, and then realizing, Oh my gosh, it's helping me do it too. I started composing more and sharing it with him. Then I played him what ended up ultimately becoming the song "This Time," and he just got in this meditative trance. That's when I knew: Oh, music has become the main healer for us. I [felt like], OK, we can't build together anymore, we can't work in the way that we used to, but the music is the common thread and it's still there. That was beautiful for both of us. He was like, OK, just get back there, Elizabeth. Come on, stop fucking around.
AH: Does he like the new stuff?
EP: I always share my tracks with him and all my demos. Based on how he responds, or how he kind of gets a look in his eye, I go, OK, yeah, we're onto something.
AH: There are so many good songs on the new album, but I really loved "In Florida." It's so funny because in America, Florida is the butt of a lot of jokes — but this song is so beautiful!
EP: That's what everybody said! But you know what? Yes, Florida deserves this song. Right? And maybe it's about seeing the beauty in something or being naïve. I had a dream that I lived in Florida, and there was a panther on my porch. When I woke up, I sketched that panther, and I ended up taking of it. I was writing that guitar lick and saw that sketch and was like, Oh yeah. One kind of informed the other. It wasn't really about Florida itself.
[Afterward,] when I was [getting ready to mix the record], the producer John Agnello had heard that I had a couple songs that I wanted to maybe add to the record. He got Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth, and they listened to two demos for "In Florida," and they were like, "Why are you writing a love song to the armpit of America?" I was like, "Guys, just give it a chance!" Afterward they were like, "Wow, you're making us want to go to Florida."
AH: Leave it to a nice Canadian to make us see the beauty in Florida.
EP: [Laughs.] Well, it's my pleasure.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Abby Haglage is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Glamour, Marie Claire, and Elle.