Tapping into her Nova Scotia roots, frontwoman Molly Rankin discusses the production of an album built on raw sound and formative memories

To come of age in the 2010s was to know Alvvays; among other things, the indie pop band soundtracked scenes of me laying on my bed scribbling in notebooks and late-night drives to grab food with my friends. I have vivid recollections of the chorus of “Archie, Marry Me” drifting across the cafe I worked at as I refilled mugs of coffee, daydreaming about something or other.

The iconic Canadian band is making their long-anticipated return with their third studio album Blue Rev, which releases October 7. The dreamy, 14-track record is filled with echoes of haunting melodies, and a sense of nostalgia for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where frontwoman Molly Rankin and keyboardist Kerri MacLellan grew up in the same neighborhood. In some ways, Blue Rev is an evolution of Alvvays, leaning into more shoegaze and grungy distortion than before—but it remains undeniably familiar with its resounding hooks and generally ethereal sound. “I think that we’ve taken some risks on this album, just bleeding in some of the more grainy moments that normally we would edit out of a demo,” Rankin says. “We embraced the quirk of our first instincts.”

The raw-sounding qualities of the record are not contrived. Producer Shawn Everett urged the group to abandon their tendency to carefully map out every detail of their songs, instead having them play through the album straight-to-tape. “I believe that this album was made quicker, actually, than the other ones,” Rankin says—an ironic observation, given that the new record comes five years after the release of the group’s sophomore album Antisocialites. With such a large time gap, it’s easy to assume the band was carefully fine-tuning each and every detail of Blue Rev. In reality, the road to Blue Rev was filled with unforeseen obstacles. Alvvays had already started to write and record for the new album shortly after Antisocialites, but the demo tapes were stolen during a break-in at Rankin’s Toronto apartment. The next day, a basement flood destroyed much of the band’s gear. Then they lost their bassist and their drummer, and the pandemic border closures made it impossible for the band to practice with its new members, Abbey Blackwell and Sheridan Riley.

As with the group’s previous two albums, Blue Rev was written primarily by Rankin and her partner, guitarist and producer Alec O’Hanley. “After The Earthquake” is a heart-wrenching, cinematic highlight of the album, inspired by Haruki Murakami’s short story “After the Quake.” On “Pomeranian Spinster,” Rankin’s voice transforms from its typical sweet, airy disposition to a cutting, almost snarky tone, singing “I’m going to get what I want / I don’t care who it hurts.” “Belinda Says” taps into a nostalgia for Cape Breton, with recollections of drinking the record’s namesake sugary, alcoholic drink of Rankin and MacLellan’s youth behind a hockey rink. Rankin describes the track, which references Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” as the “emotional, lyrical centerpiece” of the album.

It’s unsurprising that Rankin found her way into making music; her late father, John Morris Rankin, was a famous fiddler and pianist. He and a number of his 11 siblings formed “The Rankin Family,” a band that ignited a resurgence of Celtic music across Canada. Rankin followed in her father’s footsteps; he started teaching her to play the fiddle at age 10. The trademark echoey refrains of Alvvays songs are in part thanks to the traditional sense of melody Rankin grew up with.

Rankin can simplify her exploration into the past: “I think the song ‘Strawberry Wine’ would probably be a good comparison to something like Blue Rev, where you’re reimagining your past based on the taste of something, and what that feeling brings back to you,” she says.

Madeleine Beck: Lyrically, you’ve established some really cinematic songs with vivid details. Where do you find inspiration for these tracks?

Molly Rankin: That could be me walking down the street and one sentence popping into my mind, something that I’ve never strung together before, whether that’s He’s a very online guy, he likes to hit reply, or Blue Rev behind the rink—things that I feel like I’ve stumbled upon. It could also be a melodic shift that triggers an emotion, sending me down a path [through which] I can create my own little world or universe or movie, whatever it ends up being. I’m someone that is struck by things spontaneously, rather than going out and hammering something out until I become inspired. Which is possibly why things take longer than they ideally would [laughs].

“We’ve taken some risks on this album, just bleeding in some of the more grainy moments that normally we would edit out of a demo. We embraced the quirk of our first instincts.”

Madeleine: What pushed you to break out of your comfort zone and take some risks on this album?

Molly: Maybe there’s a little bit more perspective on life, given the way the world has gone in the past few years. It seems like, what is there to lose if you just lean in and embrace a more raw-sounding guitar solo or a really out-of-control vocal delay? I think we’ve done Alvvays enough that I feel like it still sounds like us. As long as it feels right to me—I feel like I can be semi-objective—I’m a little bit less concerned about what people think.

Alec and I are probably our own biggest critics, so we are quite hard on each other and have a high bar of what we expect from one another. We’re continuously editing everything we do, and just trying to keep elevating things.

It wasn’t our intent to take so long on this record; we had initially gone into the studio, and had to go back to Canada because of the, you know, viral lung disease. But it was extremely important to have our drummer Sheridan on this album. And there was a very long time where they weren’t able to cross the border, and we weren’t able to play in a room together for at least a year. When we finally got vaccines and felt like we were able to safely record, we hit the ground running. I believe that this album was made quicker, actually, than the other ones.

Madeleine: Was there any difficulty in kind of finding your way back as a band after such a long time apart?

Molly: Besides the logistical elements, I feel like everyone is such an easy fit. I think our personalities complement each other, and our musical inclinations blend really well. Abbey, our bassist, is extremely new and came on board basically the week we started recording the album, and we just started living in a house together [laughs]. That’s been a really beautiful experience, just getting to know her and seeing the way she meshes with everyone else. It feels like an old familiar sweater in a way.

Madeleine: Do you have a favorite song on the album, or a song that’s most personal to you?

Molly: I think ‘Pharmacist’ is my favorite song just because of the feelings that I have when it starts playing. But ‘Belinda Says’ is probably the emotional, lyrical centerpiece of the album. It encapsulates everything that I wanted to touch on, mood-wise and reference-wise. When I hear that song, it just sort of sums up my aim for the album.

Madeleine: What were some non-musical influences on the album?

Molly: Kerri and I got really into Stardew Valley when we were not able to be around each other during the pandemic, and it’s sort of an infectious game. I feel like more and more people that are in our camp are into it. The producer on this album, Shawn Everett, got it on his Nintendo Switch, so we’re hoping to start a farm with him. Our monitor tech plays it, we have a farm with her. It’s just been really fun. There were some lyrics at the time that weren’t going to be referencing Stardew Valley, but they didn’t actually make it in [laughs].

Madeleine: The record is filled with a sense of nostalgia, with references to Cape Breton and Blue Rev. What do you think kicked this nostalgia into gear while you were writing the album?

Molly: I think not knowing when I’ll be able to return to where I’m from would probably be a subconscious thing that sort of leaked into what I was writing about. It’s a pretty unique experience living in Cape Breton, living in Nova Scotia, or anywhere on the east coast of Canada. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. And it’s also at the same time, really not for the faint of heart. They have extremely isolating winters. It’s full of very resilient people.

Madeleine: What was your experience growing up there?

Molly: There weren’t movie theaters, or malls, or anything. Music was such a huge part of my upbringing, and I know Kerri’s as well. Not to say that instruments were toys, but a lot of the time that’s what we had at our disposal to explore, because there were so many musicians in both of our families. We played a lot of music, we spent a lot of time exploring forests. We’re also the youngest in our families, so at some point, I feel like maybe our parents would just forget about us [laughs]. So we could just disappear for entire days and then show up at dinnertime, and all would be well.

Madeleine: Can you talk about your family’s influence on your music and on your career?

Molly: I am never really able to truly discern whether or not that plays a role in Alvvays. But I do hear Celtic lines, I know that my approach to playing the guitar is sometimes informed by how I used to play the fiddle. So I have a fairly nimble style of playing guitar, where I’m sometimes playing melodic lines over what I’m thinking and that’s part of my fiddle knowledge translating into our band. But I do feel like I kind of have this traditional sense of melody embedded in my brain. I assume that that is part of why I like melodies that stick around, and I can remember and can be repeated.

“What is there to lose if you just lean in and embrace a more raw-sounding guitar solo or a really out-of-control vocal delay?”

Madeleine: Which songs from the album are you most excited to perform live on tour?

Molly: I actually get to play bass for ‘Pharmacist,’ which has been really fun to practice, and we played it one time in Chicago. ‘Belinda Says’ feels really good when we all play it together. There’s a song on the album called ‘Tile By Tile’ that I’m currently training—like the training sequence in the movie Rocky. I’m doing that in the vocal respect, to try and be able to sing that for five weeks. Alec and Kerri are putting together all of the keyboard sounds to make everything explode the way that it needs to when there’s a room full of people watching.

Madeleine: What do you do in your free time?

Molly: There were a lot of things that I just got into—probably coping things—over the last few years. I really like to garden, I found out. I have a lot of plants. I started painting. I am a horrible painter, but I find it incredible for my brain. I started exercising more just to just feel better about life in general and it’s been working.

Madeleine: I just started buying plants—not gardening exactly—but taking care of plants. It’s very fulfilling.

Molly: It’s almost like a version of being a parent. Something to invest yourself in [laughs].

Madeleine: Yeah, definitely.

What are some of your favorite albums of all time?

Molly: I have this album on vinyl called Demonstration Tapes by Dolly Mixture, and that’s pretty much a collection of all my favorite stuff. I don’t know if you know that band, but I think they’re really overlooked. The influence that they’ve had on our band is paramount, and I just admire them so much. Alec is huge into R.E.M., like Murmur. I mean, [I love] all Smiths records. My Bloody Valentine, early or recent.

Madeleine: I know you didn’t list them, but I was thinking about how a lot of people have compared Alvvays to Camera Obscura, or vice versa. I had never really thought about that connection before, but it is really apt.

Molly: I’ve met Tracy a few times, and she’s been so kind to me. When there are a lot of comparisons between artists, there’s an opportunity to not be so welcoming to each other. How sweet she was to me was a lesson in being kind to other people you come across who touch on different elements of your own music.

Madeleine: What did your childhood bedroom look like?

Molly: I believe it’s painted yellow. It still exists. There is a closet with bats drawn all over the inside of it, and that is called the bat cave.

Madeleine: Did you draw the bats in the closet?

Molly: I think I did. And writing on walls was a no-no, apparently.