I’ve learned a bit about language in the last five years and one of the first reorientations I had was around the terms angel and demon. While we’ve come to know the terms as cartoonish opposites, their origin is unpretentious and draws them much closer together: they are messengers both, one bringing the news that is welcome, the other bringing the news that is more burdensome.
For a time, singing anything with the word “angel” in it (including my own songs) was troublesome, but in looking for the through-line to be able to sing Calling All Angels on Jon Goldsmith’s arrangement for The Art of Time’s record Ain’t Got Long, I became OK with the idea wanting comfort once in a while, of calling it down from somewhere, pleading for it, of being carried occasionally when we are tired, “because we’re not sure how this goes”.
One of the first Canadian artists I became aware of to make the transition from a record label to their own independent label was Jane Sibbery. I didn’t know Jane (I don’t know Jane) except to know she was capable of making some extremely remarkable and beautiful recordings. And I was aware of her new status at the time as indie entrepreneur, and intrigued by her solo salon shows she was doing all over the planet. Before there was Facebook and Twitter and all the rest, there were message boards and I recall reading messages posted by folk who attended some of these concerts.
The striking thing about these posts was that they were all so well written. These were not the breathless ramblings of overwrought fans, but well crafted, steady, and grounded thanks to Jane for showing up with her songs. One post in particular from somewhere in Europe caught my attention describing 200 people in a church basement singing along to Calling All Angels. The quality of the writing, the image of strangers in a strange land singing together, Jane on her Quixotic quest for independence all galvanized and turned that song into something alchemical for me.
The recording session happened the day before a European tour with NOGM and when I returned home a good while later, I contacted Jon and told him I was dissatisfied with what I remembered of the session, and that I wanted to redo the vocal. I was a bit of an asshole about it. “Have you heard it yet?” he asked. “Um, no.” “I’ll send you the rough mix. Listen, and then we’ll talk again.”
So I listened. Twice. When it was over I wiped a few tears from my cheek, called Jon back and said, “That’ll do.”
Early on, Stephen described what we did on stage in the US and Australia as “carving in the air”. We’d walk on to a silent stage, just the two of us, with no idea what we’re going to do, so his description of what followed is bang on. We still walk on to silent stages, and I’ve come to describe the current edition of NOGM -— which boasts 7 people on stage— as “sauntering on a tightrope.”
We are always on the tightrope on this tour, and any unbalanced movement feels like jeopardy. I suppose there is a pressure to “know things” on a tour like this. Then again, for most of the last decade I’ve been thinking there comes a time in life that one is invited to plant a flag in what they’ve become certain of, even if it seems dangerous —as it does these days —to know things. If you’ve been lucky enough to have lived a life that has brought you into contact with vulnerability (your own and that of others) then you might not screw this up.
Standing in what you know doesn’t look anything like power. Quite the opposite. It leads to more vulnerability. It can lead to a lot of “not knowing”. That’s why it’s not for the faint of heart.
Or politicians. Or celebrities.
I’m trying to learn to not be faint of heart. Useful in a war and all that.
Note: Don wrote a song called “The Dangers of Travel” that I sang on The Henrys’ recording “Quiet Industry”. A beautiful song that has nothing to do with the following, except for the title, which I stole.
This travelling thing is not for the faint of heart.
There are the usual uncertainties of the road (food, lodging, language) and those can be challenging enough. But I have been learning these last few years that the heart also has to be able and ready to be broken by the beauty of the land, some of the people you meet there, and by the stories of the place.
Cases in point…
Broken by People
Meet Gudjon. His name translates to English as “God Man”. He was born and raised in the north of Iceland on a farm on the edge of the Norwegian Sea…the very edge. He is a talented painter, carver, stone mason, builder, farmer, fisherman, singer, blacksmith, leather worker, and specializes in the restoration of ancient Viking buildings (he has 2 “practice houses” he built in a field behind his house…along with a handful of other buildings and a Viking boat). He studies runic writing. He tends to his herb gardens.
He was generous with tales of his family and generous with his praise of the previous evening’s concert. A language barrier can purify intent in the back-and-forth of trying to communicate. Of my singing, he said “Takes me on a journey here,” tapping his fingers to his chest.
Emotions were hijacked saying farewell when I realized how much I liked this guy I had only known for 36 hours or so (this kind of raid on trying to be cool is happening more and mo re). As we hugged goodbye, the heart cracked open a bit. Sure, the fracture was to allow admission of one more, but a break is a break and there is scar tissue now, the kind that occurs when you find and then have to leave a kindred spirit.
And God Man was not the only one. There was Helgi the filmmaker who stumbled across us in the north and followed us for a day. There was the Lord of the Manor of Trefacwyn, with whom we spent some magical days in Pembrokeshire, Wales. And there was the Old Caretaker of the Reykholt Hall who bonded with the band for a few hours as we set up, played, tore down and loaded out, embracing me warmly and then bowing to us all from the loading dock as we got into the van and, catching and holding my eye, tipping his hat to me before closing the loading dock doors. I wear no hat, so the best I could do was to blow him a kiss, which he smiled at and accepted as he disappeared. Another kindred spirit, another co-conspirator, another older song and dance man.
Broken by Stories
This Mongolian ger was a long dreamed of thing of our host in Iceland, Elin. We spent a day there, our little band accompanied by Gudjon and a filmmaker from Sweden who had taken a shining to us at our concert the night before, and we cooked a meal, and walked the coast. As of this moment, the ger sits on land that is becoming the flash point in a long battle against foreign interests (Canadian lead) aiming to build a large scale hydro electric dam in the area. 270 square miles of affected area, the large scale flooding of vast lands, the end of three major rivers and hundreds of waterfalls, annihilating the flora and fauna that have been there since before memory, and changing the landscape in the way that only humans have had the hubris to do. As I write this, the engines of the big machines have just been fired up in the little village we left yesterday, the machinery preparing the road for bigger machinery to come, and some of the locals are weighing out the consequences of lying down in front of them.
The heart breaks.
Broken by Place
At the most unsuspecting moments, the land itself steals away the breath along with any certainties of how beautiful “home” is. You’d have to have no pulse to be unmoved by the scenery offered up through the window of the van. The visual hits keep coming, again and again and again, until you start to feel exhausted by awe, the impulse to capture things on your phone finally numbed, and the van gets quiet because there are no more exclamations left in anyones’s belly, no more air in the lungs.
Such beauty can easily cause the heart to ache. And when the moment comes to turn away, to put all that beauty at your back to journey home, the heart breaks. Happened to us in Scotland, happened to us in Wales, happened to us in Iceland.
I will consider myself to be a very fortunate man indeed if my heart keeps breaking like this.
Here’s what I learned in Árneshreppur this morning: the word “saunter” has its’ roots in the words “sanctity, sanity, sanitation (ie.respectful cleanliness)” and “terra”. In a nut shell, Holy Ground.
So, to saunter is to proceed as if one is walking on holy ground, taking time, watching where you step, altering the course when need be…walking WITH the place you are, not ON it. From a distance, this can look aimless. Not so.
It’s the more artful approach to any kind of getting from Point A to Point B…and takes into account the territory you are travelling through and the inhabitants of that territory…be that on land, in your thoughts, or in a performance.
Tonight in this village at North 66° 3’ 4.6002” West 21° 32’ 55.5864” we will be doing exactly that.
All the great adventure stories, all the great comedies, have love at the centre of them.
As does this story that Ian Mackenzie has fashioned into a short film after some panel somewhere deemed him and the concept a worthy thing and gave him a small whack of dough to keep the wolves at bay and hire some folks to help him. Since 2015, when Stephen Jenkinson and I first went out on the road with little but a notion and a Quixotic mutual “I’m in”, Ian followed us with his camera, capturing the ephemera of touring America, shooting some of the shows, and conducting straight up interviews. It was a tough row to hoe because SJ and I didn’t really know what we were doing and while the idea of the author and the singer figuring it out in front of a paying audience was something to see, I’d have to say we didn’t give him much to work with.
Except for the love story.
That handful of concerts Ian shot turned into 15 or so stops in America and then another dozen in Australia then another few in Canada then another 7 in the UK then another 25 in North America then another 8 in the UK and as I write this I am on a plane to Iceland where we will do another three, and then home to do another 25 in North America and then Scotland and then Ireland and then Istanbul and then Tel Aviv…you get the point.
Somewhere along the way we began to understand what we were trying to do, what was possible to do. We learned theatre had a place in this so we added lights that I’d operate with my feet. We learned that pulse was important so we added a drummer. We learned that texture was important so we added another singer and taught her to play keys. We learned that this was something older than theatre, something like ceremony but older still, something like ritual, so we tore the wall down between us and the audience so that the audience is in on the ritual. We learned that every ship needs an anchor so we added a bass player and asked her to sing, too.
So where’s the love story, you ask? Well, let me ask you: why would we wake at ungodly hours to get to airports, suffer the lineups and indignation’s of the security gauntlet, fly for hours and hours, drive for hours and hours, lug gear in and out and in and out and up and down and down and up over and over and over and then crawl into a questionable bed in a questionable hotel only to do it again the next day and the next and the next? Why would we risk the farm and the physical body to fund the thing? And why would we risk stepping out on to stages in (what is turning out) to be cities all over the world armed not with bullet proof grooves full of helium to lift people out of their lives and make them feel better about all the questionable moves we’ve made as a species but instead seek to crack the rib cage open and bathe the heart in songs and tales that are sorrowful, about endings of all kinds, and actually attempt to get people to sink into their sorrows?
Because of the love of the thing. Because of the life-long love of and respect for the alchemy of words. Because the love of the feeling of lungs full of air and the long note wrapping itself around a phrase, singing what life has to teach. Because of the love for the occasional moment where I can hear an echo of a song I wrote bounce of the walls of a strangers life. Because of the love that we have for the audience that is hungry and straining for a tasty groove to free them from the effects of going down that dark road with us. Because of the love we have playing that groove. And because we sure as hell don’t do it for the money, so we must do it for the love.
And because of the love we have for each other on stage. A slow, earned trust. And because of the love we have for life, for living, for getting up in the morning.
This is a love story that Ian Mackenzie has caught. A 25 minute visual poem carved from umpteen hours of footage after he and a small crew followed us on the road last year and captured some ephemera again, conducted interviews again…the same questions but with different answers. This is not a show reel, but a glimpse into the mechanics of the thing. And if he were to train a camera on us again and asked those questions again, we would have different answers again for him because we keep learning about this thing. The Nights of Grief & Mystery is an alive thing now.
Pretty high fallutin’ words, you say. Yeah. Probably. I’ve stopped being perplexed by life and have settled into the reality that, at the age of 55, I might know a thing or two. I’ve grown tired of pretending I don’t. So here I am on a plane with Stephen, Lisa, and Colleen, a few moments out from Reykjavik, flying east into the sun and so there was no real night for us. We will land, bleary, rent the van, gather the gear, and play in a city, try to sleep, play in a town, and then to the edge of the world to play in a 1000 year old village that is dying. For the love of the thing.
When I started out with The Stickpeople a million years ago, I had a soundman, Leslie Charbon. He was a part of the band. It was a luxury, something I learned when I started touring without him. Every night became a crapshoot, and chances were that the more competent the person sounded over the phone in the days/weeks leading up to landing at their venue, the bigger the gamble when it came to showtime and the more disappointed I would be. Sometimes it would feel like yelling into the wind for two hours.
As the band has grown for the Nights of Grief & Mystery, it has become clear that we need a sound person, so for this tour we bit the bullet and hired Joe Meekums. I had long forgotten the impact on stage of knowing that shit was being handled out front, that we had a co-conspirator out there with a vested interest in helping us get to where we so deeply want to go every Night we do this.
I am (we are) indebted to Joe (quite literally) for being reminded that the words, lyrics, melodies, grace notes, subtleties, silences and roars are all worth being heard out there in the rooms we play.
Last night’s gig was sold out thanks to the tireless efforts of a few visionary folk here. I’m shitty at geography, so didn’t know much about this place.
Here’s what I DO know now:
I’m staying in a house once owned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle;
The theatre we played in was built in 1874; Henry the 8th stood on a tower around the corner from where I’m writing and watched his beloved ship, the Mary Rose, unexplainably sink before his eyes en route to battle the French; The theatre we played in was where Charles Dickens’ mother went into labour with him; In a part of England that was flattened by bombing in WW2, the theatre we played in was left standing because it was owned at the time by a Nazi sympathizer who helped guide German war planes toward the harbour using lights on the theatre roof; The queen of England is here today. The president of the United States is here today. Peter Sellers was born above the Chinese food place down on the corner; The neighbourhood I’m staying in was in lockdown last night, a curfew enforced, and our drummer had to leave the post-gig meal withoutapple crumble and creme fraiche so as not to be arrested after midnight;
The Unrepentant Night is a recasting of songs from 2017’s Vain + Alone 2.0. There is not much to say with regard to the “why” of it, except to say that it is this artist’s desire to have his songs live for more than the allotted 2 minutes the current clime affords them, such is his attachment to them. Also, it is this artist’s opinion that Kevin Breit is a genius and the honour of having him turn his considerable talents on these songs is all mine. Breit’s playing and producing relationship with music is all chest down: there is very little of The Head that gets in the way, other than the requisite amount to move muscles, tendons, and the like, and there is palpable feel and intention in his approach. It could be said that his head helps him get to the heart of the thing, then it fucks off.
I’m proud of what I did on Vain + Alone and equally proud of the decision to pursue this recording in the manner I did. I learned an untold amount from afar watching Kevin Breit reshape the songs. Understand, I was not a part of any of those decisions. I wrote the songs and sang the songs. That’s all. As he describes it, the kids would leave for school at 8:30am, he’d sit with a pad in his lap in front of his gear and put his head down to listen to the V+A version, then its 3:30pm, the kids would be coming through the door, the head would snap up to greet them and the bulk of a track was done.
About as close to magic as I might ever get.
Produced, performed, arranged, engineered, and mastered by Kevin Breit
Written and sung by Gregory Hoskins
Additional appearances by:
Mike Stevens, harmonica
Ciro De Batista, drums and percussion
Batt Brubeck, cello
Davide Direnzo, drums
Lisa Hodgson, bg vox
Produced in part thanks to a grant from The Ontario Arts Council.
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.
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.