Frontperson came about after a chance meeting in a studio hallway, and by the time Mark Hamilton, aka Woodpigeon, and The New Pornographers Kathryn Calder had barely said nice to meet you, they were already forming a band. The result of this instant connection was their debut album Frontrunner, a record made in a museum, “with almost infinite options at our fingertips”. After a pandemic-induced pause, the pair reconvened with a different approach, finding a studio, spending time on the beach, “eating a lot of tacos” and living without the constant fear of “breaking priceless keyboards”. The result of this approach is Frontperson’s second record, Parade, which was recently jointly released by Kathryn’s own Oscar Street Records and the London-based label Where It’s At Is Where You Are.
While elements of the band the world heard on Frontrunner remain, Parade instantly feels like a different record. Compare the two records’ opening tracks, Frontrunner’s opening number U.O.I. was a dense swirl of synth and strings, layered backing vocals adding a swirling intensity, while here they begin with the title track, Parade, which lives up to its name, a fluttering precession of gorgeous melodies, electronic pips and the bittersweet lyrical sigh, “sometimes you’re left, sometimes you leave”.
For all its relaxed creativity, Parade is certainly not an unambitious record, it is a free-flowing celebration of whip-smart indie-pop music, an album that dips its fingers into various styles and makes them all Frontperson’s own. At times the band even surprise themselves, take Messy Roomz, a song Mark notes has a “Dire Straits meets prog” quality, way outside his own musical interests. Equally excellent is the recent single Calgary ’88, an electronic-led reflection on memory and the way it compresses, taking the Olympics of Mark’s youth as a personal metaphor for a love affair gone wrong.
Across the record, Parade is delightfully eclectic, sometimes even within a single song as Tattoo Boy slides from a finger-picked opening to a relatively cacophonous strut, the band’s attempt to mirror the ebb and flow of a particularly dramatic relationship. Perhaps most wonderful is the epic finale, Visions, it possesses that wonderful quality of two voices emerging as one, Kathryn’s call, “we’re all waiting where are you?” and response, “stuck between repetitive loops”, reflected by the almost resigned quality of Mark’s repeated, “on and on and on and on”.
Following the release, Frontperson recently took some time out to answer my questions, discussing influences which stretch from Japanese Minimalism to Suede B-sides, why a career in music is dependent on your expectations and what makes a song right for Frontperson.
FTR: For those who don’t know who are Frontperson?
Mark: Well, Frontperson are Kathryn Calder, also known as a brilliant solo artist and as a member of the New Pornographers, and myself, who some people might know as Woodpigeon. We also play and record with our sweet pals Melissa McWilliams on drums and Jen Sévertson on bass, recording with the wonderful Colin Stewart.
FTR: You’re just about to release your second album, Parade, what can you tell us about recording the album? I read you deliberately decided to simplify your options?
Mark: in terms of simplifying our options, it wasn’t so much a deliberate choice as a welcome one, I think. The first record was made in one of the world’s biggest keyboard museums where we were invited for an artistic residency, while this one was made in a beautiful studio on Vancouver Island not far from a rocky beach and under sunshine. I’d say it’s still quite a complicated record, but made from a palette of instruments that we were familiar with. We didn’t have to fiddle around with antique synths for an hour to figure out how to make them make certain sounds.
FTR: What made this the right time to record a second album, what did you do differently compared to your debut album?
Mark: For me it’s always the right time to record. I’m not sure what fitting answer I can give to this except to say it just felt like time. Kathryn and I also live across the country from one another, so recording time is the best hang time. It never feels like work, so for me, there isn’t really any deeper timeline than just wanting to hang out and have another fun session. As for what we did differently this time out, I think for me it’s more of a shared comfort and bravery thing. Our first record, our first day of recording anything together in the same space was in a museum studio. Not that we weren’t comfortable with one another already because of our friend vibes, but it’s definitely something being in a studio together the first time. In terms of other differences, I’d say that this record has some more open-ended stuff on it, with songs kind of leading us instead of the other way around.
KC: I think what made this the right time to record a second album, is that I felt creatively ready. Our first record had been out for a year, and it was time. I think it’s a question of motivation, and we were motivated!
FTR: Where does the title Parade come from?
Mark: Kathryn sent over a beautiful demo of the title track, and I knew it was both an album-opener and album title in one.
KC: The title Parade has a celebratory feeling to it, which I think does reflect the bright nature of the album, at least how I hear it and feel it. Parades also usually have a feeling of watching and waiting for something to unfold, an anticipation, which I also think makes it fitting for a title track.
FTR: You’re obviously both known for your work in other bands, what makes Frontperson different from those other projects?
Mark: To me, everything Woodpigeon is a solo, one-headed thing. Frontperson is a two-headed monster. For me, it also feels like the content can be somewhat more universal, even if some of the songs on our shared records are incredibly personal. Sounds-wise, for me these Frontperson records feel like we’re borrowing one another’s clothes for a bit, and drawing from one another’s skill sets. The things Kathryn does on demos I bring to her, for example, go places I never considered.
KC: I think that anytime you do a project with somebody, you kind of meld your sounds. So it’s a creative chemistry thing, where we both contribute our own styles, and it comes out sounding like Frontperson! I don’t do anything differently in particular on these albums than I do when I’m writing parts for New Pornographers songs or my solo albums. I have the same process (which of course has changed slightly over the years), it’s just there’s a different person to give it to, so my songs get a little bit of Mark added to them, and his songs get a bit of Kathryn added to them (plus of course our other amazing musical collaborators, who also each contribute their sounds), and that’s Frontperson!
FTR: Do you instantly know a song is going to be a good fit for Frontperson? Or is more that they evolve into songs that suit this band?
Mark: Somehow, I feel like I always know and have a bit of a file for Frontperson and a file for other things. That said, both of these records were written with an LP worth of songs at the end as the goal, so there was certainly an element of a concise writing period. There were maybe one or two little things that I didn’t think fit so I put aside, but otherwise it was pretty directional, at least on my end. Maybe Kathryn thinks something entirely different! We also just finished doing all of the music for a TV series coming out in Italy on RAI, their national broadcaster. We made about 30 songs for that, and that was a similar, yet quite different experience as well. I think that experience really broadened the palette of what we can and will do together going forward.
KC: Hm, that’s a good question! I think my songs evolve into songs that suit the band, but also, I wrote this batch of songs in a pretty condensed time period, so they have a certain feel to them which I think makes them all work together.
FTR: Who are the influences on you music? What were you listening to when you wrote this record?
Mark: I don’t really listen to anything new when I’m writing / recording a record, and the things I do listen to are typically quite different from what it is I’m working on. I know I was listening to a lot of Japanese minimalist soundscape kind of stuff while we were writing this one. Turkish music. Brahms. Early Suede B-sides. Nothing much that I think I could point to as a direct, identifiable influence on what you hear, if maybe enjoying the idea of incidental sound occurrences like you often find in Japanese minimalism.
KC: I guess I had just come out of working on a New Pornographers record, so I was using a lot of the same writing processes I used for contributing to that. I do think that influence shows up on this record. Maybe more obviously to me on this record than any other one I’ve worked on outside of the band.
FTR: I wanted to ask you about record labels, Kathryn you run your own in the shape of Oscar St. Records, what made you want to run a label? Do you think they’re still important?
KC: I started a label because there were lots of albums that my husband was working on as a producer in our studio that didn’t have a label. I thought it might be something I would like to explore, to give back to the music community that I grew up in. And I also wanted to understand more about that label side, how things operate. I think labels are still very helpful, if you can find the right fit, because there are more people on your team helping to get things done. Artists can do a lot on their own though, which is a very good thing!
FTR: Now shows are beginning to start up again, what can people expect from the Frontperson live show?
Mark: Knowing so many musicians who’ve dealt with Covid cases in their touring parties and the very real risk of cancellations, we’ve no plans to tour this record. What we’ve done instead is make a quartet of videos that we’re very proud of and hope people will take into their eyes and hearts.
FTR: Why do you make music?
Mark: I don’t feel like I can’t make music. Music is what makes the rest of life make sense.
KC: I make music because I love it, and my brain just works that way. I love the challenge, it never gets boring, it’s also very soothing and healing to me.
FTR: Do you have any other creative outlets beyond music?
Mark: I love writing, design and film. I’m also a grad student in History, researching the visual ephemera and graphics of early 1990s HIV/AIDS activism in Montréal.
KC: Music is my main creative outlet. I have lots of other things I enjoy doing and thinking and reading about, like psychology, and understanding how the world works and how the mind works, but mostly if I have spare time, I’ll either be relaxing with a good book, movie, podcast, getting outside into nature, or it will involve music in some shape or form, whether it’s listening, writing, singing, or playing.
FTR: What are your ambitions for this record? Is music still a viable career?
Mark: The longer I’ve made records, the more my ambitions have simply shifted towards the joy of making vs. any other real aspirations beyond that. If I get to keep making records, I already feel like my ambitions have been fulfilled and surpassed. Whether or not music is a viable career, it all comes down to expectations. I worked and lived full-time as a musician for 10 years and had quite a nice life in Canada and Austria, touring often, working hard. But that lifestyle also had a certain quality to it that perhaps isn’t quite as sustainable as the present me would like out of life. I’m quite happy now with a multifaceted life, working some freelance writing jobs, studying, composing. I feel like the wisest move for many musicians these days is to have music and something else that also makes you happy. Rather than following the wishes of that Spotify guy who just wants us to make more music to somehow make more money (however he thinks that works, I’d like to hear), I think that keeping things protected creatively is the only way to keep it viable.
KC: I totally agree with everything Mark is saying here. I think if you’re lucky to catch a few breaks, you get really good at what you do, and you can protect the joy in creating music, you can have a viable career in music, whatever that means to you.
FTR: What’s next for Frontperson?
Mark: Following that soundtrack work and album release this Friday, I think it’s time for a nap! But we also have the first inklings towards a new record and maybe even some new ideas for sounds and approaches that are going to be very fulfilling to explore.
KC: Agreed, releasing our new record, nap time for sure, and then at some point we’ll get the feeling like we should probably get down to work on the next record.