Laura Peek and The Winning Hearts' first full-length album, From the Photographs, took almost two years to complete, but as the saying goes, it's worth the wait: charming, smart, beautifully orchestrated, the kitten-loving, piano-pop singer's debut is a delight.
Accompanying other Just Friends label outfits such as Brent Randall & His Pinecones, playing a five-buck keyboard for Le Coque et les Phoques and touring last summer as a hired gun for Buck 65's band—it's a small miracle this album will be released on April 26. Over coffee at One World Cafe, Peek says she doesn't regret any of her musical diversions. "With The Maughams"—where Peek got her Halifax musical start— "I got to sing really nice harmonies and The Sweet Tenders is fun, I get to dance on stage. Le Coque et les Phoques, I get to write really ridiculous lyrics. It's all helpful. Maybe not in obvious ways but it all helps me as a musician."
Recorded by Charles Austin, backed by Winning Hearts Dave Ewenson (percussion) and Joel Goguen (bass), with help from Brian O'Reilly and Claire Gallant, Peek, a fan since high school, asked Mike O'Neill to produce.
"I never had a producer before and he was my first choice," she says. "It was great to work with him—he wasn't intrusive or tried to change the lyrics, just make the best recording of the song that we could. Lots of pep talks before vocal takes, he'd give me a hug and tell me what I needed to focus on for each song."
While the songs rise and descend in surprising and powerful arrangements, Peek's skilled piano and sweet voice remain the focus. "It's really a self-produced album," says O'Neill, a first-time producer who describes himself as a supportive golf caddy. "Sometimes she'd have a melody line that only made one appearance in a song so I'd suggest we put in again. Sometimes I'd say, "We need something extra here,' so she would go and write out a deadly new part on the piano and we'd overdub it, or she would translate it for someone to play on a different instrument. Her songs are so good that you can't stop them."
Peek composes music before lyrics. She writes about books, family, daily observations.
"Dave Ewenson says that a lot of songs are about dead people," Peek says, laughing. "They are dark, but I don't really think about it in that way. Maybe lyrically, but the songs are pretty poppy."
Her juxtaposition of sharp words and sweet melodies has the gothic sensibility of an Edward Gorey drawing. Eccentric characters with doomed futures dance, fight and sing through salons, typing schools and bohemian parties. In "Oh Lenny," an unsympathetic landlord observes the world from the attic window. "Vermont" laments a vacation with an unrequited childhood love: "I thought for the first time I'd get my foot through your screen door."
Peek says she tries to write playful lyrics. "I'm very self-conscious about being too earnest because there's some weird baggage about being a female singer-songwriter. I'd rather have fun with it, still say what I want to say, but not take myself too seriously."
Sadly still a dinosaur, gender matters in the image-obsessed music industry.
"Someone might see "woman singer-songwriter with piano' and think Tori Amos or Kate Bush," says O'Neill. "But this is more like Laura Peek plus piano equals Elvis Costello or Kurt Cobain. Seriously." Peek understands, but wishes she was judged differently. "If I am going to be compared to someone it would be on types of songs, the melodies or the arrangements." As music director for CKDU, she receives tonnes of CDs wrapped in marketing one-sheets. "A lot of "Sounds like Feist!.' It doesn't happen with male musicians as much, but it seems like there can only be one hot female vocal at a time, and everyone's looking for the next Feist or Amy Winehouse."
While Winehouse sports flying eyeliner, Peek swings more towards vintage uniform. Before each show, the band confers to decide what to wear. But she's most concerned about the music and admits to being a little nervous about response to From the Photographs. "As long as people treat the songs as real songs, and not pretty fluff," she says. "I'm really pleased with how simple the album is—I think we made good choices."
Laura Peek CD release w/ Mike O’Neill, The Just Barelys and Fall Horsie, April 26 at the North Street Church, 5657 North, 7pm