After Almost a Decade and a Half Together, Braids Remain Dedicated to Creative Evolution and Friendship

Photo credit: Melissa Gamache

As the classic thought experiment goes, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" With the COVID-19 pandemic laying waste to album releases and tours, artists had to start asking themselves a similar question; “If we release new music and no fans are around to hear it, did it really exist?”

Smack dab in the middle of that metaphorical forest was Braids, unlucky enough to be releasing their five-years-in-the-making comeback album, Shadow Offering, during the height of COVID-19’s first wave. With the follow-up to 2015’s Deep in the Iris pushed back a few months and live shows out of the question due to the pandemic, the band wanted to avoid having their new LP face the same unheard fate as the fallen tree. So, the group did what they thought was the best way they could ensure Shadow Offering wouldn’t be forgotten – they put on six whole shows in 24 hours, across six different time zones.

“We wanted to recreate that feeling, that intense road feeling for ourselves,” explained Braids vocalist/guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston over a Zoom call in Montreal. “And we wanted to do a world tour. So we figured why not just do it all in one day, a bunch of different time zones and just hit out that intensity.”

Dubbed the 24HR WWWORLDTOUR, the group brought songs old and new to digital life in July by livestreaming their performances from Studio Toute Garnie, their Mile-End home base. Perhaps sensing the weirdness of performing to hundreds of viewers without seeing their reactions, the band heightened the levity, cracking jokes amongst each other and exuding a playfulness fit for three friends who have performed together for 15 years now. When they did a second edition of the “tour” at the end of October, the band members even dressed up in Halloween costumes for their last show of the day.

“Because it was so kind of wacky, it allowed us to not take it too seriously,” said multi-instrumentalist Taylor Smith, “because at the end of the day, you're just playing in the studio with GoPro.” Despite the levity, Smith, in Montreal alongside Standell-Preston, quickly got serious about the purpose of the shows. “We’re like, man, we had put out a record and it kind of feels like it didn’t even really happen, because you’re not out, connecting with people and being able to feel that what you’ve put your time and energy into is making a difference in someone’s life. [The tour] gave us an opportunity to do that, and it was so valuable.”

Drummer Austin Tufts, who joined the Zoom call from his temporary homebase of Victoria, concurred: “I think after the first [tour] we recorded a little ‘thank you for watching’ video on our Instagram or something. And every once in a while I actually go back and watch that video, because it’s like the closest thing that I’ve felt to being on tour in several years.”

It’s a shame that Braids didn’t get a chance to perform their new songs in front of in-person audiences, because Shadow Offering is definitely their most live-friendly album. The progressive streamlining of the band’s song structures over the course of four albums pays off dividends. Braids sound downright exuberant on tracks such as “Young Buck,” wasting little time to build up to its muscular chorus. When the band deploys their more experimental tendencies on songs such as “Upheaval II,” they avoid sounding like a band noodling during a jam session, as they were prone to doing on their first album, 2011’s Native Speaker. According to Tufts, the goal for the band on Shadow Offering was simple: “how to bring the energy from point A to point B, in a matter of 15 seconds, rather than four and a half minutes.” In a refreshing bit of candour, Smith admitted that some of the lengthy and abstract inclinations of their earliest work was the band not actually knowing how to “write our way out of it.”

“From a listener’s perspective, sometimes that gets [viewed] as, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting move, or that’s an experimental choice,’ or, ‘Wow, look at that, weird thing that’s happening,’” Smith explained. “And for us, we look at it as, ‘Wow, we kind of suck,’ or we didn’t know how to actually solve it like a great songwriter would and we’re just kind of fucking it up,” he added, cracking up his bandmates.

This part of the process wasn’t the easiest for Braids; it took a year and a half of workshopping ideas before a chance encounter with Chris Walla at Studio Toute Garnie changed everything. Walla, the former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer, happened to be working on a project of his own at the same time as Braids were working on their follow-up to Deep in the Iris. The four began checking out each other’s work, and a friendship soon blossomed. While the band had kept things in-house previously and self-produced their first three records, Walla became the co-producer and engineer of the trio’s fourth album. The band were so productive that they had upwards of 40 songs written for Shadow Offering, including the recently released “Slayer Moon” and “2020,” two tracks that nearly made it onto the album before being taken off at the last minute. The band aren’t shy in crediting Walla with bringing out the best in them.

“Working with Chris, he definitely comes from more of a classic album background,” Tufts said. “He’s an encyclopedia of classic records, he knows everything about every record ever made. In his own work as well, he’s a bit more direct and to the point. So, I thought it was really cool to marry the meandering kind of expansiveness and experimental nature of Braids and what we do, with also that focus on directness and Chris Walla’s general vantage point. I think what came out of that was something that’s very unique and very, I think, special.”

That increased musical sharpness is also evident in Standell-Preston. Each record since Braids' debut has seen the singer become more precise and controlled with her voice, allowing the listener to delve into her words, which straddle a thin line between optimism and pessimism.  On “Snow Angel,” Shadow Offering’s nine-minute long centerpiece, Standell-Preston questions whether any individual set of actions can change an ever-more possible existential crisis.  But, Braids' lead singer doesn’t stay mired in that train of thought. Tracks such as “Snow Angel” and “Fear of Men” are balanced out by ones such as the beguiling “Eclipse (Ashley),” an ode to the vocalist’s best friend.  And on album closer “Note to Self,” the song ends with the simple edict, “One foot in front of the other / Then the other / That’s all.” Standell-Preston said that the dichotomy between hope and hopelessness found on the record is just a natural reflection of our ever-changing states of mind.

“This is not a profound statement in any way, but in a day or in one’s life, there's just a myriad of emotions that are occurring,” the artist explained. “I think to pigeonhole yourself into thinking that you can only write about one set of emotions, for fear of having it not stand on its own two feet, it’s kind of silly. I’m a being with a lot of different emotions, just as you’re a being with a lot of different emotions.

“On the day of writing ‘Snow Angel,’ it was a day of feeling very hopeless. And I think with writing ‘Note to Self,’ it was a day of trying to reckon with that hopelessness and trying to find solace in the fact that it is just one foot in front of the other sometimes, that we are going to be dished out very difficult situations. I think being human is both beautiful, but also very difficult.”

The COVID-19 pandemic dished out its own very difficult situation to Braids and all artists around the world: how to make money, now that live shows were prohibited in order to protect public health. While the band is lucky to have an established career to weather out the pandemic, it was just as immune as newer artists in having to reconsider its first principles. Tufts admitted the trio “have constant conversations about where are we all going personally, and where are we going as a band.”

“[The pandemic has] made me recontextualize my own relationship with music in more of a kind of pure art way,” the drummer explained.  “When the commerce is completely taken out of the equation, when it’s just like, ‘Oh, yeah, like, there's no money for art [laughs].’ Like, there's $0. So it's like, ‘Okay, what does this mean to me now,’ in that regard, you know, and recommitting to music as being valid just as an art piece, and not necessarily for commerce. ”

Smith added that with the absence of being able to play in front of fans, one of his main motivators around making music has had to adjust. “Being given the opportunity to write, it’s kind of like, all you have is today’s session, and [if] you’re not having fun or feeling good about it, there’s no point in delaying the gratification for later because who knows what that is? So, it’s brought us all, or at least particularly for me, very much the sense of presence and willingness to just prioritize the process over a bigger goal or something that you’re delaying into the future,” a statement his bandmates concur with.

It’s clear though that despite COVID-19 creating chaos wherever it spread, the members of Braids remain steadfastly committed to one another. After almost a decade and a half together, the constant that keeps the group going is their devotion to not only their chosen métier, but to each other.

“It’s like we’re family,” Standell-Preston said. “We do Braids Christmas [laughs], our parents know each other. We deeply, deeply care and love one another. It’s not just a band. It’s like a chosen family.”

Shadow Offering is out now (Secret City Records).

Alex Viger-Collins is the host of Ashes to Ashes, your home for modern pop in all its forms, every Tuesday at 8:00 PM EST.