Miracle Fortress

"I didn’t set out to do any kind of music that had a name."

Illustration by Tyler Crich
Illustration by Tyler Crich

Maybe Lately
Graham Van Pelt is a swiss-army knife of musical talent. As the man behind the Montreal-based solo project Miracle Fortress, he acts as composer, arranger, performer, producer and engineer—every word and every sound of Miracle Fortress is born from him. His first album, 2007’s Five Roses, was nominated for a Polaris Music Prize and heralded by critics and fans as an indie-pop masterpiece. Awash in synth-laden soundscapes and layered vocals, the album had people wondering if he was a long lost cousin of Brian Eno’s. His new album Was I the Wave?, however, veers Miracle Fortress into new terrain: bedroom club music. It feels like a dance party for one. It may be a significant departure from Five Roses in sound, but not in spirit. Discorder caught up with Van Pelt over the phone to get the skinny on the new album, and the musician came across much like his records: introspective, deeply personal and full of ideas.

The genesis of Miracle Fortress began simply enough as an outlet for the music that didn’t fit into Van Pelt’s full-time band, indie-dance-rockers Think About Life. “It’s not a band that I’m the lead singer in or anything,” he says of that project. “I’ve always made music on my own. It’s something that I’m addicted to doing. [Think About Life] is a dance band quite a bit different than anything else I’ve been a part of. My role is not the centrepiece. I write a lot of music for Think About Life [for other people to perform].”
While Van Pelt’s first album focused heavily on psychedelic, six-string guitar loops that intertwined in melodic splendour. Was I the Wave? takes root in more euro-centric club synths and deep, oscillating beats that play with your sense of space. Hypnotic opening track “Awe” builds on layers of reverb, with pulsating synths weaving in and out, a foreshadowing of the album to come. The finely-tuned, dreamy closing piece “Until”, one of the few guitar focused songs on the album, brings to mind images of angels playing harps on a cloud. The album ebbs and flows like, well, a wave. The hooks are submerged in an ocean of sound. When asked about the new album’s distinct shift in style, Van Pelt laughs. “Yeah, people seem to have noticed. I [made both records] using the same tools and techniques, but the biggest thing that people who paid attention to the last album will notice is I don’t play nearly as much guitar [on the new album]. I brought more drums and programming into the fold and I hadn’t done much of that previously.”
What’s most surprising about Miracle Fortress’ recent transformation is that Van Pelt didn’t set out to make an electronic record. “I tried to let [the recording process] be pretty natural. I didn’t set out to do any kind of music that had a name. It was an organic, experimental process,” he says before pausing to muse over his methods. “I waited for things to start making sense next to each other. It was a really slow process and I took a lot of time just experimenting with different sounds I could use and integrate into the music. It’s a big process. Nothing you hear was specifically pre-meditated or planned out, other than certain experiments working out and becoming the natural decisions that got made.”

Van Pelt’s patience and focus paid off: Was I the Wave? is an intoxicating album, requiring repeat listens and a sturdy set of headphones. From its club numbers to the ‘80s dance-pop feel of “Spectre,” a thoroughly uplifting track that hearkens back to a time when the Smiths ruled the British airwaves, the album’s an all-access pass into the unique musical mind of Van Pelt. Each song unlocks the door to this man’s creative sensibilities.

Miracle Fortress is aptly named. Van Pelt really is a fortress unto himself, crafting his records alone. Working in solitude does, however, offer its own unique challenges. When asked if he enjoys being alone or if he finds it difficult, he chuckles, “You could ask that question to anybody alone in their life.”

“It’s a big proposition to work by yourself on something,” he continues in a more serious tone. “I do try to reach out for a little feedback from people I know, but for the most part you’re on the war against all of your sensibilities and seeing what kinds of comprises you can come up with [when] all the different parts of your personality [are] presenting themselves at once.” For Van Pelt, winning this war is all important.

The Miracle Fortress website describes the creation of Was I the Wave? as “a product of [Van Pelt’s] occasionally hermetic temperament … [expressing] themes of alienation, anonymity, or the desire for the assurances of intimacy.” When asked if he agreed with this statement, Van Pelt said the description is “more in reference to me as a person than feeling like I was left all alone with the music, like life wasn’t fair. I’ll always be somebody who spends a lot of their time working on their own, doing music and finding sounds.”

For Van Pelt, there’s nothing he’d rather be doing than creating music. “It’s a hobby I picked up as a teenager and I don’t ever imagine I’ll spend much time away from it. I’m extremely lucky to be able to do this.” And lucky for us, Van Pelt has crafted a dynamic record that will reach out and connect with those who take the time to swim in its sonic waves.

Miracle Fortress Opens for Shad at Fortune Sound Club, May 7.