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The Rural Alberta Advantage grows from zero to hero

In four years, singer-guitarist Nils Edenloff has led his trio The Rural Alberta Advantage from hosting empty open-mic nights to widespread critical acclaim, thanks to an impassioned bleat eerily reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum and a ragged-but-right way with melody. The Canadian band's recent debut, Hometowns, veers from soothing campfire lullabies to more raucous rave-ups, effortlessly dynamic despite a limited instrumental palette of acoustic guitar, keyboards, and drums. In advance of the band's Sept. 25 show at the 7th St. Entry, Edenloff talked with The A.V. Club about open-mic learning curves, forward momentum and, of course, Alberta.

The A.V. Club: The Rural Alberta Advantage got its start hosting an open-mic night. What did you learn from that trial by fire?

Nils Edenloff: That was a really important stage of growth for us. It wasn’t your typical open-mic night where people were coming in. It was pretty dead, so Paul [Banwatt, drummer] and I had to have hours of material because we were the only ones playing on some of the nights. What we’re doing right now is more or less an extension of what we were doing at the open-mic nights. It took awhile for me to find a comfortable vocal range where I felt like I was delivering something emotionally. Often when we’re writing, I move the capo up and down [the guitar neck] based on where I think the song suits my voice best. I learned at the open-mic nights how seemingly simple things like changing the key of a song can make it have a completely different feel. Most bands have to do that crucial growing in front of an audience and make some unforgivable sins—we were lucky that most nights it was only in front of one or two bar staff. [Laughs.]

AVC: Hometowns was originally self-released in April 2008, the record then got a digital re-release by eMusic before Saddle Creek finally gave it a proper physical release this summer. Does it feel strange for people to still be discovering the record?

NE: The whole development of our career has been different. We got picked for the eMusic Selects series because a fan on the Metacritic discussion forum blindly submitted us. After eMusic picked it up they asked him to write a history of the band based on what he could find about us. We read it and all thought it was so depressing. It sort of went, "They did this … and nobody cared. Then they made a record … and no one would put it out." [Laughs.] It’s funny because I can see how from the outside it would appear like we had been going nowhere but having been in the midst of it and working towards something, I always felt like we had forward momentum even though it was slow at times. So nothing’s changed in that regard, it’s just that now we’re playing better shows, getting better press, but the drive forward is the same.

AVC: Much of the material on Hometowns reads like deeply personal break-up narratives. How does the experience of performing a song like “Don’t Haunt This Place” in front of complete strangers change over time?

NE: Every show we play I try to really deliver the songs with the same sort of conviction that was there when I was first stumbling onto the lyrics and writing the album. Even after playing those songs hundreds of times, I don’t think it’s taken away any of the emotional weight. I’ve always loved emotionally heavy, sad songs; that’s what I enjoy listening to. When I perform the songs, it’s more of a celebration and a release. I like sharing.

AVC: From the name of the band right on through to the constant stream of regional geographic references, it’s clear that Alberta has made its mark on your muse. Why?

NE: I have a lot of different places I sort of call home. I was born in Edmonton and lived there until I was 13 and then my family moved to northern Alberta and a place called Fort McMurray. It’s the site of a huge oil sands deposit, and the whole city exists for oil extraction. So I lived in that city during the week but then pretty much every weekend I spent out at my father’s farm in the middle of nowhere in southern Alberta near the Battle River. So that combination of city experiences and spending time on the farm are memories I draw from a lot in my writing. I didn’t ever realize how much of an impact those experiences had on me until I left. It was only once I moved to Toronto that all these songs with Alberta references started pouring out of me. There are so many bands in Toronto that writing about being from Alberta was a way I could be myself and also stand out.