Madeline Link had already been uploading tracks on Bandcamp for years before playing her first solo show in 2018. Raised in a musical household – her dad fronted the power pop trio The Shinolas, while she and her sister Eva formed a group of their own called Triples – the 24-year-old from Ottawa pursued PACKS as her solo project in between gigs as a set dresser for commercials, but the band has now expanded into a four-piece with Shane Hooper on drums, Noah O’Neil on bass, and Dexter Nash on lead guitar. Their debut full-length, Take the Cake, released on Brooklyn’s Fire Talk Records, combines Link’s penchant for fuzzy lo-fi sonics and incisive writing with occasionally more refined instrumentation, like on the heartfelt highlight ‘Hangman’ or the delicate closer ‘U Can Wish All U Want’. Link started writing these songs while living in Toronto with her sister in 2019, and completed the album after they had to move back to the Ottawa suburbs in the spring of 2020 to quarantine with their parents. Rather than feeling divided or incoherent, however, Take the Cake rolls by with a distinctive energy, no matter the pace. Though just 24 minutes long, Link’s catchy melodies and poetic observations hang around like a dream.
We caught up with PACKS’ Madeline Link for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her inspirations, lo-fi music, making Take the Cake, and more.
How do you look back on those years when you were first getting into music?
I’ve recently just been digging through all of my earliest stuff that I put onto Bandcamp and I feel so nostalgic for it. I was really a lot more into electronic music. Obviously, when I was like 12 and I was just learning the guitar, I was super into the Beatles and old school rock and roll, and that’s how I got my guitar playing style. But then when I first started recording music, it was just me, so I was using little keyboards and little synths and all that kind of stuff to try and create weird soundscapes. So I really started with a very basic foundation, and by the time I was like 17, I was doing weird soundscape explorations.
What was it that initially inspired you to make music and start uploading it on Bandcamp?
I had seen a lot of other artists that I really liked using Bandcamp. It seemed like it wasn’t really linked to social media at all, so I was just putting it up there as an archive for myself because I knew that not a lot of other people would find it unless I told them about it. So it was really just for me to kind of keep a log of everything that I was doing.
So was it a very solitary process at first, and then it kind of opened up?
It never really opened up, I have to say. It’s still very solitary, especially now with having to do remote jamming, where I’m just writing my songs and sending them to my bandmates. I haven’t had a lot of chances to collaborate – we only really started collaborating when we started playing together, which was pretty much only a year.
What led to the decision to expand the project into a four-piece?
When I was writing music by myself back in high school, I would record all these different parts, and I didn’t have the idea that I wanted to play live. But when I did have the idea that I wanted to play live, I was like, “Oh, I have to tone this all down so that I can play live, just myself and not have backing tracks and stuff like that.” And so cutting off all these different parts of the songs changed the way that I had to express myself. So when they offered to turn PACKS from a one-piece to a four-piece, I was like, “That’s awesome, because I can start writing songs that are meant to have more parts to them, and that when they’re played live, they can still sound like how they were recorded.”
I also read that before PACKS, you were in a band with your sister called Triples, which is partly why I was wondering if your process opened up more later.
Yeah, that band, we based it as a collaborative thing where we both could write songs. But that evolved into my sister writing the main part of the song and then I just wrote the drum parts, because I would bring songs to the table and they didn’t really fit with her style, especially her guitar playing style – we have completely different styles. So being in that project is pretty much the only reason that I wanted to start playing my songs live, because I realized it’s really fun, and when you can stand in front of an audience and get people to feel your feeling, that’s pretty cool.
Can you talk about what resonated with you initially about lo-fi music?
Lo-fi has always struck me the hardest for some reason. Every artist that I listen to, their earliest stuff, their least pristine recordings, always – I don’t know if when you hear a song that you’ve never heard the likes of before like, sometimes it feels like I’m physically being, like, hit by something. Do you have that feeling ever?
Yeah. Of course.
It’s like lo-fi has the most energy for me – like, literally, I can feel the energy more. Whereas when something has been processed, compressed, pieces have been stripped away, there’s like 80 tracks, way too many tracks just trying to overcomplicate everything it… It’s like, that kind of stuff is fun to dance to and stuff, but if you’re really trying to evoke a feeling from like deep within, it’s that lo-fi that’s gonna actually be the thing that hits you.
It’s raw and intimate in a way that other styles aren’t.
Yeah, exactly. Like, early Beck, Micachu and the Shapes, Elliott Smith, all of that early stuff is just – you can listen to it a million times and you’ll always be able to find a new detail or a new mistake. I really like being able to hear mistakes too.
Why is that?
Why? Because I think…
It makes it more human, in a way?
Not – I guess so, yeah, it’s like… It makes me feel like things are okay. I don’t know why that is, but it makes you feel like this song was produced, it was put out there with mistakes in it. And I think what it is, yeah, it’s more representational of what the human experience is.
Your debut album, Take the Cake, is split into two different periods in your life: living in Toronto in 2019 and quarantining with your parents during the pandemic. When you listen back to the record, is that contrast immediately clear to you, or has putting them together made those times in your life kind of blur together?
Yeah, the second one. When I listen to the album, I don’t really differentiate the songs, even by chronological order. Because I know exactly what each song is about, but I pay more attention to the energy of each song, and the emotion that each song brings up. And so I was still feeling some emotions in the quarantine that I was feeling before. Like, I was feeling that like intense sense of longing – before quarantine, during quarantine.
What are some feelings that kind of separate the songs for you in terms of those time periods?
The main thing that separates those songs is the fact that I wrote the songs during quarantine knowing that I was talking to a label, and knowing I had only a month. So, the previous songs, I wrote them because I was like, “Oh, we’re in a band, we need to keep things fresh and I need to get these emotions out, so I’m going to write the songs at a leisurely pace, whenever I have a spare moment.” Whereas the new songs were written pretty much for the entire month of April 2020. I was like, I didn’t have a job, I was in a music frenzy, I was always writing something, everything was a song – everything. I wrote so many more songs than appear on the album. But I would say the energy was just, I was approaching music a bit more as though it was my profession.
There’s obviously a pressure that comes with that as well. To what extent did that affect your writing process?
It just got me to extract more – the things that are bogging me down, that are logged in my brain mentally, and that linger in my body physically. I was kind of like, mining myself more, you know what I mean? Like we extract natural resources from the earth when we are desperate for more of those resources. I was just doing that to myself, plunging deeper than I would normally go.
What strikes me about this metaphor is that it actually reminds me of the lyrics on the album, which, besides being very introspective, are also poetic in their use of metaphors. It makes me wonder what kind of headspace you’re usually in when you’re writing.
My headspace is usually like, sometimes I can wake up in the morning and say, “I’m gonna write a song today,” and I can just sit down and play around with the words that I’ve been writing in my journal and play around with chords and find something. And then other days, like last night I had this, it’s like… It’s not super rare, but maybe every third song or something I sit down and I have this feeling that I just am going to go insane. And so I write, I just start playing and singing at the same time and the words follow the chords and the chords follow the words, and then it just manifests, and I feel so much better after I do it. I’ve said this in some other interviews, just about having, like, feverish feelings of writing. So yeah, it varies, and I think you could probably tell which songs I went into with an intent to write, and I was thinking a lot. And then there’s other songs where I didn’t have to think at all, and everything just came out without me even having to do anything.
I wanted to ask about the cover artwork, which was done by your sister. Did you have any conversations about the music during that process of creating the cover?
I knew I wanted her to paint something for the cover, and we both were talking about what state of mind provoked all of those songs to be written, what was the common thread of all of those songs. And the common thread is that they were all written in a state – I have to kind of make sure that no one can really hear what I’m doing. So me poking my head out of a mess of comfy sheets, it’s like a visual metaphor for what those songs make me feel. When I write a song, it feels like I’m enveloping myself in a physical manifestation of comfort – even though a song isn’t a physical thing, it feels physical when you’re writing and playing a song for some reason.
It’s interesting, this sense of the process being comforting but also feverish, like you said. And the way those covers are depicted made it seem like it could be suffocating as well.
Yeah, totally. It never feels unnatural or like too much, but when I get into that feverish songwriting state, it can kind of feel like I’m indulging in insanity or something. [laughs]
The final track on the album, ‘U Can Wish All U Want’, is one of those acoustic moments, and it feels nostalgic and hopeful at the same time. I read that it was written about moving in with your sister and living in the city. What does that song mean to you now?
It really is about this feeling of knowing you can be your full true self, living with this person. Like, when I was living with my sister, it’s just like … You don’t have to worry about anything. And you can just laugh – because laughing is my kind of favorite thing to do, and she’s like the funniest person that I know. So I was just, you know… all good things have to come to an end. That’s kind of the general idea of the song, is that all good things must come to an end.