From Typewriters to Tape: Leif Vollebekk on songwriting and surprises

In less than a decade, Montréal-based musician Leif Vollebekk has written, recorded, and released four albums; been on tour with artists like Gregory Alan Isakov and Half Moon Run; was a shortlisted finalist for the 2017 Polaris Music Prize; and was awarded the 2018 Juno Award for Adult Alternative Album of the Year.

Vollebekk released his latest album, New Ways, on Nov. 1.

Critics and listeners alike praise him for his ability to craft incredible songs, though Vollebekk knows his creative process begins long before he picks up an instrument.

“I just live my life. And if I get better at living my life, then I make better music.”

Distractions like the internet and small talk can swallow a song whole before it has the chance to surface, so when Vollebekk wakes up in the morning and feels a song coming, he tries not to talk to anyone or look at his phone before going to “the office” — otherwise known as his piano. He prioritizes living creatively in tune, because to him, songwriting is all about discovery.

“It seems to be that the songs I keep are the ones that are already written,” Vollebekk said. “I just use lines that make me go, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never heard that before. What’s that about?’”

Vollebekk’s lyrical openness is informed by authors like Ernest Hemmingway and Jack Kerouac as well as musician Bob Dylan, all known for allowing surprises and spontaneity into their work. Vollebekk doesn’t stray far from his heroes’ creative mediums either, as he records everything on tape and writes out his songs with a typewriter.

“I have trouble not recording on tape,” he said. “There are so many reasons why, it’s kind of like asking someone why they wear pants, you know? I guess it’s like, ‘Gosh, where do I begin?’ You’re just not ready to answer it.”

Besides its natural sonic warmth and vocal saturation, Vollebekk records on tape because it doesn’t require a computer screen in the studio.

“If you’re ever in a recording studio and there’s a computer screen on, you’ll see that everyone just looks at the screen while they’re listening back to the music.”

This completely changes how the music is received. When people watch the recording on a computer while they’re listening to it, they see the soundwaves and begin to anticipate the song’s dynamics before they hear them. Vollebekk writes his songs on a typewriter for the same reason.

“A typewriter is a great democratic friend that makes all the words even, and every letter takes up the same amount of space, so you see the words weighing on the page properly.”

His songs aren’t all about the medium, however. Vollebekk has a song titled Michigan, which he wrote from start to finish before driving through the state on his way home to Montréal from a gig in Pennsylvania. The lyrics are all about how he’s never been to the state before, but in reality, he actually has driven through and visited multiple times since he was a kid.

The words came to him, so he wrote them. But in the end, he didn’t want to lie. Vollebekk curves the meaning of the song with one final phrase: There’s a chance, maybe one in 10, that I’ve never been, never been to Michigan.

“It’s always good for a song to be turned on its head at the end.”

While he can explain his general approach, Vollebekk doesn’t like to talk about the songwriting process with certainty. His approach to it has changed quite a bit since his early 20s and still remains elusive.

“Younger me thought that he needed an acoustic guitar and a harmonica to write a song,” Vollebekk said. “It was a lot of looking for validation elsewhere. It never really existed. It’s actually hard to think about, because I don’t really realize what that guy was doing.”

When Vollebekk quit taking part in a “weird songwriting competition that doesn’t exist” and released himself from the pressure to imitate other artists, he loosened up and experienced less writer’s block. This was especially evident when he was working on his latest album, New Ways.

“A lot of the songs that are on this record were written more or less in the one-shot-one-swing approach, and they kind of have a life of their own,” Vollebekk said. “The more fun I have, the more the music seems to work.”

Throughout his four records and during his live performances, Vollebekk’s music remains an open, inquisitive space of exploration and spontaneity. Songwriting is more than just a craft, feeling or formula for Vollebekk: It’s an extension of a life well-lived.

“When a song comes, honestly it has to do more with if you’re living your life correctly or truly. Because if you are, the song comes and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready for you. I’m ready for the truth. I’m ready for whatever you have to say deep inside of me.’”


Leif Vollebekk
Listening Room
123 Ionia Ave. SW, Grand Rapids
Dec. 4, 7:30 p.m., $19