Vivek Shraya

If We’re Not Talking: Recalling the album, replaying the demos

For the 10-year anniversary • 15 May 2017


1. “This flood (I’m losing it)”

I bought my first electric guitar after touring with Tegan and Sara in 2005. I was not only inspired by how bad-ass they were, swinging their own electrics around, but also how, over their addictive hooks, the electric guitar seemed to recontextualize their songs about rejection and remorse into music that made crowds want to dance. All my sad songs seemed to evoke was more sadness, an invitation for the listener to lie on their bedroom floor in the fetal position. I was stimulated by the possibility of evoking movement instead of stillness through song.

This flood was the first song I wrote on my new guitar. Like most of the other songs I wrote for If We’re Not Talking, I wrote it standing, and stomping my foot.

Another new factor for this album was that my tour-mate and fellow-musician, Rachael Cantu, had given me a crash course in how to record demos in GarageBand. Up until this point, I would often just sing a song for a producer or play it on acoustic guitar, and then end up somewhat disappointed that the final recorded songs didn’t sound like what I had heard in my head. Learning to demo not only allowed me to experiment with recording my voice, but also flesh out a song closer to what I was imagining, where I could explore different back-up vocals, and eventually instrumentation.

Despite being my fourth album, If We’re Not Talking, often feels like my first, because it was the first album that sounded closest to how I wanted to sound, and a large reason for this actualization was rigorously demo-ing every song before recording the album versions.

2. “Your Name” (demo) — Produced by Sara Quin

During and after the tour, I was fortunate to have many conversations with Tegan and Sara about my music—what they felt worked and suggestions for strengthening. One of Sara’s most valuable comments was suggesting that because I was a strong singer, I should explore not only harmonies but other complimenting vocal parts, such as call and answer. She even generously offered to help me demo one of my latest songs when I had visited her in Montreal.

I still cringe when I imagine her patiently coaching me as I tried to play guitar to a click—FOR THE FIRST TIME—as she recorded me on her ProTools. Mortified, I left the track in her hands. A few weeks later, she sent it back with additional keyboard and vocal parts. Delighted by what she had added to the song, I asked her if she would sing on the album. Her “let’s” and “find” parts on the final track are some of the catchiest moments on the record, and emphasize her effortless pop sensibilities.

3. “If We're Not Talking” (demo) — Produced by Jordon Zadorozny

As I began to research producers for this album, paying close attention to who was producing albums that I loved, I learned about Jordon Zadorozny (Sam Roberts, Melissa Auf der Maur). When I reached out to him, he invited me to his home studio in Pembroke where he suggested we try out one song. The drive to Pembroke is one of the most memorable moments of making this album, as Shemeena and I were surrounded by fog so dense that we both expected either to accidentally drive into the water that surrounded the highway, or for an old man to suddenly appear on the road and murder us.

The recording experience itself with Jordon in his enchanting studio was thankfully far more relaxed. And I like what we recorded and could imagine continuing to work together. But it didn’t quite feel different enough than terrain I had already explored in previous albums, and I was seeking to make a significant change in my sound.

4. “If We're Not Talking” (demo) — Produced by Meghan Toohey

I fell in love with Meghan Toohey’s production when Rachael played me her new track that Meg had produced, “Your Hips Are Bad.” The production was raw enough that it didn’t overshadow Rachael’s voice or song, but also had an unpredictable quality that captivated me. Rachael suggested I reach out to Meg, and again, we discussed working on one track.

After sending her just the vocals for the song, “If We’re Not Talking,” she sent me back this demo, with Michael Jackson-inspired synths. Even though I wasn’t sure about the treatment, I was awestruck about her ideas and the boundlessness of her musical capacity—a music wizard who could play every instrument. I instantly knew I wanted to work with her and together we decided to push the songs into an electro pop sound, inspired by the music we were listening to—Peaches, Goldfrapp and Prince.

Meg produced the album largely from her home studio in L.A. where she would receive long emails of notes from me (that she would come to love). We finally met in Jamaica Plains at the end of December 2006, where we recorded my vocals at her friend’s place. That week, we lesbian-processed, shared our music industry wounds, made fake Craigslist ads, and joyfully worked on an album we both already felt so proud of.

5. “Chemistry” (demo)

By the time I wrote this song, I felt like a GarageBand pro. Not quite, but now my demo process involved not only experimenting with vocals, but also built in loops and effects.

With many of the songs on If We’re Not Talking, like “Fevered,” the album versions are close to the demo or amplify the demo’s intentions. However, there were some songs, where Meg would offer a whole new treatment, which was always welcome, as I wanted her to feel like there was ample room for her own ideas and for her to feel impassioned as a producer. But it was also a struggle for me to determine which treatment of a song was ultimately the “right” version. Finding a balance between staying true to my vision while also being open to my collaborator’s ideas is one the aspects of collaboration I find most challenging.

“Chemistry” is an example of a treatment that, at first, I was divided about, as I liked the fast-paced delirium that was conjured in the demo. But the more I listened to Meg’s brilliant version, it unlocked a more sinister and hungry element of the lyrics, against a Nine Inch Nails-meets-Eminem sound. In my subsequent collaborations, I use “Chemistry” as a reminder that sometimes a collaborator’s vision is one worth conceding to.

6. “Next Exit” (b-side)

This was the last song I wrote during the If We’re Not Talking era. I was curious about returning to the acoustic guitar but incorporating the skills I had learned since I had last held one. Although I liked this song, hearing the acoustic with horn samples and beats, it felt like the beginning of a new chapter (one I would never write)—and the end of this one.