This concert takes place in the intimacy of a beautiful art gallery in the small town of Alton, Ontario. Artist Paul Morin curates a series of events at the gallery throughout the year bringing high-quality art into the Caledon horse hills north of Toronto. With Adam Hay on drums. Lisa Hodgson on vox and keys. Songs from Vain+Alone, Beggar Heart, The King of Good Intentions. For tickets/reservations, call The Paul Morin Gallery at (519) 942 4918.
On April 20, 2018, at The Swedish American Hall in San Francisco, California, we take version 2.0 of NOG&M for a spin. Accompanying Stephen and I on stage will be Adam Hay and Lisa Hodgson. You can find tickets here.
The concert is being presented as a part of Reimagine End of Life, a week of exploring big questions about life and death.
I’m still at a loss when asked to describe the evening. It’s a collision of sorts between Stephen’s world and mine. We don’t create material specifically for these nights. Rather, we’ve gingerly introduced writings and stories to their ambient counterparts in front of live audiences and in doing so we’ve discovered a thing or two about the works we didn’t know before subjecting them to an experiment like this. I’m really not the one who should be trying to describe what goes on, so I’ll use this…something from a concert-goer:
Hearts broken. Hearts mended. All on one Dark, Luminous night.
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.
In a few weeks I leave for a whirlwind run of dates with Stephen in the U.K. This will be third continent to which we’ve been able to bring these unassuming nights of sorrow and wonder. For tickets, go to https://orphanwisdom.com/events/
A few thoughts on the recently completed Nights of Grief & Mystery Oceania Tour 2017.
First off, a flurry of thank you’s to the intrepid people who organized the thing on the ground in Australia and New Zealand. It is no small thing welcoming a small band of tired men into your busy lives for a few days, tending to all the details that need tending to, sending us on our way, and rejoining the regular broadcast that was your life before signing on to promote one of these gigs. It is my hope is that some echo of your efforts comes to your ears every now and again…something good. Things are felt for such a short while it seems these days.
The land was beautiful, there were good people met (there were some challenging folk, too), and there was the rare empty seat in all the halls we played…something astounding to me considering the night can detonate a kind of sorrow that makes ovations unlikely but, still, there were always those who hung back to connect, struggling to find the words to acknowledge the night and our part in it.
Here’s the thing: what I wasn’t prepared for (besides the vicious jet lag on my return home) was feeling like the alien from that postulated theory “what would an alien say if it landed here”. So much of what I saw and heard felt foreign under the skin but nothing more so than the phrase “No worries.” Even typing it gives me the shivers. At one point, I thought my head would explode if I heard those two words together on more time. Mysteriously chosen to replace “you’re welcome” in the English language, the phrase found itself concluding almost every single transaction one might have in Australia. To utter “thank you” guaranteed a “no worries”. Really? None? I gave you $10 for a $4 coffee, you give me $6 change like you are supposed to, I say “thank you”, and you tell me I shouldn’t worry about it. About what, exactly? All the trouble you went to in getting me the correct change or my Long Black (an Americano down there)? The impact on the environment of the cup? The carbon footprint of my plane ride to and from the country and the 10 or so in-country flights we took? The shady trade practices that makes a good cup of coffee so easy to find down here? The exploitation of baristas and the worse treatment of 7-11 employees? The quiet despair that is crushing the developed world? The harsh awakening from the dream that whatever we want we can manifest? No worries about dying, either? Not the after part we aren’t around for, but the actual doing of the thing…no worries about that?
My niece tried to tell me the French (in Canada) have the same kind of phrase with “de rien” which is roughly translated to “it’s nothing”. However, there is also “bienvenue” which is widely and respectfully used and means, quite literally, “welcome”.
Australia, there are worries: small, niggly little worries and HUGE FUCKING BADASS WORRIES that should keep you up nights. You would be well advised to carve out some time to carve some worry sticks because sometimes worrying about something can sometimes lead to some kind of action. I’ll admit I’m being pretty vague there, given the fact that worriers are more likely to be seen as ineffective lumps of worthless worry, but worrying could be the first step in changing something. Your political landscape, for instance.
I think that—without you knowing it—the phrase “No Worries” has become your national motto. Deeper than just a phrase uttered at every cash register in the land, it just might have been spoken aloud soooooo many times that it has become a real cornerstone of the colonial Australian culture. I’d definitely worry about that.
It’s hard to describe what the nights we call “Illuminate Me” are like, so this video goes a little way towards that. Essentially, I sing and Tina Newlove paints on a canvas that has a camera trained on it and the feed is projected over me on to a large screen behind me. The night starts under the stark glare of the white projector light and ends drowned in colour.
As to the “why” of it…well, why not? There is no plan when we begin and often a quiet collective “Huh,” at the end as the echoes of a night of song die away and we all look at a huge painting where there was none 90 minutes before. It’s a rare way to watch the collision of two art disciplines and experience the chaos of making something from nothing.
December 1 and 2, The Pearl Company Theatre, Hamilton, ON. Tickets
For a complete list of dates and how to get tickets, go to the Tour page.
With my father hovering somewhere between worlds, I am firmly Vain but somewhere between Alone and not.
These were days infused with a kind of poetry that crushed us,
days burdened by an unbearable beauty…
that broke the heart a thousand times and reassembled it a thousand and one.
These were days when I was not much of a father to my children,
not much of a lover to my wife, not much of a friend to the few friends I have.
Only a son in service to his father.
In return, he told me with scathing honesty what he saw in me,
and located that nurturing part of me I’d thought long dead.
I’ve held on to this photo for a bit, unsure of it, not trusting its’ origins.
But in the life I have created for myself,
these kind of moments are all I have to weave into the work I do.
So, I wonder aloud here at what this man gave with his dying
to his wife, his children, his grandchildren, and his friends:
shattering the inane noise of the world for us with his ragged breath,
lubricating this arid desert of a place
with tears that leaked from his eyes in his final moments,
and finally binding us together with his absence…
This is the gift he gave us: how it could be when it is our time to die.
The poetry, the heartache, the laughter, the songs,
the courage, the fear, the healing,
the forgiveness, the goodbye, the wrenching loveliness of it all—
this is what we can give to our own sons and daughters, lovers and friends.
I was alone in the house when I self-consciously set up the phone to capture singing a song to him, a song we had crafted together. It was a song that came to be when he declared his pride in what I did for a living even though, as a father, it worried him to no end. He was firm in the pride he felt but asked if I couldn’t at least write something “light”— not my strong suit, to be sure. So, we spoke of his great love for my mother, and his growing love for the simple beauty he would see outside the window — the trees, the sky, the sun, the birds — that left him speechless and dumbfounded as to why the whole world seemed not to notice. A song was woven together over time.
On this night, I sang it to him as I had done dozens of times in the previous weeks (along with his favourite cowboy tunes and a few from the hit parade he used to sing to us as kids) but in a self-conscious way, too aware of the camera, wondering what kind of man would film himself like this? as I sang looking down on his unmoving body.
When I stumbled into the bridge,
and the line “Love comes for you”,
he surfaced and opened his eyes to me,
raising his arm slowly to rest his hand on my forearm.
I continued picking through the solo
and at the first line of the last chorus, “Mary, Mary, in the yard”
he chuckled, then slipped back to where he’d come from, gliding out on
“Through the trees the sunlight slips/
To steal a kiss from Mary’s lips.”
This photo, taken after I put the guitar down,
is less a record of my singing to him
and more that of a son who owed his father everything,
learning here how to say goodbye,
and deeper in debt
when all was said and done.
Would that it could be this way for everyone who reads this.
I first met Tina Newlove at this time of the year in 2012 in a factory loft art space (sadly no longer there) in Kitchener, ON. We performed as part of a series that curated a visual artist and a musician for an evening. Not content with just singing in the midst of art hanging on the wall, I thought maybe live painting would be an avenue to look into and Tina had had plenty of experience with painting on stage. Then I thought it would be a lot cooler if somehow the painting and I could interact more, and that’s when I proposed training a video camera on to Tina’s canvas and projecting the feed over me onto a screen behind me. The singer and the song become sort of subservient (nice alliteration) to the “hand of god” and the brush as the audience watches the birth of a painting, the mess of it all, the seeming disorganization and the sometimes horrifying white-ing out of a part of the image that one might have grown attached to…
It. Was. Amazing. The painting sold (you would be advised to bring along a chequebook), the audience was exhausted, and we had done something a little off the beaten path.
We are very excited to try this again in the lovely factory confines of The Pearl Company in Hamilton, Ontario. Please join us.
I didn’t know today was the 40th anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald going down.
A few years ago, on a magical night, I was lucky to be in the company of some of the finest musicians a man could find himself in and one of the songs we did that night was Lightfoot’s iconic retelling of the sorrow of the misfortune of the men aboard. Here is a link to that performance.
The arrangement, by Aaron Davis, is worth plugging your computer/handset into a stereo worthy of the endeavour.
**A couple weeks ago I was asked to write a little note about my time on the road with Stephen Jenkinson. We were in Austin, it was hot, and I was having trouble describing the half dozen nights we had done. Here’s what I came up with. Is it unbecoming that I quote my own lyrics? We continued on through Oregon and Washington State and finish up Halloween night in Duncan, BC. It has been an honour.
Beneath the Truth
Lie the bones
Of a Truth
And I’ll bet everything I own
It’s a Truth that’s bittersweet.
Tonight I will walk on to a stage with a remarkable man in a theater built in Austin, TX, in 1871. It will be the sixth time I’ve done so on this tour, and the first time I’ve ever strapped on a guitar in Austin. After the whistles and clapping die down, he will start talking, and I will wait.
I will make a few tentative sounds,
my fingers trying to find the spaces between his words. My listening will turn into the kind that forgets the moment that has come before and is unaware of the one coming next. And I have a suspicion that this is the way it is for many in the audience, too.
At some point he will make room for me to sing and I will try to remember to sing softly so as not to break the spell cast on the room. It has taken me a while to understand that long, liquid, and legato notes are the order of the evening. Time will dance on through the night, or, in this case, will move properly and headlong toward the past.
The end will come, long book signing lines will dwindle, and we will ask each other in a stolen moment, “Well…how’d we do, Boss?”
You’d have to ask Stephen himself what these night “are” to him. To me, they are art and subversive acts of the highest order. Sometimes it is the building itself that is subverted: a recital hall, a stately ballroom, a modern concert hall, a conference room in a State Capital building, a bookstore, this opera house come Masonic temple…but mostly it is the thing that passes for Culture on this continent that is subverted, and most of what stands for Counter Culture, too.
It is not the kind of art designed to distract or entertain, nor is it the kind that takes some kind of severe gymnastics of the mind and heart to trust. It is the kind found on cave walls that simply and skillfully tell the story of the day with all of its’ sorrows, horrors, and challenges along with its’ tenderness, victories, and graces. Over the course of the evenings, the pendulum swings a wide arc…sometimes unbearably so…and standing firmly at the center is Stephen Jenkinson, more with the people than separate from them, whether they want him there or not. And given our proclivity to throw heroes up the pop charts and teachers onto crosses, the resistance to simply seeing him as a man of hard won truths and a gift for singing them is sometimes shocking.
From up where I’m standing on stage…slightly up stage left in a muted pool of light…there is only one way to measure the evening:
Was every moment,
Every vein opened,
Every chest cracked
Every word spoken,
Every note struck,
Every clunker hit,
Every word sung,
Every story told
To a point, the answer is…and has to be…and IS,
So here’s to the highs
And here’s to the lows
The human heart endures
And so it goes…
The bittersweet highs and lows.
October 16, 2015
It started, actually, as a bit of a lark: when you’re travelling alone, how can you make it seem like you’re not? That, indeed, your travelling companion is snapping off intimate shots? In NYC, you can’t point the camera anywhere without the backdrop being amazing (unlike the cities I frequent in Canada). However, selfies are a drag. So, while in NYC, I placed my phone on the ground, set the timer, ran away, and strolled nonchalantly toward it, trying several times. I posted the result, called it “Vain and Alone in NYC?”, describing how the shot was taken. Then I just kept trying to see how far I could push the un-selfie selfie. Each post on Facebook was accompanied by a little anecdote of shooting the thing…you had to at least be able to not be embarrassed being obviously vain. Someone suggested I hash tag the stuff. So, #vainandalone
The first…maybe only?…full length vid from The Henrys’ Quiet Industry.
A small arty clip from a vid for a song we like to call Glow Fonder but is actually called The Almighty Inbox from the new Henrys recording. Its a beautiful song–I think of it as a prayer, but I didn’t write it so you’d have to ask Don Rooke. Quiet Industry from The Henrys will be available June 11, 2015
At the end of 2014, I spent some time in a small room recording vocals for 11 songs written by Don Rooke, the man behind The Henrys.
The recording features Don on guitars, baritone uke etc, Andrew Downing on bass, Davide DiRenzo on drums, John Sheard on pump and electric organs, Hugh Marsh on violin, Jonathan Goldsmith on muted piano (plus a string arrangement) and harmony vocals from Tara Dunphy.
It’s an odd thing these days, the making and releasing music: it kind of feels like yelling from behind a waterfall. The task this time was made sweeter by the fact that the songs are inventive, emotive, and accessible; the players are all from the “A” team; and the attention to detail on Quiet Industry is a rare thing these days (the record took more than a year to make and most of that time it was one lonely man spending unending hours in a little room in Toronto on the edge of a forest, toiling and tinkering…thus the title of the recording).
The Henrys are an institution in Toronto and have been critically lauded around the world since their debut in 1994. I’m totally impressed with myself that I got to sneak in and hang with the cool kids for a while.
I’ll keep you posted on how you can check it out, concert dates and what not. Please let your music loving friends know about this record.
Waiting, from the concert DVD “Pleasure & Relief”. A rare song, written quickly on a Korg piano in the second floor apartment of Lynn Simmons, recorded first with The Stickpeople and then again years later with a beautiful string arrangement by Jon Goldsmith, accompanied by Gary Craig and George Koller, with Jon on piano, and The Beggars String Ensemble in front of a live audience.
I don’t dance. Which is to say I don’t dance well, so I tend not to dance. If life or love is on the line I will rise to the occasion but its an entirely self-conscious affair. Which is why I’ve decided that 2015 is the Year of The Dance— kind of a solemn vow to lubricate whatever psychological joints need loosening, and tend to the physical ones, too.
Truth is, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In the summer of last year, Suzette Sherman ( Senior Artist, Founding Company Member, Associate Artistic Director at Dancetheatre David Earl) choreographed and performed a dance piece to “To Be Open”. I’d never seen a song of mine interpreted in movement. It was humbling, moving, and inspiring. In the early fall of last year, on a whim before heading to the city, I set up a camera here at the shop and danced around like a fool, to no music, just whatever was in my imagination. I was curious to see what I’d look like. I thought of it the same way as I view recording my voice to see what I sound like singing a particular song. To ease the shock, I filmed it in slow motion…much like smothering a voice in reverb and echo to make the performance more palatable. The pics up at the top are from that video. In slow mo, it looked…probably better than it did in real time. Everything looks better in slow mo, though.
Then this New Year’s Eve I danced with my daughter after playing a set with The Dogs. I’d tried to move while playing, but the most I could put together was a pogo of sorts. Now my daughter, she could move, as several patrons noted. As for me, a voice in my head tried to assert calm when I realized people might see me dance— “Honestly, Fuckhead: no one cares.” I’d have preferred a more benign approach, the gentle assurance of a quiet farmer saying, “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”
So here’s to the Year of The Dance. It’s a beginning.
I’ve never had a plan, really, when it came to music. The only plan—and this, by definition, is not a plan, per se—was “I’ll just keep going.” This meant write more, record more, try more, dig more…see? Not a plan. I realized I lacked foresight while making Moon Come Up, my first real recording. I had vision, but no foresight. After the first day recording, I stayed alone in the control room while the rest of the band was in the residential part of the studio. I was listening to a song called Neighbourhood, looking around the control room at all the gear, all the lights a flashin’, listening to the song off the two-inch machine, and that’s when it hit me: beyond this point in time, exactly, I had no clue how to proceed.
I was 26 years old and had been quietly working toward the day I could make a real record, with real musicians, in a real studio, for a real record company, with a real producer. I had lived the best life I could, learned the best lessons I could, wrote the best songs I could, played with the best musicians I could, tried the best I could…and here I was doing the thing with no idea about all the other stuff that would come along with putting out a record: what I would dress like; what I would talk like; what I would say, what I wouldn’t say; what my “persona” would be; how I would act…
I thought about this while watching an old music video a friend had reminded me of, cringing my way through it, mocking what I was wearing (except the cool do-it-yourself-superhero outfit), how I was lip-synching, how I moved, how I mugged…how utterly uncool I looked.
Lynn Simmons, for the record, looked amazing, like she was beamed down directly from heaven or a very pious spaceship. I’ve never really gotten a grip on feeling comfortable in front of a camera or in an interview and I haven’t quite learned how to just not give a shit. Maybe that’s what the punk band is for.
Its only now, all this time later, that I’m beginning to pay attention to the theater of it all—trying to find that place where humble genuine mingles with off-planet alchemy. I’m looking forward to the next year.
The facts are clear. So “Passenger” didn’t come out until ’77 and that’d have made me 13. It still means it took me 37 years to hear that song. Thirty-seven years! That is just so…wrong. While I am ever grateful to The Monks of Weston Priory and the editors of The Greatest Pop Hits of The 40’s, 50’s And 60’s for my musical education, I have to wonder what might have happened had I not been so afraid of music. Actually, I wonder what might have happened had I not been so afraid. Period.