If I made you pick a favourite song off the album, which would you pick? Any reason why?
Asking me to choose one song over the other is kind of like asking me to choose which one of my children I love more than the others. The more important question is why do I have so many children?
While I can’t pick a favourite I can pick several standouts. “Ring Finger” is certainly different.
In 2010 I began having pain and stiffness in the ring finger on my left hand. (Ooooh! See? You’re already thinking in metaphors). At first I thought it was a simple repetitive motion injury because I had basically spent the better part of the previous 3 years constantly playing gigs, touring and/or recording. But it wasn’t. I now know that it was a symptom of a much more serious auto-immune disease. Doctors started telling me that I had to come to terms with the possibility that I may lose my ability to play. So I decided to write a song about it (cause that’s what I do). I wanted it to be very formal in the beginning and gradually get less formal and more personal. It became a very emotional song. And I wrote it on Mandolin which I feel isn’t often seen as an aggressive instrument.
The arrangement became a different sort of beast all its own. Starting with sparse mandolin and heavy but spacious percussion, Then slowly building with other instruments entering gradually: Acoustic guitar, bowed upright bass, percussion/chains, and finally a string quartet (Something I have always wanted to have on an album). So I wrote a song that shouldn’t have worked in many ways and yet I think it works great. Hopefully other folks will think so too.
And if I let you pick another favourite?
“Ghost” was a lot of fun to arrange and record. I wrote the song a while back and had it generally arranged the way I liked it. But my semi-former sometimes band King Nancy had come up with a fun version of it that is very different from my solo acoustic version. I still have hopes of someday recording the KN version so I wanted to make sure my version would be very different.
Oddly the first production idea I had for the album at all was the bridge in “Ghost.” I asked Chris Harnett to come in and do some saxophone on it in a very non-traditional way. The album version has 11 overlapping saxophone solos soaked in reverb to create a sort of cacophonous drone when the band drops out. It was a very fun moment for me because I had a pretty clear vision in my head for what the finished product would sound like but it was pretty hard to explain that while recording it so it felt a little mad scientist. And it’s not even something most folks will take notice of. But it was just for me.
Is there a song on here that’s a little different for you, or that you questioned including?
As my disease progressed I had a harder time coming to terms with some of my new found limitations. I wrote “I Fear My Love” in my head almost entirely before I even went to an instrument. I had a guitar version in mind and a piano version. I was more drawn to the piano version. And, as I have previously stated, really wanted to have strings on the record. I think it hearkened back to my history with classical music to have a piece with piano and string quartet. But that is hardly typical fare for a rock album. I never really questioned having it on the record so much as wondered where to put it and how it would be perceived. But so far the reaction has been really positive … ironic seeing how sad a song it is.
Which one of these songs came out the hardest, or was the longest in the crafting? Why?
I wouldn’t say it was hard, but I was conflicted about where I wanted the song “Embers” to go. Originally the lyrics were much darker. But I decided to lighten it up a bit. The voice in the song comes home after having a horrible day and says to his lover “let’s just crawl into bed and forget the rest of the world exists” which to me is a very romantic idea. Nothing could be better than spending the day in bed with the one you love. But I had some darker more despair-driven lyrics in there as well in the beginning. I felt it was too dark for the romantic feeling for the song. But once I decided on that it came together pretty quickly. The arrangement was a bit tough for this one at first because the guitar only has a few simple patterns but the vocal changes the mood a lot. Ian Foster wrote a fantastic string arrangement that really helped set the changes of mood.
Share a random fact about one of your songs on this album, or the album itself.
The album is made up, almost entirely, of analog sounds. I wanted an organic sounding album so I was aiming at lots of analog sounds but I wasn’t refusing to use digital sounds at all. It just ended up happening that way. All the keyboard instruments were real organs, celeste, pianos, harmoniums, etc but no synthesizers. There is one digital sound on the album. I walked in to the studio one day and Robert Kelly (the fantastic engineer who is responsible for capturing the amazing sounds on the album) had recorded something to show me and see if I liked it. A simple sort of bell sound from an old synthesizer he had at home. More of a decorative embellishment part than a line or riff. I liked it so it stayed. But it is the only purely digital sound on the album. I won’t say what song it is in or where it is. Let’s see if anybody can listen to the album and find it.
Name one influence on your approach to songwriting – whether it be a musician or a goal you have in crafting a song.
When I was in university, I stumbled on to Qawwali music, especially Sufist Islamic music sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He wrote these gorgeous emotional songs that were called “Love and Devotional songs.” Every song’s lyrics had a dual meaning. The lyrics could be something basically saying “I love you. I need you in my life” for example. Looked at one way they were a love song to his wife, but another they could also be a devotional prayer to Allah. I loved the idea of double meaning in lyrics. Not just metaphor or double entendre from time to time but a song that could be taken literally as one thing and figuratively as another for the entire song. I have used that a lot in my writing. I also learned a lot about singing from Ali Khan. I was studying classical voice at the time but I also learned to sing microtones and use some of the ragas he sang in because I loved the way he could improvise on a previously established line. That was something that happened a lot in the opera I was studying too. You do the first pass clear and to the point, adding decoration and colourful melisma on repeats.
What’s a new album you’ve been loving lately?
Honestly been listening to a lot of different stuff lately. Lot of local: Ian Foster – The Great Wave; Cabbages and Kings – S/T; Steve Maloney and the Wandering Kind – S/T. Since finishing my album I have been repeatedly listening to the same handful of albums (That’s not to say I’m not listening to more, just these four keep coming back): Jason Isbell – Southeastern; Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything; Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams; Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse.
And if I lit your album collection on fire, what’s one album you’d think to save first?
Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse.
Frightened Rabbit has become one of my favourite bands. Because I feel like I have a lot in common with them in terms of self-deprecation, dark lyrical writing while keeping the overall mood potentially hopeful. And I love the way they play orchestrally like I think I do. Most bands, while still kicking out the jams, build a few layers and kill it. But orchestral playing to me is multiple parts in contrary motion or complex harmonies coming from simple chord progressions. It’s about building the tension and maybe they release it or maybe they don’t. To me tension is what makes anything in life interesting. Release is boring if it didn’t take a bit of work to get there. They do that really well. Check out the tune State Hospital. It’s a tasty jam.
There are many ways to evaluate a song. But for you, what’s one trait that makes a great song a great song? Name a song you love that fits that bill.
I could write several tomes on the subject of what I think makes a great song. There are tons of broad factors, sub-factors, sub-sub-factors etc. I like music in every genre. If it has good sounds and catches my ear than I like it. Simply put. But I am an emotional creature. So for a song to be GREAT it has to mess with my feelings. There is that tension I mentioned before. Musically it should push and pull. Make me think we are going to resolve when we aren’t, use deceptive cadences or suddenly hold on one chord longer than we did the last time. Basically make me always wonder where we are going next. If a song is constantly repeating the same information over and over without varying it, it will probably lose me. A song can be emotional musically too, not just in the lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics can be puzzling but the imagery they create can be just the right amount of disorienting or descriptive to hint at subconscious ideas that already exist in your psyche.
Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” is a great song like that for me.
Foregoing the story of how the song was written/recorded, which is it’s own interesting tale, the song messes with your perception of what key it is in, it plays the same progression but in a variety of ways so you won’t even notice some of the changes unless you are listening really closely. And the deceptive way a simple drumbeat and harpsichord pattern trick you into feeling some sort of constancy when everything else is morphing around you. It doesn’t have a proper chorus. It in fact has these moments between verses of what I can only refer to as the musical equivalent of negative space in a photograph. And most of all it’s not even how the song actually is as much as the multitude of places I can hear it going. I once listened to that song on repeat while on tour by myself for 4 hours. Ha! I sang along, I tapped alternate beats and thought of any number of other directions that song could go in. It is deceptively simple in every respect. Lyrically at first glance could be somewhat gibberish-like meanderings is in fact darkly poetic and instead of just describing imagery makes you create your own based on a few phrases.
We can talk about how much I love Elizabeth Fraser’s perpetually intriguing singing style another time.
Other than music, name something else you love.
I don’t think I have ever wanted to do anything other than music. I enjoy working with young artists so I’d like to do more production, or score writing for film. But I guess those are both still in music.
I guess film critic would be fun. I am a movie/tv show buff. But not in a I-just-want-to-watch-stuff kind of way. I love knowing about how shots are achieved, written, scored, edited, planned etc. I like being on film sets but more as a visitor. I don’t think I would like to have to work on one every day. It’s a tough gig. But if I get to watch stuff and then critique and write about it, that’d be pretty decent.