On my way to the funeral of an old friend this morning, I got a note from Laurie Brown that a podcast went live today that she and her team had woven together centred on an interview with Stephen and tracks from A Night of Grief and Mystery. For those of you who don’t know, Laurie has long been a fixture of Canadian broadcasting and has always brought a fresh perspective to her line of questioning when acting as an interviewer and a deeply creative approach to her hosting duties. Having signed off from CBC’s The Signal last year, she has made her broadcast home at lauriebrown.ca where she continues to create her innovative conversations with listeners in her Pondercasts.
Today’s weather was typically awful, the driving treacherous, the funeral heart wrenching/beautiful, the welcome home warm. We sat and listened to the pod cast and I couldn’t have planned a better way to end this day.
Get comfy, light a fire if you’ve got one, or maybe a candle, and drink in this gem of modern broadcasting. It is about dying, and it’s just as much about living.
Over a year ago, sometime in July, 2016, I set out to make a little record: A quick solo thing, in and out in seven weeks, whereon I was the only performer. It was to be modest in scope, a sonic sketchbook I would record like I used to when I’d demo songs before bringing them to whatever band I had working with me. I had a couple ideas what to call it and decided that its self imposed solitary nature resonated with a side project I had going where I took self portraits that tried to buck the selfie trend. I called that project Vain+Alone and thought this recording would benefit from the name. I’m not a great marketer so I was probably wrong about that. I gathered up some bits of poetry, finished songs I’d been working on for about 10 years, and took up temporary residence in the 2nd floor of a dank old factory a couple minutes from where I live. I christened the space Dead Starling Studio because that is what greeted me on the floor by the door the first time I stepped through it.
Making a record where one plays all the instruments is not news.
Making that recording outside of a traditional studio is very au courant and a good side effect of the advances of affordable recording tech, but it is hardly groundbreaking.
Engineering, mixing, and mastering it is no big thing, either; just a long process trial and error.
Actually, making any kind of recording these days is not in any way news worthy, and that suits me just fine.
As I set out to make my first “real” recording at the age of 27, I sat across a lunch table from Jonathan Goldsmith, the man who would produce the 2 recordings I made for True North Records. After an initial awkward hello, the first thing said at that table was, and I quote, “Like the world really needs another record.” That was 27 years ago and the statement seems even more true now. We both laughed in agreement and pursued the thing anyway, freed from any expectations that it was going to mean anything to anybody but us. I haven’t made a lot of recordings–only 9 or so since then–but I’ve made every one in that same spirit.
Contemporary popular musicians can be some of the most the whingey, self-absorbed, and entitled little pricks. Some of them ARE that, and some just come off like that. Yes, its true that for many peers of my age, the game has changed significantly and those changes can be a challenge to negotiate. But lets be honest: We never mattered. Not in the way you thought, and not in any way that guaranteed a paycheque or a place of value in the culture we were born into– one that, by the way, eats its’ young, has a voracious appetite for competence, and the attention span of a horny highway dog.
Making your way through the world trying to create original content has always been tricky. It seemed to me that something was worth doing if it created an echo and gave you a sense of its life beyond your own intentions for it. That echo was reason enough to find ways to pursue the endeavor. No echo meant you either had to dig deeper when you were making the thing (I’m talking the content of the songs here…not the window dressing of the recording) or consider another line of work. Somewhere along the way the romantic choice to pursue the making of ‘something from nothing’ turns into a full- fledged consequence, the grown up version of the dream you had as a teenager maybe. It’s a more potent version to be sure and now gives no fucks about the industry, royalty rates, news cycles, delivery methods, publicity, branding, social networking or, for that matter, your hopes for the thing. You just do what you do and make what you make because what else are you gonna do?
Back to my little record…this note was meant to be a bit of an apology as to why it took so long to cook, though I can’t say who I may have disappointed.
I should have mentioned that making demos hardly qualifies me to engineer, mix, and master, and I learned this by making Vain+Alone. So there was a fairly steep learning curve, which was great, because a secret part of doing this record was about learning how to do this record. Even the most modest of modern recording rigs lets one tweak until the cows come home. [I used–and this is for the geeks–a Macbook Pro mid 2012 running ProTools 10, an assortment of Royer, Apex, and AKG mics run through Universal Audio 4710-D mic pre’s into a UA Apollo Twin along with a UAD2 Satellite and the occasional Antelope Zen interface and a pair of Yamaha HS 8 monitors. ed] This is, as you would assume, both a blessing and a curse. I’ve found that living with the curse eventually brings you to the blessing, a journey of approximately 15 months, apparently.
Vain+Alone became a bigger swipe at a sonic landscape than I had intended and that made it more difficult to wrangle when it came time to mix and master. When my pursuit of something that felt finished began to feel embarrassing, I’d think of friends like Don Rooke, who’s latest The Henrys record Quiet Industry (2015) I was fortunate enough to play a small part on. I know that Don dragged his beleaguered self to the basement for at least a year to make that disarming and beautiful record; or Kevin Breit who, working in his usual genius and mercurial fashion to make his new disc Johnny Goldtooth and The Chevy Casanovas, gave himself to the task in a basement with the same geeky tools that I had and a commitment to doing all of the technical heavy lifting himself as a way to justify continuing to make records and the time and foolishness it takes; or Kurt Swinghammer pouring himself into the CD/Blu-ray DVD release of his ode to Tom Thompson Turpentine Wind; or John Southworth and his epic 2-CD release of Niagara; or Ingrid Veninger and her blazing indie films. These people would stumble across my peripheral vision in various stages of their productions and I would glimpse them creating the best work they could with no apparent expectation of what it owed them. Ultimately they would finish and move on and any commentary about any hardship in the process was mumbled under the breath or was just letting off steam in a bid to keep going.
So, I’m done tinkering with Vain+Alone. I think. No, I’m done.
Its on to other things. A recording of the tours with Stephen Jenkinson is coming out called Nights of Grief and Mystery. It’s hard to describe this CD…it is worthy company and I am honoured to have been a part of it (more on this record another time). There is a 5-song cycle I’m starting that will have me co-creating some recordings with survivors from the Huronia Regional Institution. A re-imagining of the songs from Vain+Alone is close to being finished and will be available…Spring 2018?… arranged, produced, and much of it performed by Kevin Breit and featuring a list of internationally acclaimed musical contributors. There will be some more touring, no doubt, and hopefully some kind of celebration of the 10th anniversary of the recording of Pleasure & Relief: A Live Concert Recording, a night which owes its beauty to the many people who lent their grace and talent to it. On that night, I was neither vain or alone.
And then, I will make another recording.
I know other singers can slide easily into the skins of songs they didn’t write, but I cant. It is such a self-conscious thing for me because I’m always sure that I never get it quite right. This is probably because I don’t see myself as a singer: When I fill out a car loan application, I put “Songwriter” or “Musician”, or “Artist” if I feel like brightening their day in the credit department. Not “Singer”. The only time I sing songs I didn’t write is when I sing with the Art of Time Ensemble and by the time I walk out on stage, I’ve wrestled my way inside the songs as much as I can, mostly desperate to not oversing the thing, but create some kind of respectful distance. A song aint just notes and words…not songs I agree to sing, anyway. There is some kind of intention woven into the songs I agree to sing and that is the thing I’m trying to locate…more the bones of the song rather than the skin. Most often the songs are some kind of iconic. Yesterday, a friend pointed me to a video that was recorded earlier this year of a performance of Chancellor by Gord Downie and there I saw another clip of After Mardi Gras by Steve Earle.
I came to these songs a stranger, as I come to most songs that aren’t mine. I’d forgotten I’d sang Chancellor and whinced my way through the video. I’d never heard the song before being asked to sing it (and I was asked as if it was assumed I knew of it) and it was a tender time in the arc of the story that had emerged about Gord Downie and so I climbed into the song with even more uncertainty than usual. Making my way around the atypical phrasing and imagery of Chancellor was more difficult than contending with the desire for redemption and the self immolation of the heart in Steve Earle’s Mardi Gras. It was Gord’s vampire versus Steve’s inner demons… I dunno… As I wrote that just now, it occurred to me perhaps the songs had more in common than I thought.
In any case, the thing I did note in these video performances was the tenderness in the arrangements (courtesy of Kevin Fox and Jonathan Goldsmith), the focus of the players on the stage, and the respect I remember feeling everybody bringing to the enterprise. I am sharing the stage with Andrew Burashko, Drew Jurecka, Mark Mariash, Don Rooke, Rob Piltch, Rachel Mercer, Douglas Perry, Joseph Phillips, Stephen Sitarski, Kevin Turcotte, Bryan Holt, and John Johnson.
And we all, on the stage and in the house, were surely sharing the minutes with the spirit of the songwriters: Steve Earle and Gord Downie.
I went to the Louvre once. It was 1987. I was 23. I was on a belated honeymoon trip. I ate french fries on the patio while playing Crazy Eights, mistakenly sat on a Louis the XIV chair and set off the alarm, and lined up to see the Mona Lisa only to bail on the lineup and take pictures of people looking at the Mona Lisa instead.
I’m not very good in museums. I become super self-conscious in crowds, and in art galleries I break into a sweat under the pressure of liking what I’m seeing, or the expectation of my having an intelligent opinion because, apparently, it is not enough to like a painting, to be intrigued or moved by it: you have to know why and be able to tell your mates…and anyone else in earshot…if you talk loud enough.
A couple weeks ago, L & I were in Montreal and took in the Chagall exhibit at the Musee Des Beaux Arts. It was near the end of the exhibit’s run and the place was packed. People moved from room to room like sheep and I was a sweaty mess of nerves within a few minutes but I discovered something important: I enjoy seeing paintings when I can get up close…really up close. Like sitting in the Louis the XIV chair kind of close.
I found a painting that didn’t have a crowd gathered around it…a portrait Chagall had done of his father (he did a few, I think). With my nose a few inches away from it, I took my time looking at the canvas without the feeling of 50 pairs of eyes drilling into my back.
I saw ridges– the pressure exerted, all the places the painter decided to stop moving the brush, the exact moments his brain signaled the muscles in his arm, wrist, and fingers to ease up or bear down or change direction. Up close, the thing was a study in intention, force, and trust. Micro movements and decisions made on some sub-existent level. The place where what is invited and what actually appears seem to work it out for the greater good, all caught in oil and pigment a few inches from my nose. Looking at it like this allowed me to relate to the humanity of the painting, and of the painter. I appreciated how he painted those he loved, and that he painted himself, too.
I lasted longer than I thought in the gallery, but will confess we did spend a good portion of time in the Kids Chagall Colour Zone playing with puppets. Well, one puppet. A donkey puppet. I loved that puppet.
I suppose it’s not cool in these modern days to be thrilled by traveling to different parts of the globe. It is kind of standard fare now for many. Or maybe not…officially, its been just over 100 years that commercial aviation has been around but just about 65 years or so that it has been feasible to wake up in Bristol, England and fall asleep in Guelph, Ontario that same very long day…a cab, a train, and a car ride from my brother thrown in there. Or travel within a relatively short time to the other side of the planet! (I’m convinced that nothing is more inhuman for a human body than jet travel.) A figure has been floating around for a while that only 5% of us here on the planet fly on planes, so maybe this zipping around is not as natural as it might seem. Which may be news to those people who travel a lot by air and make noise about “passenger rights” as if our flying through the sky in a metal and plastic tube garners the same attention and vigilance as, say, freedom of thought, clean water, clean air, or food. Or those insufferable people who complain about the food…while they fly…through the sky…above the clouds…like it was a god-given right.
As a younger man, I managed to shoot myself in the feet pretty good when a German record company came calling to have me tour over there with The Stickpeople…club and promo dates in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other parts of Europe. I asked him what kind of shows we would be doing for TV and he replied, “Gameshows.” Gameshows. All I could think of was performing on something like Definition and I burst out laughing, assuming he was joking. It was no joke, and there would be no European tour (a sensitive bunch, those Germans– who knew?). Regarding the USA, I had determined for myself that I wasn’t interested in being–and I quote myself here–wiped off the chin of America. Translation: I am scared shitless of the place and am ignoring the fact that good people can live in lousy countries and I’m too stupid or scared to figure out how to do it so I will tell myself I’m better off not playing there. With the exception of a thing here or there, my playing days were confined to Canada and the only way anyone from anywhere else could see me was by seeing me here in the north.
So, you will forgive my childish excitement as I write this, having just returned from a short but intense tour to the UK on the heels of a lengthy tour in Australia, fairly jet-lagged and wrecked, feeling satiated and sort of hung over…and hankering for more. I’ve never taken anything for granted in this singer/songwriter thing: not the chances to record (I always think the recording I am currently working on will be my last); or perform (I’m fairly aware that each performance might be, for any number of good reasons, my last); or write a new song (I’m always amazed and downright confounded when I write a new song…every song is the last song I’ll ever write); shit, I’ll even admit that every time I climb on my motorcycle I’m aware that it might be for the last time. Point is, it’s best not to take these things for granted. I’ll confess that I had begun to wonder if I’d ever get to travel on the back of the songs I wrote, a thing that was an expected dividend when I started out and is less likely for young artists these days. Since the fall of 2015, though, I have performed in over 30 cities in five countries on three continents as a part of Nights of Grief and Mystery.
The tour through England– small cities mostly– was the first we would do on land that had not been colonized by the British Empire. I was excited by this because in Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand the air can be thick with the guilt of thievery and exhaust fumes of the fevered and mostly impotent and childlike attempts by descendants at redemption. This stuff hangs in the air between us and the audiences, is there in the murmuring in the halls before we start, and is there when we are done…though there are a few moments immediately after, quiet and wordless ones, that feel different.
Turns out that the air in England is thick with guilt, too, laced with a great deal of shame and topped off with quiet confusion as to how to make amends for its’ various offenses…or sins…or transgressions. Unlike its’ predecessors the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, the British Colonial Empire birthed some ideas (most having to do with the rise of the mercantile class) that seem to threaten the life of the planet itself. I say “seem” because I’d like to think the planet is a tough old bitch that will figure out how to deal. The British Colonial Empire was the largest the planet has seen to date: that is a lot of blood, a lot of ruin. You don’t get to just walk away from that.
So all this stuff is floating around, bombs have exploded and will explode again, people have been maimed and killed and will be again, and we are driven by car mostly by our good man Buckingham (who you sort of see in the first photo) from city to city.
After a show in Totnes (180.3 miles from Reading) I was shoveling some food into my mouth in the evening air outside the theater. It had been a while since we had ended, I had just finished packing up, and there were still a few folk loitering around. A very small, very old woman appeared in front of me, her skin translucent, her small hands wrinkled and soft. She simply looked at me for a moment, placed her hands over her breast, then to my chest and said, “From my heart to your heart.”
Now, there are all kinds of people who come to these shows. As in any audience anywhere, some folk are more lost than others, and that sense of being bereft can make itself known in a quick back and forth. There was none of that here. Quite the opposite, actually. The gesture felt so natural, the phrase innocent and genuine. “I’ll take that,” I said honestly and found myself covering her tiny hand on my chest with my free hand. We stayed like that for a couple heartbeats. She stared up at me and held my gaze for another moment then walked away. Later, I mentioned the old lady to a couple of the concert organizers and they said they knew of her, that she was dying, and she had brought her grand daughter to the night. I realized I had looked out into the audience at one point in a bit of a daze while playing and part of my brain had logged the fuzzy image of an older woman sitting beside a younger woman who was crying, their hands interlaced in the old lady’s lap, the image replaced by that of my own fingers wrapped around my guitar neck as I shifted my attention back to whatever it was we were playing. A Night of Grief and Mystery has a good amount of coming to terms with dying and what the world might look like if we lived in the knowledge of our dying and I guess the old woman and her grand daughter were swimming in that pretty deeply.
These nights with Jenkinson on three continents, these nights are my bid for redemption.
Last Friday I was preparing to take the stage with The Art of Time Ensemble which included Andrew Burashko, Stephen Sitarski, Drew Jurecka, Rachel Mercer, Joe Phillips, Mark Mariash, Doug Perry, Rob Piltch, special guest noise maker Don Rooke, author/poet Michael Ondaatje, and actor Rick Roberts. Other vocalists on the shows were Andy Maize, Tom Wilson, and Suzie Ungerlieder.
Some of these folk I have known for some time now, and a couple I am lucky enough to consider close friends. I don’t get out much, and I’ve never been a social creature. I failed spectacularly at being part of any scene. I was pacing back and forth behind backstage thinking how funny it was that these AoT gigs are the one place I get to spend time with artists I’ve only orbited around…Tom, Andy, for intance…or meet for the first time: Suzie, for instance, this time out. The thing about these gigs is…for some of us more, um, roots/pop inclined singers or musicians… is that we are in strange waters, or fish out of water altogether and it sort of levels a playing field we aren’t even aware exists and we get to see each other make peace with performing things that stretch our own understanding of ourselves. That sounds a lot more lame than it is. Put another way, there is not a lot of ego on these shows and that is as refreshing as refreshing gets.
It was the second time I got to work along side of Michael Ondaatje and I finally got the chance (and nerve) to tell him how Coming Through Slaughter has danced on the fringes of my creative consciousness since the day I turned the last page on it. A couple years ago I got to work with Margaret Atwood and that led to a weird and wonderful night at the opera with her and her family (a shitty version of Don Giovanni, I was told…I wouldn’t have known because I was just happy to there and was kind of geeking out).
Renowned dance company David Earle Dance did an inspiring piece on a show I was on, and it introduced me to the world of modern dance, a world I hadn’t paid much attention to. Out of our mutual admiration from those nights grew dance pieces to two songs of mine that members of the company, Suzette Sherman and Georgia Simms, choreographed and performed.
Most of my performances with the Art of Time have had me singing at least one arrangement done by Jon Goldsmith. Jon produced my first two recordings for True North and we have been friends since. He also arranged strings for me on the live concert recording we did almost 10 years ago called Pleasure & Relief (a couple years before I met Burashko and started singing with the AoT). I admire many of the arrangers whose songs I get to swim in when I sing with the AoT, but none more than Jon and getting to sing a chart of his makes me want to try and make my own songs more…well, more.
I met Don Rooke…inventor, soundologist, and progenitor of Tornto cult faves The Henrys…on an Art of Time gig not so long ago and that led to me singing on The Henrys last recording, 2015’s Quiet Industry, a collection of songs I would urge everyone to check out without reservation.
I’ve learned a great deal watching members of the Art of Time negotiate the rehearsals, speaking in, what is to me, a foreign tongue, having never learned how to read music myself. I have a great respect for Burashko and his carving out a career in the arts. This is no small feat.
And nowhere else could I practice pacing the stage guitar-less, singing words that are not mine, trying to figure out who I am in the thing while I’m doing the thing, and all the while wearing a hat and a wee bit of bling. Thank you , Art of Time Ensemble: I hardly recognize me.
A great band featuring my friend Don Rooke (of The Henrys and Quiet Industry fame) on lap steel etc for the evening. I sing four songs: four American God, American Way, America Lost, American Love songs. It is a lot of America for this singer. I’m a fairly linear guy and not much of a lyric “interpreter”, so when I sing “I expect to touch His hand”, I know the intention and can’t pretend otherwise. Likewise a bit of a thing to sing any line with the words “our forefathers”. I’m having a good time finding my way through these songs, though, and I know the shows will be great. A ton of talent under the roof.