Alvvays: “The only thing I know is to put my head down and keep swinging”

Through theft, flood and a global pandemic, Molly Rankin explains to Will Richards how indie-pop’s finest just kept on truckin’ to make their most complete album yet.

Wherever you grow up in the world, you’ll doubtless become attached in your teens to a local type of alcoholic drink that’s frankly disgusting but deeply evocative, one that defines your adolescence. If you’re from the UK, it could be Dragon Soop, the highly caffeinated conduit to many a messy night out. North of the border, it’s the notorious Buckfast.

For Molly Rankin, her formative years on the remote island of Cape Breton in the Nova Scotia region of Eastern Canada can be brought back with just a sip of Blue Rev, the “vodka-based cola beverage” that gives her band Alvvays’ third album its title. “It serves as this little portal into the past,” Rankin says from her adopted hometown of Toronto. “You take a sip, and all of these little doors are unlocked into your past. You’re transported back to your youth and all of those trials and tribulations.”

Home to just over 100,000 people – including Rankin and Alvvays keys player Kerri MacLellan, who spent their time “playing in the woods and being weirdos” in their youth – Cape Breton Island hosts the world-famous Cabot Trail and idyllic landscapes. It’s also the home of the award-winning Celtic folk collective The Rankin Family, of whom Molly’s late father, John Morris Rankin, was the fiddle player. While being isolated at home in Toronto through one of the Covid pandemic’s longest lockdowns worldwide, Molly’s thoughts inevitably turned back to her childhood on the island.

“I was drawing on some of the coastal elements of where I’m from and the unique cultural things that we experienced in our teens,” she explains. “It’s not verbatim what I personally went through, but I was reflecting on the energy of going home and confronting your past and the way that things have changed. It’s something that most people go through, seeing old places that you loved sunken into the ground or new places that have no resemblance to the life you led there.”

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Alvvays
Alvvays CREDIT: Norman Wong

‘Blue Rev’ arrives five years after the band’s second album, 2017’s ‘Antisocialites’. Its announcement came alongside the release of first single ‘Pharmacist’, which threw fans right back into the comfortable bosom of Rankin’s addictive, melodic vocals and guitarist Alec O’Hanley’s swirling soundscapes, while hinting at subtle expansions on their sound. Since breaking out in 2014 with their debut album and its indie smash of a hit single, ‘Archie, Marry Me’, they’ve become one of the biggest and most consistent bands in the game.

When lockdown restrictions eased enough for the singer to return to the island midway through the creation of ‘Blue Rev’, she was flicking through old family photos and found a deeply evocative image from her childhood, circa 1992. It sees a five-year-old Molly in a lifejacket, disembarking a boat on Cape Breton with help from her parents as a dark storm brews behind them. “I think it was a very rocky day!” she hazily remembers, but immediately upon discovering it, she knew it had to become the artwork for the new album.

The road to ‘Blue Rev’ was far from straightforward for Alvvays. Soon after the release of their second album, she and principal songwriting partner O’Hanley began work on a batch of new songs, some of which would end up on the album we hear now. A handful of them – ‘Pomeranian Spinster’, ‘Easy On Your Own?’, ‘Belinda Says’ – existed in demo form on a hard drive that was stolen and never recovered as part of a burglary of her Toronto apartment. Almost inconceivably, the very next day, the band’s gear was almost entirely ruined after a flood in their basement.

After the pair of incidents and a global pandemic that followed, which saw the band unable to practice, write and record with US-based drummer Sheridan Riley due to border closures, a sense of hopelessness and LP3 being a doomed task would have been reasonable. Such perspectives aren’t in Alvvays’ DNA, though, says Rankin. “The only thing I know how to do is just put my head down and keep swinging. That’s how we’ve been from the beginning – just keeping going and pushing through whatever life throws at us. I don’t really have closure on who that person was, or where that stuff is, or what I’m really missing from all [those recordings], just hours and hours of me howling at the moon.

“I don’t really have another option, though,” she adds frankly. “I can’t just give up and feel sorry for myself for too long.”

“I can’t just give up and feel sorry for myself for too long” – Molly Rankin

Since forming in 2011 on Prince Edward Island – a neighbouring island of Cape Breton – Alvvays have made their name as one of the most consistent and delightful indie bands around. Through their 2014 self-titled debut and its 2017 follow-up, Rankin, O’Hanley and co. quickly showed an unrivalled knack for making deliciously catchy, hooky indie-pop songs that had sadness and disfranchisement in their bones but could also exist on the surface as singalong partystarters. The charm of their music comes from how delightfully, unapologetically twee it is, yet all done with a knowing wink.

On ‘Blue Rev’, Alvvays take their now-signature sound and slowly push it in new directions. Initially trying to make album three quicker than they managed with its predecessor (‘Antisocialites’ came out three years after the release of ‘Alvvays’), all the stumbling blocks the band had to face meant pushing back work on ‘Blue Rev’, which arrives half a decade after their last. For Rankin, this allowed the band to follow their nose a little more with the album’s “quirky moments,” which she says would probably have been left out in past years.

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The most striking of these – and a defining one for Rankin – is ‘Very Online Guy’, a scything, humorous takedown of internet ‘reply guys’. On the song, she takes aim at a guy who “types his cool replies”, “laps up all domains” and is “only one filter away” with manipulated vocals set over lo-fi production.

“I’m really glad that the song made it on,” she says, “because it’s just such a strange little opus. It just started out as me humming a joke, and Alec and I just thought it was so hilarious that we just chased it down for a few hours, and it became this distorted love song.”

Elsewhere on ‘Blue Rev’, highlight ‘Pomeranian Spinster’ puts her most cutting lyrics (“I don’t wanna be nice / I don’t want your advice on the run in my tights”) over the album’s most playful, punky music, while ‘Belinda Says’ is written as a homage to Belinda Carlisle’s huge, chart-topping 1987 power ballad  ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’. The latter features maybe the defining Alvvays lyric to date, penned by O’Hanley: “Belinda says that heaven is a place on earth / Well, so is hell.”

“I was reflecting on the energy of going home and confronting your past and the way that things have changed” – Molly Rankin

After around two-thirds of ‘Blue Rev’ was completed before the pandemic hit in early 2020 – the band had studio time booked in late March at the legendary Sunset Sound in Los Angeles – Rankin set about crafting the rest of the record at home in lockdown. “The energy of being isolated is something that I thrive in,” she says. “ I like to be alone when I write and to just not have people around, so part of [lockdown] was helpful.” She namechecks ‘Belinda Says’ and other ‘Blue Rev’ tracks ‘Tom Verlaine’ and ‘Tile By Tile’ as ones that particularly benefited from this insular existence.

Her creative relationship with O’Hanley has also blossomed over the band’s first decade, and the pair bring yin and yang that defines Alvvays’ output. “It’s very helpful to have our blend of skill sets, where I can propose an aesthetic or a direction with something, and Alec can understand what I’m conveying and execute that,” the singer says.

“I do really believe in the power of collaboration,” Rankin adds, discussing how her ever-changing creative partnership with O’Hanley means she doesn’t feel “like I’m writing the same record every time”. “There are a lot of things that I’m instinctively drawn to that could feel samey over the course of three albums, or over the course of one album,” she says, “but he has so many different little ideas, and so do I, and influences overlap. There’s this collage element to what we do.”

After the 14 songs on ‘Blue Rev’ were extensively demoed, the band headed to California in late 2021 to get in the studio with fellow Canadian Shawn Everett, whose previous credits include The Killers, The War On Drugs and Kacey Musgraves. For Rankin, it was a revolutionary experience and one that captured something new in Alvvays. “You walk into his space and you’re just in his universe,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you want to speed through anything – it just all depends on where he’s at. We can be a little bit militant about studio time and have a go-go-go kind of approach,” she adds, but with Everett – “a wild man and a scientist” – “you just have to ride the wave.”

Alvvays
Alvvays CREDIT: Eleanor Petry

The particular wave that Alvvays ended up riding with the producer involved being asked to play ‘Blue Rev’ in full twice in a row on one particular day, with only 15 seconds between each song and half an hour between the album takes. “I actually think it’s really smart,” Rankin reflects, “because you can know how to do something very well, but the moment you must perform it, it’s hard. That happens in the studio, where you’re put in an isolation booth and suddenly doing something you’ve done a hundred times is so much harder.” Everett’s method then “got the pressure out of our heads,” with the full run-throughs of the record seeing the band “scrambling and laughing and digging in.”

This dual approach – meticulously crafting detailed demos for years and then, upon finally entering the studio, feverishly running through the entire album straight to tape – is perhaps the defining characteristic of Alvvays, and one pushed to the fore on ‘Blue Rev’. On its first single and opening track ‘Pharmacist’, a classic slice of woozy dream-pop, Rankin sings deeply and evocatively of her childhood on Cape Breton, but it’s balanced out with the giddy playfulness of ‘Very Online Guy’.

The same can also be said musically. On the surface, the songs on ‘Blue Rev’ and across Alvvays’ catalogue are danceable, sugary pop hits, but below that sits inventive, unusual chord progressions from O’Hanley and meticulously crafted, deeply layered sounds. “Every song on the album has gone on such a journey,” Rankin reflects, “and it was so satisfying going through each demo that I was in love with and listened to for years, and then comparing them with the new versions and really feeling like we’ve transcended them.”

The tracks on ‘Blue Rev’ have been stolen from her apartment, gained new perspectives and angles during a pandemic and been given a final bolt of energy at Everett’s studio. The fact the album even exists stands as testament to the songs’ strength and the resilience of one of the most sublime bands we have.

Alvvays’ third album ‘Blue Rev’ is out October 7 via Transgressive

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