one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden is the name of the second album by Canadian songwriter Alexandra Levy, publicly known by the moniker Ada Lea. On one hand, it’s a collection of walking-paced, cathartic pop/folk songs, on the other it’s a book of heart-twisting, rear-view stories of city life. Ada Lea has followed up the creative, indie-rock songcraft of her debut what we say in private with surprising arrangements and new perspectives. The album is set in Montreal and each song exists as a dot on a personal history map of the city where Levy grew up. Due on September 24 from Saddle Creek and Next Door Records in Canada, the physical record will be released alongside a map of song locations and a songbook with chords and lyrics, inspired by Levy’s love of real book standards.
Levy penned and demoed this batch of songs in an artist residency in Banff, Alberta. After sorting and editing she made her way to Los Angeles to record with producer/engineer Marshall Vore (Phoebe Bridgers) who had previously worked on 2020’s woman, here EP. After a long walk to the studio each morning, Levy spent her session days diving into the arrangements, playfully letting everything fall in place with complete trust for her collaborators. She notes “Marshall’s expertise and experience with drumming and songwriting was the perfect blend for what the songs needed. He was able to support me in a harmonic, lyrical, and rhythmic sense.” Other contributors that left a notable fingerprint on the soundscape include drummer Tasy Hudson, guitarist Harrison Whitford (of Phoebe Bridgers band), and mixing engineer Burke Reid (Courtney Barnett). Many songs came together with a blend of studio tracks and elements from the pre-recorded demos.
The resulting sounds range from classic, soft-rock beauty to intimate finger-picked folk passages and night-drive art-pop. And the textures are frequently surprising due to the collage of lo-fi and hi-fi sounds that tastefully decorate the album without ever clouding the heart-center of the song. Tracks like “damn” and “oranges” feel timeless with their AM gold groove and '70s studio sheen, while songs like "my love 4 u is real", “salt spring”, and “can’t stop me from dying” sound completely modern in their use of electronics, sound effects, and pitched vocals. In their subtle, sonic variety, all of the album’s songs flow together with ease into one big, romantic dream for Levy’s silken vocals to float above.
Inspired by personal experience, daydreams, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the lyrics of one hand... center storytelling on a bigger scale. The experience and emotions of a year are communicated through Levy’s vignettes of city life. Her prose is centered in its setting of the St Denis area of Montreal as it draws up memories from local haunts like Fameux, La Rockette, and Quai des Brumes in rearview reverie. Levy creates a balance through the album’s year by splitting her songs evenly into four seasons. Opening track “damn”, as a song of winter, kicks off the narrative with the events of a cursed New Year’s Eve party.
Immediately this timeline becomes jumbled into a Proustian haziness. The listener is then led through the heat-stricken, brain fog of Summer song, “can’t stop me from dying” and then into the autumnal romanticism of “oranges” before returning back to New Year’s on “partner,” which Levy describes as “a woozy late-night taxi blues reflection on moments when timing can be so right, yet so wrong…”. These collected stories as a whole chart the unavoidable growth that comes with experience. “All is forgiven in time. All is forgotten in time. And when the music stopped, I heard an answer” (from “my love 4 u is real”).
Whether to consider these songs fiction or memoir remains unknown. On one hand, Levy says “Why would I try to write a story that’s not my own? What good would that do?” but on the other hand, she is quick to note the ways that language fails to describe reality, and how difficult this makes it to tell an actually true story. The poetic misuse of the word “sewing” in the album’s title serves as a nod to the limitations words provide. What does it mean to sew the garden? And how can we appreciate its carefully knit blooms when the rearview mirror is so full of car exhaust?