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Alvvays: An East Coast State Of Mind

The acclaimed indie rock band return to the spotlight after five years with a heavier sound, a new lineup, and a lyrical focus on Maritime culture. 

by Ben Boddez

Photos by Norman Wong

Alvvays didn’t intend to have anywhere close to a five-year gap in between albums. The Maritimes-based pop-rock outfit’s 2017 album, Antisocialites, appeared on year-end lists from all over the globe, racking up Juno and Polaris nominations and rapidly expanding the band’s profile, so naturally they tried to capitalize on the newfound attention immediately. 

The band got back in the studio, but the theft of a recorder containing demos, a flooded house taking out equipment, a pandemic keeping members apart, and a change in personnel as their original drummer and bassist departed the group understandably delayed things.

Frontwoman Molly Rankin often describes her outlook as melancholic – it’s something that’s certainly contributed to her poetic songwriting style – but being able to find the motivation to pick herself up and focus on the positives when things get rough has followed her throughout her entire life. Connecting with RANGE from a hotel in Manchester, England after the second show of a continent-hopping tour, being back on the grind is lightened up by poking fun at her new American bandmate, bassist Abbey Blackwell.

“It’s possible I romanticized touring a little bit too much.”

“It’s possible I romanticized touring a little bit too much,” Rankin says. “No, it’s good. It’s the first time for a couple of people within our touring group, so we’re all having fun watching Abbey try to cross the street while understanding which direction the cars are coming from.”

Rankin comes across as an experienced global traveller now, but she grew up on the secluded Cape Breton Island at the northernmost tip of Nova Scotia. With not much else to do, Rankin says that musical families were common on the island, but not many cemented themselves into Canadian folklore like hers; her father was John Morris Rankin, who played fiddle for The Rankin Family and instilled a love for Celtic music into Molly at a young age. Her father tragically passed away in a car accident when she was only 12, but she continued to master his instrument. “I grew up really quickly because my life was very chaotic when I was young,” she says. “So, when bad things happen, I know that life goes on. There’s really no choice to sit around and mope.”

Despite Rankin’s Celtic roots, her band’s sound couldn’t be more different. Their earlier works were often described as “jangle pop,” a subgenre of pop-rock combining treble-heavy guitars and 60s-inspired pop melodies popularized by some of Rankin’s favourite bands like Teenage Fanclub, Camera Obscura and The Strokes, who they opened up for on their latest tour.


Alvvays – Blue Rev (2022)

Rankin credits Alvvays guitarist Alec O’Hanley for kickstarting her new musical direction by introducing her to Teenage Fanclub years before they would form a band together. Their new album, Blue Rev, turns up the distortion and juxtaposes Rankin’s crisp vocals and sweet melodies with a wall of heavier guitars for the first time, something they’ve been experimenting with in their live sets for a couple years. She met keyboardist Kerri MacLellan even earlier – the two were next-door neighbours, and attended kindergarten together.

“I’m not sure if we were friends by choice, we were the babies of each family that lived on our dirt road, so we were basically what was left over. We have a treasure trove of hilarious photographs of us doing all sorts of ridiculous things with our dolls,” she says. “Both of our families were heavily into Celtic music, so we were spending a lot of our childhood going to square dances and dancing with elderly people – we spent years playing the fiddle alongside each other.”

Eventually, the two moved to Toronto, Rankin booked a solo gig at SXSW and convinced her friend to accompany her on the keyboard, from which a lasting musical partnership was born. With their new project, however, the band’s typical flair for the vintage took a bit more of a personal turn, Rankin wanting to infuse their themes of the fleeting beauty of youthfulness with some Nova Scotian specificity. She’s always described the striking cliffs as an inspiration, and the album’s title takes its name from a vodka soda cooler that she calls “the taste of my youth.”

“It’s a drink that was handed around in the graveyards before teen dances. It was generally warm, the flavour was blue, and that’s all we could get our hands on, I guess,” she says. “I think the culture of having a dance in a melted ice rink is fairly unique as well.”

“I think the culture of having a dance in a melted ice rink is fairly unique as well.”

From putting out their debut project on cassette tapes to a celebrated video for 2017 single “Dreams Tonite” that found the band inserting themselves into archival footage from Montreal’s Expo 67, a retro kick has always been part of the band’s oeuvre. For narratives surrounding Rankin’s childhood, that means taking things back to the vibrant hues and 8-bit aesthetics of the 1990s.

“There is so much charm to be gleaned from the past, whether that’s colour palettes or the way that film looks,” she says. “I think it’s exciting to not be linked to any era, to just have this indeterminate time. You’re not tethered to a scene or a trend. I’m really just trying to make something beautiful, and that could be a melody, a poster, or whatever. I just like colour too, and a lot of things these days just look like gray Lego assembled.”

The video for their latest single “Belinda Says” even gives a shoutout to Canadian music video mecca MuchMusic, which Rankin says she watched religiously before school. Lyrically, the single focuses on a narrator panicking about an unexpected pregnancy, seemingly addressing the climate of post-Roe America. The horrors of our modern world are another reason why Rankin enjoys looking to the past – a quote from a 2018 interview where Rankin said “The future is pretty bleak. Going backward can be comforting” seems oddly prophetic to this album’s fascination with home’s familiarity.

“Knowing what we know now, I don’t know what I was complaining about,” she says.

While some details that couldn’t come from anyone but a Cape Breton native make it into the album, “Belinda Says” also continues Rankin’s focus on character work, rather than getting explicitly personal. Her lyrics seem deep, cryptic, and allusive, and their fans love to draw connections and come up with theories online as a result. The fact that they’re often off-base just speaks to how well-written her songs are – they’d have to be, to inspire such creative discussions. Rankin is often reluctant to reveal the truth because she finds the theories so entertaining.

“Sometimes people ask me these questions about the depth of something and they’ve gone so much further than I was going, it almost makes me feel bad,” she says. “But that’s the cool part of music, everyone taking their own little meanings. I don’t feel like I’m that interesting and I feel like my life is a little mundane, so becoming a character has been a way for me to explore different universes, creating little books and films in my spare time.”

Alvvays’ new sound might take a little time for some fans to get used to after breaking out onto the scene with dreamier soundscapes, but Rankin says that a third album is always a good time for a band to push themselves out of the comfort zone – and rest assured, her perfectionist tendencies, five-year gestation period, and ear for the sweetest of melodies that still bubble up underneath make it just as worthwhile.

“I just really didn’t feel bound by any type of template, and I just wanted to challenge myself and strive for something more,” she says. “I’m very hard on myself, and I’m picky with melodies, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Ideally, things would come out more quickly, but I’ve never put anything out that I felt like I didn’t do everything I could to make it exactly how we wanted it.”