La Force Ariel Engle interview XO SKELETON

The new la Force album XO SKELETON is a kiss, a hug and an acknowledgment of death

An interview with Montreal music-scene star Ariel Engle (Broken Social Scene, AroarA, ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT) about her second LP as la Force and where the project is taking her.

An exoskeleton is something you normally associate with insects rather than humans. On la Force’s upcoming sophomore album, she uses this concept to represent a more intrinsically human emotion.

The artist born Ariel Engle released her second LP, XO SKELETON, on Sept. 29 on Secret City — the follow-up to her 2018 self-titled debut. Some may know her from her work with Broken Social Scene, as well as AroarA, her project with husband Andrew Whiteman, and ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT, her noise-pop project with Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor fame (she and Menuck plan to make more music for that project during the winter).

In the meantime, Engle is pleased with the release of her latest record as la Force, considering the album’s been finished since December after being worked on in “fits and starts.” She’s technically already started working on its follow-up.

“People who make albums are always making an album, and they don’t necessarily know they’re making an album,” she says. “I know I’m already making my next album — I’m collecting pieces and fragments. It probably started when I finished my last record, in some way. I suppose at a certain point, I decided I’m now taking this time. But everyone took that time. The world shut down. That’s when I really kicked into a higher gear.”

Chatting on her backyard’s deck as she’d graciously invited me into her Mile End home, many of the album’s songs were written during the “Voldemort era” of the pandemic, and its themes of loss and grief correlate with her own “unhealthy obsession” with death during her childhood to the point where even looking at the night sky was too much for her. Additionally, Engle took part in a “song a day” exercise where she and other songwriters have to finish writing a song each day in a 24-hour span, or they’re kicked out.

She was invited to participate by fellow BSS collaborator/living Canadian music legend Feist, whose friend, producer Phil Weinrobe, runs the program. (The exercise also helped shape Feist’s most recent album, Multitudes.) Beck and Maggie Rogers — the latter of whom is a BSS fan and previously shared the stage with the band at SXSW to sing their eternal classic “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” — also took part in the exercise.

“It was a time of total isolation. We were all feeling cut off from one another. It’s hard to feel creative when you don’t ever interact with people, or it is for me. Then she said, ‘Why don’t you do this thing? I think it should be fun.’ It started off as about 20 people. I did three of them. It was an incredibly difficult and fruitful process. It confirmed what I had known, which is that making art is work, and you just have to dedicate your time to it. The more regular you are in setting aside time to make art, the more it bears fruit.”

“Condition of Us” by la Force

Among each of XO SKELETON’s tracks, lead single “Condition of Us” had the shortest journey toward completion, and was written while she participated in the song a day exercise. “Most of what we hear on the recording is what happened [during the exercise],” she adds. “There was a little bit of work — there were some lyrics missing, but the bed track is the GarageBand Song a Day. That happened in a couple hours.”

One of the longest tracks to complete was “Empty Sympathy”, which she made with Warren Spicer of Plants and Animals, who co-produced the album with her and was a key collaborator throughout the making of XO SKELETON (“[That] was one we wrestled with a lot,” Engle says). Another was “Ouroboros,” which started as a fast-paced dance song also written for song a day before Engle and Spicer decided to slow it down.

The album is just as evocative as its instantly memorable cover art, with warm, rich, diaphanous soundscapes matching the imagery of Engle’s face that could be interpreted as melting and raining simultaneously. Her 2018 self-titled debut album initially began as an AroarA record and she wasn’t as involved with that LP as she would’ve liked to be, whereas her input is much greater this time around.

At first glance, the title XO SKELETON could be seen as representing the inevitability and acceptance of death, almost to the point where you cherish or embrace it. If you ask Engle, that interpretation is definitely part of the title’s overarching meaning.

“To embrace death as a frame to your life gives it its boundary and its value,” she adds. “For me, XO SKELETON is also a kiss and a hug. It’s about the desire to protect the people you love. After you lose someone who has loved you, it’s like you have a sense memory of them having loved you. It’s like a psychic protection, but it can almost feel like a physical protection.”

On that same topic, the album’s second track, “how do you love a man” is described quite succinctly as “a swan song to a dead man.” Writing songs specifically wrestling with the concept of grief can often teach you things about grief that you didn’t previously know, and for Engle, it doesn’t always hit right away.

“I think that when you first experience grief, it’s not particularly verbal or articulate,” she says. “Now, with a lot of time — the person I’m talking about died six years ago — it becomes almost more intellectual. That’s why I could ask those questions. I’m referring to a very specific trip that I took with him. I don’t think I could have written that song when I was still so sad.”

“How Do You Love a Man” by la Force

Days after our interview, Engle flew to Cork, Ireland to perform a residency at the Sounds From a Safe Harbour festival to help kick off a string of European tour dates. She also sang with other musicians like Richard Reed Parry and the Vernon Spring at the festival, in addition to playing a la Force show there. One of that festival’s curators this year was none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, Cillian Murphy — who also happens to be a friend of Broken Social Scene.

After this had finished, Engle continued the rest of her European jaunt opening for Patrick Watson, whom she collaborated with on last year’s single “Height of the Feeling.” At the end of our chat, Engle mentions how a German interviewer had asked her — as an opener — why there were no uptempo songs on XO SKELETON; an album that, again, initially began life as a dance record.

“What’s there is what’s there, is what happened,” she says. “I was going to make a dance record, and then that didn’t happen. It’s an excuse, but I just allow whatever comes to me to be what it is. Allow yourself to just be a vehicle on some level, and whatever magic happens — or doesn’t — is what it is.” ■

La Force performs at PHI Centre (407 St-Pierre) on Nov. 21 and 22, 8 p.m., $24.57

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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