By Zenith Wolfe
A new album by Ottawa-based folk duo Libby & Cal is reshaping the musical conversation around love.
Released on Oct. 29, If You’ve Given Up on Love, then Let’s Call It Something Else explores “alternative” forms of love. The duo sings about non-monogamy, LGBTQ+ representation, and unhappy relationships.
Autoharpist and vocalist Libby Hortop wrote most of the music on the album. She said she was inspired by pop songs that portray love as a fairy tale, because they don’t reflect her lived experiences.
“We have progressed as a society in the way we view romantic and sexual relationships, but pop music seems to be lagging behind,” Hortop said.
Rather than treating her songs as a personal diary, she creates characters to express her feelings through metaphor. In “Fixed It,” she uses two characters to poke fun at the different household expectations for men and women.
According to Hortop, women are expected to take care of everything around the house with little recognition, while men are often celebrated for fixing small things like lightbulbs.
Vocalist and 12-string guitarist Cal Tranner took a similar candid approach to songwriting. For their new hit “Adèle”, he wrote about the affair that made his marriage fall apart.
“That’s a very personal song for me, even though the words sort of disguise what’s going on,” Tranner said.
Libby & Cal also collaborated with other local artists, including Hintonburg resident and cellist Marion Arthur. Known more commonly as Mea the Creative Cellist, Arthur found her experience with the duo challenging but rewarding.
“I am honoured to be able to lend my creative voice to such a unique musical project,” Arthur said over email. “As someone who has never quite ‘fit in’ with normative expressions of love, I very much resonate with (their) messages.”
Music has always been a part of Hortop and Tranner’s lives. They both joined choir at young ages and picked up instruments in their teens. Tranner immediately jumped on the guitar, while Hortop played piano until she switched over to the autoharp in 2014.
The duo first met at a music festival in 2015 where Tranner, known at the time as Doug Hendry, was playing a set with Celtic folk band Fiddlehead Soup. When he finally teamed up with Hortop in 2018, he decided to change the half-a-century-old stage name.
“Libby and Doug didn’t sound as good as Libby and Cal, so Cal Tranner was born. He’s a much nicer guy (than Doug),” he said with a laugh.
Libby & Cal released their first album, Our Lady of Perpetual Hammer, in 2021. They unveiled their new album at a live show in Hintonburg’s Loyal Orange Lodge on Oct. 29, after an opening act by black-metal folk band Wychwood.
Attendees were encouraged to wear costumes as part of the show’s “Spooky Valentines” theme. Hortop said this mix of Halloween and Valentines Day elaborated on the album’s idea of “alternative” love.
“A controlling relationship is everyone’s worst nightmare, right? I think that’s why stories about vampires and werewolves are so scary. A vampire could bite you and you (would) be his forever,” she said.
When Hortop isn’t playing music with Tranner, she’s teaching part time at Alcorn Music Studios, located in the Civic Hospital neighbourhood.
After working at the studio for 14 years, her favourite moments are when a student’s face lights up with understanding.
“There’s nothing better to me than clear communication,” Hortop said. “To be able to express yourself well and then have the feeling that the other person has received your message, that’s what appeals to me about songwriting too.”