When she’s in the van with the Toronto indie rock collective Broken Social Scene, Ariel Engle doesn’t keep track of days of the week anymore.
“Well, there’s no difference between a Saturday or a Monday or a Tuesday,” Engle said in a recent phone call from the road with her band. “I mean, sometimes I can have a week of Mondays followed by a week of Sundays.”
The temporal distortions are understandable as Ariel Engle balances her work as a vocalist for Broken Social Scene with a series of solo tour dates as La Force, promoting her self-titled debut album, which she released in September.
But Engle’s life isn’t just busy, it’s also been shaken by recent events; namely, the birth of her daughter and the death of her father.
The dramatic events provided subject matter for her album. Making the record provided catharsis for Engle, who garnered attention after lending vocals to a couple of standout tracks, “Stay Happy” and “Gonna Get Better” on Broken Social Scene’s 2017 album, Hug of Thunder. Engle isn’t the first to rise to prominence from the prolific collective; she’s following the well-worn trails blazed by Leslie Feist, Emily Haines of Metric and Amy Millan of Stars.
Engle spent her youth traveling the globe, with stints living in China, Scotland and Indonesia, but always returned home to Quebec in between exotic ports of call. Her mother worked in a record store and educated Engle with a wall-sized collection of vinyl. Both influences are obvious on her debut: The La Force record is global in scope, tackling the refugee crisis and other international issues.
The social engagement aspect is something with which Engle has just started experimenting. It has given her a platform to talk about the problems she sees in the world, including apathy and hypocrisy.
“I would say I’m for the people, left of center. I believe in charity and kindness,” she said. “I’m what you might expect from an artist and I’m mildly socially engaged on this record. I may become more.”
That social engagement is most clearly felt on the album’s second single, “Ready to Run,” about the plight of immigrants and the hypocrisy of the Christians she sees turning a blind eye. The bass and guitar-heavy verses explode in a joyous, anthemic chorus on which Engle belts, “Give me your Christian love.”
At the same time, La Force retains a vitality even in its minimalism, borrowing and recombining elements from around the world and from the last 50 years of music.
Distinguishing herself from the talented collective and striking out on her own, it turns out, wasn’t as terrifying as Engle first imagined, particularly after her tumultuous last couple of years.
“I’m not as scared as I thought I would be, actually,” she said. “I’ve known fear for a long time and I think fear prevented me from doing this for a long time. But after the events that happened while making this record: my father dying and [me] becoming a mom, I started to look at fear a different way. When some of the most difficult things that I’ll ever experience happened in my life, fear was just tiring. It’s like, OK, I get it. I’m scared. Great; we’re all scared, but let’s move on.”
Striking out on her own meant continuing her collaboration with Broken Social Scene alums Charles Spearin, Warren Spicer, Nyles Spencer and her husband, Andrew Whiteman, all of whom contributed to the album’s production. Other musicians, including members of Apostle of Hustle, Suuns and The Barr Brothers contributed as players.
“I don’t know if you ever look at Petfinder, a website where people can find a pet like a dog,” Engle said. “They’ll have little descriptions like age and stuff and one thing they’ll have is ‘plays well with others.’ I would definitely have that checked off.”
The debut album feels both forceful and feminine. The songs are constructed with strength and grace. The album art evokes the tarot card for Strength, which in certain decks displays a woman in red.
“I feel like there’s this pretty terrible abuse of power that’s going on and unfortunately a lot of that has a male face,” Engle said. “I wanted to say ‘power,’ or in French, ‘force;’ meaning strength. But strength can be wielded with grace. It can be a more centered approach that has a softness and an inclusiveness.”
Engle’s courage is necessary, as she headlines a series of solo shows without the help of backing musicians. That I something she has never done before. It helps that she’s opening for Feist, her friend and fellow Broken Social Scene alum. Engle said being on the road with her friend has enabled the two to have a vacation of sorts, all the while playing shows every night.
Still, she’s not above getting nervous when she takes the stage, and she can usually tell by the end of the first song whether she will overcome that on any given night.
“If I feel like I’ve been welcomed when I step on then I’m like, ‘OK, we’re going to have a good time,'” she said. “If I feel like they’re reticent, then it can make me feel a little wobbly. There’s no doubt that standing up in front of 2,000 people is not always the most natural thing to do, but I just try to get into a headspace where I’m trying to conjure something or connect to people and that can help.”
Follow writer David Gill at Twitter.com/songotaku.