Alejandra Ribera has been writing about the unexpected places we find light since the release of her critically acclaimed debut album La boca. In her sophomore release THIS ISLAND, the award-winning songwriter continues her exploration of luminescence – this time leaving the depths of mythological waters and delving firmly into the experience of the human heart. She cites some unlikely influences as inspiring her approach to this recording – a speech by actress Tilda Swinton at the Rothko Chapel, a documentary about performance artist Marina Abramovic and studying movement in Paris with one of Pina Bausch’s earliest devotees.
“There is this infinite potential that lies in that moment between suspension and release … I wanted to put a sonic microscope on that moment and invite the listener into that intimate space normally reserved for those who create the music.” Ribera chose a studio in rural Ontario where she and the band lived and recorded in the depths of winter. “Thirty-five centimeters of snow fell on our first night. I’d often be singing facing the lake which was completely frozen over through the window.” That vast Canadian landscape is audible from the opening track and woven throughout much of the album.
Reminiscent of early Damien Rice in its delicate and spacious arrangements we also hear the influence of contemporaries like Rufus Wainwright and Fiona Apple in THIS ISLAND’S sophisticated melodies. Ribera’s reputation for raw and emotive vocals has brought repeated comparisons to Tom Waits from the critics over the years. In “Blood Moon Rising” she harnesses that palpable intensity right to the hem with an almost athletic ability that leaves hairs standing on end. Her latest release also brings us Ribera’s most accessible and up-tempo songwriting to date, perhaps the feature that most distinguishes it from her previous work. “After my first year of living in France, I found myself writing little hymns of gratitude and hearing anthem-like choruses in my head. I think it was a subconscious way of lifting my own spirits when I was feeling homesick. When it came time to record those songs I wanted to have as much fun as possible. Exploit the joy! That’s why I asked Bryden Baird (Feist) to write the horn arrangements – he has this magic touch, it makes you grin.” “Carry Me”, “Will Not Drown” and “Led Me To You” (which runs seven verses deep and reads rather like a Leonard Cohen poem set to a bluegrass jam) are probably the best examples of this new-found unabashed levity. And then there are her trademark heart-breaking lyrics that cut to the quick with love songs like “The Undertow” and “Undeclared War” “The words you left metastasized, I cannot breathe my hands are tied …” swelling and subsiding in lush waves of strings, acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies.
There’s a timeless approach to the production which Ribera entrusted mixer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow) and engineer L. Stu Young (Prince) to help her achieve. “I wanted to make a record that sounded classic, simple and unencumbered by the production trends of the day. I knew it would take courage to strip everything down and so I needed a very particular team that would push me every step of the way.” Equal parts subtle and nourishing, all these elements were carefully crafted with her longtime collaborators and Montreal-based band Jean-Sebastien Williams and Cédric Dind-Lavoie. With their talent in tow Ribera has created THIS ISLAND, a place she invites us to visit, to dream and to celebrate that light that she is seeking wherever she goes.