Photos by Le Pigeon, courtesy of Milk & Bone
We tend to remember rooms: There are the rooms where we had quiet evenings reading alone, rooms where we spent lazy afternoons lying in bed with someone, rooms where we found ourselves having strained conversations, rooms where we broke up. There are also rooms that we pass through and rooms that we wait in, but then there are these, the rooms that we live in.
Montreal duo Milk & Bone make music that seems to inhabit these rooms, the ones where life's little dramas and unexpected memories unfold. The characters in their songs sip on coconut water and wonder if their unrequited crushes will ever pan out; they savor simple, satisfying, lustful days. With these small intimacies—made more intimate by the duo's crystal clear voices and restrained piano melodies—their music feels tied to real, lived-in spaces. I imagine all of it unfolding in some sunlit Montreal loft. Their album Little Mourning, which is out March 17 in Canada and March 31 in the US, and which Noisey is premiering via stream below, was meticulously recorded, but it sounds almost as if the whole thing could have been made in a few carefree afternoons, the two of them playing piano as warm air blows in through an open window and sweeps up the gauzy curtains.
“We tend to write more songs that are true and raw,” Laurence Lafond-Beaulne, one half of the duo, told me recently over Skype with the slightest of French accents. “I think that people like that. I think that people want to hear the truth even when the truth is not that pretty. I think it feels good to hear, and it feels good to write.”
The first time I heard Milk & Bone, it was not in some airy space but in a darkened rock club in the middle of the afternoon in Montreal. I was nursing a pretty vicious hangover, but I’d been assured they would provide some relief. That turned out to be true—not so much because their music was calm and delicate, which it is, but more so because it was spellbinding. Lafond-Beaulne and her collaborator Camille Poliquin performed standing at keyboards angled to slightly face each other, wearing all black outfits that matched their black hair. Lafond-Beaulne, who performs stage left and is distinguishable by her bangs, pulled out a ukulele for a couple songs, using that instrument's spare sound to her advantage. Poliquin played a drum pad, adding staggering riffs of bass, and she stunned the room into silence with her soaring vocal solo at the end of “New York.”
Milk & Bone’s formula is simple: It’s pretty much just pianos, vocal harmonies, and lurching groans of electronic bass and drums that hint at skeletal interpretations of dance music. But it’s totally current, and, in the way that it makes those pristine voices the focus, it anticipates a trend away from leaning on effects and obfuscation. The duo’s music is immediate and earnest, and it sticks with you as a result. The songs are about, as Poliquin explained to me later, “trust and lust and friendship.” The arresting album opener, “Elephant,” for instance, begins with the matter-of-fact line “his skin is warm, and my lips are starving” before rounding out that feeling with context: “I want you babe, and I won’t stop asking / Just one more night with you is all I’m wanting.”
“Some songs I wrote, it was really just a way of ending past stories,” Lafond-Beaulne said. “To put an end to it, and it really helped.”
The two met as students in the music program at Saint-Laurent, a French-speaking college that’s part of Quebec’s CEGEP system, which students go to between high school and college. Lafond-Beaulne, who grew up reluctantly studying piano before becoming obsessed with classical trombone in high school, entered for jazz trombone but switched to jazz singing. Eventually she’d take up electric bass as well and start touring in French-speaking rock acts. One of these was David Giguère, in whose band she performed alongside Poliquin. About a year and a half ago, another local artist, Misteur Valaire, brought them into the studio to record together as lead vocalists, and they recognized an immediate chemistry, prompting them to start writing together.
“It's a more intuitive writing process… it's just us,” Poliquin said about working together, explaining that she spent much of her time at Saint-Laurent composing for orchestra and big band—a way more elaborate undertaking than the open songwriting of Milk & Bone. Poliquin also grew up studying music, going to a special music-intensive elementary school where she learned piano, cello, and more. At nine, she auditioned for the Montreal-based Cirque de Soleil and was accepted, although due to her mom's objections about her young age, she didn't join the cast until she was 12. She toured for two years across Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific before returning to Montreal and spending a few years away from music. She was eventually accepted into Saint-Laurent’s singing program, where she met some of the musicians that would become part of her and Lafond-Beaulne’s Montreal scene.
“We knew each other, and then we sort of became friends, and then we sort of became best friends,” Poliquin said. “Now we're best friends.” Temperamentally, Poliquin is the more straightforward and businesslike of the two, the hip pop music fan who helped developed the duo’s aesthetic.
“She has amazing creative ideas in the studio,” Lafond-Beaulne said of Poliquin. “I think sometimes I'm still kind of impressed by the studio thing, and I get kind of insecure to just let go. And when she goes in the booth and improvises, it's beautiful, and it inspires me and helps me move forward and go 'OK, I can do that too.’” Lafond-Beaulne, on the other hand, brings the group more of the sensitive energy that makes their songs so captivating.
“She's more a ball of love,” Poliquin said. “She is so emotional about everything, and I admire that so much. It's something that I'm lacking in so many ways, of getting attached to things and being emotional about them and caring about them so much. And people, too, and being nice to people.”
Both are young—Poliquin is 22, and Lafond-Beaulne is 24—and correspondingly earnest, but they have a considerable depth and maturity to their character as well. Each of those qualities comes across in their songwriting, which is candid and sincere, with a wide-eyed energy and emotional grandiosity whether discussing the simple dynamics of friendship on a song like “Tomodachi” (translation: “friend”) or the collapse of a relationship through infidelity, like on “New York,” the first song Lafond-Beaulne ever wrote.
“I think we're not afraid of talking about the dark side of relationships,” Lafond-Beaulne said. She added, “People need true… When we live with something, I tend to internalize it and not really talk about it.” When asked if these songs were about specific people in their lives, both singers laughed and reassured me, “oh yeah.”
Those truths are already connecting. Each of Milk & Bone’s tracks has accrued more attention than the last, with their most recent song, “Pressure,” accumulating more than 300,000 plays on Soundcloud even prior to the album release. Poliquin and Lafond-Beaulne may be approachable and humble about their impressive chops, but their ambitions are unmistakably pop. Although both grew up speaking French, English is every bit as natural, and making songs in English was the obvious choice for pure accessibility. They’ve been deliberate in the way they present themselves, and they’ve been approaching their role as a band with a level of professionalism that’s uncanny for most acts their size.
“It was really important for me that when we did start our project that everything was perfect,” Poliquin said.
That’s how things felt when I trekked through a bitterly frigid night in early February to an upscale hotel in New York’s financial district to watch the group’s US live debut. Milk & Bone had been brought in by the hotel for a performance series, and they were evidently thrilled by the whole experience, from the cocktail named after them to the fancy penthouse suite where they brought friends and hangers-on (I was the latter) to hang out after. It was another of those rooms you don’t forget—the kind of place that drives home the surreal feeling of burgeoning success, a room that feels new and exciting, the kind of place you might get accustomed to eventually but certainly not now. Their album was recorded, stints of shows in Paris and then at SXSW were around the corner, and the feeling that something exciting was on the cusp of happening was palpable. Soon there would probably be moments that didn’t feel as effortless, but here, on this cold night, everyone was laughing and smoking out front, and the world was full of possibility, and we all felt, I gathered, giddily satisfied.
“I don't think there's a limit to what we want,” Poliquin would tell me later, when we Skyped. “There's a direction to where we want to go, but the amount is pretty much endless.”
Kyle Kramer is in New York, for more than a day. Follow him on Twitter.