Bright, sunny pop compositions provided Canadian pop-rock duo Wild Strawberries with their greatest success in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Their luminous pop songs, “Life-Sized Marilyn Monroe,” “Heroine” and “I Don’t Want to Think About It” kept fans hooked to their radios and brought Ken and Roberta Harrison to the upper-echelons of the airplay charts.
Notably, Ken and Roberta were high school sweethearts who married, formed a band in university, and found their songs taking off unexpectedly. Over the past 20-plus years, Popjournalism has followed Ken and Roberta through commercial success, touring with a burgeoning family, breaking up with music labels and moving out of the big city and into a quieter rural life in southern Ontario.
Their latest evolution can be heard in the new album, Vesper 50, a contemplative record fitting for a duo who has chosen to eschew the spotlight in favour of real life. You know, building up the homestead, raising four kids and occasionally taking time to breathe the fresh, country air. Vesper 50 sounds like an album built within that lifestyle, with quieter pop moments (like “Five for Good Intentions”) and long instrumental breaks (“Xerotic”), which all take a bit more digging to work their way into your ear than previous works.
It’s worth the journey, however — and we wondered what journey Ken and Roberta were on while creating it. We caught up with both and they reveal details behind the making of Vesper 50.
Really happy to be in touch again, Ken and Roberta. Let’s start off with the title: Vesper 50. Can you explain the inspiration and meaning behind it?
KenGreat to chat with you again, Rob. In thinking of this record, we were aiming for more of a contemplative approach, both sonically and lyrically. I often find myself at the mixing stage with too many ideas to sift through and often find that a good idea gets buried by another idea. This time we were quite intentional about limiting the palette. I’d originally thought it would be just piano and voice but ended up slipping some other supporting instruments [in the mix]. The title came along after listening to the songs and thinking that it all had a very evensong or vesper quality. I wrote it around my 50th year and Roberta sang it in her 50th year so it seemed to be a good number to attach to it. I also like that it suggests there may be others in the series, like selections in a hymn book.
Vesper 50 is a significant departure for Wild Strawberries. It’s low-key and more interested in mood than pop hooks — which is particularly evident in tracks like “Queue” and “Xerotic.” What inspired this sonic change-of-course?
KenWe hate to repeat ourselves and I’m glad you picked up on the shift. The shift was intentional, and comes from a place of hoping that each element in the mix would contribute, and not pull the ear from another idea. Digital recording often ends up with delayed decision making as to what makes it into the mix. This time, we tried to limit the palette to only a few instruments. Roberta has such a rich voice; it always seems a shame to hear it competing with noisy guitars and bleeps and bloops. The titles for “Queue” and “Xerotic” come mostly from my realization that our catalogue has left a few letters in the alphabet out — although I think they ended up filling into their names nicely.
Roberta, when we spoke last year as the album was being created, you mentioned your enthusiasm for Vesper 50‘s low-key, introspective vibe. Creatively, do you think the Strawberries needed to go there?
RobertaYes. I know it probably sounds a bit vain to admit I enjoy listening to one of our own creations, but Vesper 50 has really resonated with me sonically and lyrically. I’m proud of all the music we’ve recorded and performed over the years, but this one seems to really fit where I’m at right now. There were a lot of harmony ideas we purposefully jettisoned this time in order to keep the album spare and haunting. Sometimes when I’m all alone, I can be caught singing some of those ideas with abandon.
What are your thoughts on the new Strawberries sound?
RobertaFrom the time we started recording albums, we’ve never wanted to repeat ourselves. We’ve always wanted to take a slight turn or twist. It keeps us interested and excited. A Flannery O’Connor character states that she never wants to see herself coming and going. It’s a bit like that with us, musically, I think. We would hate to put out an album we’d already released or an album that’s derivative of everything else out there at the time — much to the chagrin of the record industry. I think Vesper 50 is just a slightly more heightened example of that. For the first time, other than mastering, the album is just Ken and I from start to finish. That seemed to be what this group of songs called for. But who knows about the next release? It might require something totally different!
For many years now, both you and Roberta have been long-distance singers-and-songwriters-for-hire in the European EDM scene. What has that experience been like for you as creatives? The good and the bad?
KenHa! Mostly good. But one could argue that this record is a direct response to that experience — much like one would step outside a club and be amazed by the surrounding ambiance, sans tinnitus. As a lyricist, this record has been very freeing for me. The verse-chorus-bridge pop structure has been a useful discipline, but can be limiting. The song “Vesper 50” is a good example. My impulse was to repeat what I was hearing as the chorus, the “where did all the bright lights go” section. It was liberating to realize, hey, we’ve already said that, let’s move on to a new idea. In this sense, the form is reflexive of the content. To me, one of the themes of the record is coming to terms with our transience on this planet. I was reading a poet named Jan Zwicky at the time, specifically her book Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, and was struck by the beautiful and accepting way she documents her own transience:
are ambassadors from the republic of silence.
They are the name of that moment when you realize
clearly, for the first time,
you will die. After illness,
the first startled breath.
That’s very haunting, but beautiful. Looking back, the first of our many interviews was in 1996, near the release of your album, Heroine. Over those years, we’ve done interviews as you’ve both evolved. Is where you both are today with Vesper 50 where you want to be in life, and as artists?
RobertaI can honestly say that it is. When we were younger and in the thick of things I probably wouldn’t have said no to greater exposure and commercial success. It would be pretty awesome to just write and record music all the time with the occasional tour thrown in for good measure rather than working a day job to pay the bills and support the habit. But I wouldn’t change how things have turned out. We’ve been able to raise four, in my opinion, amazing human beings largely out of the spotlight while still writing and recording our songs the way we hear them in our heads. Obviously, without a parallel universe I can’t say for sure that rock stardom wouldn’t have ultimately been the better scenario, but I can say that I wouldn’t change the life we’ve built with our family for anything.
With all this introspection, I’m leading towards the need for a Wild Strawberries best-of. Any chance that would happen? It’s officially the 10th release and there’s still no proper compilation yet.
KenPerhaps a “Greatest Misses” package? I’d put my vote in for “32” from Quiver. A couple years back, we started re-recording our Heroine and Quiver records as some time had passed and we wondered about fresh takes on those records. So, we’re not ruling it out. Right now, we’re really excited about our next record. After [German drummer] Jaki Liebezeit’s passing this year, we’ve been digging back into the catalogue for inspiration. If Vesper 50 is about space, the next one seems to be about polyrhythms. There is nothing more satisfying than playing an over the bar riff!
You’ve also joked about re-recording or releasing songs — both released and rejected — from your EDM commissions. Deformative Years‘ re-takes on “No Way to Break My Heart” and “I Don’t Want to Stop” were a revelation, for instance.
RobertaOh, man, that would be a blast. That was a big part of our musical life for a number of years when the kids were really young, and it’s a part of our back catalogue that a lot of people don’t know exists. Writing and recording for EDM DJs was a great way to still be active in the studio with minimal commitments to “working” a record. I’m not actually a big fan of EDM, but I think the melodies and lyrics we wrote for most of those releases could be beautiful tracks in other forms too. So, we’re definitely open to the idea. It will be a matter of stopping production on brand new stuff to take the time to go back at some of those other tracks — that’s always the problem. We always want to keep moving forward.
About the Author
Robert Ballantyne is Popjournalism's Editor-in-Chief. Previously, he was a producer at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star and other media outlets. In addition to leading the Popjournalism team of writers, he built and designed its website.