The most interesting sound on When You Left The Fire, the achingly lush, understated debut from Canadian chamber-folk ensemble The Wilderness of Manitoba, doesn’t come from an instrument at all or even from a voice. It’s from a furnace, faintly humming in the background on a few tracks and detectible only by the most sharp-eared of listeners. It’s a place marker, if you will, of the home the band members share and use for recording.
Its subtle, ambient presence tells you all you need to know about this band—simultaneously able to evoke stunning, bittersweet beauty in multi-part vocal arrangements and just the right instrumental touches, yet casual enough (and smart enough) not to insist on airless, lifeless precision in how it goes about its business.
It also marks the band’s casual, happenstance origins. Though now racking up accolades and touring far and wide - including playing to a crowd of 750 plus at the UK’s End Of The Road Festival - The Wilderness of Manitoba started as yet another side project in the fertile Toronto music community.
To understand The Wilderness of Manitoba, you have to go not to Manitoba but to a music-filled house in Toronto. Long before the band got rolling, the property hosted concerts by local artists in addition to being where both Scott Bouwmeester and Will Whitwham laid their heads and practiced with previous bands. It’s also where the singing multi-instrumentalists both began writing songs that seemed to demand a new configuration. After enlisting another pair of singing multi-instrumentalist Stefan Banjevic and vocalist Melissa Dalton (who didn’t at first even realize she was in the band), The Wilderness of Manitoba was born.
“I think we had one practice,” recalls Banjevic. “There was a show at our house; some bands played and people were still hanging out afterwards, and asked, ‘Why don’t you play some songs?’ And we said, ‘Sure.’”
As the band has gotten more and more attention and has added drummer Sean Lancaric to flesh out its sound, its casual, “please ourselves first” mentality has proven to be indispensable. And with four songwriters in the band, constantly trying to outdo one another, there’s no need for outside pressure or for the members to overthink their approach.
With the band living under one roof, and with a musical approach bearing the fingerprints of ’60s folk music from both sides of the Atlantic - from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Pentangle - you might expect the band to spend hours gathered in a circle, playing songs to each other on acoustic guitars. The reality is far different. “We live in the same house, but everything is still by email,” Bouwmeester notes. “… which is kind of ridiculous, in a way,” Dalton adds, “because we seem so organic and natural - and then all of a sudden we’re using all this technology to send ideas around to each other.’”
Due to the band’s distinctive approach - and with four members who sing and harmonize - the songs usually begin with vocals. As Bouwmeester puts it, “In other bands you build songs from the bottom up, where all the instruments fall into place and the vocal line is on top of that. But with us, it’s top down. The melodies and the vocals are all set, and then the instrumentation just trickles down, and you fill holes or fill spaces as needed.”
As a result, while the starting point is folk, once lap steel, cello, banjo and other textures are added, the songs end up in a haunted, unclassifiable place. “We’re really into sounds,” notes Banjevic, “and I think that, even using cellos or violins or singing bowls, they serve little tiny roles that complement what’s going on perfectly.”
While the band evokes a timeless sound, its sense of storytelling is equally timeless. By design, When You Left The Fire traces a dramatic arc, beginning with the prelude of “Orono Park,” through a song cycle to the album’s midpoint instrumental, “Winterlude,” then picking up with the upbeat “Summer Fires” to kick off the second half. It’s a double-sided vinyl experience for listeners, even if they’re only spinning MP3s.
“We want to engage the listener for the entire time the record runs - all the way through,” Banjevic says. “That’s how I like to listen to records.”
“We ended up cutting songs that were catchy and awesome,” Bouwmeester explains, “because we were just like, ‘It’s a little too much for this album, so we’ll save it and do something with it later,’ But we were definitely thinking, ‘We’ve got to form a cohesive whole.’”
The album ends on the evocative instrumental “Reveries En Couleurs,” which brings When You Left The Fire to a meandering close, complete with the sounds of a crackling fire.
As an artistic work, When You Left The Fire is a two-headed beast, conjuring flames in both the soothing, warming sense of hearth and home and as an out-of-control element of destruction. Recorded in the dead of a Toronto winter in a church and the basement of the band’s house, it both chronicles isolation and serves as an antidote to it. As Bouwmeester notes, it’s a record meant to be heard in a cozy, confined space, preferably with a roaring fire nearby.
But while the sounds may be soothing and the harmonies crystalline, the emotions can singe and even scar if you get too close. Take “November,” written by Whitwham as he rode the Trans-Siberian Railway across the Central Asian Desert. “And the phantom always waits for the midnight / Holds the dreamer in his hands, shadows eat light…”
“This record is a time capsule,” Whitwham notes. “You know, captured moments. The songs are fun to play because they bring you back to a specific time and place. I think true art captures emotions, or relays emotions. And if we can do that, if we’re doing that, I’m satisfied.”