Montreal indie musician Jake Smith first read Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale in 2011. He found a copy of the book while cleaning his mother’s home, following her shocking murder there the previous fall.
Now, on Oct. 16, Smith’s band, Lakes of Canada, is set to release Transgressions, a 12-song concept album based on A Handmaid’s Tale.
Smith spoke to Q&Q on the road from a tour-stop in Moncton, New Brunswick, to discuss his experience writing and performing the album.
This is obviously a hugely emotional work for you, how does that manifest when you listen to it?
To be honest I don’t listen to myself all that often – it feels weird. It’s more when I’m playing it. When I play Transgressions live I still cry. It’s been said that being an artist is about being private in public and I think that’s important – sharing your vulnerability. I’ve also gotten better at dealing with my emotions. I’m able to tune it out, it’s the kind of thing you get used to tuning out. It can come up in my head and I can handle it a lot better, before I just had to turn it off.
When did you know you were going to write an album based on the book?
It happened much later. After I finished the book, which I read quite quickly, I wrote a song, “A Handmaid’s Tale Pt. 1.” Then a while later I wrote another, then another. It wasn’t until the fourth song my band said, “You know, you keep writing about the same thing,” and we realized that, yeah, we’re doing a concept album.
Since then I’ve read the book two more times, and I find different things each time. Atwood dances between the linear and non-linear, withholding just enough information.
How does the book’s influence appear through the album?
So the album is set in the book, and there are also parts that continue the story after the book’s conclusion, kind of a postscript. “A Handmaid’s Tale Pt. 1” is directly about the character Offred. I was quite inspired by her specifically, her struggle; that thing we all do when we turn an apathetic eye. You know, “It’s not happening to me.” The book also influenced the album sonically, so me and my bandmates – specifically Conor O’Neil – listened to a lot of church and religious-influenced music. Religion is important in this story. Also, a lot of sort of sci-fi soundtracks in trying to build this world.
There’s a political bent to this album in dealing with the subject of violence against women. Did you have any reservations adding your voice to this discussion?
Obviously I was nervous, writing about this particular subject. Even though I have a reason to, I’m still a man writing about women’s issues and I wanted to do that without appropriating. But the level of bullshit and aggression that women deal with on a day-to-day basis is staggering. Violence against women is a real issue, and we have to continue to talk and think about it.
This album also helped us understand where we want to be as a band. We want to be a band that takes stances, and writes about important things.
Have you spoken to Margaret Atwood?
When we first set out to make the album we reached out and asked if it was okay with her, and she said yes and was very supportive. We just sent her a copy in the mail – although I doubt she’s gotten it. Oh man, I am nervous. I think about it a lot. I probably care more about what she thinks than anyone else in the world. It’s a big thing, doing a derivative work, but especially when the book is as well-known and important as this one.
This interview has been edited and condensed.