As Little Scream, Montreal-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Laurel Sprengelmeyer has made broad strides toward a creatively rewarding and critically-lauded spot in the indie rock discourse.
She’s treading this well-worn path as a former folk singer whose songwriting has incorporated eclectic new wrinkles since adopting her stage moniker in 2008.
The Dubuque, Iowa native was raised around music due in part to the influence of her grandmother, a piano teacher. By her teenage years, Sprengelmeyer was performing original compositions and David Bowie covers at local cafes. She moved to Montreal in 2001, shunning small-town life for the blossoming indie rock scene that begat friends, collaborators, and label mates Arcade Fire.
In May, 2016 Sprengelmeyer made her boldest creative statement yet with Cult Following, her Merge Records debut and second album under the Little Scream moniker. The album blends her folk storyteller roots with occasional bursts of danceable synth-pop, classic prog rock, and beautifully placed baroque pop piano arrangements. To some listeners, it’s a blend of familiar influences seeped through a modern indie rock filter. But if you ask Sprengelmeyer, she’s simply a guitarist who’s just unleashed a set of guitar-driven songs on the masses.
Sprengelmeyer recently chatted with She Shreds about her evolution from an emotive folk singer to an unpredictable creative force.
She Shreds: The beginning of your story, as far as most fans know it, has you knowing, and collaborating with the Arcade Fire, the National, and bands like that before emerging in your own right as Little Scream. Did you meet some of those folks early on, or did you have to stick your neck out there as a performer to make those connections?
Laurel Sprengelmeyer: I definitely met members of Bell Orchestre, who some of the members of Arcade Fire are in. I had met those guys through mutual friends early on, kind of before Arcade Fire started. That was probably the main connection that I had there. I was in an all-girl band in Montreal for a while. We did our first show for a trans guy’s surgery benefit concert. It was a bit performance arty and campy, but people loved it so we kept doing that for a couple of years.
That’s how I started playing music in Montreal, although it was a little more on the performance art side of things. As soon as we started to do that, I had all these songs I’d written over the years and wanted to get back to doing the solo thing I’d done before. That’s when I started up as Little Scream.
Are you Little Scream or is your band Little Scream?
I’m Little Scream because the band I have changes all the time. I like that the title leaves enough ambiguity to include the group I play with, no matter who that might be at the time. It’s important to me, ethically speaking, that people have a sense of ownership. But I also play solo sometimes. I think there’s just been ambiguity with how people write about it. But I’m Little Scream. That’s the shortest answer.
You’ve gone from raw, intimate solo performances to playing with a full band. Was that rawness early on out of necessity because it was just you, or was that just the musical vision you had at the time?
It was a combination of both. At that time, I was really into raw emotiveness and felt that if people didn’t cry at my shows, I hadn’t done my job right. That’s where I was at emotionally in my life, so that’s what I had to express.
Did you have in mind then to expand, have a band, and make things more layered?
A part of my vocal style then was to sing the other instruments I’d heard as I was playing. When I got to record, a lot of those instrumental parts stayed as vocal parts. I was always imagining the things that’d fill out the space around what I was doing while still focusing on the directness of the message of my solo music.
With the new album, your music takes on board the different steps of your musical history you’ve described. It’s got some folk elements and it’s got the elements of someone who can play piano and the other things you learned as a child. But then you have the rock and synth elements and everything else. Is this just a pastiche of what you’ve learned along the way?
I don’t think of it as a pastiche so much. I’m surprised we still have this conversation in this day and age when the White Album came out, I don’t know, how many years ago? The White Album goes from a really gentle folk song to a really heavy rock song. That’s been a thing, especially in classic rock records for quite some time. Sometimes I think it’s because of the pressure to market music at this point. The insistence that you do this one thing so people can sell it, you know? I feel like guitar is a genre, and that’s the genre I play. Guitar goes from the folky stuff to the rocky stuff.
Do you primarily enjoy the live and touring aspects of what you do, or do you prefer creating songs in the studio?
Part of the reason it takes me a long time to do things is I love the studio. I love creating and working on stuff. I love working on stuff probably more than finishing it. It’s a funny thing because when I’m not touring, I kind of dread it. Once I’m on the road after day one I’m like, “this is awesome. Let’s go!” Sometimes your best comes out when you have to keep performing on a high level. Performing used to make me so nervous, but now I’ve gotten to a point where I love it. I love digging in and getting better and playing music with people.
I know it sounds funny because I’m always playing music, but it’s a thing where sometimes you’re just getting through it and there’s another level where you really experience something else while you play. That’s when you can really sink in and get past your nerves and past all the other things. That’s gratifying and feels really great. The irony of being on tour is you only spend ten percent of your time playing, but that ten percent is awesome.