When I first stepped into this cathedral in Wales a couple years ago, I was more than a little undone by the 1500+ year story of the place. When Christianity started to move into this part of the world, it often set up shop near or on sites that the more local gods already inhabited…places that were already considered sacred by the locals. St. David’s has our man setting up shop in 500AD or so. The building convulses a few times (conquerors, fire, raiders, an earthquake) but much of the material is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old.
That is a lot of memory in that old stone and wood.
Places like this were mostly about wielding power. Have you ever seen the Welsh coast?? The whole thing is a cathedral and the very last thing one would need in a place like this is a building that god purportedly lives in.
So, to me these places are full of sadness and impotency and I’m sure all us visitors are wading hip-deep through old prayers that were sighed upwards toward the heavens only to be blocked by the cathedral ceilings and fall back to the stone floors. Not to mention the garden variety bad stuff that goes along with places and people of power. All this can make a walk-through more than a little intense, if you’re so inclined.
I am so inclined, so this time I kept my guard up, kept my hands in my pockets, and kept my distance from the truth of the place. I became a tourist. A tourist with a mission: to take a Vain+Alone shot.
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.
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.