The title of Montrealer Leif Vollebekk’s fourth album is a textbook case of truth in advertising. Where his previous releases positioned him as one of Canada’s most promising indie singer-songwriters, New Ways trades in folk for funk, recasting Vollebekk’s piano-based balladry in a soulful swirl of Wurlitzer tones, elegant orchestration, and snare-rim taps that lend the songs a more pronounced rhythmic pulse. “On my last record [2017’s Twin Solitude], I figured out what was the most fun and what was the most enjoyable for others,” Vollebekk tells Apple Music. “The songs ‘Elegy’ and ‘Into the Ether’ seemed to really connect with people, and those were the two songs that I recorded live with just myself and a drummer. So I was like, ‘I'm just gonna do the whole record like that!’ The more you add, the more you lose from that original feeling.”
Though Vollebekk’s comforting wool sweater of a voice and intimate narratives remain at the center of his songs, New Ways is just as much a showcase for drummer Olivier Fairfield. “He can just read my mind and reacts to my vocals when he's playing,” Vollebekk enthuses. “What he does is very complex and intricate, but it sounds simple.” On the candlelit, string-swept slow jam “Hot Tears,” Fairfield’s taut backbeats keep Vollebekk on course as he navigates a surprise mid-song chord change that sends the track veering off into a more dramatic direction, while on the transcendental jet-lagged reverie “Transatlantic Flight,” a steady snare tap serves as the ticking countdown for a passenger eagerly awaiting a reunion with his lover.
Vollebekk cites D’Angelo as a key inspiration for New Ways, though he’s not overtly emulating his loverman persona so much as subtly absorbing the gritty, nocturnal textures of his records. “The drums on those D’Angelo records are so loud, but everything else is so quiet,” Vollebekk observes. “Yet the drums are so perfectly recorded that they kind of disappear—every note is so perfect and constant that it just hits you and makes you move.”
New Ways doesn’t completely do away with Vollebekk’s old methods: “Change” and “Apalachee Plain” are gorgeous country-folk saloon serenades, the latter of which features guest Cindy Cashdollar (Bob Dylan, Van Morrison) dropping some pedal-steel tears in his beer. But the album’s live, in-the-moment approach pushed Vollebekk into uncharted territory that his younger self would’ve avoided. Case in point: “Never Be Back,” a silken bedroom ballad where Vollebekk’s love of R&B and hip-hop comes to the fore and he starts dropping rapid-fire triplets like a coffeehouse Drake.
“The emotion and the lyrics seemed to only work with that kind of delivery, so it just felt natural,” Vollebekk says. “I used to ask myself beforehand: ‘What if this doesn’t work? How is this going to play out? How am I going to do it?’ And all those questions would just paralyze me in the past and make me not try things. So I didn't really think about it too much this time. I felt like I could get away with it, because it was recorded live, and you can feel that.”
And besides, as Vollebekk notes, the distance between folk and rap is not as vast as it seems. “Hip-hop is basically the same as Bob Dylan,” he says. “Dylan's got these huge machine-gun lyrics, which, if you said them slower, the visuals would almost be too crazy. But they come at you so quickly that you move from image to image, so it's almost like the trailer to an amazing song. Some of my lyrics in ‘Never Be Back’ are borderline raw, but you can say more if you say it quicker, because you're not dwelling on an image too long and making it too precious.”