Burning Brightly: Federal Lights Poised To Be Among Manitoba’s Hottest Indie Exports

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By Jen Zoratti

Three years ago, local singer/songwriter Jean-Guy Roy began Federal Lights as a solo basement recording project, an entry point back into making music. Those late nights and early mornings — stolen moments when the kids were asleep — were intensely fruitful. He had the songs, he just needed a band; Roy wasn’t interested in recording for recording’s sake.

Luckily for him, this is Winnipeg and talented players aren’t hard to find. He quickly hooked up with bassist Rob Mitchell (The Attics) before picking up drummer David Pankratz (Quinzy), and keyboardist Jodi Roy (who happens to be his wife). Federal Lights made its live debut at Manitoba Music’s night at New Music Wednesdays and, in the fall of 2011, released Carbon, a six-song EP helmed by Cam Loeppky (The Weakerthans, Cannon Bros., Greg MacPherson).

Now, Federal Lights is burning bright among Manitoba’s indie rock exports. The band’s anticipated full-length debut, We Were Found in the Fog, will be released at the end of August, after the just-announced shiny new deal with Aporia Records. The Toronto-based label is also home to the likes of Julia Doiron, Eamon McGrath, Kinnie Starr, and more.

For Roy, having label support takes the pressure off. “I think a label can do more for the band than I ever could,” Roy says. “They open a whole lot of doors that would take me years to open. Aporia seemed like a good fit. It didn’t feel like a business relationship at all; they were very casual about it. Everything was out on the table. The most important thing was that they wanted both of us to be happy.”

Federal Lights has been proactive about its career, making use of Manitoba Music’s Market Access program to be able to play industry showcases — including this week’s Manitoba Music showcase North by Northeast in Toronto — as well as Manitoba Film & Music touring grants. “Funding allows you to be productive without losing your pants on the deal,” Roy says.

He also stresses the value of professional development; you never know who you might meet at a workshop. Federal Lights participated in a demo listening workshop, which is how the band linked up with Killbeat Music publicist Ken Beattie, who ended up handling national PR for Carbon. “It’s up to you to forge that relationship, which is the hardest thing for a band to do,” Roy says. “Having that introduction makes a big difference.” The EP got reviewed in a host of publications — and now, when We Were Found in the Fog shows up on the desks of music journos and radio programmers, Federal Lights will be a familiar name.

Federal Lights has a few more heavyweights in its corner. Loeppky returned to the engineer’s chair for the new album while Imaginary Cities’ Rusty Matyas took on the role of producer.

“Rusty is a natural,” Roy says. “He knows where the harmonies need to be. He has such a head for music. It seems effortless for him. His communication is so good.”

Roy has severe studio anxiety, but Matyas helped make him feel at ease. “It takes a long time for me to get comfortable. Vocals took forever. But Rusty was great on the talk-back mic. Like, ‘that was good, this part needs work.’ It put a really good vibe on the whole process. We couldn’t have done it without him at all.”

Unlike Carbon, which had been demoed prior to recording, We Were Found in the Fog was largely arranged in the studio. “That’s generally frowned upon because it can take longer and cost more money but it felt like the right thing to do,” Roy says. “There was no 'demoitis' this way.”

As for the finished result, the band couldn’t be more excited.

“I think (the record) sounds great. It stands up with everything that’s being put out right now. And it’s probably the most fun album I’ve ever worked on.” 

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