Little Scream on religious cults, pop music and knowing when to quit

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Little Scream

Laurel Sprengelmeyer, aka Little Scream

When Montreal’s Laurel Sprengelmeyer made the first Little Scream album, The Golden Record, she didn’t realize that she would get signed, get tour support and launch a music career. “I wasn’t thinking of myself as a musician or an artist,” she says, “I just knew I wanted to do something with the stuff that I’d worked on ’cause I knew I’d be sad for the rest of my life if I didn’t.”

Five years later, Cult Following is a bigger, brighter record, a challenge to explore her pop side, to “properly own what it means to be a songwriter and a musician.

“I was exploring what I could do with songs, opening up that closet a little bit more,” she says. “It’s very genuine and it was really me doing — it sounds funny to say ‘doing the best I could,’ ’cause aren’t we always supposed to be doing that? — but just me genuinely pushing myself as much as I could, and I feel like you can hear me pushing myself. It’s kind of a low-budget Life of Pablo (laughs).

“I worked with some great engineers, but I ended up doing a lot of file-managing and overdubbing and editing and layering. There was a good year and a half period where I would travel with a little M box and a nice microphone, that’s how some of the collaborations came about,” she says — the album includes cameos by Sufjan Stevens, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Owen Pallett, TV On the Radio’s Kyp Malone and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, who also co-produced.

“But the downside of an artist having access to the means of production entirely is that sometimes you don’t know when to stop. It felt so good to hand this record in for mastering because it became one of those things — it was insane and drove me a little bit nuts, and I feel like you can hear that reflected in the record: the journey and exploraion, and ‘Somebody help me out here! I don’t know how to get out of this thing!'”

CULT LIFE

The album’s title, reflected in lyrical references to religion (particularly on what she calls “the nighttime side of the record,” its second half), was chosen in part due to where Sprengelmeyer was when she started writing it in December of 2012: a cult community in northern Brazil.

“A really good friend of mine said, ‘You have to come to this place. It’s an intentional community, people living off the grid, and there’s something weird and special going on.’ I’m always up for adventure and am totally open to most things, just for the sake of learning.”

What they found was a community of about 200 people, South Americans and Europeans, mostly, brought together by a shared concern for the environment. But out of this developped, as Sprengelmeyer puts it, ” a classic narrative.”

“There was one charismatic leader at the centre of that, and a good portion of the community began to form a religion around their belief structure. A couple of months after we were there, they all started wearing white and they sequestered the leader — people were not allowed to speak to her anymore.

“I found it fascinating,” Sprengelmeyer says. “It was a super interesting moment to witness. You could feel that energy taking shape and a dogma really starting to sink in. But there’s something real at the centre of that, some real talent and skill. These groups are always built around kernels of truth of the human condition and human existence, and I think in the absence of external opinion … it’s easier for something like that to happen in a cloistered community.”

LEAVING THE FOLD

The album title is also imbued with self-awareness and a sense of humour, according to Sprengelmeyer, who says, “especially given the kind of music I’m doing right now, [a cult following] is probably the best I can hope for as an artist.”

It’s also a way to, as she puts it, “own up” to some of the album’s lyrical themes, rooted in Sprengelmeyer’s upbringing in another cloistered community, in her native Iowa.

“My family is part of what many consider a Christian religious cult — whether you call it a cult or religion depends on who you’re talking to,” she says, referring to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. “My mom was ex-communicated when I was a kid but I stayed in the community, so I had both the experience of having been born into it and also being a convert. The community really took me in and raised me, but also indoctrinated me.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses are the least educated and poorest statistically of any religious group in the United States. They’re also one of the most diverse groups of their kind, with a particularly high number of African Americans, including a number of celebrities, from the Jacksons  to the Wayans to the late, great Prince. (“I was leaving the faith as Prince was coming in,” Sprengelmeyer says. “I remember everyone was talking about that how we was studying and going door to door.”)

As with the Brazilian cult, her (former) faith has its positive side.

“It’s a very caring community; they look out for each other, and I think that’s why it is so big among poor and minority communities. This world is pretty shitty — capitalism doesn’t look out for people and there aren’t structures of support, especially when you’re poor and don’t have a lot of opportunity or other things to look forward to in the world. It gives a lot of people a reason to live. But if [a Jehovah’s Witness’s] roof falls down, the whole congregation goes over and builds it back up again. Someone’s got your back, always. That’s the seductive part of [the religion], the good part, but you only get that as long as you’re willing to not question anything.”

What makes the faith “culty” is its set of rules and restrictions, controlling everything from social interaction (no outsider, outside of school and work) to individual choices like smoking, swearing or wearing immodest clothing (all forbidden). Leaving the faith, whether voluntarily or not, is not a comfortable process. Though it doesn’t involve the type of physical and psychological shakedown that ex-Scientologists have suffered, “disfellowshipped” Witnesses are shunned by the community, making life difficult, even unbearable, especially in a small town.

“It’s a really big deal to only know how to socialize in that context and only have friends in that context — then to have that taken away, you have no clue how to make friends. ‘How do normal people do things?’ It’s a very jarring experience and I know a lot of people who didn’t survive it. There’s a crazy high suicide rate among people leaving — it’s pretty dark.

“I had a pretty terrible time getting out of that myself,” Sprengelmeyer says. “Recovering from that really shaped my late teens and early 20s. Montreal was my escape.” 

Little Scream launches Cult Following, with the recently reformed Land of Talk, at the Fairmount Theatre (5240 Parc) on Wednesday, May 11, 8 p.m., $15

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