"I find everything well-cultivated in California, and there’s a lot of space for women if you want to just be open and pursue whatever you want," Tops frontwoman Jane Penny told me over the phone last month.
Penny harnesses that paradisal freedom on the band's newest album, "Sugar at the Gate," which follows up the gentle shimmer of "Picture You Staring" with more of what Montreal's pioneering soft rockers do best: exercise expert control over melodicism and deceptively simple production.
She, along with fellow core members David Carriere (guitar) and Riley Fleck (drums), moved to Los Angeles for the duration of the new album's formation. For her and fellow Canadian Carriere, the move was quite a change of scenery. For Fleck, who is "this Cali boy" (Penny chuckled as she said it), it was sort of like coming back home.
"Riley’s from San Diego [Encinitas, to be precise] ... and he had spent enough time in Canada where immigration-wise he had to go back to the states. David and I had spent most of our adult life in Montreal so we thought, 'Let’s go live somewhere else,'" she said. "So, we just drove down in the van. Riley found this house, so we used the fact that there’s a lot more space in Southern California ... to get a studio set up in the house that we lived in. That was cool because we were able to just like jam every day and record there."
Fleck and Penny met at McGill University in Montreal some years ago where, according to her, "He would just be doing some drum rudiments, and we [Penny and Carriere] were like, ‘Well we need a drummer, and he’s obviously the most committed drummer we’ve ever met so we might as well ask Riley to do it.'"
Despite Montreal's burgeoning art and music scene, many of Penny's closest artistic collaborations and inspirations seem to be centered in Southern California -- from Fleck to album artist Jessica Dean Harrison.
"A lot of people that inspire me are from there," she said. "It’s kind of like being in paradise honestly. I learned how to drive there, and I was driving around meeting friends and like drinking beers at night when it cools down."
That's not to say that those things don't happen in Montreal or that there aren't plenty of diverse and inspiring people there as well, but there's something a little more liberating and unpredictable about an American city like Los Angeles. There is something very movie-like about it.
"I really liked LA -- I guess because it’s such a big city, and America can be so bureaucratic or crazy to live in. There’d be like random things where your car gets towed ... My friend’s car got towed when I was driving it. The no-stopping sign was under a tree ... Then all of a sudden you’re in 'Repo Man' driving through the downtown LA impound lot," Penny added.
With its beaches, beautiful bodies and palm trees, Los Angeles -- and Southern California in general, really -- exudes the sense of a living artwork, and that can trigger all sorts of narratives and visual frames in a creative mind. In Penny's case, these pictures and stories come out in song.
"'Petals' is about living in LA and 'Dayglow [Bimbo]' too. It's just these thoughts I had about the city I guess; there’s just this like cinematic, center-of-the-earth vibe to it that Canada doesn’t have," Penny concluded.
In a city that everyone watches, it's difficult not to become an actor yourself.
Rutger Rosenborg was almost a Stanford neuroscientist before he formed Ed Ghost Tucker. Whoops. He now plays in the Lulls and makes music on his own when he's not writing. Follow his updates on Facebook or contact him directly.