Interview: Raphaelle Standell from Braids

From their early days performing in Calgary as the Neighbourhood Council, the members of the now-Montreal-based Braids have always had a knack for balancing pop hooks with musical sophistication. The band’s third album, Deep in the Iris, is easily their best work to date, a collection of richly textured songs that explore themes of heartbreak, abuse and rape culture with impressive openness. I caught up with singer Raphaelle Standell to talk about her emotionally raw songwriting, and why being vulnerable isn’t the same as being weak.
[Portions of this interview originally ran in Swerve magazine]

Even back in the Neighbourhood Council days, you’ve always made an effort to be very transparent and open in your lyrics. Why is that so important for you, musically?

I just think it’s important to me in all elements of my life, to be honest with yourself and with those around you, and that’s just really the way I live my life. I think as I get older I find it becomes more of a focus of mine, being honest, and working through some things that I’ve gone to personally in my life, and just getting closer to my honest self, and honesty with band members, and just being really real with things.

I think that, in all walks of life, there’s such a tendency to have a facade when you’re doing things. Like having a facade on at work so you can get through it, and that’s just something I don’t really want to do anymore and I’ve really moved away from. Even if it’s difficult, I just think it’s better to feel than to shut off. It’s just really important for me to have honesty in all areas of my life, and writing for me is a way that I can really connect to myself, and that’s the way I connect to my best friends, who are in my band.

Keeping that conversation honest and that exchange honest is just really important to me at this time in my life. And will be forever moving forward, that’s just my intention as an artist.

I’ve noticed when people talk about that openness, they almost always describe it as vulnerable, and I’m not sure that’s how I hear it—there’s a lot of strength and ownership in how you perform your songs. Is vulnerable the right word?

I don’t think vulnerability is weakness, and I think within our culture, that it’s something that we confuse with weakness, if one is vulnerable. I guess because it was, “oh, I was vulnerable to this hurt,” or something. But when you’re being vulnerable with yourself, and when you’re in a safe environtment, when you’re making art—hopefully it’s in a safe environment—I think vulnerability can be a really beautiful and important thing.

I would definitely say that I was very vulnerable on this record, just with delving into some things that were very personal for me, because it’s a vulnerable thing to discuss things you’ve gone through. It’s really vulnerable to say “oh, I was really hurt,” or “I feel a lot of regret about this one thing I did.” That in itself is vulnerable, because you’re putting yourself out there for criticism.

So yeah, I think the process of writing this record was a vulnerable one, but I’m happy to be vulnerable. Because that’s very human. Nobody in the band shies away from having extremely human and deep experiences.

So how do you keep that same sense of emotional honesty the tenth or the hundredth time that you play these songs?

Sometimes you’re not as emotionally raw as you’d like to be, and those are just the shows that maybe aren’t as good as the other ones. But there’s always moments where you just connect so much with what your intention originally was in writing the song, and those are the ones that really stand out, and those are the shows that you try to learn from. Like, what did I do right in that moment, and why did I feel so connected to it?

Also the meaning can kind of shift as you perform it. And also, it doesn’t just become so much about what it is that I’m saying when I’m onstage performing it. My experience with performance has completely changed over the course of this record. It’s so little about me being on stage, and it’s so much more about the audience, which I never actually used to interact with that much. I was always kind of like, this is our band, and this is what we’re doing on stage, and then there’s the audience and they can kind of watch. Whereas now, my approach is very much that we’re all sharing in an experience.

A lot of the meaning will come from the audience—especially people screaming out “Miniskirt” or screaming out the chorus of “Taste” or something. And that in itself becomes really resonant, and really moving. It’s like, the experience we have with a full group of people, and not just the songs we have written.

I guess that’s how I would explain that.

Was that relationship something you were consciously trying to change, or did it more come from how people have been reacting to the new album?

It actually came from meditation, I think. I do a lot of metta meditation, and I started doing transcendental meditation, and I just felt a lot more connected to people on a much grander scale than just my friends or my family. And I definitely just noticed it when I’m on stage.

I think for the band, though, we have consciously spoken about that, of wanting to have an experience with the room and wanting to all really play together, because I know sometimes we can get lost in what it is we’re doing as individuals, just because the music is really complicated to play, and there’s a lot of buttons to hit on time. You kind of get lost in your own little world, and that’s something that consciously we have spoken about. But for me, it comes from meditation. It comes from doing a lot of loving kindness meditation, on wishing people and wishing myself and wishing those I haven’t met—it sounds really hippie, but it is hippie, I guess—wishing them peace and love and kindness. And that just has come over into my experience of performing, is wanting that for other people as well as myself and my bandmates.

One last question: Braids is shortlisted for the Polaris Prize for the second time. What’s one record you think the judges completely overlooked this year?

Uh, Doldrums, for sure. Air Conditioned Nightmare I think is, he’s my friend, but it’s one of my favourite records, and I don’t know, people kind of missed the ball on that one. And it’s definitely to the detriment of their experience musically, because it’s a fantastic record, and its really moved me and its moved a lot of people that I know.

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