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.
Ian Mackenzie—or “Two Tone” or “Sport Coat” or “ Two Fiddy” as I call him—shows us a little behind the scenes stuff and explains how he came to understand why he wanted to create a film that documented the Nights of Grief & Mystery. He was there as close to the beginning as a person with a camera could possibly have been.
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 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.
Stephen insisted it was a punk club. We did sort of roar out of the gate and then careen off the tracks, which is kind of punk. And the room was underground. And the air was close and it was hot. And it was a black box.
So I guess all that adds up to sort of punk. In fact, the room was part of a local arts organization. Pretty tame stuff.
We were to have played in Canterbury but the host there became ill and it fell on Justin’s shoulders to find us a room to play so we opted to do a second night in London. By this point, Justin’s shoulders were already chock full of other things but he took it on anyway and, in the end, the joint was full.
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.
First time in Scotland for the lot of us on stage.
Why would I be shocked about our reception in Edinburgh? The foot stomping calls for an encore; the random couples dancing and clinging to each other throughout the night; the calls for “Carry Me” (where the hell did that come from?) and being sung home by those full voiced people at the very end of the night…? Why was I shocked?
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;
Friends are forged on the dark road headed out of town, and so we head there again, beginning on June 4, 2019 in Portsmouth, UK.
A quick note from the factory floor here.
There are a lot of things that slay me about touring with Nights of Grief & Mystery, but few more so than what can land on the table when wrestling with language to properly describe the thing. We seem to be learning about “what this is” as we go along. In the beginning, we were happy to admit that we didn’t know and were more likely to be able to tell you a whole lot of “what it isn’t”. The more we travelled with The Nights, though, the more we understood that simply saying “what it isn’t” was, in fact, a cop-out. Follow?
So here’s our latest understanding:
We have an idea where the monsters are. That’s where we’re headed.
The tour will Take us to 28 cities in the UK and North America for 32…shows?Performances? Nights, is what I prefer to call them.
Or 32 chances to get it right. We know what “it” is.
That dark road thing?
That image is more than an image. That is what we do. That is our devotional act. And those monsters? Probably not what you expecting. That’s another thing that slays me about the Nights: mostly they are everything you wouldn’t expect.
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.
Or, I don’t know Where I’m Going, But I’m Going There Anyway.
In a few days we take to the stage for what will be the two final concerts of the Nights of Grief & Mystery North American Tour 2018. According to our timekeeper, we travelled for 39 days, were in/out of airports 23 times, changed timezones 11 times, and travelled about 22,500 km. We played to over 6,400 people in 25 or so cities. Most of The Nights (I don’t really like to call them shows) ran around 2-and-a-half hours, and the band played for almost all of that. Those are the numbers, for those who like that sort of thing.
What follows here is an attempt to encapsulate what I know to be the soft centre of the experience for me, made up as it was of landings of all kinds. We had plenty…the kind you do in airplanes, the kind you do when the van rolls to a stop at the venue or accommodations, and the kind that is knowledge of a particular sort that makes itself known to you in no uncertain terms, elbowing its way into your life (as opposed to knowledge that ‘settles’ or ‘dawns’ on you).
From a moving vehicle, some of the geography held surprises; like how NYC seems appear from nowhere in the middle of a great forest; how odd it is to see cactus and still think of Looney Tunes; how you can still be surprised by winter in Winnipeg in October; how you can fool yourself into willingly moving through the pollution of L.A; how silence can fill the vehicle when passing Tent City after Tent City along highways on both East and West coasts.
We moved a lot on this tour, on the ground and in the air. Airplane to airplane mostly. The ability to not acknowledge the toll all that movement takes gave way to it being mandatory to acknowledge it… the staggering movement of the machinery, visible and invisible, dedicated to hurtling humans through the air or down the road, and being a part of that, complicit, going from town to town, the invisible mechanisms under those airports and the moving of baggage.
That is when it came to me, a sick feeling, seeing the luggage snaking behind some guy towing it across the tarmac towards the behemoth plane and you know underneath the airport is an absurd system of belts and scanners and people prodding, checking, bumping, nudging your shit and everyone else’s shit. Sometimes it felt like everyone from everywhere decided to fly that day, no one wanted to stay home. I saw all that and I said out loud, We should do a tour where we move through space and time like it shows on our poster: we should do it behind a mule and cart.
It’s a serious consideration, and we began to assemble the list of people we could draft to build the caravan, drive the mule, etc. It’s a real list, but it will have to wait.
In the air, a particular sorrow would take a seat in me whenever we approached a landing. I would look down after breaking through the clouds and there I would be met with a bird’s eye view of the sum total of our greatness, shingles and concrete laid out in a thoughtless grid, uninspired and, even from up there, carrying the feint smell of endings. And here we were, flying in to play for people who paid a decent ticket price to hear us speak and sing about endings of all kinds.
This hit me hard flying into LA, which I’d never been to before. A lot of American place names carry with them a certain mythic quality if only because they appear as characters in so many novels, movies and other culture ephemera. Meeting them face to face is often like all the stories you hear of the folly of meeting your heroes: they are rarely what you had dreamed them to be and Los Angeles and its neighbouring regions are the hotbeds of the creation and sustaining of that American myth.
Note: When I was a kid, I thought The City of Los Angeles translated into The City of Lost Angels. Even as a kid, I had a handle on the more subtle sense of the word ‘lost’ to mean ‘bereft’. If ever there was a town full of angelic beings who had no clue as to their lineage, no sense of their destiny, suffering from a collective amnesia as to their purpose, and so, making their way through the days/nights as best they could, settling on a pale version of ‘meaningful’, it would be Los Angeles. So maybe I wasn’t all that far off in my definition as a kid.
From the air, the ground was a carpet of rooftops as far as could be seen under a layer of smog with a few spires of buildings rising out of the downtown core (where we were to play) that reminded me of Wizard of Oz for some reason. This is where all the glitter comes from? I thought. This is where all the light is bent around reality and fashioned into something else?
All I could see was the underside of a bad idea. On the ground, even the palm trees looked like they were trying to escape. I know we are going to get to the stage. We will go through all the challenges on the ground, and these are banal challenges… will there be enough audio firepower? Enough of a sound check? Do we have drums? What if my rig doesn’t work? What if the van is too small? What if we miss our connection?But you know, even in the air, that you will figure it all out, and you are going to get on that dark road heading out of town. You know this as sure as you know anything, even when you are impossibly streaking across the sky, even up in the unreal blue of the beginning of deep space…you know you will be on the humble ground, on a dark road, heading out of town. Those words again…on a dark road, heading out of town…
When you fly in over a place like Los Angeles and you know that you are going to be talking about endings of all kinds, and you are flying over an ending, those are heartbreaking moments for me. Those few seconds right there, trying to bring these two things together gently. We are night after night in one building or another, four people and a sound system, reminding people of the end and what is there waiting to be earned. It sounds ridiculous. And I’m shaking my head in sorrow, and I can’t focus on all the good people who will be helping us in and out of town, putting us up, driving us around, can’t focus on whatever the beauty the land does offer still, can’t focus on what most would call “the upside” of the venture…all I can feel is sorrow. This is the best we could do with our time here? This is the expression of the best part of us??
You’ll tell me I’m being negative, that its a matter of perspective, that most cities look like hell from the air, and that, anyhow, I’m a cynical asshole. I won’t argue with any of that. I’ve spent most of my artistic life peering into the negative spaces and my cynicism is well earned and it doesn’t keep me from recognizing beauty. I’m just not the guy you’re going to find cheerleading the modern definitions of creativity, righteousness, love, justice, and freedom in our cultural and political systems. After all, you are reading words from a guy who is in a band that almost printed the tour tee-shirt No Love Songs To The Anthropocene Era! (words courtesy of Jenkinson, of course).
Landings…the other great landing of this tour came from confronting the quality of the words of my songs as they had to night after night share the oxygen with Stephen Jenkinson’s conjureings. Even though we have presented different iterations of this material together for a few years now, this last tour seemed to illuminate how much farther up the mountain I have to go, or, conversely, how much deeper into the cracks and crevices I need to peer. Humbling and enervating at 54 years old to know I’m not operating at the top of my game. Along with that, though, like a salve comes this other kind of landing: that I am, indeed, doing what I’ve been put on this earth to do. At the end of this tour, which was the result of the hard work of many, many people and a foolhardy and Quixotic endeavour none the less, it occurred to me that I finally understood what ‘having faith’ meant– the kind that we try to have in ourselves, in our unlikely dreams for ourselves, in those wordless versions of ourselves that we can’t defend or describe, even if our marriages or relationships or households scream and demand, WHAT IS THE PLAN???!!!?? and you open your mouth but nothing comes out, because…
Because this: the arrow doesn’t know the target or the bow, but it flies anyway. Its flying is independent of the target and the bow, and loose in the air it knows neither and could speak of neither, but it flies on anyway. And that has been me in life, and that was what came to me at the end of this tour. I can’t claim to know my beginning and I’ve no certainty about the ending (except for knowing it will come), but right now I know I’m flying/falling at the behest of Something(s) or Someone(s) having set me in a bow, pulled until the tension was unbearable, and loosed me into the recurring unrepentant nights and the unrelenting dawns that mark time on this planet, towards a mystery known only to the archer.
And that is OK with me.
And that is faith, it seems to me. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going there anyway.
Coming off a 25-city tour with Nights of Grief & Mystery, Gregory– along with Lisa Hodgson (keys and vox) and Adam Hay (drums and vox)– takes over the intimate space of The Factory Theatre for his first solo concert appearance in Toronto since 2014, delivering songs from 2017’s Vain + Alone as well as King of Good Intentions, Surgery, and The Beggar Heart.
I’m excited we get to do this here. It will be the end of the tour and, as one has to contemplate, we may never get to do this again. Get your tickets early to make sure you get a seat…I’m fairly certain both these nights will sell out.
Tickets for December 4 here.
Tickets for December 5 here.
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.
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.Sothere 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.
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/