Bon Iver, Space, and a Country Song Lullaby: An Interview with Leif Vollebekk

Leif Vollebekk © Vanessa Heins
Leif Vollebekk © Vanessa Heins
Leif Vollebekk looks back on ‘New Ways’ on its one-year anniversary, discusses his new single “Long Blue Light” and Bon Iver cover “29 #Strafford APTS”, reflects on musical space, and more.
Stream: “Long Blue Light” – Leif Vollebekk




I’m not sure what it is, but music feels calmer since the summer… There’s more space between the notes, too.

Nicknamed “The Songwriter’s Songwriter” in our last feature because of his widespread influence amongst his peers, Leif Vollebekk is a beacon of musical light in hard times.

His art is full of emotional nuance and space – space for reflection; space for sound; and space to breathe. Atwood Magazine described his 2019 studio album New Ways as “a transformative journey sweeping the depths of the soul,” and included it in our Best Albums of 2019 feature. Although Vollebekk himself often struggles to explain what his songs are about, each of his compositions presents a world full of depth, color, and intent – from the smoldering, immersive expanse of New Ways‘ lead single “Hot Tears,” to the intense intimacy and soft, subdued elegance of “Rest,” the 8-minute finale to 2017’s acclaimed album, Twin Solitude.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Vollebekk’s latest release grooves with grace and muted self-assurance. After what has felt like a decades-long year from New Ways’ release, Vollebekk has released a two-track EP to celebrate his album anniversary. Consisting of original song “Long Blue Light” and a stunning cover of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million song “29 #Strafford APTS,” the offering is one of just a few releases Vollebekk has released since the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled tour plans and sequestered millions to their homes. This past May saw the release of “If You Call,” a breathtaking duet with Angie McMahon, as well as another two-track single – this one of the original tune “Intro,” and a gorgeous acoustic version of the aforementioned “Rest.”

Long Blue Light - Leif Vollebekk
Long Blue Light – Leif Vollebekk
Mountain of worry
Mountain of song
You ask how I’m doing
Like you knew what was wrong
Tell me just one time
What I knew all along
I’m on your side, on your side
Long blue light
If you don’t call me
I might lose my mind
Can’t keep concentrating
On all the worry I find
So just let me abide
All in your mind
On your side, on your side
Long blue light

A heavy, driving acoustic song featuring Cindy Cashdollar on dobro, “Long Blue Light” is enchanting – a serene lullaby blending the artist’s folk roots with subtle country elements that help the spaces resonate with someplace deep down inside.

“Does it sound like a lullaby to you?” Vollebekk says when asked about this song. “I have no idea what my music sounds like until it’s released. It’s like tasting your own cooking. My tongue is useless at the end. I thought it was a country song.”

He continues, “’Long Blue Light’ was recorded during the sessions for New Ways, live with just myself and a drummer, Homer Steinweiss. I had all but abandoned it but this year I kept coming back to it. I added some overdubs and had Cindy Cashdollar finish it off with a gorgeous dobro part. It was supposed to fade out, but I rather liked how it just falls apart at the end.”

My eyelids are heavy
My spirit is numb
Don’t know where I’m heading
Don’t know where I’m from
I’m here just waiting
For my day to come
I’m on your side, on your side
Long blue light
Leif Vollebekk © Vanessa Heins
Leif Vollebekk © Vanessa Heins

Meanwhile, the Bon Iver cover is actually a few years in the making – something of a tribute, if not a direct show of respect and gratitude, to Justin Vernon’s artistry. “29 #Strafford APTS” arrives just shy of midway through his critically acclaimed 2016 LP 22, A Million. It’s one of Vollebekk’s favorite records, too.

“When that Bon Iver album came out, it put something of a spell on me,” he recalls. “It acted on me the way records of my youth did. I could take a walk in that record and see things. I still do. I started playing around with this song some December evening way up north, when the light of dusk lasts hours and hours and everything goes blue. The snow, the faces, the houses. The two songs are a bit wrapped up together.”

With many months to go until a coronavirus vaccine can be widely distributed around the globe, Europe and North America may not return to regular in-person concerts until late summer 2021, if not the fall. Thankfully, artists like Leif Vollebekk have us covered between now and then: His new songs are a wellspring of tenderness and human connection, coming to us at a time when our lives and wellbeing are dictated by separate and distance.

Atwood Magazine caught up with Leif Vollebekk to check in about his new music and sonic state of mind. Catch up with the songwriter’s songwriter in our interview below, where he reflects on New Ways a year out from its release, discusses his 2020 songs, explores the idea of musical “space,” and more.

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that I have absolutely no idea.

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:: stream/purchase Long Blue Light here ::
Stream: “Long Blue Light” – Leif Vollebekk



A CONVERSATION WITH LEIF VOLLEBEKK

Long Blue Light - Leif Vollebekk

Atwood Magazine: Hey Leif, we spoke just a year ago about New Ways and in any other world a year wouldn’t feel quite as long, but it feels like ages! How have you been doing throughout 2020?

Leif Vollebekk: It’s been a strange, transformative year. I discovered gardening, ornithology, and Home Depot.

November 1st marked New Ways’ first birthday. How do you view this album, a year out from its release?

Leif Vollebekk: During the few months of touring we had a couple songs opened up live, like “Blood Brother” or “I’m Not Your Lover,” which I don’t think they did as well on the record. Songs seem to move in and out of relevance, almost like they have migratory patterns. Without playing them every night, I don’t really think about them. 

I remember being mesmerized by how much energy you put into ''Blood Brother'' on stage! Would you say these songs have grown on you at all?

Leif Vollebekk: Only other peoples’ songs have grown on me – like Bonny Light Horseman’s The Roving or Angie McMahon’s If You Call. Or Billy Joel’s And So It Goes. I love those songs. My own songs grew out of me. They’re on their own now!

I really loved the single “Intro” / “Rest (Acoustic)” you released earlier this year. What was the significance of that release?

Leif Vollebekk: When we were on tour, Greg Isakov told me to think about playing “Rest” live. He saw something that I had missed in that song. It’s a funny thing writing songs. When my friends with kids describe their children to me, they could just as easily be talking about a song they wrote.

The day is yours, the day is mine - let’s just say I’m on Vancouver time.” What do these lyrics from ''Intro'' mean to you?

Leif Vollebekk: Oh you know, time zones are a convenient excuse sometimes.

That checks out. I also absolutely adore your collaboration with Angie McMahon, ''If You Call''! How did that duet come about, and what was your experience like working with her? Are there others you’d like to collab with in the future?

Leif Vollebekk: She’s an incredible artist and person. We recorded that before a tour in a flower shop in Perth, Australia. She invited me out there to tour and offered to rent me a Wurlitzer for each gig. She took me to see the little penguins south of Melbourne. I can’t say enough good things about her. You just never know who life is gonna bring your way.

Salt, Fire, and Womanhood: An Interview with Angie McMahon

:: FEATURE ::

On to the new single at hand, what inspired you to cover Bon Iver’s “29 #Strafford APTS”?

Leif Vollebekk: 22, A Million played on an endless loop for months after it came out. I hadn’t done that with a contemporary album since I was a teenager. Moon Water is another good one. Or the song with just saxophone-vocoder-vocals. It’s more like painting than anything I’ve heard. It’s as if someone cut up Rimbaud poems two words at a time – “Alimony butterflies” – “Snowshoe light.”

That song in particular is so laden in space. Do you feel you’re finding space an increasingly alluring quality?

Leif Vollebekk: I do feel and hear a lot of space… There’s always something far off in the distance. Sometimes I see something like a sheetmetal shaking on the other side of the park. Space is everything. The more you add, the smaller everything becomes. There’s nothing larger than Leonard Cohen’s voice in “Suzanne.”

I’m curious to hear if you’ve found any other qualities really interesting lately, in addition to the notion of silence; is there anything else that’s really been catching your ears of late?

Leif Vollebekk: I’m not sure what it is, but music feels calmer since the summer. It has become more calming. I’m hanging out much lower on the piano these days, with those big resounding bass. There’s more space between the notes, too.

“Long Blue Light” is a soft, serene lullaby. What is this song about for you?

Leif Vollebekk: Does it sound like a lullaby to you? I have no idea what my music sounds like until it’s released. It’s like tasting your own cooking. My tongue is useless at the end. I thought it was a country song.

I can’t honestly say what it’s about. Songs just sort of come out and you try to get to know them.

Hahah, I guess it could be a country song lullaby? I especially love the guitar work in this song. Was that a written out solo or a spark-of-the-moment jam?

Leif Vollebekk: Oh God – that’s not me. That’s Cindy Cashdollar. I have little doubt that she’s the best in the world. She recorded that for me in Woodstock, NY while I was in Montreal during the lockdown.  Her playing is so lyrical and innovative. It makes the song. She’s so tapped in. She’s always tapped in.

What does the end-of-the-year have in store for you?

Leif Vollebekk: If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that I have absolutely no idea!



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Long Blue Light - Leif Vollebekk

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📸 © Vanessa Heins

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