Culture  Dark little love songs

Julie Doiron’s fragile songs have the intimacy of a basement tape session

These days, walking through the streets of Montreal, I’m compelled to conjure Julie Doiron through my headphones. As the snow melts, the city’s bare branches, which have been crystallized since winter, begin to sprout springtime buds. Similarly, Doiron’s hushaby voice travels like weightless blossoms along songs as naked as the limb of a thin birch tree. Her folk-leaning voice never fully blooms like that of full-throated Cat Power or prismatic and percussive Beth Orton, yet it remains acutely expressive of the sorrow and sincerity her lyrics mean to convey. Doiron’s gift lies in the honesty of her words – an ability to lay her heart like a vulnerable bud on a bare bough (or sleeve).

Doiron began recording in the nineties with one of Canada’s original indie-rock darlings, Eric’s Trip: a musical project that may be considered the inverse of her current solo work. With all its exemplary lo-fi qualities of tape hiss, background talking, and unselfconscious fuzz, Eric’s Trip aesthetically opposes her present pared-down sound. Still, Doiron has never truly strayed from the subject of love – a prevalent theme already in the music of Eric’s Trip.

In a sense, her composite body of work can be said to follow the trajectory of her own love story. Specifically, her Polaris Prize-nominated album Woke Myself Up (2007) chronicles her divorce with artist Jon Claytor. The death of love is literally spelled out by Doiron with lyrics in song such as “Me and My Friend” (“Well I sound alone here on my way home, again when no one is there waiting”) and “The Wrong Guy” (“I open my eyes in horror / To see what I’ve done / It was the wrong guy”). With so liberal a level of confession, the album places the listener in an assumed voyeuristic position. Woke Myself Up contains a raw, undiluted quality which – despite its tired and wispy sound – does not fail to recall the unvarnished tones of her earlier lo-fi pieces.

Hailing from New Brunswick, Doiron admits to being artistically inspired by both “landscapes and people.” In fact, much of her most recent album, I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day, stemmed from bike rides along the Trans-Canada Trail. Landscapes and people are explicitly the forces at work in the album’s fifth track “Heavy Snow,” which begins with the line, “Oh, heavy snow, bury me tonight in the place where our bikes lay.” As imagined, Doiron’s lyrics do not stray far from her personal experiences.

Alongside her extensive solo work, Doiron often participates in collaborative projects. Her impressive list of musical partners include The Tragically Hip, Gordon Downie, Herman Dune, Okkervil River, Shotgun & Jaybird, and Dick Morello. Admittedly, my favourite Julie Doiron album is Lost Wisdom – a creative effort that involves Phil Elverum and Fred Squire. Lost Wisdom is a pastiche of gentle harmonies, hazy memories, and immaculate poetry such as those featured in “You Swan, Go On” (“As good as I could possibly imagine my life getting, it did after I met you. / The way you reached inside my chest and pulled out things and sent them off in breaths blew”). In keeping with its themes, Lost Wisdom sounds like an unwarranted glimpse inside a basement tape session, and even concludes with the sudden click of someone turning off the reel. The album’s unpolished ornamentation, sprinkled with creaks and hisses, makes the listener feel as if eavesdropping on someone else’s private meditation.

Half-singing and half-speaking her lyrics, Doiron often applies a simple and repeated guitar riff throughout a song. Such sparse accompaniment only adds to her drowsy voice that seems almost to mumble, low and melancholy. Doiron’s melodies evoke hauntingly dark little lullabies and, as a mother of two, perhaps they sometimes are.

Doiron’s songs often muse upon pain so difficult to articulate and questions so difficult to answer that her music comes through with a weary despair. Faith and heartbreak, comfort and loneliness, spring and winter blur into a moment of unresolved pain that is left sustained after a song has finished. Doiron’s fragile voice carries lyrics like almost-blossomed gems, leaving enough speculative room for the audience to participate in experiencing their own history of romance too. Certainly, within the pauses of her songs, there echoes the stillness after a midnight kiss, the void after a lover’s departure, the silence after a tender confession.