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Departure of founding member informs Braids' emotional sophomore album

TORONTO – The members of acclaimed Montreal experimental-pop outfit Braids were once — true to their name — a tightly woven, intricately knotted unit, good friends who became a band and not the other way around.

So it’s understandable that the seemingly acrimonious departure of founding keyboardist Katie Lee would have deep reverberations for the group, now a trio. The split happened after the band returned from touring their celebrated debut “Native Speaker” and began work on the follow-up (“Flourish // Perish,” which hits stores Tuesday).

Then, singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston says the band realized “that there was a friendship that was very broken.” They diligently tried to mend the widening schism for five months, but those attempts at reconciliation gradually seemed to be doing more harm than good — and in the meantime, little music was actually getting made, Standell-Preston said.

“The recording process for all of us was turning into a therapy session — like, we’re not making music here. We’re like so far from music right now, it’s insane,” Standell-Preston recalled in a recent telephone interview as she strolled the streets of Montreal.

“It was just getting to that point where it was just like very toxic and kind of ready to explode.”

Even if the group felt that staying together would have invited inevitable disaster, the split hasn’t been without significant fallout. And it had a profound effect on both the direction of the band and their emotionally raw sophomore statement.

Braids grew from high-school friendships formed in Calgary. Standell-Preston and Lee were particularly close; Standell-Preston calls her former bandmate her best friend since they were 14 years old.

She’s reluctant to delve into the details behind the split, and even more reluctant to pin blame, but it’s clear there were disagreements over the right artistic path for the band to pursue.

The Polaris Prize-nominated “Native Speaker” was defined by textured, labyrinth grooves, interlocking instrumental prowess and bursts of emotion, reminding some of Animal Collective’s pop puzzles. “Flourish // Perish,” however, largely abandons organic instrumentation, with only Standell-Preston’s moving vocals and the occasional burst of live drumming to supplement the delicately sombre computer-generated soundscapes.

Standell-Preston said the immediate effect of the split was relief, but sadness and doubt gradually crept in and contributed to the sense of melancholic dread so imbued in the music.

“After a while, the regret really kicked in. I think that is also on the record,” says Standell-Preston, who concedes that she hasn’t talked to Lee since the split and isn’t sure “if it will ever mend.”

“‘Together’ is just about really missing her. And just like wondering if we can do it as the three of us and feeling really, really scared.

“I felt very scared for a long time, just being like: ‘Oh my God, have we totally (screwed) ourselves?’ Should we have tried with this more?’ I think now we’re in a very good place and I’m happy to be moving forward with the three of us, (but) that’s definitely all over the record.”

The band’s electronic makeover was inspired by a sense that they were constrained by the limits of their instruments. Standell-Preston felt “really disenchanted” by playing electric guitar so she “totally ditched” the instrument, while the band was similarly united in feeling that the sound of acoustic drums “became a little bit undesirable.”

Learning an entirely different approach was time-consuming. The band spent a year making the record and has spent 2013 re-conceiving their live format to accommodate the changes in their sound and lineup.

“We’re really challenging ourselves. We’re not taking the easy route,” Standell-Preston said.

Still, they found making music with computers a freeing experience. Suddenly, anything was possible.

For one thing, Standell-Preston said she tapped into a greater range of emotions. On “Native Speaker,” songs were written in such a way to keep the energy up during marathon sessions — first-album standout “Lemonade” required 200 vocal takes that left the singer in tears — but now assembling the songs gradually was easy, and the group no longer felt bound to the upbeat.

“(It) just allowed for us to really delve into colder emotions, or more sombre emotions, contemplative emotions, both lyrically and musically,” says Standell-Preston, who’s also a member of the electronic duo Blue Hawaii.

The resultant record is a “grower,” Standell-Preston acknowledges, and she worries that its charms will be lost on multi-tasking music fans seeking immediate gratification. At the same time, she dismisses the suggestion that the critical acclaim earned by “Native Speaker” led to a more palpable sense of pressure on the group.

A restless talent, Standell-Preston isn’t ready to declare Braids a finished product after this recent stage of rapid metamorphosis. In fact, she’s feeling a longing to play guitar again and isn’t feeling “super emotionally connected” to the keyboard.

She concedes that she’s already thinking a couple steps into the band’s future. Braids’ songs always sound as though they’re in the midst of an ongoing process of mutation — and perhaps, the band as a whole might take on a similar pliancy, even if the shifts aren’t always easy.

“(This) is kind of like a record for us that will allow other records. It’s not our end-all, be-all record,” Standell-Preston says.

“I don’t ever really want us to make a record like that. To me, I’m really happy that this is a record that has helped inspire a new process. Because now I want to start using acoustic instruments again and find a balance between electronic and acoustic a little bit more, whereas this record we went really heavily into the electronic zone.

“But we’re still not electronic producers,” she adds with a sheepish laugh. “We didn’t make a dance record. We’re not playing like, German techno or anything like that.”