Hailing from Montreal and channelling a sound just as majestic as the Canadian terrain, we decided we had better get to know the mysterious Groenland. Having just released their second album A Wider Space, vocalist Sabrina Halde took some time out to lift the veil on the band, their new album and what led her to a life making music.
“Groenland” is a beautiful word that is a French variation on “Greenland”. You’re from Montreal, Canada; what was it that drew you to it as a band name?
We basically liked the originality of the word and the mystique of this extraordinary place that none of us have seen. To us, this word represents nature, surviving the winter together, mysteries, beauty. It was an opportunity to invent a world where wild things come together to thrive and go through the many trials of life. Also, we just liked the sound of it.
You have a grandiose and expansive sound that combines orchestral arrangements with a colourful pop sentimentality. Was it a shared vision that drew you together as a band, or was it a long process to find your signature sound?
I feel like Jean-Vivier and I have never really given much thought to our sound, or our common vision. That could have been catastrophic, but we were lucky in that sense. From the first rehearsal, I knew we instinctively were a natural fit, musically speaking. Things happened very quickly because of that. We are rational people, but we work with our intuition and sentimentality. In this case, it kind of worked.
You have a sweet and distinctive tone to your voice. Has singing always been a part of your life?
Pretty much, yes. I started singing with a friend when I was 9 or 10. But my story is a bit different because I never showed anyone except that friend (with whom I lost touch in high school) that I could sing. I sang whenever I was alone at my house for years before I had the guts to sing in front of my friends. I always knew I was going to be a singer, but also a musician and composer. I started writing music early on, mainly by improvising melodies and then playing the guitar over them. When I applied to CEGEP in music (the school you attend before university in Quebec), I had only taken one singing class and had hated it. But studying jazz was exactly what I needed. Improvising was what I had been doing all these years. I freed myself from a lot of my shyness. So my tone comes as much from the Spice Girls, Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill as from jazz singers.
How did you all meet and what led you to create music together?
We all met through school, jobs or old projects. Jean-Vivier had a band with Jonathan. Jonathan had played with Simon for a long time. We met the string players in school, through side jobs or common friends. I met Jean-Vivier in CEGEP and we reconnected at the University of Montreal. I was working at the student cafe, and he often came to chill and listen to music. We quickly realised that we liked the same music and that we both wanted to start a band. We wanted to be an electro duet until we realised that two people working on a computer was kind of boring, haha ! Adding people to the band felt more organic and right for us.
On your new album A Wider Space you combine emotive string arrangements with pulsing synths. The combination is quite surprising – but it works! How did you push yourselves as musicians on your new album? Did you feel any pressure to improve upon your also impressive debut The Chase?
For my part, I really focused on creating something I would be proud of and would have fun performing for the whole tour. I really tried to avoid creating melodies, chord progressions or structures similar to the first album. I also wanted to push my vocal abilities, just to keep things interesting when I’m performing. But we clearly didn’t want to wander too far off from The Chase because we are still attached to it. This album wasn’t meant for us to be a big turn (maybe a big « change”, or a big « switch” instead), but to keep evolving as much as we could in the direction we had already taken. I think we all felt a great pressure while writing this album. I didn’t even allow myself to feel other people’s pressure because I couldn’t even deal with mine, haha ! It was a quick writing and recording process, and it felt very extreme because we stopped playing shows specifically to make this album, and from the beginning, we already felt that we were late. The biggest challenge was to regain some confidence in our writing capability because we had been able to write only 2 songs in almost 2 years while touring.
Sabrina and Jean-Vivier Lévesque co-wrote the album. As a creative duo, is collaborating harmonious or do you have to compromise? Do you ever write separately for Groenland?
Usually what happens is that we both bring a piano riff or a chord progression or a beat or any kind of idea that we like. From that, I try to see if I’m inspired to create a melody that will glue every piece together. Sometimes Jean-Vivier can already have some melody in mind. And then, if we are both happy about most of these things, we continue working on them until we have something that’s ready enough to present to Jonathan. We work on the song with him and then bring the others to make the string and bass arrangements. We have to compromise a lot, but I think Jean-Vivier and I have a very similar idea of what we both want. And it’s so important to let the others’ ideas live if they feel like it’s important to them. There are a lot of ideas of which we weren’t sure at all, but which found their meaning later on. It can happen that I arrive with a song that is almost complete. For example, “Cabin” and “La Pieuvre” are two songs that we completed together, but that seemed to already have a life of their own before we even worked on them. I think I do that when the song is really meaningful to me and I’m too afraid to show it piece by piece haha !
You have said that A Wider Space is a more personal record than The Chase, referencing anxiety and fear, survival, resilience and vulnerability. Because you write as a duo, do you ever find writing about more personal subjects difficult?
Actually, I write the lyrics by myself, and the others aren’t so interested in them, so I’m safe ! Haha !
What is your most personal song on the new album, and why was it important to write it?
All of the songs feel pretty personal to me. I struggled a lot through the writing process because I wanted every line of the album to feel personal and more realistic. When I wrote the first album, it felt like I was putting down on paper blurred, surrealist impressions of my life and of the lives of people around me. It came out naturally that way, and I know there’s a part of me that felt safe singing about an octopus instead of real people in my life. The most personal song on the first album was “Criminals” because it talks about our student strike in 2012 and about how I met my best friend while hiding in a back alley, waiting for policemen to go away after they chased us for being in a demonstration. It was really difficult to put my feelings into my words without it feeling too obvious. For the second album, I wanted that for every song. “Cabin” might feel more intimate because it’s the only song that talks about a love relationship.
Montreal is a French-Canadian city, yet you have opted not to use French within your music. What made you come to that decision? Have you ruled out incorporating French in the future?
A lot of people feel like it was a conscious decision for us, but it never really was. The first time we rehearsed, I remember having English words come out of my mouth. I was vocally trained by my favourite American and British pop singers, and then by jazz. Every sound I know how to sing is mainly in English. I’ve tried hard to write in French, but never felt satisfied. Some people have a real, raw talent for writing in French, and I admire them a lot. But I don’t, haha! We never ruled out writing in French, I would love to be able to do something I’m proud of in French. I’m sure it will happen someday. For this album, I didn’t have time to start over and learn how to write and feel good singing in French.
Would you say that your music has a sound similar to French pop artists?
We don’t have a guitar player in the band, so I feel like it rules out a lot of French pop artists who could be similar to us. We listen to a lot of French-Canadian artists like Jimmy Hunt, Laura Sauvage, Alaclair Ensemble, Koriass, Dead Obies, Safia Nolin… but none of them have a similar sound. I think we find inspiration in the attitude, the personality and originality of the music. They inspire me emotionally. I feel like we’re similar in some ways, although it might not sound like it.
Where will you be touring in support of the album? What place have you not had the chance to visit yet that you would like to in the future?
We will tour pretty much everywhere in Quebec, a bit in Canada, Europe, maybe the States. I would love to go to the States, but it really is a huge market that can be hard to enter. We adore Europe, so it would be fun to keep touring there and explore a bit more. They welcome and respect musicians a lot, it is always heartwarming to go back.
Are there any other French-Canadian artists that should be on our radar.
Yes. In French or English or both : Safia Nolin, Les Passagers, Koriass, Laura Sauvage, Dead Obies (French and English), Sun Pow, Wizaard.
Greenland’s new album A Wider Space is available to buy now.