For 10 days in the middle of the howling Prairie winter of 2008, Grammy Award-winning producer Ken Nelson worked in the tiny, frozen hamlet of Kelwood, Man.
Having followed the likes of Coldplay to record in exotic locales across the globe, the British music producer was accustomed to working at the edge of his comfort zone. But a 100-year-old wooden church, where the only billboards begged for volunteers for the ladies' tea, was unusual even by his standards.
Pews were piled halfway up the wall to accommodate the mess of drums and keyboards that had supplanted the congregation. Thick bales of straw hauled straight from farmers' fields were stacked around the speakers to muffle their massive sound. And as a pale yellow sun poured through the stained glass, Nelson - the superstar British-based producer of pop-music giants Coldplay, Gomez and Snow Patrol, among others - nodded in rapt concentration as local girl Alana Levandoski stood at the altar and sang what became the title track on her new album, Lions and Werewolves , released last month.
Levandoski, 30, was then in the early stages of recording the album, and later spent three weeks working on the vocals at Nelson's Parr Street Studios in Liverpool. The album took a lot longer than expected, but she was prepared to sacrifice time for the sake of quality.
"I wanted this to be an organic process, however long it took. I'd much rather have something that I'm just ridiculously proud of, that I can go to the grave with, than have it come out five months earlier," she said.
"I feel like I made a work of art, and nothing in this album was sacrificed in the name of making a single."
Levandoski recently completed a tour of Britain and has dates in the West later this summer and Ontario in October. After a gruelling 12-hour video shoot in a Toronto boxing ring a week ago, she played the Edmonton Folk Festival this past weekend.
A slight, sweet-voiced singer-songwriter, Levandoski is a rising talent in the Canadian music scene. She had originally planned to record Lions and Werewolves in Winnipeg at the same studio used by the Weakerthans, but couldn't book enough time. When the studio offered to move the recording equipment elsewhere, Levandoski thought of her hometown. Nestled in the gently sloping hills near Riding Mountain National Park, Kelwood is a shrinking town of 70 people anchored by a single stop sign, a legion hall and a curling rink.
When he arrived in Kelwood, Nelson stepped out of the car and into the cold, crushing silence of a still Prairie night.
"I've never experienced anything like it. It was so quiet I couldn't believe it," he said.
At first, he worried that the recording might be ruined if the rumble of passing cars leaked through the church's thin walls. After several days he came to understand it could be weeks before another car rolled down the road.
Nelson and an assembly of musicians from across Canada became famous figures in town, as people stopped in the street to say hello or invited them over for a visit. The town's unelected mayor even made a point of getting his picture taken between Nelson and Levandoski.
It's been nearly four years since Levandoski's first album, Unsettled Down , was released by Rounder Records in 2005. Since then, she has toured nine countries and played nearly 500 shows. She's been to Muscle Shoals, Ala., where she wrote a song at FAME Studios while strumming on Otis Redding's Gibson guitar, and travelled to Liverpool, where she set her sights on persuading Nelson to work with her.
"I wanted to work with him for 2 years," she said. "You can tell he has a way of just going through a room and sweeping it all up."
Nelson signed on. But the difficulty was that Levandoski and the musicians - keyboardist David (Soul Fingaz) Williams, bassist Milos Angelov, drummer Eric Paul and guitarist Murray Pulver - had just eight days to produce an album. By comparison, the album Nelson had just finished took 4 months.
"It's exciting," Nelson said. "If you've got 4 months to make a record, it'll take 4 months. If you've got eight days, you can do it in eight days. I prefer working like this."
When he's at home in Liverpool, Nelson works from behind the thick glass of a recording studio, speaking to musicians through an intercom. In Kelwood, Nelson walked among them, encouraging and tweaking. Nelson said he was convinced of Levandoski's talent as soon as he heard her sing, even if her country-music background contrasts with the pop musicians he typically works with. "Alana had heard of me and liked the work that I'd done. She sent me a CD with 12 tracks, and those are basically the 12 tracks we're recording now," he said. "I loved them, loved the songs, loved her voice …When I met her in Liverpool, I was blown away."
Levandoski decided to return to her roots in Kelwood after living in Winnipeg for several years, part of a back-to-the-land movement of postmodern pioneers: young people who want a simpler life in the country. She bought her house there for $1. As a little girl, she never attended school, but would study with her mother and siblings in the mornings, leaving her afternoons free for horseback riding and artistic pursuits. Her father, a carpenter, built a curtained stage in her bedroom and her mother, a visual artist, painted the backdrops for the plays that Levandoski directed. Her writing began with trips to the creek, where she would sit with her dog and compose poems.
She laughs at the memory. "I wrote poems about adventures and tragic love/death, where they end up together but they die."
Her sister now runs the local café, where the musicians gathered for breakfast and supper every day. The walls are decorated with photos taken by her brother. Levandoski pointed to her favourite image, a bleak winter landscape at dusk. "It's honest," she said. "It's the landscape I grew up with."
Honesty is what Levandoski is striving for in this album, and she thinks recording in her hometown adds to the authenticity. "I want the album to be true. I want people to believe me, that I'm being genuine."
"The idea for the record is that I wanted everybody in the room to feel a little out of their element," she added. "I didn't think we'd end up in a pioneer church in my hometown, but I wanted something unusual."
The new album will be a bit of a departure, and she's conscious of managing her image in a way that suits her ambitions.
When a photographer suggested a picture of her standing in a wheat field to accompany this story, she flatly refused. She's been there before, and she's not just the girl from the Prairie any more.
"There's only so many autobiographical songs you can write about growing up on the Prairies," she said. "I didn't want to corner myself. You can't put a phone book on someone's head and tell them not to grow. They want to keep you in a wheat field, and even though it's vast, it can be a corner just the same."