Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dynamic Duo

Since meeting more than three years ago, the two members of Imaginary Cities have changed their relationship and changed their sound

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Boy walks into a bar. Boy meets girl. The rest of this narrative does not turn out the way you think.

The guy in question is Winnipeg musician Rusty Matyas, a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who's played in dozens of bands, co-fronting the Waking Eyes and serving as a sideman with the likes of the Weakerthans. In late 2009, the amiable Matyas was working as a sound man in The Cavern, the subterranean Osborne Village venue, when he heard an acquaintance belting out a Motown cover.

The woman was Marti Sarbit, a former Brandonite who had been singing most of her life but had never toured in a band or paid a visit to a recording studio. But her voice was so powerful, charismatic and compelling, Matyas immediately asked her to sing on a record.

"We had barely had any conversations before he talked to me, that one time. It was like, 'Oh, I'm making a Motown song. You sing Motown. You want to sing on this song?" recalls Sarbit of Matyas, now her close friend, surrogate brother and songwriting partner.

Sarbit and Matyas have spent the last three-and-a-half years writing, recording and performing together as Imaginary Cities, now one of Winnipeg's most well-known musical exports.

The duo's first album, Temporary Resident, made the longlist for the Polaris Prize, the Canadian music award curated by music critics, not the music industry. The debut had a number of great things going for it, including an unpretentious indie-pop sound, likable melodies and Sarbit's barely contained volcano of a voice.

But it also had a patchwork quality that stemmed from being cobbled together in bouts and fits of studio time, squeezed in between long stretches of the road, which included a prized slot as the opening act for the Pixies.

The followup, Fall of Romance, shows off what Matyas and Sarbit can do when given the time to stop, think, compose and rethink what they're doing, both as songwriting partners and arrangers.

"For the past few years, working on the first and only album I've been involved with, I learned a lot. Probably more than I even know," says Sarbit, 28, sitting elbow-to-elbow with the 32-year-old Matyas in a coffee shop blocks away from their respective south Winnipeg residences.

"I think this album encompasses everything we've learned together. I feel more confident in our sound. It's more clarified: Who we are and what our sound is."

Born in Brandon to a psychologist father and ESL-teaching mother, Sarbit debuted as a vocalist at the age of six, playing the title character in a school production of The Cat Came Back. After moving to Winnipeg, she sang in cover bands for fun.

Matyas, the Transcona-raised son of an aerospace worker and a secret shopper, has been immersed in music since his late teens. He was signed to a major label as a member of the Waking Eyes and wound up a wiser and more well-rounded songwriter and musician after the Steinbach-based rock band wound down.

He says he originally approached Sarbit for "purely selfish" reasons after hearing her remarkable voice. "I just wanted to have something on record that when I'm 80 I can say I got to make with somebody I really admired," he said.

In the symbiotic relationship that ensured, Sarbit benefitted from Matyas' experience. But the initial dynamic between the two musicians has changed.

No longer is Matyas playing the role of the older, more experienced mentor to the relatively green Sarbit. They're more like siblings who share the sort of open working relationship that allows them to swat around ideas and even squabble, when the creative process demands it.

"We are like brother and sister. We just let it out all at once and we're over it," says Matyas, who had the benefit of dealing with the complex interpersonal dynamics of larger rock bands before he began working with Sarbit. In a duo, it's simply that much easier to communicate -- and get things done.

"I enjoy being with a full band, but I'm enough of a control freak that I like this even more," he says. "There's fewer cooks in the kitchen and fewer egos to massage throughout the recording process."

Fall of Romance, which has a larger and more cinematic sound than Temporary Resident, was produced by veteran Canadian studio hand Howard Redekopp and features guest performances by members of Sloan, Mother Mother and The Sheepdogs.

Matyas' spouse, Savanna, also plays banjo on the quirky final song, Still Waiting So Cold (Hidden Song), a sort of musical Easter egg for Winnipeggers: the lyrics refer to a winter that will not end. Sooner or Later, meanwhile, employs a coffee grinder as an aural-texture instrument.

"There is no one sound on this record. There's a bit of a theme running through it, but there's different instrumentation on each song" says Matyas, eager to shed any trace of Motown label initially applied to Imaginary Cities. "I actually changed our Twitter bio today from 'five-piece pop soul group' to 'five-piece music band from Winnipeg.'"

The other three musicians are touring members. The core of the band remains Matyas and Sarbit, three-and-a-half years after they met at The Cavern.

"It started at that. We met and we just started making music for fun. We realized we liked making songs together," Sarbit says. "We got to know each other as friends and as people who would be spending 24/7 together."

Fall of Romance has a May 28 release date. Imaginary Cities performs next in Winnipeg on Canada Day, at The Forks.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 G1

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