“In the back of my mind was a beautiful, truthful shouting,” Half Moon Run’s Devon Portielje confesses in the band’s newest single, “You Can Let Go.” The song’s verses recall the cardiac panic of the Montreal band’s earliest hits, at least until the fever breaks and the chorus transcends into sublime harmonies: “You can let go that weight you carry with you.”
With a fourth album in the works, transcendence, the sublime, and letting go are on Portielje’s mind. Since Half Moon Run’s last album, A Blemish in the Great Light (Glassnote, 2019), there’s been a global pandemic and a sea-change in the live music industry. Meanwhile, the band’s put out three releases—two EPs and a collection of reworked “isolation versions” of older songs. Plus, their fourth member, multi-instrumentalist Isaac Symonds, has moved on to a bucolic life out west.
The remaining trio—Portielje, Conner Molander, and Dylan Phillips—are also the band’s founding trio. Their fabled origin story involves a 2009 Craigslist ad, and a dingy Mile End jam space populated by a rising wave of Montreal musicians, including phenom Grimes. They spent those formative years generating not just their debut album, Dark Eyes (Indica, 2012) but also the restless, six-armed entity that composes their music and performs their live show. (All of Half Moon Run’s members, past and present, are vocalists and multi-instrumentalists.) “The chemistry just fused,” Molander says of that time. “We decided that we were going to drop everything else that we might want to pursue in our lives and just go full steam ahead with the band. I dropped out of university, we all quit jobs, took on debt. When I think back on that album, it must’ve been by sheer force of desperation that something came across, because there was no turning back.”
When Dark Eyes dropped, its success was immediate and lasting; starting with enthusiastic local radio airplay of its infernal lead single, “Full Circle.” The album went platinum in Canada, and a US deal with Glassnote Records landed the band in the upper reaches of Billboard’s Heatseekers list. Dark Eyes also put two A-list singles on BBC Radio 1, and earned the band a string of UK shows and a UK deal with Ben Lovett’s label, Communion. Rolling Stone labelled Half Moon Run “a band to watch,” and NME called the album “stunning.”
After adding Symonds to the roster, two years of breakneck worldwide touring followed—opening for not just Lovett’s band Mumford and Sons, but other international acts like City and Colour and Of Monsters and Men, and converting fans at major festivals all over North America, Europe, and Australia. “The live show became a really well-oiled machine,” Molander says. “We were super-comfortable onstage, so we could improvise a little bit. It was this really fluid thing, it was an incredible time for our live show.”
But by the time the band came home to Montreal, they were depleted creatively and emotionally. “It was like being underwater,” Phillips recalls. “We hadn’t had a chance to reflect, or to come to terms with what we were doing, what our lives had become.” Jamming was stilted and songwriting was alien. With those big record deals hanging over them, the band packed up their tour van and let the sun pull them west to California, to create themselves all over again.
Their sophomore album, Sun Leads Me On, was produced by Jim Abbiss (Adele, Arctic Monkeys) and dropped in late 2015. Lead single “Turn Your Love” became the band’s first Top Ten hit at Canadian Alt-Rock Radio, and was #1 at Triple-J in Australia. Two more years of sold-out worldwide touring followed, including four back-to-back hometown shows (famously selling out 9000 tickets in 45 minutes), and playing fourteen European festivals in fourteen weeks.
This time when they returned home, they came back to songwriting a little differently, Portielje says. “I think all of us would agree that you can harness inspiration through—not brute force—but consistent, firm effort. It can be really spartan at some points, but other times it can be extremely fruitful.” Much of the time the band spent working on 2019’s A Blemish in the Great Light wasn’t just collective, but individual. “I felt kind of stuck with the skill set I had when I joined the band when I was 19,” says Molander. “And that didn’t feel good enough. We all felt that way, to a certain extent, and we all started practicing and studying. I found a piano and started learning classical music again. There’s a certain amount of your individuality that you sacrifice to be part of a group like this, and studying, working, writing on your own can reclaim some of that.”
To record Blemish, the band worked with legendary producer Joe Chiccarelli (Frank Zappa, The Strokes, Sondre Lerche). The album debuted at No. 3 on the Canadian charts, and earned a 2020 Juno for Adult Alternative Album of the Year. Back on the road, the band booked a tour that was meant to be both humane (days off and actual beds for the crew and band), and also up to their visual and sonic standards. “It was one of the best tours ever, for us,” Portielje says, “Touring in a healthy way, going to these wonderful places, and playing for these people that really want to see you is one of the greatest privileges of my life. I do love parts of it, and I crave the intensity, but that tour—you know, even though we sold a lot of tickets, we didn’t make ends meet.”
As band and management regrouped to assess how to tour in a way that was feasible both psychologically and financially, the coronavirus pandemic ended the discussion. Half Moon Run reacted to the shock of lockdown by returning to their creative woodshed: practicing, studying, jamming together where they could, when it was legal. From their homes, they livestreamed versions of their back catalogue on YouTube, and compiled the results into the 2020 Covideo Sessions LP. Meanwhile, Symonds announced his departure. “When COVID hit,” Molander explains, “everybody in the world was going inside themselves and asking, ‘Who am I? What are the most important things in my life? And what can I get rid of?’” Portielje agrees: “It’s intense living. Isaac gave his whole twenties to the band, and then when we finally had a break he realized he could put down some things.”
Two EPs emerged from the band’s pandemic years: 2020’s Seasons of Change collected songs held over from Blemish; and the six songs of 2021’s Juno-winning Inwards and Onwards were self-recorded in their jamspace. Portielje recalls Québec’s 130 days of curfew almost fondly, as one of the band’s most prolific periods. “We’d condense normal practices that might be like 12 or 14 hours down to six or eight. By the end, the jams would be so hot, we’d be counting down the minutes. We cut it really tight; 20 minutes before curfew we’d still be playing, and then we’d have to race home, maybe a little bit inebriated, on our bikes, before the curfew hit and it was illegal to be outside.”
The band’s collective approach to songwriting—with their omnivorous influences, classical training, and subcortical triangulations—is cerebral in the same sense that a dream is cerebral. “When we’re jamming,” Portielje says, “and not actively agreeing on where to go, it’s like a dream state. You lose yourself in it, there’s a sense of oneness. You as a person are kind of null. It rarely happens, but when it does it’s transcendent.” Phillips adds, “When we come up with something we’re all in love with, it feels like a miracle. Every time, I’m like, “I didn’t know we could ever do this again, I thought it was over forever.”
That sublime state of creation has produced music that everyone from The Guardian to Exclaim praises, even as they struggle to classify it. But the band doesn’t much mind what genre they’re filed under—whether it’s neoclassical dream-folk, ambient math-pop, or rustic art rock. Live or recorded, their music—at least according to one anonymous fan—“sounds like gold dust.” The band spent 2022 playing select dates, including some of their most successful shows yet: there were 60,000 people on the Plains of Abraham for the final night of the Festival d’été de Québec; and ADISQ awarded the band another Félix (their fifth) for Best Anglophone Show of 2022.
Now, with their fourth album deep underway, labelling it is the furthest thing from Portielje’s mind. “All I can say is that our last EP was looking inwards and moving onwards, and now we’re maybe looking upwards.”
“You Can Let Go” was produced by Connor Seidel at the Treehouse Studio. It’s out worldwide with BMG on March 3, 2023.