Singer-Songwriter Kate Weekes Predicts Better Days Ahead On New Album
By Sarah French.
When the outside world is shut down and off-limits, what sort of stories do we discover within?
That’s a question many artists found themselves asking during the pandemic. Few emerged with answers as compelling as those unearthed by Kate Weekes, whose beguiling fourth studio album, Better Days Ahead finds the Quebec-based singer-songwriter exploring “the liminal space created by lockdowns and cancelled plans.”
Given that Weekes’ songwriting has typically been inspired by her travels, which have seen her dog mushing-for-hire in Norway, touring China with a swing band, and canoeing far-north Canadian rivers as a wilderness guide, Better Days Ahead required an entirely new way of writing, using internal cues to map a moment in time.
Composing mainly in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec before collaborating with producer and multi-instrumentalist James Stephens at Stove Studios in Chelsea, Quebec — where the pair also cut 2019’s critically acclaimed Taken by Surprise — Weekes found that “the boreal forest and Canadian Shield were beautiful places to pass a challenging period.
“I learned to play clawhammer banjo and have been thrilled to discover how it dances with fiddle,” she says. “The relationship between the banjo and fiddle, the support of the sousaphone, the beauty of the flugelhorn, and the mysterious dance of the percussive sounds... creating a beautiful piece of music together, as a band, was healing and important, underscoring a need to believe there would be better days ahead.”
Indeed, the wildly eclectic songs assembled on Better Days Ahead — which Weekes variously (and fabulously) describes as “Appalachian-influenced murder-suicide ballads, anthemic folk-pop, whimsical instrumental waltzes,” and “moody, horse-riding cowboy meets British rock” among other descriptions —announce an artist fiercely unbound by musical convention yet precisely able to articulate her vision.
Take the bracing, harmonium-and-flugelhorn–fueled title track, which Weekes summarizes as a “political, uplifting ballad. It was originally inspired by the villain Grendel and his modern counterpart, Trump and served as a creative distraction and hopeful focal point during the first lockdown. Brenda Berezan wrote the music, I wrote the words.”
Or consider the surprisingly jaunty (given its subject matter) “Floating Face Down,” a corker propelled by strings and hand claps that was inspired, Weekes explains, by “a piece I heard on CBC Radio about someone whose job it was to collect the bodies of suicide victims from the Thames River. I imagined myself floating by, unnoticed as people went about their lives. Was it murder or suicide?”
Weekes’ bright, crystalline voice is front and center on Better Days Ahead, guiding her ace core band — Rob Graves (myriad percussion instruments) and Brian Sanderson (flugelhorn, trumpet, and other horns) plus producer Stephens (fiddles, harmonium, fretless bass, electric mandolin, vocals, electric tenor guitar) — through a dizzying array of moods and sonic excursions.
“On this album in particular, the band had a big impact on the songs,” Weekes confirms, adding that, as with the previous record, Better Days Ahead was crowd-funded by supporters. “We had been playing as a band before heading into the studio and did some workshopping of the songs before recording them.”
Another key difference this time around was the recording approach. “On the last album, we did bed tracks,” Weekes explains. “This one we kind of came in Kate-first, especially with the banjo tracks,” an instrument Weekes — already an accomplished guitarist who adds acoustic and electric hollow body guitar to Better Days Ahead— only picked up about two years ago.
Also complementing the album’s 10 new original songs are vocalist Christine Graves and percussionist Philip Shaw Bova who mastered at Bova Sound, Ottawa, ON. “The instrumentation on this album is sparser than on the last album but it’s also more focused, so I’d say there is a bit more room within the songs.”
Weekes continues: “I think my writing style shifted to become a bit more direct. Maybe just saying what I need to say lifted a weight.” That’s evident in the sunny, upbeat “Red Brick Buildings” which Weekes says almost wrote itself and which “has some heavy stuff but it’s coming from a place of innocence.”
A similarly lighthearted vibe elevates the whimsical, gently countrified “Time by the Moon” which practically smells of sawdust and whisky.
At the other end of spectrum is the candlelit, downcast “Come the Rain,” a reflective ballad about depression. “That was a song I really battled with,” Weekes allows. “It felt so dark and heavy that I didn’t even want to sing it and found myself resisting it as it was emerging.
“But the banjo brings a dance to things, and it has a brightness,” a point beautifully illustrated by the jovial, grinning “Liminal Space,” an anthemic folk-pop song which Weekes recalls writing “while watching the birds head north without me. I struggled to find a sense of self that didn’t lean on external factors. Who am I in this liminal space?”
Weekes is eager to present Better Days Ahead in a concert setting, embracing the shapeshifting that organically occurs when songs are rendered live. “I really hope people get a chance to listen to this album,” she laughs. “I want the music to be heard.
“I’m really happy with how the songs came out and what I’d really love to have is a higher caliber of performance opportunities. Hopefully, people will be interested in what I’m doing.”
February 8 Nanaimo, BC Harbour City Concerts
February 9 Vancouver, BC Songbird North @The Roundhouse
February 10 Port Alberni, BC Char's Landing
February 11 Courtenay, BC House Concert
February 17 Brentwood Bay, BC Village Emporium
February 18 Gabriola Island, BC Bird Song House Concert
February 19 North Vancouver, BC House Concert
March 2 Ottawa, ON Red Bird Live
March 3 Wolfe Island, ON Hotel Wolfe Island
March 4 Toronto, ON House Concert
March 5 Kingston, ON House Concert
March 12 Maberly, ON Maberly Hall: Double Release with Christine Graves
March 24 Montreal, QC Ursa: Opening Act Allysann Foehring