Finding a suitable name for a musical endeavour can be complicated. They’re often provocative, catchy, sublime, humourous or culturally obscure—perhaps all at once.
Yet even in the esoteric world of band-naming, traveling back to the dusty lecture halls of a university course that never struck your fancy and searching for a complex theory that will double as both a memorable moniker and a subtle metaphor doesn’t seem commonplace. The Phonemes—a warm, cozy, pop-indie project led by the melodious songwriting skills of Magali Meagher and supported by the finespun instrumentals of Elizabeth Forsberg and Matias Rozenberg—can lay claim to such a process.
“A phoneme is a theoretical definition of sound,” Meagher said. “It is the smallest unit of sound that has meaning.
“I studied linguistics and I did pretty poorly in this phonetics course and I thought I had to redeem myself by using a concept that I actually grasped from my course,” she said.
“I was feeling like, ‘I really have to do this justice’. And, at the time, it really went with the music—it was a nice way of describing what we were doing musically.”
Besides struggling with phonetics, Meagher has also invested her time into the burgeoning Canadian pop-indie scene.
Best known for her guitar-playing role in The Hidden Cameras, Meagher has also collaborated with artists such as Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy and Bob Wiseman. Add that to an unexpected acting gig in The Rat King—a rock-opera by the prolific and multi-talented Maggie MacDonald—and you have the makings of a homegrown bohemian personality.
“I met a lot of people in The Hidden Cameras that I ended up collaborating and doing other things with. I mean, I met Owen of Final Fantasy with The Hidden Cameras and Maggie MacDonald, whose play I acted in during the summer and we went down to New York City for a week and played off-Broadway in the Fringe Festival. It is one of the only curated Fringes internationally, so it was pretty exciting to be chosen.”
MacDonald’s piece was staged at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, one of New York’s most well-known off-Broadway destinations, and the stage where the Threepenny Opera—under the revitalized title of Imminent, Indeed (or, if you prefer, Polly Peachum’s Peculiar Penchant for Plosives)—had its 2006 revival.
“It’s a heavy-duty place to be, so I completely didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but it was a lot of fun,” Meagher said.
Despite success in her previous collaborations, Meagher says she’s putting more time into her individual projects, starting with The Phonemes.
“Now, it’s my project. When I was in The Hidden Cameras, it was Joel Gibb’s project. They’re my songs and I work with people who play and add to that.”
Releasing their first EP in 2003, The Phonemes released their debut album, there’s something we’ve been meaning to do in the spring of 2007, finally translating the delicate variety of tracks to an album.
“I like intimate, intimate’s good. I think this record in particular was kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants,” Meagher said.
“As musicians and artists we absorb what’s around us in general, and that comes through, but I also don’t know that I can really translate or impose any influence on that project from somewhere else. The grouping of songs were chosen because I thought they’d make a good group. There’s a range of styles, not so much style, because the songs are simple and sparse. I have a tendency to write from melody and then layer instrumentation.”
The sounds of Meagher’s songs are characteristically affectionate: heavy on the melody with a coating of delicate instrumentals filtered into a soft, affable sound.
“I write songs on guitar. I’m always trying to get better at playing the guitar. Once you get better and are able to master the instrument, you can add texture.
“I think my fallback is my strength in my imagination to add melody onto what might be a simple guitar line—with melody and layering come up with ideas to come up with that texture.”
Lyrically and linguistically inclined, The Phonemes have been a work-in-progress finally coming to fruition.
“It’s a slow-moving train, but now it’s starting to pick up more steam. We’re keeping the dream alive.”
The Apple Crisp Music Series presents the Phonemes playing tonight with Nich Worby, at Queen Street United Church, 221 Queen St. at Clergy. Doors at 7 p.m.; admission is $5.
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