I was able to catch Elke Robitaille for a moment, while she was doing some preparation for her upcoming CD release – in this exclusive Q&A with the singer-songwriter, we learn about the inspiration behind the soon-to-be-unveiled project. Good songwriters speak expressively from the heart, and she is an outstanding example, sharing a glimpse into her musical maturation and writing process. Robitaille celebrates the public release of In the End at Alberta Street Pub on Saturday. June 18, at 6PM.
Kelly: Country, gospel, and folk music are generally born from authentic experiences – would you say this rings true for you? Do you have an example of a story?
Elke: I would definitely agree. These styles of music typically feature a strong storytelling element that comes from a place of honesty and simplicity. As a songwriter, my lyrics have always allowed me to write about authentic experiences in a poetic way. On my new album, (In The End) many of the songs share a common thread in terms of story and experience. I found myself in a place where I was very much reflecting on life and death. Not to sound morbid, but I was simply intrigued by how fleeting life can be. It wasn’t about any specific death that I experienced first-hand, but more so about reflecting on my own life, the specific stages I’ve gone through, and growing older. The concept actually helped me to curate the songs I wanted on the album, and the order of the tracks was carefully selected to tell an arcing story from start to finish.
Elke: Yes, I had a very musical childhood. I grew up in small coastal town in British Columbia, Canada. It was a very isolated little community, but it had a large art and music scene. My parents saw that I had a love for music at a young age, so they enrolled me in voice lessons, guitar lessons, and community choir at the local Academy of Music. My dad also played guitar and sang at home all the time. I would strum along with him and we’d sing Willie Nelson, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and The Beatles (to name a few!) I think this is where I developed such a love for folk music and the storytelling that goes along with it!
Kelly: When did you know that you had found your voice to translate experiences into songs to share?
Elke: That’s a great question. I always loved to sing, but I didn’t really find my voice until I was 17. That’s how old I was when I started writing my own songs. I actually recorded and released my first full-length studio album at 18. I wrote songs about first-love and breakups, and it was a great way for me to gain confidence in translating my experiences into songs. However, to say that I really “found my voice” would be premature. Over the years, I’ve cultivated my sound, and I’m constantly finding new genres and artists that inspire me to grow and change in different ways. In terms of style, I started out very folk-based, but my songwriting has started to lean more comfortably towards bluegrass and alt-country. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel like I’m constantly striving to find my voice and translate it into songs that are genuine and heartfelt.
Kelly: Are you inspired to create a new album when there’s a big change in your life, or are you always composing?
Elke: Both! I’m always composing, but that doesn’t mean that every song is album worthy. Sometimes I’ll write a song, perform it once, and decide it’s not quite what I had in mind. But it’s a great exercise. I do get inspired to create an album when something big happens in life, or if I’m just really focused on a particular theme. That’s essentially what happened with the new album, “In The End.” As I mentioned earlier, I recognized a theme of life and death in a lot of the songs that I was writing, and that’s what got things rolling for a new album.
Kelly: How do you find your accompanying vocalists and instrumentalists? Are there several of you who work on each other’s albums?
Elke: I am very lucky to work with such incredible musicians. Some of us have been working together for many years. In fact, my husband is my bass player (JP Downer) – we have been playing music professionally together for 12 years. We met when we were attending Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, CA and we’ve been playing together ever since. The drummer on our album (Beak Wing) is also a musician we met while living in LA. He recorded drums on our last album as well (Flowers In The City, 2009.) Other than that, I like to stay very connected and involved in the local Portland music scene, and that is really how I find amazingly talented musicians to play and collaborate with.
Kelly: Who is your favorite storyteller?
Elke: It’s hard to name just one. I’ve always been a fan of Ani Difranco‘s songwriting and storytelling. I’ve been influenced and inspired by many different storytellers, but one thing Ani taught me through her songwriting was how to be honest and vulnerable with my words, and that is something I’ll always keep with me.
Elke Robitaille – That Devil