Caribou Reflects On Mortality With Love and Optimism

Photo: Thomas Neukum

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published in print and online in the March 2020 issue of BeatRoute Magazine

It happens to nearly everyone at some point in life. We reach a certain age or something takes place that grabs hold of our world and rattles it so hard we feel it in the depths of our soul. Relatively ordinary life events, like birth and death, can cause these seismic changes within. Whatever the catalyst, it encourages a different perspective and we begin to reassess the meaning of everything around us.

This shift has been happening to Dan Snaith, the London-based, Ontario-born composer and musician, over the last five years. One of the most significant contributors was the shocking sudden death of a loved one not much older than Snaith that ricocheted through his extended family. Then, both of his parents experienced health crises that they, fortunately, overcame. But tragedy, and the threat of more, prompted a stark awareness of mortality.

“I feel like I’ve been very lucky in my life,” says Snaith, over Skype from the basement studio of his home in London, England. “I’ve been, just by good fortune, insulated from those things. Or maybe, my parents provided me with a very stable life. But I’m 41 years old. None of us are going to be immune from those circumstances forever.”

Alongside those personal challenges, there have been happy moments that have impacted Snaith just as dramatically, such as the birth of his second child—who arrived in the back of a car, no less. This past Christmas was profound, too: It was the first Snaith and his wife hosted at their house. “It was the kind of holiday that I pictured from my childhood,” Snaith smiles. “[And] it’s shifted from being about going to see my parents to my children’s experience and building those memories for them.”

These formative moments—Snaith’s life experiences—often inform the content of his music. His last release under the Caribou moniker, 2014’s Grammy-nominated Our Love, played with both austere and bright arrangements to delicately reflect on the intricate emotions that accompany new fatherhood, as well as complexities existing in his personal relationships with family and friends.

It makes sense that a contemplation on the asymmetry between the gradual way we age, grow, our perceptions of the person that we are becoming, and the unanticipated thwack of something completely reshaping that outlook would follow on Caribou’s latest effort.

Snaith’s new album, Suddenly, is aptly named. His record labels (Merge in North America and City Slang in Europe) were hesitant at first, concerned that the more obvious subject matter might not appeal to the listeners who championed the subtleties of Our Love. But for it to thematically be about anything else would have been an evasion. It was unavoidable.

“The kinds of things that are resonating in my life right now are maybe not what a 21-year-old expects to hear in the music that they’re listening to,” Snaith muses. “I don’t know. I feel like there was a real sense of purpose [on this album]. My music has always documented, to some degree, my life and where it’s at, but much more so with this.”

Snaith sourced from over 900 song ideas for Suddenly. A mind-boggling number, but not so much when considering he makes music every single day. It is a ritual as much as it is his creative process, and, as such, the tracks intrinsically reflect his thoughts and, inevitably, his truth. “I never listen to them as an album together until the album’s done.”

“And that’s always an eerie experience to me, because I listen to [the songs] and I’m like, ’It fits together. It’s somehow a story. It’s somehow a narrative,’ which is what I want. But I don’t have the foresight to be able to put that together while I’m working on it. It happens, somehow, by accident, except that it’s not by accident. I think that’s part of the thrill for me—there’s this kind of chase, even after 20 years or more of making music.”

Similar to, and a deeper exploration than its predecessor, Suddenly is anchored in the complex concept of love. And during a cultural moment so defined by urgent, polarizing politics, it almost feels like a brave thing to investigate. Snaith is far from immune to it all. “I had this idea of progress, that we would learn more and, as we learn more as a society, society progresses and gets better,” he deliberates. “And that’s been shaken by all sorts of things.”

The #MeToo movement is certainly one of them. And something that hit close to home when two industry acquaintances were accused of sexual assault. “You meet somebody and you think, ‘This is somebody who has, it seems, the same values as me. They talk about progressive issues in a progressive way,’” Snaith says. “And it undermined this assumption that I had. They seem nice and you think, ‘Well, they probably are nice.’ And it made me realize, ‘No, that’s not reliable.’ You can’t trust that.”

“In the same way that those major life changes just shifted the lens on everything, the world all of a sudden looks different after you hear some kind of cataclysmic news.”

That is why, for Snaith, ruminating on love is requisite. It is a reflection of his underlying optimism—a natural inclination that is evident in the way he responds to the rocky terrain of life (and the world at large) in the gentle electronic textures of his work.

A significant influence on Suddenly’s empathetic sonic approach was Beverly Glenn-Copeland, particularly the ambient musician’s glimmering 1986 album Keyboard Fantasies. “It’s something that you listen to and it’s a big hug that makes you feel like things are okay—but not in a facile way,” Snaith enthuses. “His music is something that really engages with difficulty and challenges.”

“Cloud Song” is the most obviously Glenn-Copeland inspired, with its warm, rippling synthesizers. But the dreaminess is very much present throughout, whether in shimmers underneath drum-driven beats, like on “Home,” which also samples soul singer Gloria Barnes; or as a delicate ramble that unexpectedly hurtles towards screaming guitar, as it does on “You and I.” Together, it makes for a nuanced, intimate, and meditative listen that coats the soul in familiarity and then turns it into unanticipated shapes.

As someone who pays careful attention to details, Snaith thinks often—and deeply— about the complicated state of our current reality. Its knots are something he, being somewhat of an idealist, is unsure he has entirely untangled within himself. But then, there is the music. It helps make sense of things and it allows him to engage in the most powerful way he can.

“I’ve always felt that it was a failing of my music to relate to the political dynamics in our world,” Snaith adds. “And I thought: ‘Why am I not making an album explicitly about climate change or explicitly about unfortunate political circumstances?’

Then I talked to somebody who is very wise in my life and often gives me good advice, a photographer friend of mine named Jason Evans, who does the covers for all of my records. And he was like, ‘To make music that aims to unite’—and hopefully not in a kind of vacuous way, hopefully in a way that’s somewhat meaningful—‘is actually a political statement.’ I think a kind of open-armed embrace is the closest thing that I can come to reaching out to people in that way.”