William Prince is in a better spot right now than when he started writing songs for his latest album. Grappling with the death of his father and the dissolution of a long-term relationship, the Juno-winning Canadian singer-songwriter — who turned heads with the swooning “Breathless” in 2018 — buckled down and started working on new songs. It was a survival strategy that turned out to be a prediction of the future.
“It was a way to slow time down, slow everything down, and focus on what I’m feeling about it and how to express it, always with the idea that this is a reflective attempt,” says Prince, calling from his home in Manitoba. “Because I know that I’m going to make it through this, so I was hoping that it would just become the tale of survival.”
Reliever, the album that resulted from that effort, feels remarkably optimistic to have emerged from such heavy circumstances. Recorded in Winnipeg by Scott Nolan and in Nashville by Dave Cobb, it’s full of simple, elegant arrangements that keep the focus squarely on Prince’s storytelling and his rich, breathy baritone. Even when Prince is looking back on sad times, as on “Always Have What We Had,” he does so in a way that comes across as warm. In “Lighthouse” and “Leave It by the Sea,” hope fills all the cracks — he’s guided safely into harbor by someone in the former, and he’s laying down his troubles in the latter.
“I had the faith for a better time. That’s all hope really is: borrowing from a time that things will be better,” he says. “It allowed me to be more open and vulnerable with the subject matter.”
Prince uses a sports analogy in the title track, seeing families and romantic partners as having the ability to support someone when things get tough. “Tell me are you trying to live to beat the over-under/Does it even matter who wins?/Tell me everything that got right on the inning just before it ends,” he sings, as pedal steel sighs gently in the background.
“It still applies to my family and loved ones, we’re getting to a place where things are going to be good,” Prince says. “That could [also] be the team that exists in a relationship. We don’t have to forfeit the game because one of is weakening or tiring.”
That concept of empathy and shared burdens shows up again in “Old Souls,” but this time it’s at a wider angle. Prince, who grew up in the Peguis First Nation in Canada, has seen the destructive effects of illegal displacement and separation up close — along with the generational trauma that accompanies those things.
“We are vehicles for a soul and we’re going through different cycles. We are repeating patterns of our ancestors before us, our families,” Prince says. “We’re not in a place to cast any judgment at those, especially those that get judged the hardest. Those happen to exist in the First Nations population in Canada, quite heavily. People recovering from displacement is the first thing — your home being wiped out from underneath you, losing touch with your identity, your culture. Taken from homes, totally confused and scared. You turn to drink, you turn to what they say will alleviate this pain.”
In “Great Wide Open,” which closes Reliever, Prince employs a gospel-style arrangement to say farewell to his father, but it’s also about the ebb and flow of our energy from the universe than anything resembling a typical Christian notion of afterlife. Elsewhere, on “That’s All I’ll Ever Become,” he’s in the father role, wanting to make sure his son has everything he needs to make his way in the world. “I want to live to the second-last day that my children do/Selfishly so I can see them through and all that they become,” he intones.
“Even on my worst day, I have my son’s future to look forward to,” Prince says. “That’s something that keeps you going. There are selfish inflections on this record too, where I wanted to give up. Where I wanted to take it upon myself to quit internally, but you can’t when you’re a father, when you’re a parent. There’s a lot riding on all the work I did when no one was paying attention. Now that people are interested and welcoming me to new avenues, now is not the time to break. Now is the time to show proof of that resilience.”
When he first started releasing music, Prince wasn’t entirely sure how his work would be met. But the swell of excitement around his music has him more focused than ever to show that resilience, and keep going, scars and all.
“Here we are, album two, I’m going forward stronger and clearer than ever with these ideas and people are getting onboard with it,” he says. “It feels different. It feels special. This is a piece — there’s a great, grander story I’m hoping to tell.”