Leanne Hoffman is not short on ambition. The Halifax singer-songwriter’s latest project, the dazzlingly pop-fuelled The Text Collector, is far from a conventional 15-song LP: Not only has Hoffman accompanied her album’s release with a poetry book—365 entries over the course of a single year—but the 31-year-old artist has also turned each of her songs into visual art pieces. They’re hanging on the walls of Seven Bays Cafe when she meets with The Coast on a late September afternoon. Like Hoffman’s latest album, the pieces stand out; they pop with colour against the Gottingen Street cafe’s white walls and polished wooden benches. It still catches her every time she sees them.
“I would say that I had dreams [before], but I was afraid to risk anything. I’ve always had big ideas, but never knew how to follow through on them,” Hoffman tells The Coast. “And I feel like this project is a step in that direction.”
On The Text Collector, Hoffman turns stories of love, heartbreak and nostalgia into electropop melodies that bring to mind memories of Dido (“Portuguese Tarts”) and early Taylor Swift (“Bilby Street”). She’ll premiere it in front of a live audience at the Marquee Ballroom this Thursday, Oct. 5.
Ahead of the show, The Coast sat down with Hoffman to hear about the album’s creation, risk-taking and finding her voice.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
TC: Your project, The Text Collector, is something I’ve never seen before: There’s the book of poems, the album itself—and then on top of that, the visual artwork that accompanies each song on the album. When did you begin to think so expansively about what this album could be?
LH: The poems were the first thing—and I didn’t think that they were going to extend from there. But it was kind of Covid time when I was finishing the poems, and so I knew it was going to be awhile before we played [live] music again. So I think it progressed from wanting a long-term [challenge]: Something that took a lot of time and energy. And I love biting off more than I can chew, so it was a cool way to do something I’d never done before and challenge myself.
Normally, in the course of recording an album, there might be a dozen songs or more that wind up on the cutting room floor. Writing a poem every day and turning that into a book is a much different endeavour. How did you feel about sharing whatever it was you wrote that day, regardless of how it turned out?
[Laughs] Not great all of the time. Usually, I would wake up and try to [write] immediately, and I would take way too long to do it. And then half the time, I would just end up using whatever—because it was supposed to be quick. But I was actually [getting slower], because my standards got higher.
Some of them I really love and I’d be happy to [share]. Some I find cringey now. But I think that’s kind of the deal, right? The ones that [you’re proud] to share are there because of the ones that you didn’t really want to share. And at the time [I was posting the poems on Instagram], not a lot of people were paying attention. So it was kind of fine. It was part of the deal.
Writing poetry offers different constraints than songwriting—and maybe more freedom in some ways, too.
That’s definitely true.
But your work is often boiling things down to a few lines, which can be hard as a writer. How did you find your voice as a poet?
I feel like it was me trying to take these [ideas] and condense them, pick apart my own thoughts. It was challenging to mean what I say and [also] say it in few words: A lot of the poems in the book are very short.
I have this book my mom gave me when I was younger of some of E. E. Cummings’ poetry, and they’re like puzzles: You could read them 1,000 times and [get something different]. And I really liked that.
Throughout The Text Collector, you’re often exploring opposites. On “King Size Bed,” you ask, “Why do things feel so big when they’re empty, and why do they feel so small when they’re full?” In the song “My Body,” you write, “I fear death; I fear life.” Where does that come from?
That’s funny; people have pointed that out before. I think I’m interested in [dualities] in life. I find them kind of frustrating that two things can be true at the same time—and I think that comes from my emotional state not being super great when I was in my 20s. I was at [Dalhousie University] and then NSCC, so I’d been through a couple changes. I kind of hated [my first] program; I spent a lot of time writing and singing in my dorm room. I had all of these feelings I wanted to express and things I wanted to make, but I didn’t have the energy, mentally or physically. It took a really long time to get out of it.
That was one of the main things I had to learn through therapy, and thinking about myself and the world: Two things can be true at once. Like, someone can be really mad at you in the moment and still love you. Or you can be afraid of dying and afraid of succeeding; afraid of life itself. Those two realities can be intimidating—but they can also be a relief. It’s reassuring to remember that opposites can exist together.
You’ve lived in Halifax for 13 years, but you grew up in Exeter, Ontario (pop. 4,600). What was that like as an aspiring artist?
Real small. The high school I went to had a really great arts program—there was funding for it, so the music program, the drama program and the visual art programs were great—so I started writing and singing in high school, but no one really was like, “Cool, you should do this as a career.” Mostly, the focus was, “You’re great at science, because you can memorize a shitload of stuff. That seems lucrative.” I went to Dal for marine biology—I wanted to leave, and Halifax seemed like an appropriate distance away—and it’s not a regret, but I do wish someone had intervened to be like, “You seem to like [creating art] a lot. You should do something with it.”
I just didn’t have an example of anyone [making art a career], other than my older sister. She moved to New York when she was 19 to study acting. But I think I felt the chances of us both succeeding in the arts were really unlikely; I felt like I was supposed to be the brain[y sibling]. In hindsight, of course art requires brains. But even coming to Halifax, I definitely had the feeling of, “Who do I think I am, trying to do a thing?” I still get that feeling.
Where do you think that comes from?
I think I [comforted myself] that if I didn’t fully commit to something and it doesn’t go well, then I’d always have a reason in the back of my head as to why it didn’t go well—instead of giving 100% and maybe failing publicly. Because that’s safe, right? Trying to succeed at something is risky.
There’s a lot of risk in your new album: Taking poems and then making it into an album, and then creating a whole series of works of art. That feels like a big difference from being afraid of something.
Absolutely. And every time I made one of these [visual pieces], I went through the same cycle of feelings—but I’d rather do it than not do it at all. I’ve been [opening] myself to the possibility of failing publicly. It’s the same with the show [on Oct. 5 at the Marquee]: Like, I’m pretty terrified to do a bunch of new stuff, but I’d rather do it—because it’s how you get better.
Sonically speaking, this latest album is very bright. Even when you’re writing sad songs, the music is upbeat. How did you decide that The Text Collector would be a pop album?
I think pop lends itself in a bunch of ways: It’s more fun. And because I’m often singing sad songs, it brings a lightness to it. Pop music is so powerful; it’s universal. It’s often taking these complicated things and [distilling them] in a simple form. It’s more exciting to move to; it has that physical component—and that’s appealing to me for a bunch of reasons.
I’ve always been obsessed with pop music. And I’ve always wanted to make pop music, but I’ve never written pop songs. But having these poems and lyrics from the get-go, it gave me the opportunity.
How are you feeling ahead of Thursday’s show at the Marquee?
I’m really excited for all of it. I’m excited for Aquakultre and his band. There are certain shows in my life that have impacted me, and seeing him with his full setup, the backup vocalists, everything together, is such a good show. I’m really excited for the special guests, because I love them all individually. And I’m really excited for our set, because it’s a chance for me to push myself and risk it. It’s going to be really fun.
Catch Leanne Hoffman and Aquakultre at the Marquee Ballroom for The Text Collector’s release show:
Date: Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023
Time: 8pm. Doors at 7pm.