The Canadian trio’s main man on their creative process and 13-year journey from debut single to brand new album ‘Salt’
Hailing from Montreal, Canada, Half Moon Run are a remarkable trio who have been captivating audiences with their haunting harmonies, evocative songwriting, and masterful arrangements. Formed in 2010, Devon Portielje (lead vocals, guitar, piano), Conner Molander (vocals, guitar, keyboard) and Dylan Phillips (vocals, drums, keyboard) quickly gained attention with their debut EP, Dark Eyes. The release showcased their ability to seamlessly blend indie rock, folk, and dream-pop elements, setting the stage for their subsequent success. Their full-length albums, Sun Leads Me On in 2015 and A Blemish in the Great Light in 2019, further demonstrated the band’s artistic growth and exploratory approach to crafting music that defies categorization.
Half Moon Run’s unique sound has not only captivated fans but also earned them critical recognition and prestigious awards. Their accomplishments include winning Juno Awards for Breakthrough Group of the Year and Recording Package of the Year, as well as nominations for the Polaris Music Prize and Canadian Folk Music Awards.
In this interview with Devon, we have the privilege of gaining insight into the group’s creative process, tracing their musical journey from the debut single Full Circle to their fantastic new album Salt…
Where are you in the world, just to set the scene?
“I’m in Montreal, Canada.”
Fantastic. Your home studio?
“Kind of, yeah. My basement, my humble basement studio.”
Excellent. We read that your new album Salt was actually conceived way back in 2012, so we’d like to start by talking about your superb debut single, Full Circle, which came out that same year. How did that song come about?
“Well, I kind of discovered at some point that you can basically do any chord you want, after any other chord, as long as there’s a common note that unites them. I mean, you can do anything you want, of course, but I found it a lot easier on the ear if you had a common note, and in this case, it’s the E string – the highest string on a standard-tuned guitar. And I tried to see how weird I could make a chord that has that note in it, and for that note to continue throughout the whole progression. It makes every chord feel natural, no matter how weird it is. You’re kind of tricking the listener because the chord isn’t quite supposed to be there, but it’s still got that note.
“So the first chord is, technically, a B-flat-major-seven-sharp-11. That’s what they call it! And, I was really into reverse delay pedals. I said to Connor, ‘Can you come up with a random picking pattern,’ and he ended up picking something more traditional. Then I took the electric guitar part that you hear halfway through and had this really cool chord progression, and we brought it into Dylan and he started banging away on it.
“We had this cool groove, and it’s ‘Okay, now we need lyrics.’ So I went home and, being the kind of half-assed musician that I am, I misremembered the tempo. I wrote the lyrics, but it was slow and I said, ‘Well, that means the lyrics are going to be super fast, like too fast to sing.’ So that’s why the lyrics are so much faster than expected. Thankfully, I misinterpreted that because it made it feel like there’s all this fast wordplay. I love the wordplay of some hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and Eminem, but there was also a kind of cool phrasing that I was borrowing from a Canadian artist called Buck 65, who had kind of poetic spoken word over an acoustic guitar thing. Also, there’s a song by Radiohead called Wolf At The Door – when I heard that, I wanted to make something like that.”
Did you have the words at that point?
“With the lyrics themselves, I usually start with just singing gibberish. The band and I have this groove going, it feels good, and I’ll just start singing. Eventually, I’ll hear a word where it’ll just come out and I’ll be like, ‘Okay, now I need to develop that.’”
Then are you looking to establish a theme?
“Yeah, sometimes I set myself up. And sometimes I set myself up for like a real mountain to climb if I pick something weird or abstract. Luckily, Full Circle is kind of widely interpretable as a phrase on its own. Then each verse is about someone in my life that I’ve had some kind of strife or struggle with – how I hoped that they would come around and see things from my point of view. Then eventually they do, so that’s why I sing, ‘And I watch as your head turns full circle.’ That’s wishful thinking, perhaps!”
So is it a ‘stream of consciousness’ and a case of allowing words to ebb and flow?
“A few times, it’s been that the whole song is a stream of consciousness. But most of the time, I just have that seed idea and it could be part of a verse or a chorus or whatever. And then I have to craft and chisel away and be like, ‘What am I trying to say?’ I’m very dubious of automatic writing or stream of consciousness because I think that it foists the burden of understanding onto the listener. As a listener, I want songs to wash over me and be like, ‘Wow, that’s incredible.’”
Do you enjoy the process?
“I find it friggin painful. Honestly, it’s torture.”
There are so many songwriters we interview who say the same sort of thing.
“That’s validating to hear, frankly.”
If it was easy, everyone would be able to do it!
“Right. I try and trick myself and do basically anything else before I have to [start writing]. Like, if I have a list of things to do, and one of them is songwriting, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I need to reinstall a toilet in my home!’ I’ll do anything, you know. But I realised, at some point, that the craft requires persistence. Especially when you’re busy, you have to really make time for it. And eventually, I’ll come down here in my basement – I’ll sit here virtually every morning – and I force myself to sit with the writing. If it just means sitting here, not really doing much, then that’s what it means, for today. But I don’t feel like my day has had value unless I get some writing done.”
You talk about writing in your basement, but do you need to be in a certain creative environment? Or can you write just as easily on a tour bus or in a hotel room?
“Oh, it doesn’t matter, put me anywhere. But it really does matter. When I’m when travelling, I think, ‘Oh, when I get home I’ll be ready to write,’ and when I’m home, I’m like, ‘Ah, I need to travel to get inspired.’ But, yeah, travelling for a short period of time can be really great. I know some songwriters who travel with a typewriter and a beeswax candle, and everywhere they sit down, the first thing they do – hotel room, tour bus or whatever – they put down the typewriter, they light the candle, and they start going at it, and it’s like bringing home with you or something. But yeah, the setting is very important. This basement is for finishing up the ideas that I have somewhere else.”
So it’s like your workshop?
“Yeah. There’s a time for planting and a time for harvesting. Going out on tour, meeting different people and seeing things I never thought I’d see, you’re just feeding yourself – and the Muse is very, very hungry!”
I love that. Let’s talk about the new album and, in particular, your brilliant single, Alco. The bio says you had the original idea for that song way back in 2012. Why did it take 10 years to “crack the code”, as you put it?
“I brought a ukulele on a trip to Thailand, which I’m sure many young people have done over the years, nothing special. I went to an island where my sister had been living for some years and I just didn’t do anything…I just flowed with it. And I didn’t have any obligation whatsoever. Total hedonism. So I got busy with the ukulele, played all day long and I had this riff. The band loved it and we kept trying to track it in different studios all over the place. We even had a flugelhorn player and a French horn player come in and lay some horns on it. This was 2013 and it doesn’t work, I didn’t finish the lyrics. You know, you fall out of love with a song when you’ve hit so many roadblocks and feel like it isn’t meant to be. So it goes on our whiteboard, which we call ‘the graveyard’ – it’s the list of everything that’s even got a sliver of hope. And Alco, specifically, over the years, kept getting erased and rewritten lower and lower, to the point where it’s almost off the list forever. And if it’s off that list, we’re all going to forget about it, because we have so many dead songs.
“And somehow, when we started this record, we sent like 80 demos to our producer and just said, ‘What do you want to do? We’ll work on anything.’ And he picked that one as having potential and we said, ‘Okay, we’ll give it another swing.’ But 12 years later, it worked.”
What do you think clicked? Can you pinpoint the moment when it came together?
“When you bring in the new energy of the producer being like, ‘Oh, he’s passionate about it.’ That’s where sometimes bringing in a new opinion can really help. Sometimes it can also scatterbrain everything and you don’t know what you’re doing, but it really helped. That was a song where I went back to the demos and I mined them for seed words because I had nothing, it was 100 percent gibberish. Then I got the both feet down into the bottom of the river with you… Ooh, okay, now that’s one point, and it’s rhythmic. Then I had to work on it, and that was a slog. I’m still not even sure if it makes any friggin sense!”
Why is it called Alco? Is that just a thing that you called the riff?
“Um, yeah, that was kind of the working title that we couldn’t get rid of. Basically, it’s kind of written from a shifting perspective, so one perspective in one verse and then another in the other.”
Tell us more about the album and the dynamic between the three of you. Do you have particular roles in the creative process?
“Most of the time, I’ll come into the rehearsal space with one or two parts, like an A and a B section of a song. It could be two chords for a part and it’s just got a certain swagger to it, or whatever. And when it’s got an identifiable rhythm, then Dylan or Connor will start to bleed in and they’ll often change the tone to something I never would have chosen, but it’s ultimately very good. Hopefully, I’ll get a bunch of lyrics. Sometimes I’ve come in with a full song format, and then lyrics will just pop up. Sometimes they come with a full song, but I find that works less than coming in with an unfinished idea, because then they can take ownership over their contribution and there’s more momentum going forward. We do like brute force, eight to 12-hour long sessions, three or four days a week. And then in the off days, we’ll do what we can on the side and then come back with more developments.
“During the pandemic, there was an interesting kind of experiment, because we were locked down for 130 days, and we had a curfew so everyone had to be back in their homes by 8pm. So when we started jam at like three or four, we’d have a couple of beers and time would go fast. Maybe we weren’t getting much done, but 60 or 90 minutes till curfew we start really cooking…It’s the best the song has ever sounded. That pressurized environment was one of the most prolific periods of Half Moon Run.”
With the recordings of all those marathon jam sessions, where do you start the process of all that material?
“I read a study about what happens to the brain when you’re songwriting. I think it was Sting, they put diodes on his brain and [found that] while he was writing they saw [his brain] flipping rapidly between critical analysis, left-brain type stuff, and then right-brain dream state. And that process of flipping back and forth takes a massive amount of electrical energy, which might explain why artists are ‘tired all the time’. So going through a database of an archive of songs is really like a critical analysis thing. When I don’t feel like writing, that’s a great support task to do. I’ll make notes for myself. Then I find first thing in the morning, when that prefrontal cortex is ready to go and that first caffeine buzz hits me, that’s when I want all of my notes that I made accessible. So I can be in that dreamy state and I don’t have to do any kind of left-brain thinking. I have all my materials with me and then I can really fly.”
Yeah, that makes sense. It’s like what you said about having a time for planting and a time for harvesting.
“Yeah, and on this record, a bunch of the songs were getting close to being done, like fully tracked, and I hadn’t had the lyrics yet, which is highly stressful. I’d have four or five songs that weren’t done, so I’d get up every morning while we were recording and I’d cycle through the songs one-by-one to see if anything hit me. And every day, invariably, over a two-week period, I would move forward meaningfully on one of the five songs. That was a great breakthrough in the process.”
What instruments do you tend to use to write songs?
“Personally, when I’m songwriting, I just work on guitar, even if it’s like a piano riff, because I just transpose it and functionally it’s easier to find. I can be anywhere in the house, I can move around. But no, we try to have no limits in that regard. I’m trying to really focus on the craft, rather than experimenting with new instruments, and kind of sometimes that feels like a crutch. I just like to use a new sound to make a song work or something.”
I just want to finish by congratulating you on an amazing album, I absolutely love it. I hear so many influences in there, but what are the flavours that you think you’ve infused into this record?
“Oh God, from a genre perspective, I couldn’t really give you an answer. I don’t listen to a lot of music. But I will say, emotionally, that there’s an intersection somewhere around beauty and sadness and yearning, that I’m always trying to get to. I will always be chasing that intersection. It’s a little bit beyond language, but I think people know what I mean when I say that.”