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.
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.
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.