In November 2020, Madeline Link was studying the art of papier-mâché at an artist’s retreat in Mexico City. The 24-year-old from Ottawa is a graduate of Toronto’s OCAD University, the city’s oldest art school; she’s immersed herself in numerous disciplines of art, to varying degrees of success. But pursuing papier-mâché was a revelation. In Mexican culture, papier-mâché – cartonería, as it’s known in Spanish – is a respected craft. It’s used to make Judas figures to be burned before Easter, or piñatas to be beaten during celebrations. Beautiful things, made to be destroyed.
“Art school is all about, ‘How can you make money and how can you be famous?’” Link says. “Whereas with a craft that’s meant to be destroyed, you don’t have to keep it and you don’t have to sell it. That was the most inspiring thing that I had ever learned.”
When she’s not busy with her hands, Link fronts PACKS, the lo-fi slacker-rock outfit that until recently was her solo project. They don’t have much of an online paper trail, but the project’s been quietly active since Link was a high schooler; she uploaded tracks to Bandcamp for years before playing her first solo show in 2018. A four-piece now (Shane Hooper on drums, Noah O’Neil on bass and Dexter Nash on guitar), their debut album ‘Take the Cake’ just dropped on Brooklyn’s Fire Talk Records.
Music was maybe predestined for Link; her dad Pete, who fronted a power pop trio called The Shinolas, was playing a gig the night her mum went into labour with her. She and her sister, Eva, grew up learning instruments and frequenting all-ages indie rock shows in Ottawa, or jumping in the car to Montreal to see bigger acts like Iceage and Mac DeMarco. When Link moved to Toronto for college she moved in with Eva, and the pair formed a pop-rock two-piece named Triples – Eva in front, Madeline on drums.
The bones of ‘Take the Cake’ started forming in 2019, when Link took PACKS off the backburner and started writing songs as a way to process the chaos of her fast-paced city life. “It’s good fuel for songwriting, because you’re not taking the time to process things in a zen way,” she says. “You’re just flying through space and time, to the point where the only way that you can process things is by writing songs about it.” You can hear her pour out her frustration with dating (‘Clingfilm’), the bittersweet sadness of anticipating living apart from her sister (‘U Can Wish All U Want’), and the experience of being knocked off her bike by a driver (‘Hold My Hand’). When the cumulative effect of it all left her downtrodden, she wrote the reflective acoustic refuge ‘Hangman’. “I was really just feeling like shit a lot,” she says. “I cheered myself up a lot with that song. I would play that song like, almost every day after I wrote it, ‘cause I was just so excited and happy.”
Then, disaster. Namely, the COVID-19 pandemic, which spurred the sisters to pack up the car and drive back home to the Ottawa suburbs. At the same time, unrelated to COVID, Link’s aunt suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. With confusion and whiplash colliding with grief and sadness, Link wrote prolifically to round out the remainder of ‘Take the Cake’.
“A lot of [those] songs were kind of written in a fever state,” she says. “Like, I had an idea, and I went hard on that idea and recorded my whole part of the song in like an hour or two. And then immediately felt better.” With everyday life slowed to a dull crawl, she found room for more brooding, esoteric introspection on ‘Divine Giggling’ and ‘New TV’. But there’s also bouts of clarity on ‘Silvertongue’, where she rages against an avoidant ex, and ‘Two Hands’ in which she captures the process of coping with a new reality.
Much of her writing was inspired by the experimental lo-fi of Micachu and the Shapes, Link explains: “The way that they make songs is so illogical, and they’re usually pretty short, too. That really inspired me to just focus on the voice interacting with the instruments, and letting that journey guide the song.” She adds, “I really like making chords that don’t really exist, and taking the way they hit me in the heart; just trying to start out in weird places, and see where those weird chords take my melody.”
The effect is songwriting that seems to reflect the unpredictability Link was navigating; the band is delightfully ramshackle, rolling with the punches. It was all recorded with a pair of tiny clip-on mics, giving it the coarse garage-y quality that invites comparison to lo-fi greats like Sebadoh. “There’s something very warm about lo-fi,” Link says. “I like to leave hi-fi to those who like to spend lots of money on expensive recording stuff, and are really perfectionists. I’m not a perfectionist.”
It’s April, but it’s snowing in Ottawa during our call, which Link takes from work. It’s been a long, depressing winter there. She won’t be returning to Toronto. Before the pandemic, she had just begun to truly settle into the music scene; booking diverse shows, collaborating with fellow Toronto DIY artists fern sully and Louis Cza The Black Greek God, and trying to nurture a more exciting community. But gentrification has rendered it unaffordable. “I don’t know how many people are gonna be left when COVID is over,” she muses.
From a distance, the band are already working on the next PACKS album. It’s an absurd, unpredictable world, and there’ll undoubtedly be a fresh batch of twists and turns for Link to unpack this time. But there’s freedom in knowing it’s all made to be destroyed. With ‘Take the Cake’, ultimately, PACKS bask in it.
PACKS’ debut album ‘Take The Cake’ is out now