The Wilderness of Manitoba

Since the release of When You Left The Fire, the Wilderness of Manitoba has been experiencing one highlight after another. They range from making their UK debut at the End of the Road Festival where they received a standing ovation to playing the Philadelphia Folk Festival and meeting Levon Helm; from their first shows in Berlin and Hamburg to touring the U.S. opening for artists like Cloud Cult and Aimee Mann; from sold out club shows in London to performing at SXSW in Austin. With the band’s new album, Island of Echoes, scheduled for a September 18th release in Canada through Pheromone Recordings, this year and beyond promise to be just as exciting as the band first returns to the UK to play the WOMAD festival in July along with shows in London, Brighton and Cambridge among others. In August, they will be performing their first shows in the Netherlands when they play festivals in Utrecht and Rotterdam, and the legendary Paradiso club in Amsterdam before returning home for a fall tour of Canada.

Thematically, a lot of the new Wilderness of Manitoba album, Island of Echoes, is about the past year or so and all of the songs come from that timeframe. There wasn’t a lot of downtime for the Toronto-based band as most of 2011 was spent on tour, primarily in the United States and England. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Will Whitwham reflects, “For me personally, a lot of my songwriting was done on the road because it had to be. So, whenever I was home, I'd have a week or two to record demos and then be back at the drawing board again in a van or hotel room.” The constant touring, the ever-changing geography, playing larger venues and working the new songs into the live sets, all had a profound influence on both the band and the new album. Whitwham and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Stefan Banjevic started playing electric guitars; the sound became more expansive to fill the halls they were playing. “This also carried over into writing the new songs as we had fuller band arrangements in mind”, adds Whitwham.

The downside of life on the road was the departure of vocalist Melissa Dalton. However, when it came to recording the new album, as Whitwham points out, “It forced us to find the right person for the various songs we were recording and we ended up asking some of the best singers we knew (who all happened to be female) to collaborate. The results were even better than we expected.” One of those singers was vocalist/violinist Amanda Balsys of Kingston band The Gertrudes. From its inception, the Wilderness of Manitoba has been known for its three and four part harmonies. Along with Whitwham, Banjevic and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Scott Bouwmeester, Balsys ensures the continuity of that signature vocal blend and contributes to the instrumental mix with her effects laden violin. Rounding out the band is drummer/percussionist Sean Lancaric who brings his sense of rhythm and personality to the intricate arrangements.

The band’s previous two releases, Hymns of Love & Spirits and When You Left The Fire, were recorded mainly in the basement recording studio of the house on Delaware Avenue where most of the band members lived. Gradually, over the course of the year, everyone except Whitwham moved out and found apartments. When it came time to record Island of Echoes, the decision was made to record the basic tracks and mix at Revolution Recording, a throwback to the original great Toronto studios of the sixties and seventies. Intent on capturing the band’s evolving live sound, Whitwham says they got the best of both worlds, “We have never made a studio album until now and I think you can especially hear it in the percussion as well as the overall mixes. We still had the necessary time and space to alter and experiment with overdubs at the house for a month, but the backbone of the tracks has a much fuller studio presence than any of our earlier recordings.”

Expanding on the changes reflected in the new album, Whitwham explains, “We don't want any of the albums to be similar, but, at the same time, we aim to create a mood or cohesiveness in everything we do. It felt as though we'd already made folk records and it was time to experiment with what that means. There are elements of folk happening throughout the album, but it is in no way a folk record although it is definitely a Wilderness of Manitoba record. The seventies was just a reference point that happens to include some of our favourite influences such as Fleetwood Mac. We were looking to bring in the kind of instrumentation you hear from that era that is heavy with electric guitars, Hammond organ, synthesizers and a prominent backbeat with lots of harmonies happening vocal-wise on top.” In addition to the male vocals of Whitwham, Bouwmeester and Banjevic, the presence of Balsys along with Elise Legrow of Whale Tooth and Felicity Williams brought the high end/female vocals to another level and contributed to the more dynamic music direction being pursued by the band on its new album, Island of Echoes.