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Villages: A Life Worth Living

The Cape Breton indie-folk quartet drops an uplifting album about the acceptance of death.

by Stephan Boissonneault 

Photo by Matt Horseman

If you’re from Cape Breton, there are two conditions ingrained in the very fibre of your being—a deep respect and attraction to traditional Celtic folk music, and an optimistic acceptance of death. These two characterizations make up many of the themes on Dark Island, the new album from Villages, a Cape Breton quartet that harmoniously blends traditional Maritime folk with modern indie rock sensibilities.

The album is beautifully lush, sounding a bit like Simon & Garfunkel married with My Morning Jacket. Though there are many dark undertones and lyrical references to the inevitability of death, Dark Island remains quite cheerful.

“It could be a beautiful day and some great music could come on, and it’s not uncommon for someone to say ‘What a great tune, I want this to play at my funeral,’” says vocalist and guitarist Matt Ellis from his home in Whites Lake, Nova Scotia. “Cape Bretoners are super morbid. We see the beauty in life, but you can’t forget that we’re all going to die.” 

Together with his band, Ellis uses the concept of the Dark Island, a traditional fiddle tune usually heard at island funerals, to touch on the thoughts running through someone’s mind near the end of their life; love cherished, love lost, the beauty of the wilderness, the warmth from your mother, things like that.

“The idea came from a poem that was written to the tune in the 60s and it’s basically about what you will miss from your home when you’re on your deathbed,” he says. “What will last for you?”

One song that Ellis wrote is called “Play The Fiddle All Night,” a boisterous track that is perhaps the project’s most Celtic-tinged and sounds like a classic East Coast Kitchen Party jam, but lyrically recounts  his spirit wandering the John Neil George Road, a place known for supernatural occurrences. 

“My grandmother lived there, on the left was a cemetery and on the right was the John Neil George Road. So there is a set of tracks there where people have seen the devil and floating orbs in abandoned houses. So the song says ‘If I die, and you see me on the John Neil George Road, play for me the Dark Island,’” Ellis says.

At its heart, Dark Island is a celebratory album, recorded live-off-the-floor by JUNO-winning producer, composer and soundscapist Joshua Van Tassel (David Myles, Great Lake Swimmers, Fortunate Ones) to really hone in on that uplifting live performance. It’s a hope in the darkness, recorded during a very confusing time in human history. Ellis himself grabbed a job in the Intensive Care Unit to make ends meet after all touring possibilities were halted. 

“That’s where many of the lyrics for me come from. It was kind of a wake up call, with people always saying ‘Shit’s not great,’ and then you see people in the ICU and it’s like ‘Get over yourself,’” he says. “Sure, there’s death and it’s a comin,’ but we’re living right now. We have to find hope. I guess as a musician, I’m addicted to hope.”