In 1985, iconic Margaret Atwood penned one of her most influential works to date, The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a dystopian future where Christian theocracy has overthrown the government. The novel deals with segregation based on gender, race, and class, but specifically focuses on women, envisioning a society where feminism has been reversed, and females are stripped of their basic human rights.
Some 26 years later, Jake Smith, frontman of Montreal’s Lakes of Canada, was rummaging through his mother’s bookshelf when he stumbled upon the novel in unfortunately tragic circumstances. A year earlier, Kathleen Smith was murdered in her home, and it had fallen upon her son to tidy up her belongings.
Smith, mesmerized by the book’s themes, could not put it down. Its inspiration led him to write one song after another until it became apparent that he had enough material for a concept album. The result is Transgressions, Lakes of Canada’s sophomore effort, a record that is quintessentially Canadian.
“I’ve always been a big fan of speculative fiction,” Smith tells The CJN, “and given that it centres around women, the book spoke to me, because I was still reeling from a violent act toward my mother.”
According to Smith, he and his mother were “probably more close than most children are with their parents.” Though he describes his upbringing as culturally Jewish at most (he did meet fellow co-founder Conor O’Neil in synagogue), it was after his mother’s death that he really connected with religion.
“I think one thing Judaism does really well is mourning, as it’s quite the opposite of moving on. Someone died, so you’re going to pray for them and spend time with family, and I observed all of that. I found it really helped me connect not only with the memory of my mother but with my faith.”
Smith then recalls a time when his rabbi asked if he believed in God. “Not exactly,” he replied, “but I do believe in love and family and connection,” to which the rabbi replied, “that’s great.” Smith appreciated that his rabbi didn’t push religion on him, just as long as he was asking questions and had some kind of faith. “People have to discover faith on their own,” he says. “It’s a lot stronger that way.”
While Lakes of Canada described their debut as “a cross between Fleet Foxes and Simon and Garfunkel,” Transgressions, out next week, is anything but. Smith explains that the shift was something they wanted to do, but also necessary to record their new album. “We felt we had to pay sonic tribute to the subject matter, and started to incorporate all these different elements,” he explains. “We listened to a lot of religious music, and a lot of gospel while recording.”
Naturally, writing a concept album is an entirely different affair than penning your standard LP. “I find that concept albums are more cohesive, more interesting. There’s been a trend as we live in the age of singles that has been moving away from that. But when you’re trying to write a cohesive piece, it becomes easier because you can transition better. It just flows.”
During the process of writing and recording Transgressions, the band reached out to Atwood, to let her know that they sought to introduce The Handmaid’s Tale to a new generation.
“She was really encouraging. We’re going to send her the record next week, which I’m both excited and terrified of doing. Her opinion of the record is more important to me than pretty much everyone else’s.”
In explaining Transgressions to Atwood, the band called it “fan fiction” as there are aspects of the record directly lifted from the book. But the album also continues the story after it ends. “We have songs about what happens after Gilead [the military dictatorship formed within the United States where the novel is set],” Smith says.
The band also re-orchestrated the entire album as an acoustic version, which will be released with an accompanying documentary later this winter. “There’s a fundraiser we did for a local women’s shelter that will tie in with the release of that, and we’ll be donating a portion of sales to the shelter as well.”