Plumes is one of those bands that defies categorization, as its classically trained artists make music that is suited for both concert halls and nightclubs.
Its cross-genre cred is on display on its first western Canadian tour, which kicks off in Saskatoon May 24 at the Ritornello Chamber Music Festival with a recital concert featuring classical numbers from Bartok, Luciano Berio and Arvo Part.
The following night, the Montreal-based ensemble heads to a club, where it will don its indie pop persona, centred around the compelling vocals of Veronica Charnley.
Then Plumes head to The CYRK for their Winnipeg debut with opening act French Press on May 28. Anyone entering the Young Street private arts salon will immediately be curious at the lineup of onstage instruments, which includes Eveline Gregoire-Rousseau's harp and Louise Campbell's bass clarinet. Charnley's husband, bassist/keyboard player Geof Holbrook, promises audience members will even want to watch percussionist Preston Beebe set up his drum kit, which comes in a single suitcase -- the cymbals attach to the suitcase, which also acts as the bass drum.
"The harp is like the lead guitar," says Holbrook over the phone from Montreal. "That makes our sound more ethereal. You don't have screaming solos, although I guess we could try to do that with a distortion pedal.
"There's more freedom with all these strings and serves more possibilities. We don't fall into the same patterns, so you get different types of music."
The Ottawa-born Charnley and Holbrook, originally from Guelph, began performing in a band called Flotilla in 2004 and released a debut album, Disaster Poetry, in 2006, followed by One Hundred Words for Water in 2009. The group's indie rock was driven by harp player Gregoire-Rousseau, who followed Charnley and Holbrook when they morphed into Plumes.
"I thought the third album needed stringed quartets and orchestral instrumentals," says Holbrooke, a classical composition graduate from Columbia University in New York. "We had that one piece with orchestra because I couldn't imagine doing that song any other way. So we re-branded as a different kind of band. Now it feels really natural. I just wish we had done it before."
Last July they released Plumes' first self-titled album. It earned positive reviews, setting the band up as an act to watch for the musically adventuresome unsatisfied with what they hear on the radio. One critic called their sound "a glorious crossover of classical music grace and indie-pop catchiness."
The unique sonic palette of Plumes means they have few role models to offer either guidance or direction. One of the few is the unconventional New York-based outfit Clogs, admired for its mix of classical and modern musical elements wrapped up in chamber folk.
"We are always trying to keep our eye out for groups that do the same thing," Holbrook says. "I really love what Clogs do. They are going for something similar with a bassoon player, and collaborate with a lot of classical musicians."
While all the musicians are involved in various side-projects -- including Gregoire-Rousseau, who is the substitute harpist for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra -- Charnley is the only member without classical training. She studied creative writing at Montreal's Concordia University and pens all the lyrics. Much of the Plumes album features her appealing art songs wrapped in classical instrumental. The two worlds co-exist seamlessly, she says.
"I don't feel there is any tension," says Charnley, who counts Bjrk as one of her main influences. "I feel I have the same taste as Geof, even though I don't have the training in contemporary classic music. We tend to always agree on what pieces are good, whether they are pop or classical."
If there is any all-encompassing theme to the Plumes album, it would be the search for intimacy, whether it's looking for private space in the big city, as in Phonebooth, or for a paramour, as in Messy Love. The latter is Charnley's emotional response to the story of her aunt, who left a bad marriage after many years.
Charnley and Holbrook have been moving around in recent years and are just back from Paris after a stint in NYC. She is not sure where they are based anymore -- a feeling that is reflected in the song Away From Home. Where they will settle next is up for debate.
"I'm almost looking at this tour with the possibility that I might want to live in one of these places," she says. "I've never been out west, so it's like a real estate tour."