By David Friend, The Canadian Press on January 25, 2024.
TORONTO – Something about being called a first-time Grammy nominee makes Molly Rankin a little itchy.
The lead singer and guitarist of indie-pop outfit Alvvays is not given to chest puffery, and so she struggles with the meaning of being a contender at the music industry’s biggest awards show.
“I was very surprised that we squeaked our way in,” she explained by phone from her Toronto home.
“(We are) such a small operation, in comparison to everything else that gets submitted for that arena.”
Rankin isn’t wrong. Alvvays is undoubtedly an outlier among this year’s nominees for best alternative music performance.
Their song “Belinda Says” is up against music by four industry heavyweights: U.K. veterans Arctic Monkeys, critical favourite Lana Del Rey, pop-rock hitmakers Paramore and supergroup Boygenius, who are nominated six times.
The award will be handed out at a pre-broadcast ceremony streamed live on Grammy.com hours before the main telecast airs on Feb. 4.
“I’m not going to delude myself here. I don’t know what it’s going to change, but it’s nice to be included,” Rankin said of the recognition.
“It has such a substantial presence with people that also don’t normally pay attention to music…. Any type of broadly recognized award usually is good for parents.”
Coming from another band, this might sound ungrateful. However, Rankin is well-versed in music industry mechanics and carries a bone-dry sense of humour about it all.
A descendant of the Rankin Family, the six-time Juno-winning Cape Breton act, her late father was pianist and fiddler John Morris Rankin. She occasionally played fiddle with the group as a youngster.
In Alvvays – pronounced “always” – she took a different path, co-writing alternative music seeped in guitar hooks and fuzzy vocals alongside her partner, the band’s guitarist Alec O’Hanley.
The band rose to popularity on the 2014 single “Archie, Marry Me,” which became a favourite of college radio and summer music festival season that year. “In Undertow” a few years later proved their resonance.
All three of their albums were shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, while they won alternative album Junos for their most recent two, “Antisocialites” and “Blue Rev.”
It’s a song from the latter record that captured Grammy voters’ attention.
“Belinda Says” finds Rankin’s distorted vocals telling a coming-of-age story muddled with an uncertain future. The song’s title refers to Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” and there’s a line about Rev, a blue neon-hazed vodka drink she and Rankin’s bandmates once swigged as teenagers. That’s where the album got its title.
“The taste of that drink is one of those things that elicits this visceral response, to me at least,” Rankin said.
“It’s likened to the smell of someone mowing the lawn. If I were to smell it, I think I would be transported back to all the most wild parts of being a teen.”
Making “Blue Rev” stalled early on when thieves broke into Rankin’s apartment and stole hard drives loaded with audio files that were Rankin’s early ideas for the album.
The next day, as her bandmates gathered to assess the loss, their rehearsal space flooded. The water narrowly missed their instruments.
“It felt biblical,” Rankin said.
Eventually, they regained their footing and gathered in a Seattle recording studio with a producer to record the album.
And then COVID-19 struck.
Retreating to their respective homes, the band sidelined the project. As more time passed, so did that particular vision of the album.
When they regrouped, they needed to find a new producer.
That’s when six-time Grammy winner Shawn Everett entered the picture. His work on albums by the Killers, Beck and Alabama Shakes earned him respect in the rock community. His childhood in Bragg Creek, Alta., helped him connect with Alvvays.
An early phone conversation with Rankin and her bandmates veered off into shared memories of beloved MuchMusic VJs and other Canadian cultural touchstones.
“We chatted a few more times,” Everett said, “but we didn’t fully dive into it until they arrived in L.A.”
By then, Everett had done his homework. One day, after listening to Alvvays’ demo recordings for the album, he stumbled across a song by the Cardigans, the Swedish band fronted by Nina Persson, known for their dreamy hits “Lovefool” and “My Favourite Game.”
Everett was struck by the rich production surrounding Persson’s vocals and saw similar potential in building the sound of the Alvvays album.
“I wasn’t trying to model the Cardigans at all, but it reminded me of them in some weird interdimensional way,” he said.
“That they could be big … and (Rankin’s) vocal could sit inside of the bigness.”
At the studio, Everett learned Alvvays were more prepared than most artists. They came in ready to perform the album from top to bottom.
“We did, I think, about two takes of the record from beginning to end, just rapid fire, with 15 seconds in between songs,” Rankin remembered.
“And that was basically the skeleton of a lot of the stuff you hear.”
Much of “Blue Rev” occupies liminal spaces with ethereal songs that reflect on loss, eroded relationships and other personal traumas. Everett builds a rich arrangement around Rankin’s vocals, with O’Hanley on guitar, Kerri MacLellan on keys, Abbey Blackwell on bass and Sheridan Riley on drums.
The production breaks away from some of the tidiness that defined the sound of their previous albums.
Loosening control is a gradual process for the band since they’ve spent the bulk of their career tightly holding the reins. But Rankin said the band doesn’t want to be “closing doors left and right” anymore, even though “learning the power of “˜No’ and restraint has been valuable.”
Last month, Alvvays agreed to perform on NPR’s prestigious Tiny Desk Concert series after declining the invitation in the past. Their appearance earned them much praise and new attention.
Rankin supposes it could lead to branching out in other ways. They’ve yet to perform on a late-night show, for instance, she noted.
“We’re slowly becoming more open to things,” she said. “But slowly.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2024.