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Leah Abramson and the Abramson Singers

The Abramson Singers

From the road, lead singer Leah talks Tendonitis, Incarceration and Louis Riel.

By Scott Wood

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Hello folks, Scott Wood here! I'm the host of the interview show, which is a syndicated radio program you can find on several campus community radio stations across Canada. Each month I profile one of the “hidden talents” in my local Vancouver scene. Basically, I am going to give the campus community radio readers the chance to get to know some of Vancouver's most interesting, up-and-coming talents.

This month, I talk to Leah Abramson from the Abramson Singers. Leah and her band have just released their sophomore album, Late Riser, on May 14th, 2013. I caught up with Leah while she was on the road, touring the record.

Scott Wood: Right now you are on tour, supporting your second record Late Riser. What's the weirdest (in a good or bad way) place that you have crashed for the night? 

Critics labeling her music "folk-noir": To me it just describes music that isn't afraid to sometimes go to dark places. I think it's easier to avoid going there sometimes, but for me it's more interesting to include a range of lived experience, even if it's harder for people to listen to.

Leah Abramson: Well, we're only a few nights into the tour, and it's mostly been in Alberta so we were crashing at the Gaucher homestead—the family of our drummer, Dan. It's awesome because we're staying in the room he lived in as a teenager. Lots of tawdry stories there. The most amazing by far is the Bruno Arts Bank. It's a town of 500 people, but Kerry and Tyler have created an unmatched prairie arts oasis. We had Saskatoon berry pie for breakfast! The place we're looking forward to now is Flin Flon. The only town in Canada named after a Sci-fi character!

Scott Wood: Leah, you've been in a few bands before the Abramson Singers, Dyad, Octoberman and The Crooked Jades to name a few—you’ve also released material as a solo artist. In the press, you get called a "veteran supporting-caster" a lot. Can you briefly describe each of these projects and one thing they have taught you about being a frontman (or piloting your own projects)?

Leah Abramson: I sometimes long for the days of being a sideperson or co-lead in bands! I loved singing harmonies and duets and exploring Appalachian music in Dyad, and it was also nice to have a decent-paying music job playing with the Crooked Jades. I learned how to arrange music as a band and how to fit into a song as part of the puzzle. In Octoberman, it was such a fun time hanging out and touring with friends without the stress of organizing everything myself -- I appreciate how much fun it was playing music with my friends. Now it's a lot more work running everything myself, but it's also really amazing to be able to do my own music and take those things and apply them to my own band.

Scott Wood: Critics call what you do "folk-noir"--what draws you to this genre? 

Leah Abramson: Does this genre even exist? To me it just describes music that isn't afraid to sometimes go to dark places. I think it's easier to avoid going there sometimes, but for me it's more interesting to include a range of lived experience, even if it's harder for people to listen to. It's also an attempt to transform those places into something beautiful. 

Scott Wood: I've read that this project the Abramson Singers was born out of a wrist injury that prevented you from playing guitar? Can you tell the story?

Leah Abramson: I got tendonitis in my wrist a few years ago and had to stop playing guitar for a few months, but I didn't want to stop writing songs. So I took my digital 8-track and started writing with only voice. I began sharing them with people and came up with a funny name -- our current band name -- and got a really positive response. So once I was playing guitar again, I kept the name and added tons of harmonies too.

Scott Wood: You are a songwriting professor at UBC. I've heard you also teach songwriting to women in federal prisons. That must be intense. Can you talk a bit about your experience?

Working with mainstream pop music producers: A record is really a snapshot in time, and I think that for me Late Riser is my pop record, even though a lot of people would still call it 'weird folk.'

Leah Abramson: Working in prison is both intense and in some ways totally normal. It's the normal aspects of it that are surprising and actually quite amazing. You realize that people are people no matter where they are or what they've done in the past. Also, music is such a healing force and I wish there were more opportunities for incarcerated people to involve themselves in it. On a personal level, it reminds me how lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing and to not take basic things for granted.

Scott Wood: Your second record, Late Riser, was started at a residency in Banff, AB, with Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade), Tony Berg (Ohbijou, X) and Shawn Everett (Weezer, k.d. lang). How did some time with these guys help your craft grow on this record? (Was it possible to come out of their NOT sounding more pop?) 

Leah Abramson: I think some of the songs I was writing were heading in more of a pop direction anyway, and Howard, Tony and Shawn just brought out those elements. There is so much pop music that I totally love, but it was hard to see my own music in those ranks, since it was a bit of a departure. Actually, I had a little meltdown with Howard in the studio -- I was unsure whether I could deal with the pop elements of a particular song -- but he was great. He took me aside and told me that most bands would kill to have written such a catchy song and that I may as well just go with it. A record is really a snapshot in time, and I think that for me this is my pop record, even though a lot of people would still call it ‘weird folk.’ It took me awhile to embrace it, but now I'm having fun.

Scott Wood: On Late Riser, you have a couple of historically inspired songs about Canadian folk hero and Métis rebel Louis Riel. (The songs being the French-English hybrid, ‘Marguerite,’ and ‘Red River Valley’). What draws you to his story?

Leah Abramson: My friend Lyn Heinemann (of bands Drawn Ship and Portico) and I both read Chester Brown's graphic novel biography of Louis Riel around the same time and started talking about writing a musical about his life. It turned out to be a bit of an overwhelming project so we started off by just writing songs about various points in his life/death and the people around him. I think it's the story of struggle that I find inspiring -- oppressed people fighting back, even when it's potentially a losing battle. For me it's similar to something like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where you see the people's fighting spirit even in times of extreme hardship and persecution.

Her songs about folk hero Louis Riel: I think it's the story of struggle that I find inspiring -- oppressed people fighting back, even when it's potentially a losing battle.

I also enjoy finding the parts of the story that haven't necessarily been written about a lot. History books will often skip over the wives and families of male leaders. So in my song "Marguerite," it's a conversation between Louis and his wife Marguerite where he's essentially telling her that they need to leave their safe haven in Montana and return to fight for their land and people. I've imagined their conversation where she eventually agrees to go, but not before telling him that he risks losing his entire family (which he does).

Louis Riel is also just such a fascinating character. For instance, he was a fanatically religious person, which is why both songs use so much Catholic imagery.

Scott Wood: I've heard your band sometimes gets upset that MCs and hosts often mispronounce the band name. Can you tell me a few funny/strange/odd ones?

Leah Abramson: Usually it's just adding the "H" in, as in "Abrahamson." I usually just joke that it's a Kosher name -- No "ham" in Abramson! And then there's the spelling... don't get me started. Is it really that difficult? At this point I'm just stubbornly making people say it over and over again for fun.

Scott Wood: You are Vancouver-based and you've said in the past about Vancouver that "Venues come and go, which can be hard, but the city is trying to make things easier, so things are looking up." Can you talk about a dear departed Vancouver venue you've loved and why?

Leah Abramson: As a concert-goer, I really miss Richard's on Richards. I really wish I'd gotten a chance to play there before it closed. I saw my first show underage there -- before people ID'd all the time -- Rufus Wainwright. I also saw Magnolia Electric Company, Martin Tielli, Tegan and Sarah and a bunch of other really memorable shows there. The sound and sightlines were fantastic, and it was just skeezy enough for everyone to have a good time. Also the Sugar Refinery. It was such a community hub and the music was always fantastic.

Scott Wood: Please introduce the video I will embed at the bottom of this interview. What we are going to see?

Leah Abramson: This is the only a cappella song on the album called "Liftoff Canon." The video was made by back-up singer and multi-media artist Lucien Durey out of old found 8mm home videos.

Find more about The Abramson Singers online.

Leah and the band are on tour this summer.

May 20, 2013 @ The West End Cultural Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba
May 21, 2013 @ The Artful Dodger, Regina, Saskatchewan
May 22, 2013 @ The Fernie Arts Station, Fernie, BC with Astral Swans
May 23, 2013 @ House Concert, Creston, BC with Astral Swans
May 24, 2013 @ The Special, Nelson, BC
May 26, 2013 @ House Concert, Mission, BC
May 28, 2013 @ The Copper Owl, Victoria, BC with Astral Swans.
May 30, 2013 @ The Chapel, Vancouver, BC (Double Album Release Party with Tariq Hussain) with Astral Swans.
June 20-22, 2013 @ Sled Island Festival (date/time TBA), Calgary, AB
August 11, 2013 @ The Banff Centre, Banff, AB
August 13, 2013 @ The Astoria, Vancouver, BC
August 15, 2013 @ Filberg Park, Comox, BC
Aug 16, 2013 @The Artbank Vancouver, BC
Sept 13, 2013 @ The Cobalt Vancouver, BC


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