“There is something in Montreal,” says Vicky Mettler, reaching for a more evocative term.
We are talking on the telephone about what makes our music scenes unique and how Mettler’s works weave in. Mettler, also known as Kee Avil, the Montreal-based recording artist whose eerie and weird 2022 album, Crease, impressed critics and listeners alike, recently returned home from a triumphant tour and is contemplating her next move.
Released via the iconic local label Constellation Records, Crease earned unanimous high praise: Bandcamp’s Miles Bowe called it “a debut of fiendish creativity”; Antonio Poscic of The Quietus drew comparisons with Jenny Hval, Gazelle Twin, and Scott Walker; au courant music retailer Boomkat even dropped Kate Bush’s name, describing Mettler’s record as “a widescreen set of torched, gothic wyrd rock music that falls in and out of genre with skill and grace.” One could extrapolate that description to encompass Montreal itself; this city has produced its fair share of torched and widescreen music — from Tim Hecker to Godspeed, it’s kind of our thing.
Vicky Mettler appeared on my radar when Kee Avil performed as the opening act in 2018 for Fly Pan Am at their reunion show following a more than decade-long hiatus. The gig was chaotic, held at the Mile-End art gallery Dazibao, a space not particularly designed with sound in mind. But the energy was memorable, the pre-pandemic luxuriousness of an unselfconsciously niche art-rock performance. That energy is what propelled Mettler across Europe in the fall of 2022.
“Touring does give me energy,” Mettler says. “I came back from the last tour and there is something inspiring about it. You go on tour and that’s all you’re doing. That resets me a little bit. I don’t have all the rest of life; it just kind of gets put on pause. And I come back and I’m usually inspired. I’m more energized than tired. I could tour every day — for a long time.” Mettler stops to laugh: “But I also like coming back home.”
One of the most outstanding visual features of Kee Avil’s live performance is her crocheted costume, which Caro Etchart, the textile artist behind Argenta Crochet Lab, designed. Etchart brought her slow fashion brand from Argentina to Montreal in 2021 and has since worked to create an astonishing collection, including the distinguishable garments that serve Mettler’s music in surprisingly tangible ways. Kee Avil’s mask, in particular — half moth-eaten lace helmet, half spiderweb — is indeed an unsettling presentation piece.
“I have a few outfits that I’ve been wearing,” Mettler says, “and I feel like the mask is always striking. When I do it, it works well. Caro makes everything — tops, skirts, gloves. It’s kind of nice to be able to mix and match all of these pieces and see what comes up. I feel like we really get along in what we like, so it’s very easy to find stuff that works.”
Etchart tells me via email that their creative partnership fits hand-in-glove. “I have always been intrigued by costumes and characterization,” Etchart says. “The first mask that I ever crocheted was actually the one that started my experimental crochet project. When I first met Vicky, I was in the middle of a huge mask exploration, and the fact that she sees beauty in them, too, was crucial to start working on the outfits. One of them was definitely going to have a crochet mask, even more, a complete crochet outfit.”
Etchart’s ensemble appears in the live video for “HHHH,” creating just the right amount of creepiness to accent Kee Avil’s serpentine sound. “I simply find masks fascinating,” Etchart says, “and it feels really easy to become someone else or get into character just by covering or decorating your face. A lot like a second skin, but that was somehow hidden. Very beautiful and dramatic.”
“I like the idea of having a mask on,” Mettler admits.
“I would be curious to know, actually, what it’s like to see it. I’ve only worn it twice live, and it makes me feel different, so I’m still figuring out if I like it. Or what works about it and what doesn’t, and how to adapt it to make it better. I feel like it does separate me from the audience in a way. But sometimes I like the setting of the show. If there are no visuals and no projections, I will wear something like that when there’s nothing else in the background. That adds a visual element that I like.”
Mettler’s music is composed just as intricately as her wardrobe, sonic fibres intertwined in remarkable balance. I ask how she does it. “I compose while recording, basically,” Mettler says. “The last record was song-by-song. It was a discovery of what the record should be. I write a song, we do it; I write a song, we do it.”
Mettler then scrubs over her rough tracks with sound designer Zach Scholes. “It helps us to discover the sound of the music, really. Each song is different, too. Like, the source material can be different. Some are more guitar-oriented and some are more electronic-based. It’s really about discovery — how to write songs. I wanted to push that more and I didn’t really know how, so I was figuring it out. I feel like recording at the same time helps because you can add things and take them away quickly if you’d like. I like hearing things and being able to do edits right away.”
Is a new album in the works in 2023? “I feel like that’s the goal, but we’ll see.”
A sense of composed spontaneity is what characterizes Kee Avil’s recordings, and also what places her rightly amongst some of this city’s more legendary artists — and on the roster of a record label that to a certain extent defines Montreal’s storied independent music scene.
“It’s a specific sound,” Mettler opines, tying together the strands of our impure-laine aesthetic. “I feel like maybe we have more space or something here. There’s a way of living that’s different in Montreal. It’s still cheaper than, say, Toronto or New York. I think that somehow affects it, like, how many people can do this stuff. Different cities have different sounds. But there is a Montreal sound.”
Mettler pauses in thought: “I love Montreal. It’s its own thing.”◼︎
Cover photo credit: Carole Méthot