(Above photo, cropped, Pony Girl. Photo: Remi Theriault. Below, in full)
Foreign Life — the new album from Ottawa sextet Pony Girl — has a faraway quality. Songs are cinematic and intense at one point and twangy and unharnessed at other points. It’s a concept album and the cover art provides a handy bit of symbolism: people are both bloodied and reflective from relationship woes.
Warmth and character swirl though a mix of acoustics and electronics from Pascal Huot (guitar, electronics, vocals), Julien Dussault (guitars, electronics, vocals), Yolande Laroche (clarinet, vocals), Greggory Clark (bass), Jeff Kingsbury (drums, marimba, percussion), and Mitch Cousineau (piano, synth).
OTTAWA magazine caught up with the band for a track-by-track takedown of the album, tuning in for anecdotes, spoilers, quirks and highlights from the sophomore work. It’s a powerhouse piece of beautifully moody tunes about ugly realities. We asked Pony Girl about exploring those tensions and the jarring nature of Foreign Life.
Pony Girl’s CD Release Party takes place November 7 at St. Alban’s Church. To listen to tracks from the album, visit here.
“Foreign Life 1”
Julien Dussault: One rule we set for ourselves during the making of Foreign Life was for each track to stand on its own as well as fit with the conceptual nature of the record. The only exceptions are this song and the last songs, which act like a prologue and epilogue.
Pascal Huot: The song started as a lullaby on a Casio keyboard — sung from a parent’s perspective. It’s a bittersweet realization that raising a child can come at a cost. You might lose a bit of yourself or gain something that was otherwise unattainable. You might doubt your actions: How can you care for someone else when you aren’t taking care of yourself? You can only hope that you transfer your experiences and help them become good people — hopeful that they will, in return, take care of you in old age.
Greggory Clark: This is one of the first songs we wrote for this project. It sets the stage for the rest of the album. The acoustic guitar part was heavily influenced by a New York guitarist named Rafiq Bhatia, particularly his song “Sunshower.”
PH: It explores a meeting between two people; a short-lived connection. Maybe you’ve accidently bumped into someone — or maybe you’ve pulled them away from oncoming traffic. The fragility of life is an interesting reality we’re all faced with. It’s important to appreciate our time here. The discussion around assisted suicide is a big inspiration for this song. Everyone comes from different walks of life and it’s sometimes easy to impose our values on others without even noticing it. If you decide that you are at the end of your life you should be met with respect, empathy, and compassion.
GC: For fun, we decided to try to make this song as pop as possible in terms of melody and song structure …
JD: And by the time it was done, we called it “Candy” because that’s what we thought it sounded like.
PH: The lyrics are about making love: about passion and physicality, but the song itself is pretty chill — even sedated. Lyrically, I wanted to compare religious transmigration with the physical act of lovemaking. That contrast can be used to explore more complex human emotions and behaviours.
PH: This is about cheating on a partner. Sometimes you fall on your face and you are left with a big scar that constantly reminds you of how shortsighted you were.
GC: This is a very old song that changed over the years and went through at least four versions before it became what it is on the album.
JD: The main problem was that it was always too soft or too happy/cheesy/jazzy to effectively convey the lyrical themes. In the version that made it onto the album, I think we did a good job of darkening the mood. The song features the “Meet Maude” pedal prominently. It’s made by Fairfield Circuitry in Hull. Those guys make amazing gear.
PH: This song comments on violence towards women and taking advantage of someone’s innocence. It explores the power of the image through sexual objectification and self-objectification. A big inspiration is porn addiction.
JD: Foreign Life is intended to be listened to in two parts, like both sides of a record. This song acts as both the ending to “Dirty Pictures” and the end of Side A. In terms of local talent, it features Greg Jones on French horn.
PH: This one is about gun violence and public shootings.
GC: Turn to Side B! The “Foreign Life” theme is back again — this time it’s a bit creepier.
PH: It’s elevator music; there’s a Theremin in there.
GC: Like “Quiet Mess” was the ending of “Dirty Pictures” and Side A, “Hamady” is both the intro to “Theo” and Side B. It features more great Ottawa musicians, all of whom contributed to Pony Girl’s last record: Raphael Weinroth-Browne (cello), Chris Hutchinson (flute), and Jonah Poplove (viola).
PH: I met a writer named Hamady while travelling and we talked for hours. This one is for him.
JD: This is the most country/folkie song on the record with a sort of space-western vibe to it. We had no idea what type of instrumental moment was going to happen towards the end of the song up until very late in the production process.
GC: When it finally came together, it took Julien less than an hour to record the slide solo, melody, and harmony. Sometimes these things just take time to form in your head. When it happens, it’s very satisfying.
PH: I wrote it for my friend’s first child, Theo. Being fresh on the block, I wanted to tell him what he was getting into it. I thought: ‘What if I only had one chance to tell him some kind of truth? What would it be?’ A big part of the song looks at stereotypes based on physical appearance. It explains how these “norms” are just misinformed racist constructions made to benefit a specific group while putting others at a clear disadvantage. I wanted to dissect that idea and add some underlying message of hope. I think it’s important to remember and understand instances of intolerance. It’s not something we can easily push aside and it certainly isn’t something that will stop in our lifetime.
JD: It feels like a journey, but ends in the same place it started.
PH: Breakup 101 track, I guess. This one is about someone close [who is] drifting apart from you and about how hard it is to get to know someone when you barely know yourself.
JD: Our love for electronic music and polyrhythmic beats definitely shows here.
PH: “Little Life” is a quick reflection on life in your final moments and coming to terms with the end.
JD: We went to my parents’ house in the suburbs and recorded the whole thing in one take with a couple of smartphones scattered around the house. There’s even a spot in the song where you can hear someone mowing the lawn.
PH: I wrote the song in Senegal in 2011. It’s about the need to get away from everything: pressures, relationships, hydro bills — and realizing that certain feelings and things don’t change with geography. You can’t get away from yourself.
JD: We wanted the song to feel like the record’s big finale with dense arrangements and a lot of instruments. As a result, “Clarity” became the most challenging song to produce. Overall, the sonic hugeness comes off. After the first listen, I remember thinking, ‘Phew, we did it. This sounds really powerful.’
PH: I would go to Mellos diner for breakfast pretty often. There was an elderly couple that would often be there. One morning the man’s wife wasn’t with him and he was facing the mirrored wall. I couldn’t help but look at him and imagine that his partner had passed. I wrote this song thinking about that. Having to grow old without your anchor. Would you regret not saying or doing something? Would you look back on it positively? Negatively? Would you be at peace?
“Foreign Life II”
JD: It features JF Beauchamp on trumpet and sounds like a weird game show.
GC: The “Foreign Life” theme is back, but this time in a major key.
PH: This is a reprise of the first track. I wanted to change the tone. It’s sort of about accepting things as they are.