After Jake Smith's mother was murdered in her home six years ago it fell to him to sort through her possessions, which included a large library of books. In the process he found Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale, which his mother had been trying to get him to read for years. It was as good a time as any to start.
The dystopian novel about what might happen in a Canterbury tale told by a handmaid from a totalitarian theocracy in the not-too-distant future resonated with the grief and rage Jake felt at his mother's death. Soon after was born Lakes of Canada, a Montreal-based band of music masters inspired by a rich buffet of gospel, soul, folk, prog-rock, and serious literature.
As time went by Smith, the band's songwriter and lead singer, wrote a song based on the novel, then another song, and then another. Fellow band members suggested they make a whole album as a creative response to the book, and so in October 2015, they released the album Transgressions.
One year later, Lakes of Canada followed with Transgressions Acoustic, a live acoustic version. To both projects, Lakes of Canada bring their passionate, peace-anthem sound and strong harmonies that hark back to the early ’60s folk movements and more experimental psychedelic rock that came later. Yet, all of it manages to sound startlingly new.
Knowing the album's background adds to the poignancy. Lines like the following from the track “The Handmaid's Tale 1” tremble with the pain of injustice, especially the oppression of women: “Under his eye/ Upon the wall/ She’ll fear to die/She’ll long to fall.”
The nine tracks of Transgressions Acoustic run through the story arch with an authentic, folky charm of an unplugged performance and the tenderness you'd expect of a work inspired by loss and informed by meaningful fiction. But the songs are anything but namby-pamby; “The Sons of Gilead,” for example, is an impassioned warning cry against the forces of patriarchal tyranny, forces that have threatened creation since opening day.
The music impresses further thanks to the musical pedigree of the band’s members, particularly Tim Dobby, who now teaches guitar at McGill University, and Caroline Cameron, a session bassist for over fifteen years.
Knowing the album's background adds to the poignancy.
Jake Smith and Conor O'Neil recently sang and arranged choral music on the late Leonard Cohen's final album, You Want it Darker. Cohen had wanted some choral music from his childhood synagogue, the Shaar Hashomayim—which Smith and O’Neil sang in—so he approached the director, who recommended Smith as the best person to arrange and direct the singing for the track.
How did Margaret Atwood feel about it?
“We actually asked her permission before we recorded the album,” Smith explains. “We sent her demos, lyric sheets, and extensive info about what we were doing. She responded very kindly and said, ‘That’s totally lovely. Feel free to use names and places.’ We even met her while we were recording and asked her if she remembered us. She said, ‘Yes I do. Now when am I getting my record?’”