The last time Montreal-based indie-rockers Half Moon Run came through town it was to fill a late-night headlining spot in the Winnipeg Folk Festival’s Saturday main stage lineup this past July. It was a particularly toasty day, hovering around 30 C for most of the afternoon and into the evening, quite a stark difference from the -16 C that is expected to welcome them this week as they bring their music back to town, this time at the Burton Cummings Theatre.
In the six months since their last visit, Half Moon Run released their third full-length record, A Blemish in the Great Light, a tight set of 10 tracks that carry a certain effortlessness in their earwormy hooks and melodies but also a complexity in the layered sonic landscape as a whole.
Though the album was released Nov. 1, Half Moon Run has been road testing the tracks for ages, allowing audience feedback and the element of live performance to help guide the direction of the songs.
"It’s hugely important," says singer and guitarist Devon Portielje, 33, of playing the songs live prior to finishing the record.
"I would say that it’s essential, but as you play to bigger and bigger audiences it’s hard to play unreleased material early on because sometimes it’s pretty rough," he says.
"We were playing little secret shows in 2018 in Toronto, Quebec City and Montreal just to get a feeling, like 200-300 people… of how the songs would go over. Because, all of a sudden after playing the song 100 times in the safety and sanctity of your own jam space, you finally have some level of objectivity about how the song is working, and right away you know, ‘This part is too long.’ I’ll be in the middle of playing it and I can tell it’s too long, even after playing it 100 times. It’s really informative."
Half Moon Run
● Jan. 21, 8 p.m.
● Burton Cummings Theatre
● Tickets $36.75-$53.25 at Ticketmaster
A trip to a department store also unexpectedly influenced the overall sound of A Blemish in the Great Light. Portielje was in a store, passively listening to the music humming over the sound system when he noticed the music had turned off. When it came back on, he noticed it was his own band’s song, from their second record, but the volume was so low it had "dipped to the point it was almost imperceptible."
"I realized we must try to pull back the curtain and be more present in terms of the actual sonic quality, so that’s what I was aspiring to do," he says.
"But in terms of one song leading the way on the album, we went in with 20, and it’s important to go in without too much of an intention because I don’t want to be like, ‘Let’s make a dark dance-pop album.’ I’ve never gone into that kind of thing, it’s not that interesting to me to do it that way. I’d rather just go in and see what feels good and follow that feeling," he says.
Those who head to the Burt Monday night will see a familiar face on stage opening for Half Moon Run — local singer-songwriter Taylor Janzen.
In November, Janzen was signed to Glassnote records in the U.S. — the same label as Half Moon Run — and immediately released a single, What I Do, a track about “being in a serious relationship and suddenly realizing that your issues are affecting someone else for the first time, and not entirely knowing how to change that,” she said in a news release.
The 20-year-old will join her labelmates for 10 dates of their tour before hitting the road again as one of the recently announced headliners for SiriusXM's Advanced Placement tour, which kicks off at the end of March, alongside other indie up-and-comers Beabadoobee from the U.K. and Australia’s Eliza & the Delusionals.
Though no official announcement has been made, Janzen is expected to release a new album later in 2020.
Part of that process, though, is keeping those creative juices flowing so the option is there to take or leave ideas that come organically. For Portielje, remaining an eternal student of music — "I think all of the luminaries of any field really are lifelong learners," he says — and implementing various levels of strictness in terms of his work and life schedules are tactics used to stay motivated to create during what can feel like an endless (and sometimes energy-sucking) cycle of recording and touring.
"It’s hard, honestly, but I keep learning all the time. I tried meditating and going on a heavily rigidized schedule or conversely no schedule at all and I think I’m about to embrace the no schedule at all and actively do nothing, because sometimes when you do nothing and totally release control of your own life, creativity arises outside of a schedule I’m starting to think," says Portielje.
"Unfortunately, the rest of your life suffers," he says, laughing.
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.