by Michael Thomas
As Canadians, we are all defined by our cultural heritage. Most of us can draw our lineage back to a place other than Canada at some point.
Olenka Krakus, of whom London, Ontario-based folk act Olenka and the Autumn Lovers is named after, is at least partially defined by a place she has few memories of.
Those familiar with Olenka and the Autumn Lovers will notice some eastern European influences on their music, sometimes in sounds but often in subject matter. That’s no accident, of course.
Krakus was born in Poland, when it was still under Communist rule. “It’s almost an imagined history because I was so young when we left,” she says. “I think in that sense I connect to that part of my life through nostalgia and through childhood. Just as an imaginary space; a place where I remember being happy, and then everything changed.”
She recalls only snippets of her time in Poland, and while her parents haven’t been extremely forthcoming to her with their experience, they have said a few words about it every now and then.
“Amongst their closest friends and relations, there was a certain fear or intimidation by the community,” Krakus says, “That if you spoke out, someone might hear it and you might get in trouble.”
Krakus and her parents fled the Communist regime when she was very young, and she spent some time in Austria. “Just being isolated and not having anybody that I knew except for my immediate family was really traumatic to some extent,” she says. “I remember when we were in Austria I refused to speak a word of German.”
Since she doesn’t get too much from her parents, Krakus often connects with Poland through film and literature. She cites Andrzej Wajda’s films Man of Marble and Man of Iron as two films that really helped her understand what her parents went through in Poland as the Solidarity movement was happening.
“I liked [Man of Iron] a lot because it kind of gave me an insight of what it might have been like for them being young people in Poland at the time,” she says. “I think it was probably kind of frightening for them.” Some Olenka and the Autumn Lovers songs can be traced to specific films, even. “Warsaw Girl,” an early song of Krakus’, can be traced to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film The Double Life of Véronique.
“It’s a film about a girl in Paris, and another girl in Warsaw, and the two of them are kind of like doppelgangers, which is what I wrote about my song about,” Krakus says. “In terms of a doppelganger of mine who might have stayed in Poland, and what her life would have been like if she’d grown up there or if I’d grown up there.”
Krakus got into music in her early teens, starting by playing piano “anywhere and everywhere that there was one.” She found herself constricted by the instrument, however, once her parents got her lessons. “I had such a hard time reading music, reading notation, and I would be a lot faster and a lot better just by ear.”
Then she decided to start playing her father’s old classical guitar. “I knew nothing about the instrument when I picked it up, I was like, ‘Wow, it has six strings. It makes six sounds. How do people make it work? I don’t get it.’ And then I would hit it, and eventually I had this silly moment where I pressed on the string and plucked it by accident and my brain exploded. I was like ‘Oh my god, this is so much harder than I thought!'”
Krakus would eventually move to Canada. She spent some time in Vancouver before settling into London, Ontario, which is now her home base.
“When I moved to London, I met a lot of people who were really talented in terms of multi-instrumentalists, and the scene itself was kind of welcoming,” Krakus says. “I found myself playing more and more with people, and I found myself writing songs with the instrumentation I suddenly had access to. And then it just became a band.”
She then elaborates on where “The Autumn Lovers” part of her band name comes from: “I ended up deciding on the Autumn Lovers because I liked the season—I like that the season is paradoxical. In that it’s comforting after an awful summer, like the summers we have here, but it’s also right on the verge of winter and death. And I thought that the paradox of the season sort of fit with the songs I was writing.”
Her supporting players come and go, and so the sound of the Autumn Lovers has shifted over the years since the band’s self-titled debut.
“When we started, it was very informal. I definitely had song structures. I gave input to a lot of the musicians I played with, but especially early on, a lot of it was kind of made up on the spot. Like the weird clarinet solos or weird things that were happening on accordion. I didn’t understand those instruments, first of all, so I was like ‘Yeah, that sounded great. Do that again.’ So it started off as this ragtag assembly of musicians. But then as we started moving into the more recent albums like And Now We Sing and the most recent stuff, Hard Times and It’s Alright, it became much more arranged. And a lot of that came out of really sitting down with the string players and figuring out a lot of songs as guitar and string songs and the three-part harmonies. Then building the rest of the songs around that stuff.”
Hard Times in particular was also a first in that it was also a collaboration with local London artist Trevor Kyle Carter. Krakus liked the textural look of his paintings, as well as Carter’s use of bright colours, and so asked him to paint a cityscape, since it related very closely to her EP’s themes.
“This album was very much about the contrast between the rural and the urban,” Krakus says. “I was thinking about the economic downturn of 2008 onwards, and how those communities were so interdependent and how so much of the urban setting was impacting on the rural.” The aforementioned cityscape can be seen in part on the jacket cover of the CD, but that’s only one of several pictures featured on the EP.
The 7″ It’s Alright carries a story of its own, but not quite a positive one. It’s Alright was released at the same time as Hard Times, but the band only got the vinyl about a month-and-a-half ago. It took six test presses before Krakus and her bandmates were satisfied.
“Finally by the sixth press we accepted it, things seemed to be resolved,” she says. “Until that point they were sending test presses where there was pitch wobble.”
“For a while there I think they just thought we were crazy,” she adds. “I’m like ‘Am I crazy, am I just hearing this?’ There was enough objective investigation that we were convinced that it was an issue.”
Next month, Olenka and the Autumn Lovers will be doing a small tour of Quebec and New Brunswick. “Which is mostly an excuse for a vacation,” she says, laughing.
And then all of Krakus and her bandmates’ time will be spent preparing for recording their next album.
“It’s a lot of work, especially touching back on what I was saying about us being so arranged and particular,” Krakus says. “It takes a long time for us to work out a song. I’m actually kind of terrified.”
When she’s not making music, Krakus is either playing or selling music at a local London record store. She’s currently listening to records by Miserere, Joni Mitchell, Grizzly Bear and St. Vincent.