A simple piano line. A gentle bit of synth. Leif Vollebekk hasn’t even opened his mouth yet, and I’ve fallen in love.
I’d agreed to come down; partly because a lovely PR I’ve been working with for years had made a point of letting me know this was a Saturday show, partly because, well, Margaret Glaspy. A French Canadian songwriter of Norwegian descent, Vollebekk’s newest album, Twin Solitude, is on the shortlist for this year’s Polaris Prize, but something about it had never connected.
The secret, my friends, is not to drop Leif Vollebekk songs into shuffle. This is music to get lost in: as lost as Vollebekk himself does, when he plays.
Vollebekk is an incredibly enchanting performer to watch: eyes closed, body twisted, feet tapping out a gentle rhythm to his otherwise amorphous melodies and a genuine smile on his face, as if he’s hearing words he has written and performed so many times for the first time. They’re not happy songs, exactly: more like rose-tinted sketches of things you’ll never get back, or late night letters to an old flame. It sounds like rain streaks on a windowpane. It sounds like a sunset.
I just want you to be in a trance too
maybe find something you can dance to
and hold on to something you know is true
and slip into the ether
Though he switches out the synths for a guitar halfway through the set, the music retains the same hazy, dreamlike quality – so much so that it takes a few seconds to realise that he has melted Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” into some fond farewell of his own. “There’s someone out there waiting, and he’s waiting just on you…” he writes and I can’t stop smiling; I can’t stop smiling.
Margaret Glaspy has brought a drummer and bass player with her tonight but, for the most part, they don’t take away from the sparseness of her set. Instead, they’re called upon to add little fills and frills where these are genuinely needed, turning otherwise simple songs into living, breathing things.
The genius of Glaspy’s songwriting is in this simplicity, allowing her to get across the whole spectrum of human emotion in a quietly-strung chord or a curl of the lip. There’s “Pins and Needles”, all piss and defiance; an aching, gorgeous “Love Like This”; a furious “Situation”, ending with a fantastic, juddering breath into the microphone; and “No Matter Who”, on which despite the lovelorn subject matter Glaspy sounds like a bottle full of sunshine. And that little “Emotions and Math” riff never fails to give me a thrill.
A cover of Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away”, described by Glaspy as “a song about letting go of your ego”, showed off her incredible bluesy voice to the full, with nothing but a subtle little bass riff to back it up. She even dispensed with the band completely for a couple of songs, including a jaw-dropping cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor”.
With Emotions and Math now a year old, we were unsurprisingly treated to a couple of new songs too – these a little heavier than the earlier material, although what I’ve noted down as being a “huge, discordant rocker” probably wouldn’t be in any other context. Regardless, Margaret Glaspy is one songwriter who knows exactly what she’s doing – and I can’t wait to see what that is next.
Leif Vollebekk returns to the UK in November, including a Glasgow show at The Attic (upstairs at The Garage) on Friday, 24th November. Find all the dates on his website.