Ada Lea performed at Sled Island and She Shreds caught up with her to talk about bass guitars, being bored, and moving forward.
The sparks of Ali Levy’s musical career flared in high school when she began playing double bass. She went on to attend the Berklee Five-Week Summer Performance Program (with Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief as a fellow student), and eventually earned a full scholarship to study jazz bass at The New School. Since graduating in 2015, Levy has been playing as Ada Lea. She released the four-song EP (Sainte Cecile) in 2016, followed by the demo album, Bored (Records DK, 2017), featuring 11 appropriately rough yet dreamy songs weaving in and out of apathy, hurling anger, and a craving for satisfaction.
Ada Lea’s current line-up includes Harris Shper (keyboard/vocals), Matt Rousseau (bass), and Evan Tighe (drums) who accompany Levy on her sometimes soft, sometimes emphatic guitar-driven songs. The band recently recorded a new album, due out for release in October. She Shreds spoke with Levy in June at Calgary’s Sled Island Fest—where Ada Lea opened for Wye Oak—about switching from bass to guitar, feeling bored, and finding someone trustworthy to talk about gear and tone.
What are some of your earliest memories in terms of music?
I went to an all-girl Catholic high school, and there was a boys school associated with it. One of my friends was in a band, and I remember being in his basement hanging out, and he had a guitar, and I remember feeling this strange curiosity that bordered on envy [laughs], but without understanding why. He was playing a song, and I was like, “Man, I want to do that. Why can’t I do that?” Years later I picked up a bass, and I joined the concert band in high school playing double bass.
Is that when you realized you wanted to study music?
It was in grade 10 and I had just started playing electric bass in the concert and jazz band. We went on a trip to Boston to perform, and I got them to stop by Berklee College of Music on the way back to Montreal. The supervisor came to give me a check to have my place in the five-week summer program, and that changed everything. I knew that this was what I was going to do.
And so what brought you to the guitar?
I ended up studying jazz bass at the New School in New York, and moved back to Montreal after graduating. I was playing double bass as Ada Lea and singing songs—it was really ethereal and dreamy—and then I started to get frustrated with how limited the instrument was. There are only so many things you can do with the double bass. I had always been writing songs on piano or guitar, and then bringing them to the double bass. At the time my guitarist was leaving the band, and the drummer was going a different way, so I was like, “I have a chance here to get someone else to play bass.” And so I just started playing guitar last year.
Did you teach yourself?
From the bass I had a basic understanding of chords and harmony. And then I explored the instrument whenever I had a chance too. I thought, “Instead of playing a major chord, maybe there’s a different voicing that I could use. What if I moved this finger over here? What if I try this? What kind of sound is that?” On the upright bass, I know where every note is, but on the guitar there’s two extra strings, and I really don’t know where the notes are. In a way it’s so freeing because I can just follow my ear and the sounds.
What did the transition from writing on bass to writing on guitar feel like for you?
I was always writing on the guitar in some ways. It would always start from a keyboard part or open chords on the guitar, and then I would go to the bass to fill it out. It wasn’t that big of a shift. I think musically, though, when I started playing guitar, I wanted to start a punk band—and that’s now Rose Bush, my all-girl band punk band. I was having a low with my project, and I was feeling lost. When I started Rose Bush, I was like, “I want to play music like this. I want to really go for it.” And I felt like I couldn’t on bass, so I shifted.
What is your songwriting process like?
It’s funny, I love hearing other artists answer this question [laughs]… it’s a really hard question. It’s different every time. I don’t think it would be possible to write my songs without keeping a journal of images. I’ll usually draw inspiration from themes I’m seeing in my journal. I’ll think, “What if I explore this idea just a little bit more?” And then I’ll go down a rabbit hole of research.
Running through Bored is a deep lethargy, and I’m curious to hear more about where you were at when writing it.
I was in a pretty dark place when I wrote that record, and the year leading up to it. It was brutal. It was meant to be a little demo to send to people, and so we recorded it live and I did the voice overdubs in my apartment. It was just too much time by myself. I just didn’t see people, and not because I was working so hard, but because it was such a strange time in my life, and I felt like I couldn’t give anything else attention until I was done exploring. It’s not recorded well; it’s so grungy and DIY and a lot of things are clipping. I just didn’t know what was going on. It’s so special, in a way. Some people will understand that and gravitate towards the recording quality, and other people will say, “This just doesn’t sound good, and I can’t get past that.”
It really adds to the record as a whole, and combined with the lyrical content it conjured up an image of exactly what you mentioned: alone in your apartment, bored, and feeling out of your mind.
I was pretty done with things at that point. Music-wise and life-wise. I was like, “What is the point to anything?” I think around that time I had come to Sled Island, so that fest is a good milestone. I came this year and thought, “Oh, this is where I was last year, and I’m feeling way better.”
I’m curious to know what gear you use.
I have been using a Godin guitar, but it just wasn’t up to par. It was too thin sounding. I didn’t have the funds to buy a new one, so I’ve been borrowing Harris’s [keyboardist in Ada Lea] Harmony Bobkat guitar; it’s the same one that St. Vincent uses. And then I added an Ibanez PT9 Phaser pedal, and a Boss CE-5 Chorus Ensemble pedal—my favorite investment. When I got the chorus pedal, I felt instant heaven, like anything is possible.
It’s so important having nice sounding gear, but for some reason, in my mind, tones and sounds aren’t important, and what’s important is being really prepared, knowing the songs well, and being in-tune. I gravitate towards lyrics, chords, and harmony more than specific tones, but it’s something I’ve been exploring more this year. Harris does live sound for bands in Montreal and is a recording engineer. Because of that my ears have started opening up. But I hate the idea of, “Oh, now that I’m in this relationship I’m dependent on my boyfriend to supply me with information of sound.” Before that, I didn’t have anyone to talk to. No one was like, “Hey dude, your tone is awful.” No one was being that honest with me.
Gear and tone can be such an intimidating thing to talk about as a woman in music, especially if it isn’t something you were taught to think about. Finding a person you trust is so important.
I’ve started accepting that it’s going to be a longer process, and at this moment I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, but I trust Harris to explain to me what he’s hearing. I think in four years you and I will have a conversation and I’ll be like, “This is what it is!” but for now it’s “This is what he says it is!” [laughs]
Can you tell me a bit about the new record and what listeners can expect?
I recorded nine songs with the band, and two solo songs. I’m hoping to have those weird sounds to weave the whole thing together. Band songs, solo songs, field recordings… but it’s pretty much done. We’re hoping for an October release.
In terms of your songwriting from Bored to the new record, what are some differences you’ve noticed?
Musically, it’s hard to say. I moved back home to Montreal—literally back into my parent’s place. I was really depressed. I saved some money and started recording the songs. Really, I think I started to appreciate the smaller moments of a day. I think that was the big difference. Last year I was thinking in these really broad strokes, and it was overwhelming to get through the smaller things, but now I can just choose to enjoy them. When you start to notice how you’re feeling in every moment, and how things are placed, how someone’s having a conversation, the position of a chair… It’s just an appreciation for the little things that is a main difference. That being said, this album is very chaotic [laughs], there a lot happening. I was in a better headspace, I wanted it to be wild.
There’s nothing to fear.