This interview originally appeared in She Shreds Issue #13, which was released in September, 2017.

Elizabeth Powell vanished in 2010. After releasing two critically-acclaimed full-length albums on Saddle Creek Records, Some Are Lakes (2008) and Cloak and Cipher (2010), and spending four years of touring with her indie rock band Land of Talk, the Canadian multi-instrumentalist took a brief sabbatical from music that turned into a full-blown hiatus.

During this time, Powell cared for her ailing father, who had suffered a significant stroke. While visiting him in the hospital, Powell realized her father’s mood improved when she performed her music for him. This realization deeply affected her, and reminded her of how important and healing music can be. In May, Powell re-emerged with Land of Talk’s triumphant, guitar-heavy, and synth-driven third album Life After Youth(Saddle Creek). Powell spoke with She Shreds about her new record, her experience in music school, and her eclectic influences.

She Shreds: As a multi-instrumentalist, could you tell me about what instruments you’ve worked with throughout your life and how your approach to playing has evolved?

Elizabeth Powell: I started on violin very young. My parents enrolled me in the Suzuki School of Music, which is heavily ear-training based. There’s not a lot of theory. The first year, lessons [would include] just holding a Cracker Jack box under my chin with a ruler taped to it to get used to the feel and to make sure we knew how to handle an instrument. I don’t think I ever did my homework. I never practiced. I was just so happy to experiment that the actual schooling kind of felt like it was getting in the way. I was more into achieving the expression of something.

When I got to my teenage years and felt the need to express, as you do when you’re a teenager, the violin was my voice. [But] because I was listening to PJ Harvey, the Pixies, the Breeders, and a lot of hip hop—De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys—the bass started to appeal to me. I babysat for a whole summer, then bought a Yamaha fretless bass. I didn’t know that people in punk bands didn’t play fretless bass! [It] had such a unique sound and it was more jazz or R&B oriented, but I loved sliding up and down. I started playing more chords based on finger shapes and the sounds I wanted to hear. That’s where my use of alternate tunings stemmed from, too. Then I transitioned to the guitar and there was no turning back.

Have alternate tunings been a mainstay for you?

With Land of Talk, I’m trying to make a basic rock and roll song, but I’ll keep hearing things in such a strange way, or I’ll only hear the overtones. Or I’ll just hear the way Bucky’s [Mark Wheaton, drummer] cymbal will be hitting certain frequencies, and that informs whether or not I’ll add voicings to my chords. It’s not because I know any theory; I have no idea what I’m doing. But I think it’s really interesting that there’s a name for it and that I come at it from a completely naive—and that’s not derogatory—way. I’m proud of it, I think that’s important and I really like my process. I feel like it works for me. I always want to encourage other people to teach themselves. Don’t get caught up in the numbers and the rules. That’s actually a distraction and can get in the way of inspiration. I’ll listen to an instrument before I try to impose an idea on it. It’s a very experimental and improvisational way of going about things. It’s like I’m jamming with myself and the elements.

That makes sense because I had read interviews where you mentioned Glenn Gould and other jazz musicians who have a similar style of composition.

Yeah! And Thelonious Monk.

God bless, right?

Right? And that all goes in! And being obsessed with John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison, and [their cover of jazz standard], “I Cover the Waterfront.” Music is always so new to me, even though I’ve been a musician since forever. Even if it’s something simple, like a gospel progression—I’m hearing how the performer is playing, or the weight or weightlessness that comes with the song’s changes, and that’s what’s speaking to me. It sounds like one beautiful mystery. When I sit down at a keyboard, I’m trying to emulate that. But it’s my own type of expressive aphasia that leads me to distort whatever comes out, so it comes out as a Land of Talk song. For this record, I wanted to shift how many guitars we bring on tour and how many tunings I’m using during a set. It was a record—pun intended—because it’s the record with the fewest alternate tunings. A lot of capo changes. Oki Tonkori was influential in terms of its polyrhythms, the levity, the uplifting mood.

That makes sense because I had read interviews where you mentioned Glenn Gould and other jazz musicians who have a similar style of composition.

Yeah! And Thelonious Monk.

God bless, right?

Right? And that all goes in! And being obsessed with John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison, and [their cover of jazz standard], “I Cover the Waterfront.” Music is always so new to me, even though I’ve been a musician since forever. Even if it’s something simple, like a gospel progression—I’m hearing how the performer is playing, or the weight or weightlessness that comes with the song’s changes, and that’s what’s speaking to me. It sounds like one beautiful mystery. When I sit down at a keyboard, I’m trying to emulate that. But it’s my own type of expressive aphasia that leads me to distort whatever comes out, so it comes out as a Land of Talk song. For this record, I wanted to shift how many guitars we bring on tour and how many tunings I’m using during a set. It was a record—pun intended—because it’s the record with the fewest alternate tunings. A lot of capo changes. Oki Tonkori was influential in terms of its polyrhythms, the levity, the uplifting mood.

How did university and your schooling influence your work and what was the pedagogical approach?

I don’t want to sound disrespectful or entitled. It was a huge privilege to even have access to postsecondary education, [but] it didn’t work for me at all. I hated it. Not because of the teachers or people. It hurt me to the core to do homework or be tested. I didn’t understand the point. What I loved about the school is that’s where I met Bucky, and that’s where I became friends with people [who have been] in my musical life forever. I had been performing since I was 14. I had made a cassette, I made music. I felt like I was hurting myself musically. I didn’t create anything for years. It wasn’t until after I dropped out of university that I could play in a band and go on tour. It wasn’t until after that Bucky ended up reaching out and saying, “Hey, all those songs you used to make before university? Let’s keep making them but in a rock band kind of way.” I said, “Yes! That’s a perfect idea.”

There’s an idea that there’s a conceptual camp where the artist brings an idea with a mood to it, and in the other camp you have artists focused on technique. I wonder how a conceptually-grounded musician would navigate that in a system of traditional schooling, and how that impacts the way they’d play.

That’s so funny, because my friend was saying some disparaging things about music school, music scholars, and virtuosity. However, our conversation ended where we both said, “Hey, I get it [virtuosity].” For example, I’d love to be able to compose a piece for a symphony of strings. In that example, I’d rely on musicians with the utmost technical ability and virtuosity because I want them to be able to produce the actual piece. That was the first time it became clear to me that it takes all kinds. We all bring something to the table. I think I bring a lot of feeling, gut, hope, and dynamic. I bring a lot melodically, even when I’m playing drums. There’s a time and place for everything in music and art, which is why I’m all ears. The fact that we’re here at all is a beautiful thing to begin with.

In an interview with Lenny Letter, you mentioned taking a hiatus to deal with some serious family stuff and to recharge. You said, “As an artist, I kind of stopped being an artist.” What is an artist to you?

I feel like an artist is an activist. I reclaim or re-empower myself by playing music again. I’m proud to be somebody that people feel comfortable going up to and speaking about their art or their hopes—being an artist means having a sign on your forehead that says, “I’m free, I’m open.” Artists show people what maximum aliveness is. Sort of like alchemists—we show what you can do with fear, despair, and even self-hate. You can turn that into something beautiful that, instead of repelling people, connects. I started seeing the way music healed my dad, and healed me. I have more of a reverence for artists and their courage.

It has taken a lot of courage from me to come back. [Pause] It takes a lot of courage to be an artist. You have to be so resilient. Most artists don’t shy away from the struggle. They’re not career-positive thinkers. Artists aren’t scared to look to the darkness, dig around, hang out there a little too long, and—boom!—come through stronger and create an artifact that shows where we’ve been. My songs are like souvenirs or talismans from every struggle I’ve been through, or every revelation. It’s never anything small, it’s always seismic with central things happening and lessons learned.

I wanted to ask you about your setup in the studio and on tour. Still rocking the SG?

Yeah! I also have my Fender Bassman amp that I’ve had since I was 15, which has been gutted numerous times for repairs. I also have my Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb pedal. My favorite pedal of all time was the Visual Sounds Jekyll and Hyde dual overdrive and distortion pedal. I went through three, but [now] they make them a new way and I don’t like the sound. Usually my setup has overdrive, a boost pedal, and the Holy Grail. I also have a Nord Electro keyboard that I plug into the amp. When I go into the studio with [producers] Jace Lacek and Olga Goreas, Jace brings his own guitar world to my sound. He brings these overdubs—he brings out the fun stuff. He brought in a StyloSynth that he used on the record. There’s also some affected French horn and warbly keys.

You used more synths on this record. For example, with “This Time”—how did you start that song?

I started that on the Nord and distorted it through the dual overdrive pedal. I then started playing drone sounds. The chords you hear on “This Time,” which are now guitar chords, was me just playing a chord and letting it sustain. I remember playing it and putting the setting on organ, then messing around with the different voicings so it would sound like a [makes warbly sound]. I then recorded it on acoustic, so I could bring it to the hospital [to show my dad]. Then I recorded it on GarageBand and looped it. There weren’t lyrics at first. I did a lot of vocalizations, which ended up turning into, “I don’t want to waste it this time.” Then I didn’t have anything more to say for eight months. The words came out bit by bit by bit. It started out as a background theme, my mantra.

This is a digression, but I think you’d like a book called Ambient, which is about ambience in music. It covers Debussy to Ibiza house music.

That reminds me, there was a song I became obsessed with called “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. That is the song that unlocked the whole other kind of light. It bled into how I composed music and how I was hearing music. It’s one of the most disarming and devastatingly heartbreaking, but life-affirming, songs. I feel like you’d recognize it if you heard it. I had just never heard of Samuel Barber. I found it when I bought something on iTunes, it was part of a Leonard Bernstein compilation. It’s a really beautiful piece.

For a while, I thought there was no good music to find. I sort of stuck my head in the sand for years, but oh no! Silly me. There’s an entire lifetime and universe, in and of itself, to pull you out. I think maybe you need to cleanse your palette and then come back to it. It’s also a matter of whether things will move you at different times. For me, I was sort of a fair-weather music fan. It was like I needed music to work its magic. When tragedy strikes, people offer to bring food, pies, casseroles. But there’s also a musical equivalent to that. I don’t really understand why there isn’t more music in hospitals, because it placates immediately and can relieve pain.

Is there anything you want to discuss about your record?

People are so much stronger than they think. I hope this music helps people in any way. If they’re already feeling good, I hope it’s a soundtrack to a beautiful summer. If people are feeling a bit down or lost and don’t know which way is up, I hope this record can be a center or solace to people who are struggling. Coming back to everything after having been off the radar, I now have a lot of reverence for what I’m doing and am looking forward to the exchanges I expect to have on tour. I’m really lucky. I’m very grateful.