Two well-known and highly respected singer-songwriters, one British-Israeli, the other Canadian, came together almost by accident a year or so ago. Lail Arad and JF Robitaille are exponents of their own individual and engaging brand of stimulating indie-folk, featuring smart, thoughtful lyrics and both having an affinity with the late Leonard Cohen.
In advance of a short UK tour that starts on 1st December (see gig listing below) GIGsoup had a rare opportunity to speak to the globetrotting pair as they took a couple of days off in the searing heat and humidity of Kerala on India’s southwestern coast to ask about their experiences to date, how they write together, those comparisons with Leonard Cohen and how they see their songwriting future developing.
Thanks for sparing some time to talk to us. You are both known as very individual singer-songwriters. How did you meet professionally? I read that you started duet-ting casually and found yourselves increasingly in demand?
JF: We came across each other’s music online, as you do, and started corresponding. We then did a co-headline tour of Italy about a year ago, which started out very much as two solo sets and ended up merging. The audience reaction when we sang on each other’s songs encouraged us to try writing together, and maybe they were onto something…
Apart from its musical heritage and the fact that JF is Canadian is there any particular reason you chose a snowy Montreal to write and record new material together? Don’t you have to live underground there during the winter?
Lail: Hibernation is a very good framework for songwriting! And yes I was, of course, attracted to JF’s hometown for its legendary music scene… but mainly it was just snow. Lots of snow. Though actually the single was finally recorded in London, with producer Mike Lindsey who you may know from Tunng and his numerous other bands and projects. So it’s a transatlantic song…
JF has been described as being able to “rise to be a Leonard Cohen for the new age”, while Lail is a renowned fan of Leonard who has recorded a tribute song on the last album, The Onion, and arranged a special commemorative show in London when he died just over a year ago. Is that a mantle that you feel you could jointly take on and be comfortable with? Or are such associations onerous?
JF: I never really took those comparisons very seriously; being a songwriter from Montreal they are practically inevitable. That being said, Leonard is definitely a huge influence and inspiration and there will never be another like him. To answer your question, it’s a nice impossibility for both of us to try and live up to.
You’ve been on an enormous tour including much of Europe and even India for several months now, which must be tiring? Is touring a necessary evil or is it conducive to the creative spirit? Or both? Or neither?
Lail: Yes it’s been pretty intense… but we love it. We travel light, see beautiful places, meet wonderful people, eat amazing food, and at the risk of sounding completely cliché, the shows are a real high… So as exhausting as it is, it feels like a very lucky way to see the world. The creative outpouring tends to come later for me when I’m home with nothing to do and nowhere to go…
You are both sharp lyricists and wordsmiths and equally, you are able to knock up tunes easily. Do you share these duties between yourselves with any degree of rigour or are your songwriting processes dictated by what comes into your head and when?
Lail: Neither of us is really of the disciplined songwriter school. I myself find it very hard to write unless I have something to say… JF scribbles down lyrics all the time… and then occasionally we’re on the same page and it all falls into place. It’s been very interesting co-writing for the first time, but no, we don’t have any set ways of working.
What can we expect to hear at your forthcoming UK shows? Compilations only or individual songs as well, performed solo or as a duet?
JF: The whole tour came together off the back of our first duet, so we’ll be playing that of course, plus some other songs we’ve written together. We’ll be playing our own songs (old and new) and joining each other on harmonies, harmonicas and hand claps…. because we can’t help it. We’ll probably also throw in some covers – they change – depending on our mood and the audience.
How do you see the future now? Is this is a one-off collaboration or are you henceforth going to be known as ‘Lail and Robitaille’ or ‘Robitaille and Lail’ (that’s got more of a Peters and Lee feel to it, I suppose) or some or other play on words? Twin ailles?
Lail: It’s a good question and we’ll see how it unfolds. We both have new solo material we’re eager to record too, but maybe we should do another duo release first, whilst we’re in the swing…
JF: The future is wide open, we have touring plans, recording plans, video plans, too many plans. You can expect a lot of material in the coming year, solo and duo!
Final question for Lail. Your favourite London venue, The Society Club in Soho, closed down earlier this year; a unique establishment where you could buy a book then sip afternoon tea reading it while listening to an Andy Warhol music compilation in the background. How are you coping?
Lail: The truth is I’ve been away so much since they closed, I haven’t yet been faced with where else to go on a Friday night… it was such an oasis of poetry and decadence and characters… I’m so glad we did our 5-week residency there just before it was too late, and that some of the spirit was caught on the video for We Got It Coming. The answer to your question is that I’m in denial.