Lakes of Canada is a Montreal-based band of musical wizards with a sound inspired by a host of influences, including folk, gospel, soul, early sixties folk, and prog rock. On October 25th, they launched the album Transgressions Acoustic, a live acoustic recording of songs based on Transgressions, the sophomore studio album they’d released last year. The songs on this album were inspired by Margaret Atwoods’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian speculative fiction novel about what might happen in a Canterbury tale told by a young woman enslaved within a totalitarian theocracy. Jake Smith, the band’s lead singer and one of the main songwriters, is a tenor section leader in Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir; this position recently won him an opportunity to be a part of Leonard Cohen’s final album, You Want it Darker (Cohen himself had asked for singers from his childhood synagogue). Recently, Jake Smith took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about his own childhood and what brought him to where he is now.
Where did it all begin?
I was born in New Jersey and moved to New York when I was a year old. From there, I moved to Hudson, outside of Montreal. when I was two, I think. My family is actually Canadian.
Then I lived briefly in Point Saint Charles in Montreal until I was nine, then back to New Jersey for a year, and then Burlington, Vermont, until I was eighteen, and then I did my undergrad in New York City, studied in London briefly, and then went back to Vermont for like a summer, and then moved back to Montreal about ten years ago.
In terms of how music was involved in my early life, I’ve been singing in the choir ever since I was about five or six, started singing solo stuff when I was about eight or nine, then actually started studying singing around age fourteen. I continued doing that and started doing it professionally in my twenties. I studied musical theatre in school, so that obviously had a big musical influence on me.
For a long time I kind of wanted do both music and acting but then realized that in order to get anywhere with either one of them I would have to pick only one.
So, why did you pick singing?
Well, I didn’t pick singing, exactly, so much as music. I was doing a lot of theatre and film and playing in bands at the same time. While I was writing for theatre and film and writing for music I found that music was affording me a lot more opportunity to write and interpret other people’s work.
The Lakes of Canada has kind of a hymn-like sound about it?the strong vocals and the harmonies and so on. I was just thinking that if you did that much in theatre and sang in the Synagogue then That’s probably where it came from. I can hear summer camp songs in there, as well.
For sure. I was actually a camp counselor for many years. The drummer, Connor O?Neil, and I are the primary songwriters. I have a background in musical theatre, Connor has a background in film touring, and then we met in Synagogue choir, where we had both been for ten plus years. So, combine that with the subject matter of the book that we based the album on, and yeah, obviously there would be a lot of hymn-like elements and theatrical things through it.
Can you describe to me one of the most mesmerising musical experiences of your life?
Sure. I’ll go with performances that really shook me, I guess, because to me It’s a completely different process being on the performer’s end of it. Seeing Stevie Wonder play was definitely that for me. I saw him play at the Jazz Festival, right after Michael Jackson died. It was raining, and he played for three and a half hours straight and he improvised and worked with the crowd and there were fireworks and tears. It was one of the most natural shows I had ever seen in my life.
Also, recently, the band got to play at the Festival de Musique Émergente, and that was really special as well, actually. They put up every artist and feed them throughout. We had this really crazy experience there; not only did our show take place in a big beautiful church, but all the artists thought that it was just like earth-shatteringly incredible.
I’ve been to a lot of festivals, but that one in particular was a really incredible experience. Every artist there was just like, “What is with this place? It’s just crazy!” So, yeah, I would say that those are two of my biggest influential musical moments. I’m sure there are countless others, It’s just that those were the two that I could think of right off the top of my head.
Do you have any stories to tell about creating, performing, or recording Transgressions, or the new album, Transgressions Acoustic?
Yes, it was a really interesting process. Not only did we spend a long time on the record, but we also went to a cabin with all of our gear, workshopped it for four days straight, and worked in pre-production a lot.
The acoustic concert afterwards was really special. Some of the song origins are kind of funny. Like, Transgressions I started writing on my cousin’s piano in Florida over Christmas, when I was baked out of my gourd at like five a.m. In the fall when my wife and I first started seeing each other, she had a really noise-sensitive neighbour, so I was tapping the drum rhythms because I did both the drums and the vocals for that song. I was tapping the rhythm on the floor at nine p.m. and he started harassing us about it.
What was it like being part of the new Leonard Cohen album?
Oh, that was a real trip. It was really weird. When Connor and I first got approached about it we both completely freaked out and immediately said yes. After all, how could you say no to that?
Once we actually got to writing the music and recording stuff I had to constantly tell myself that I was just doing something for a friend. I couldn’t actively think about the fact that I was recording music for Leonard Cohen, so I got to this Zen place where I could pretend that it wasn’t really happening. I didn’t properly freak out about it until months later when I finally got to tell people and then people freaked out about it on my behalf.
It was a real compliment as well that our choir director approached me to write music, that he had that much confidence in me.
Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.