Five Questions With… Villages
After playing pop-rock as Mardeen, these Nova Scotians have adopted a rootsier sound in their new group. Here they discuss their eponymous new album, a memorable debut show, and a love of Joni Mitchell.
By Jason Schneider
On the self-titled full-length album by Villages—officially released March 22—the quartet dives deep into the haunting and meandering melodies of the Cape Breton Highlands and presents them through atmospheric arrangements that recall the influence of groups like The War on Drugs and Fleet Foxes.
Recorded at their home studio in rural Nova Scotia with producer Thomas Stajcer (Joel Plaskett, Erin Costelo), Villages presents a unique take on life in the Maritimes. From the opening ethereal “Awakening of Spring,” to the country-tinged inflections on “At Your Door,” the eight-song LP tells the story of four young Nova Scotians coming back to their traditions on their terms.
In the late aughts, traditional music was the furthest thing from the minds of Matt Ellis, Travis Ellis, Jon Pearo, and Archie Rankin. Having left their Cape Breton homes for the allure of the big city, the musicians formed Mardeen, a group steeped in Halifax's history of melodic pop-rock. But one night a spontaneous sing-along of Rankin Family tunes broke out, and everyone in the band suddenly felt homesick.
Not long after, Mardeen became Villages, named after an essay by Cape Breton artist Kate Beaton. The group parlayed their newfound appreciation for Celtic and British folk into their 2016 four-song EP entitled Hymn After Hymn, produced by Joel Plaskett, and have since continued to develop an entirely new identity focused on contemporizing the melodies and lyrical influences of their deep-rooted history.
We caught up with three of the four members of Villages as they prepared for a month-long eastern Canadian tour that brings them to Toronto’s Dakota Tavern on March 29. For more info, go to thebandvillages.com.
What makes the new album stand apart from your debut EP?
Travis Ellis: It’s an extension of what we started on the EP, which was completely different from anything we’ve done in the past. Growing up on Cape Breton Island, we were completely surrounded by traditional Celtic music, but we never considered trying to play it until Matt came to the table with a song called “Hymn After Hymn” that was directly inspired by the melodies of our home. We took this newfound appreciation of our roots and ran with it.
What songs on the record are you most proud of and why?
Jon Pearo: There are definitely moments that stand out for me. “Moonlit” is an example of a song that we transformed; it started based on a bouzouki riff that was very traditional sounding. We ended up stripping the bouzouki away entirely and took a very different approach to the song musically. What we eventually arrived at was so far removed from where the song originated sonically, but in the end, really elevated it.
Another moment for me is the musical bridge in “Maggie of the Cove.” I wanted to emulate the feeling of the bridge in The Rankin Family’s “Mull River Shuffle,” which is absolute perfection. I knew that trying to capture that same feeling would be an impossible task, but what we ended up with is something I am very proud of.
What do you recall about your first time performing in public?
Jon Pearo: We got super lucky with our first Villages show. Our friend Jenn Grant had known we were working on this Villages project and asked us if we’d like to play a show opening for her in Halifax. So we got to play our very first show to a sold out crowd of lovely Jenn Grant fans.
What song by another artist do you wish you had written?
Matt Ellis: I've always loved Joni Mitchell's “Both Sides Now.” It's both melodically and lyrically stunning
What's been the most significant change in your life over the past year?
Jon Pearo: My moustache.