The full-length debut from Canadian singer/songwriter Billy Raffoul, International Hotel takes its title from a hometown dive bar that’s played a crucial part in his musical upbringing. After tearing through four-hour-long sets of classic rock-and-roll covers at a venue in Michigan, his father Jody would invariably head back across the border for last call at the scrappy but sacred watering hole—a ritual the younger Raffoul has joined in countless times over the years. “For me there’s so many great memories of the International Hotel: a lot of late nights and a lot of booze, with all our family and our friends,” says the Nashville-based artist, who hails from the small farming town of Leamington, Ontario. “It’s just this incredible place that’s always been there in my mind.”
Mainly co-produced by Raffoul and his longtime collaborator/childhood friend Justin Zuccato, International Hotel fully captures that spirit of warm and rugged intimacy. In a departure from the genre-blurring experimentation of his previous work—a series of EPs made with the likes of electro-pop singer/songwriter Julia Michaels and seven-time GRAMMY® Award-winning producer Greg Kurstin—the album unfolds with a stark and stripped-down sound that lets his folk-rock roots shine more brightly than ever. Recorded with two microphones in Raffoul’s girlfriend’s bedroom in Leamington, the result is both a daring creative leap and a much-awaited musical homecoming. “When I first started playing live, it was always just me and a guitar,” notes Raffoul, who cut his teeth performing to long-haul drivers at a truck stop when he was just 16. “I’d always wanted to make an acoustic record that’s just guitar and vocals, and quarantine gave me the perfect excuse to sit in a room for a month and not come out until I’d gotten all these songs to exactly where I wanted them to be.”
The follow-up to Raffoul’s A Few More Hours at YYZ, International Hotel kicks off with its nostalgia-soaked title track and closes out with “Massey Hall”: a gently mesmerizing homage to the venue of his dreams, the Toronto theater where Neil Young recorded Live at Massey Hall 1971 (an endlessly formative influence for Raffoul). Between those bookends lies a collection of songs showcasing Raffoul’s talents as a storyteller, each moment elevated by his deeply emotive vocal delivery, graceful guitar work, and gift for crafting indelible melodies.
On “What Makes a Man”—the harmonica-adorned lead single to International Hotel—Raffoul reveals his growth as a lyricist, offering up a profoundly moving protest song that speaks out against systemic racism in policing. As Raffoul points out, “What Makes a Man” was the final song written and recorded for International Hotel. “I knew I wanted another song, and with so many important things going on in the world I was finding it hard to write another love song,” he says. “I thought about how since the quarantine started in March I had been driving my car around with expired plates for three months. I couldn’t get down to Nashville to get new tags, yet still I didn’t think twice about it. I can’t help but feel like that is a confidence that only privilege can give you.”
Another song steeped in social commentary, “Sundown on County Line” was sparked from Raffoul’s viewing of Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the 1967 Detroit riot)—specifically, a scene in which police officers plant weapons beside the bodies of unarmed murder victims. One of the moodiest moments on International Hotel, “Sundown on County Line” finds Raffoul intensifying the track’s gritty urgency with a soul-stirring guest performance from Garret Bielaniec on slide guitar.
Throughout International Hotel, Raffoul shows his rare ability to mine tremendous emotion and tension from the most minimal sonic palette. Taking a cue from literary-minded songwriters like Joni Mitchell, “The Ballad of James Howlett” presents a haunting and hypnotic character study of an unlikely folk-song figure: Wolverine from Marvel Comics’ X-Men. “I grew up a comic book fan, and I was fascinated by the idea of someone living forever and causing so much pain while trying to do good,” says Raffoul. “There’s something tragically romantic about this person who outlives everyone they love.”
On songs like the lilting and harmony-laced “Everything Marie,” International Hotel shifts into a more hopeful mood and explores the brighter side of love. “My grandparents immigrated from Lebanon to Canada in 1959 and had the sort of relationship where they lived completely for their kids—any other aspirations they had were gone once they had children,” says Raffoul. “My grandmother told me that when they were teenagers they used to send each other letters, so I decided to write a song that’s like a letter from my grandfather to my grandmother, thanking her for a life devoted to their family.” And on “Truth Be Told (I Like You),” Raffoul shares an entirely different breed of love song, a swaggering piece of roots-rock threaded with sweetly scathing lyrics (e.g., “I want crazy, and baby you got more than enough”). “On that one I was inspired by Rod Stewart, and all the tunes where he’s complaining about a relationship—but then by the time the chorus rolls around you realize he wouldn’t want it any other way,” says Raffoul.
Marking the first time he’s ever covered one of his father’s songs—the fiercely tender “Right Behind You”—International Hotel signifies something of a full-circle moment for Raffoul. As a kid in Leamington, he started writing songs at the age of ten thanks largely to his influence of his father, whose own musical career includes opening for legendary artists like Joe Cocker. After landing that first truck-stop gig, Raffoul began playing at nearby bars and clubs, often driving into Detroit for shows. Eventually moving down to Nashville to push forward with his music, he soon scored a deal with Interscope Records, then delivered his darkly thrilling debut single “Driver.” With his debut EP 1975 arriving in 2018, Raffoul next put out his 2019 sophomore EP Running Wild, followed by A Few More Hours at YYZ in early 2020. Over the years, he’s also opened for heavyweights like Kings of Leon and X Ambassadors, in addition to completing headlining tours of Europe and North America. While in quarantine Raffoul has taken to Instagram Live for the Still Social Distancing Tour, joining forces with guest artists like Zac Barnett, Caitlyn Smyth, Wrabel, John Paul White, and more.
For Raffoul, the making of International Hotel provided undeniable proof of the power in simplicity—an element he considers one of the album’s greatest triumphs. “It’s something I’ve been preaching for as long as I’ve been making records: the idea that you can package something a million different ways, but at the end of the day it’s just a person singing a song,” says Raffoul. “Making this album has absolutely affirmed my belief in that, and I think that’s something I’ll be proud of forever.”