Ada Lea – What We Say in Private review

by Dave Bertram

Managing a crowd of influences and conflicting thought processes is nothing new for Canadian painter and visual artist come singer-songwriter, Alexandra Levy. From beginning her musical life playing upright bass before progressing to piano and guitar, she played taboo at jazz school in New York by penning her own songs, rather than practicing the standards.

Moving back to her native Montreal, she found her groove and in her debut album under the pseudonym of Ada Lea – out on Saddle Creek – she’s produced a collection of tracks which is as colourful as her the backdrop of talent and influence she has to lean on.

It’s well documented that what we say in private was born out of her need to record the end of an important relationship, where she documented six months of painting and writing in private to create what would feel like a journal entry to detail the cycle of intense emotions you might expect to feel in that situation.

Should this result in a rebirth or some sort of rediscovery or self-acceptance? That can never be clear, but the fruits of her labour have delivered a record as immediate as it is vivid and varied – and a public exhibition of feelings that have manifested inside for time. The shifts in pace from the explosive – both lyrically and instrumentally – to the soft and melancholic, and from the steady and rhythmic to the disjointed and chaotic, track those shifts in emotion and help the listener unpick between the lines to understand the narrative.

In terms of benchmarks, this record is difficult to pigeon-hole, which is a hallmark of Levy calling all the intricate influences she’s collected over the years into one. Opener Mercury is particularly untraditional in its form and adopts a complexity that bares a close resemblance to prog-rock – its heavy guitars depicting the feelings that Levy has been unable to relay in a simple, linear format.

This theme continues on wildheart, which reveals a wild, discordant solo over soft acoustic picking as her ethereal voice cuts through the bass, guitar and drums. The record’s feeling of loss and loneliness might be best captured on the party, as it reaches a mesmeric, whirlpool climax with Levy repeating the phrase ‘at all’ continuously, backed by producer Tim Gowdy’s magic which brings in the white noise of passing traffic and hard-breathing after the final guitar notes clear – a profound, solitary moment.

For real now (not pretend) is a perfect example of how she pulls contrasting influences and ideas into the same track. From a solid, rhythmic, guitar-led verse and chorus, a middle eight shifts the time signature and instrumentation, transcending into whirring, circling synths before an explosive, grungy outro. In contrast, the quieter and beautifully reflective, the dancer, sees Levy back with the weight of the world on her shoulders as she sings, ‘Some days I am the float, which has to step on everything, everything, everything.’

It’s a musically intriguing, yet immediate record that carries a raw, emotive edge that should allow people to connect. The perfect formula, you’d think, yet as strong as the lead tracks feel, there are moments which feel a little underwhelming. Still, a rather storming debut.

Secret Meeting score: 76


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