La Force is the solo project of Canadian singer-songwriter Ariel Engle, who was born in Montreal and came up in the indie scene of the city’s Mile End neighborhoood, collaborating with everyone from Plants and Animals and the guitarist Sam Shalabi. With her husband, Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman, she would eventually form the duo AroarA, and made her studio debut on Broken Social Scene’s 2017 LP Hug of Thunder. In 2018, she released her self-titled debut album as La Force, which was longlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. In between making appearances on the most recent records by Big Red Machine and Patrick Watson, Engle worked on her sophomore full-length, XO SKELETON, which came out on Friday – just months after her latest album as part of ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT, her collaboration with Godspeed You! Black Emperor founder Efrim Manuel Menuck. Co-produced with Warren Spicer, XO SKELETON is a gorgeously contemplative record that’s haunted by the weight and complexity of its subject matter – death, memory, planetary orbits – but steadies its gaze on the ordinary: “People, animals, plants / Do what they do today/ And again tomorrow,” she sings on ‘october’. As much as she fixates on symbols of the intangible, Engle’s music gives shape to the forces that animate and cycle through our lives, the stuff that’s always felt but hard to wrap your mind and body around.
We caught up with La Force for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her upbringing, recording XO SKELETON at home, how planets work, and more.
You were born in Montreal, but you lived in China, Scotland, and Indonesia as a child. What was your relationship with your hometown like growing up?
My parents are not Canadian, and they’re English teachers. My father’s first language is Hebrew. So there’s a sense in which home and belonging is something that, for me anyway, was about the family and about whenever we were together. It wasn’t location-specific so much as a state of being. I’m from a mixed religion, mixed culture family, and my parents had a real wanderlust, so we would, with very little warning – I remember we moved to China two weeks after I heard about it. We moved from one culture, Quebec, you know, very open, to quite communist China, where we lived in a secluded, walled-in city in Beijing where all the foreigners live so the still Communist regime would not have its population be too influenced by the West. The gift of this – first of all, I was always in incredible safety, this is a very safe way to experience this kind of disorientation, and I also knew that we would always go home. What it gave me, though, was a very early ability to understand that I’m not the center. That my experience is a subjective experience, but it is as powerful as everyone else. I think that when I see a lack of that awareness in people – when they feel that kind of solipsistic quality where they think that everything’s about them or if they close their eyes the world disappears – first I’m annoyed at them, and then after I feel like they’re really missing out. There’s a way in which it’s really valuable to feel like you’re not the center, because then it allows you to see. I don’t think you can really see if it’s always about you.
Was music one of the things that brought you together as a family?
Music was so big in my childhood. My mom worked in a vinyl store when I was a little girl, so she would bring home vinyl. I remember growing up, they had these vinyl bookshelves built, and it was just a foreboding amount of vinyl. My parents listened to music constantly and took us to concerts constantly. They were passionate about it. I remember a very early sense memory is the smell of the speaker; they would have maybe Aretha Franklin playing, and I would put my ear to where the comb behind foam is, trying as much as possible to get inside of the music. I think that’s probably what influences my quasi-obsession with the relationship between the body and music. This record is really so much about the body.
What made you want to dive into it more with XO SKELETON?
I think that maybe the difference between this record and my last record is that it’s more focused in its statement. I think that these themes existed before and will likely be things I continue to explore. Sometimes someone has a theme, and it could be a visual theme, and they just need to work on it a lot. I’m very feeling-driven over reason-driven. I can’t read music, I don’t understand the fretboard, I’m unschooled. It’s kind of a drag, but I’ve just never taken the time to learn.
You recorded the album in the house where you grew up. What implications did this have for you, emotionally or otherwise?
Well, the house is kind of like an exoskeleton, in the way that exoskeleton is a house for the softness – organs – a house is a container for relationships and a life. And it’s a very personal record. It afforded me time, I didn’t have the pressure of going into the studio, feeling the clock ticking. A lot of my songs are not finished when I try to record them, so it was much better. In some ways maybe I didn’t work as fast and as hard because I was home, because I’m, like, doing laundry and starting a soup and then going back down. But it fit the time. I’m not saying I would always do it like that by any means – I would love to go somewhere for a month with a couple of musicians, by a river or something. But this is what it was, and I feel like it worked for this.
Is it harder for that reason to talk about the timeline of the record, or the moment where it seemed to take a life of its own?
Mostly because I have really bad memory. You know, we fetishize speed. Everything has to be fast, and I don’t think I made this record fast. But I would argue I’ve been making my next record from the moment I stopped making this one, in the sense that, whether or not you know it, you’re always collecting fragments, thoughts, inspiration which will show up. Making a record feels there’s a moment when the egg has been fertilized, and then it gestates a bit, and then it comes out. You have a vague sense – for me, it was XO SKELETON, I had a few names going – it’s very awkward, it can barely walk. You have lots of crises like, What am I making? Why do I even do this? It’s not too late, I could become a therapist. For me, there’s always a moment of massive self-doubt. And then I’ll wake up one morning and my baby record can walk. And then it says a few words and I go, Oh, I kind of like his voice. And then it starts to show me who it is, and then it’s a teenager and it gives me a fucking attitude. It’s like a real relationship – I know it sounds precious, but I don’t think that’s specific to me. I think that self-doubt is a key moment towards completion.
Suddenly you realize this thing that’s been very private for you, that you cannot imagine anyone will ever hear, no one will ever judge, no one will ever want – it’s just yours, it’s free of being processed or metabolized by anyone, it’s free of commerce, it’s free of competition. It’s just in its purest form, seemingly. And then you start to feel almost finished, and then you have to let it go. It’s almost like you need to express all the fear that you might have about it, and at the end, my feeling is always like: Is my record perfect? No. This is what happened. This record is a testament to a time. This is what I was able to do with my friend Warren, who worked with me very hard. Good, I’m happy, next – and not be clinging, clinging, clinging till we die.
What was the attitude this record was giving you?
Sometimes my fight is like, “Oh, that’s so conventional, you’re weirder than that.” I’ll give myself that kind of hard time. There’s that side of me that wants to be rawer, puncher, and then there’s another side of me that wants to deliver something easier to retain, that someone could sing along, remember a part. It’s those kinds of struggles where it’s like, “Ugh, you’re boring.” You know what it is, just these little fights with self. And then I think, “Why don’t I make a record that pleases that teenager in me next time?” I think I am – I’m making plans for a quick-and-dirty, lo-fi EP with my current band.
On ‘october’, you sing, “I can’t seem to remember/ What’s most elemental/ Like our circumnavigation of the sun/ You tell me, I keep it for 24 hours/ That’s all I got/ That’s what my memory’s become.” I wonder if songwriting, for you, plays any role in this digging of memory.
It’s so much about memory. ‘october is very much about memory. I’m looking in the mirror and feeling like I’m being seen by some on the other side who’s no longer alive, and that feeling is more that I’ve internalized their gaze; specifically my father in this case. It’s that feeling of wanting to continue to please someone or have them be proud of you, but they’re not there to see me even try. But it has shaped your expectation of yourself. I’m very much interested in how memory shapes me now. And I think that thing about how the planets work was one of these strange things – it does bother me, I’m always like, “Which way is the sunset? Which way does the sun rise?” I’m always sort of disoriented on this point. It’s so concrete, and yet it’s so magical and celestial. It’s almost like the facts of it don’t even make sense anyway, because the fact that we live in a ball – you can explain the science to me till the cows come home, it still makes no sense to me. I mean, I’m not a flat earther, but it’s crazy that we live in a ball, surrounded by other ones, and we’re moving around one and others are moving around – like, What? In infinity? And that we come from an infinity, and we return to an infinity? And somehow we go around in our lives as though this is normal? It’s not normal. It’s totally [at odds] with how seemingly rational we try to be all the time. It’s like an existential – there should be a word for that, because that’s not a word, but like an existential mind-melt.
The word that comes to mind is “disbelief,” because you bring it up later on the album. Especially in revolving so much around loss and love and memory, I think the feeling that it can evoke – which can be positive or negative, existential or intimate – is disbelief. It also seems like the kind of state you’re often writing from.
Yeah, it’s kind of like a purgatory; the idea that I’m sort of waiting to believe in something concrete. Like, am I allowed to believe in the things I would like to believe in? Are those things real, are they true? In the same way that I can’t understand planetary movements, but my life is also made up of a lot of mundane stuff, like folding laundry – “memories folded like laundry.” This is something I know, that I do everyday. It’s going from a very lofty concept to something very banal, which is the day-to-day. I’m not really into tooting my own horn, but I will say, the thing I’m most proud of on this record is some of the lyrics. I believe that what I’m saying is true to me. I’m not wearing anyone else’s cloak. This is real to me, and that was a nice feeling. I think that that could only have happened for me now in my life. I couldn’t have written these words when I was younger. I needed to have lived through the things I lived through to be able to speak in a way that resonates with me. I just feel like I’m being myself.
One of my favorite musical choices on the LP is the vocal processing on ‘ouroboros’, which really evokes that image of a snake eating its own tale. The lyrics are powerful in that song, but it’s more about how they work together with the production.
Yeah, that’s Warren Spicer. We really wrestled that snake. Some songs are harder to win than others; that song was very wrestled. I initially wrote that for this thing called Song a Day [an invitation-only songwriters’ circle organized by producer Phil Weinrobe] – I did three of them, I was very lucky. It was fast, like nursery rhyme, very upbeat. In a way, I’m split, because I feel like that would have been an amazing version, but we couldn’t get it to work. It got incredibly monotonous because I had so many things I wanted to say. And then he does this thing where that voice, it’s all me, the backups are all me, but what he does is, if he speeds it up and he records me, then when he brings it back to the right speed, I’m really low. It’s totally a snake, because it’s a relationship; the snake becomes a metaphor for family relationships, where you just can’t get off this cycles; sometimes you’re fighting with your family, and are you really fighting your fight, or are you fighting your father’s fight, are you fighting your grandfather’s fight? There’s this feeling of inherited shit, you know, this inherited pattern where you start standing in for another person.
On ‘empty sympathy’, you draw this connection between being loved and being seen, and loving the past to see what’s in front of you. How does looking back on the emotions that defined XO Skeleton help ground you in the present?
Writing those songs really helped me get through something. Taking this internal world and giving it a shape that could live beyond me, that I could engage with or think through or share with other people, it frees me from some of the ouroboroses that are inside me. Although the ouroboros traditionally is a symbol of fertility and life and birth, I’m giving it a different significance. I’m making it more like a torture cycle. Who knows when I get there, but I have a feeling that what I’m going to do next is going to be maybe a little less personal. I feel like I don’t necessarily need to open my diary for this next record, I might be a bit more oblique. I feel like in this one, obviously some of it has a metaphorical bent to it, but I’m sharing, so to speak. It’s pretty open. except ‘outrun the sun’, that song is not at all about me – in fact, the lyrics are mostly my husband’s lyrics. It’s like an improvisation ad-lib, so it’s very different. It leads out.
How did it come about?
I recorded most of it at my friend Shahzad Ismaily’s studio in Brooklyn. My husband Andrew had just a synth progression that I really liked, and then I brought it to Shahzad. He had a great drummer, Austin [Vaughn], who came and played on the session, and it’s very John Bonham-like, big drums with a beautiful reverb. And then I just opened the book – my husband had given me a bunch of free writing just to get the ball rolling. I read it as is, and that’s the recording. It was a blind read. I like that it caught me – I wasn’t the architect of the song. It was just kind of a combination of elements, and I was like, “Fuck, I like this, it’s punk. Keep it.” That satisfied the teenager in me that wants things to be rawer and more spontaneous.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.