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Five Questions with Luka Kuplowsky

Toronto singer-songwriter Luka Kuplowsky is gaining a reputation as a thoughtful, creative singer-songwriter. We asked him about his music and his new double album, How Can I Possibly Sleep When There Is Music.

For people who may not be familiar with you, can you describe where you make music, and what your career has been like so far?

My music arises at the intersection of many traditions of the songwriter (folk, jazz, blues), with a great attention to language and improvisation. Career is a strange word for musicians these days when making a living from it is rare – it’s a passion, a love, a practice. I’ve been very fortunate over the last ten years to be a part of a beautiful music community in Toronto, to have worked with several labels and to have travelled across Canada and parts of the United States to perform my music.

How Can I Possibly Sleep When There is Music is a double album. Did it take a long time to write the songs, and what was your process like in making the album?

Rather than being a “concept album,” I think of it as a “process album.” It involved following my instincts following a few meaningful encounters: meeting the legendary songwriter Beverly Glenn Copeland; discovering the poetry of the Zen poet Ryokan Taigu; figuring out a method of poetic adaptation/response; and collaboration with musicians in my community. The songs themselves arose whenever a poem struck me. The actual writing or adapting was usually instantaneous and then later arrangements were worked out collaboratively.

There are so many connections to poetry in your music. Why is this intriguing for you?

Poems move me! The relation of poems to music is such a fascinating topic. There are obvious affordances and limits of each form, and adapting one to the another always opens/closes their respective form in a myriad of ways. You’re always going to lose or gain something in this process, but you also move towards a new understanding of the poem/the poet.

For this record I adopted two methods: either I would sing the poem as is, adjusting words slightly for rhythm, or letting the poem move through me towards a new song. When adapting a poem more traditionally, I would often consider how the music might convey aspects of the poem that are implied or resonate with my reading and interpretation of it.

The album cover is beautiful. Who did the artwork?

My mama! Win Keenan-Kuplowsky. She painted it after returning from some volunteer work with orphans in Ukraine during the mid-90s. She has both an ink and oil paint version of the image. She also screen-printed the image on sweaters in the 90s. I kept one of the sweaters for many years and the album cover is actually a photograph of the sweater (with 28 years of well-worn love). There is a deep spirituality, care and love in that image that feels both personal and universal.

“Fugitive Song (a response to Rainer Maria Rilke)” has a unique sound. Can you tell our audience about it? 

It’s the chemistry of the band: the airiness of Felicity’s voice; the deep funkiness of Josh’s Bass; the spidery guitar of Alex’s guitar; the spiraling of Anh’s flute; the figure 8 syncopation of Evan and Phil’s percussion; and my guitar and voice sailing cooly overhead.

The whole record was recorded live and is built around a dynamic of deep listening and improvisation. While it lands in a different zone, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks would be a touchstone for a similar approach/palette of the intersection of improvisation and songwriting.