We’re #1.

In 2014 I thought I’d try submitting a song to CJAM’s Singles Club just to see what happened.

The way the Singles Club works, in brief: artists from Windsor and Detroit are invited to submit new songs every month. These songs go on a compilation CD everyone at CJAM has access to. DJs play the songs they like best, and at the end of the month the results are tabulated and the single with the most airplay gets bragging rights and a mention on the CJAM website.

The song I turned in five years ago was “The Devil Wants His Car Back” from STEW. The album wasn’t finished yet, but I was happy enough with the mix of the song I had (not a final mix, as it turned out) to let it go out into the world as a little sneak peak at what was coming.

In hindsight it was probably an odd thing to choose to represent the album. I don’t think anyone played it. I know for a fact it didn’t chart.

All this time later, I thought it would be fun to submit the song Tara sang on and see if there was a different outcome. I knew it was getting some airplay, but I wasn’t expecting it to top the chart. Thanks to everyone at the station who’s been spinning it.

Speaking of CJAM, they’re in the middle of an emergency fundraising drive designed to offset some of the funding they stand to lose thanks to Doug Ford’s Student Choice Initiative. I’m going to be stopping by the station to hang out with Brady this afternoon at 2:30. You can listen live over here if you’re interested. You might hear the on-air debut of another unheard song from YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. If you miss it, you can always check out the MP3 archives later on.

The grass is greener when you don’t cut it every day.

When you make music and you work in a room that has never been the beneficiary of any kind of acoustic treatment, you sometimes find yourself subject to the whims of the world around you. Aside from the odd nightmarish situation like the D’amore Construction debacle that ate up huge chunks of 2016 and 2017, I haven’t had a lot of my recording time interrupted by outside noise in this particular house. But lately the amount of people cutting their grass on an almost daily basis has been getting a little out of control. It’s left me wondering if some of these folks have lives outside of obsessing over the incremental growth of their lawns.

I was expecting Detroit’s Movement Festival to make me almost long for the sound of renegade lawnmowers. Every year an interminable low frequency 4/4 electronic kick drum thrum carries across the river and makes it impossible for me to sleep for three days straight. I like some electronic music an awful lot, and I don’t begrudge anyone their right to listen to whatever music they want at whatever volume they prefer, but I don’t think I should have to hear it in my house. Now that I’m locked into a sleep schedule that’s both consistent and healthy for the first time in eons, I’m wary of anything that might threaten to knock things off-balance again. I don’t ever want to go back to being a vampire if I can help it.

I don’t know what on earth happened this year, but for once the residual noise from the festival was almost nonexistent. The first day I heard the usual thing.

Boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom.

It wasn’t constant, so I was at least able to get some broken sleep until it stopped a little past midnight. The next two days there was nothing. I can’t find any information online that points to a sound system failing or a power outage, so I can only guess that the organizers of the event got tired of people from Windsor complaining and decided to turn it down a little or angle the speakers so they weren’t pointed right at us. Or maybe it was a cosmic fluke. Either way, I’ll take it.

It still needs to be said: when you’re playing music loud enough for me to hear it five miles and a river away from you, something isn’t right. I can understand wanting to “feel the bass”, I guess, but how about keeping your ears in reasonable working condition? If it’s that loud over here, I don’t even want to know how loud it is in Detroit. And something tells me not a lot of people are wearing earplugs to protect themselves.

I started out talking about recording, didn’t I? Right. Here’s a pro tip for you: if you’re going to play something resembling an album release show, it’s a good idea to have the album finished before you book the date. Time is flying, August 17 isn’t so far away anymore, and there’s still a lot of work I need to do on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.

I was in a position a bit like this once before with an album called GIFT FOR A SPIDER. I had to finish that one while rehearsing for a Mackenzie Hall show that ended up supporting it almost by default. It was easy enough. This album is a little more complicated, and more than twice as long. Not so easy.

The good news is I’m closer to being done than I thought I was. A few days ago I sat down and hashed the whole thing out. I’ve recorded one hundred and twenty-four songs for this album (yikes). I’ve had a pretty good idea which ones were making the cut for a while now, but the thought of trying to put them in an order that made some amount of sense was pretty intimidating. After forcing myself to take an honest stab at it, I’ve got a rough sequence that comes out to fifty-two songs spread across two CDs. I know it’s going to shift at least a little, and a few of those songs might get lopped off because of time constraints, but having a clearer picture of the album’s structure makes a huge difference. Now I feel much more focused, with a better idea of what I need to work on.

Of those fifty-two “keeper” songs, thirty-five exist as either rough mixes or mixes I feel good enough about to leave alone, sixteen need some work, and one still needs to be recorded.

There are probably at least twenty other songs I’d like to record. Given the amount of time I have to work with, it just isn’t realistic. If I let myself fall down that rabbit hole we’d be looking at a maxed-out triple-CD. The four-hour album slot has already been reserved for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I want this one to be at least a little more approachable than that behemoth.

The show is a little less than eighty days away. If I’m diligent, that’s more than enough time to get everything squared away. I’ve at least found a printing place that seems to be competent and reliable, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

A quick note about that:

The Minuteman Press ridiculousness was only the beginning of my printing-related fun. After A&A fared no better, I gave both Lacasse and Standard Printing a try.

Lacasse never gave me a quote, and three different people had to search the manager’s office for the booklet and insert I dropped off as a sample, with said manager nowhere to be found. They all came up empty-handed. By the time they dug up my materials I didn’t even want to know how much they would charge.

I had a much better feeling about Standard Printing. It’s a long-standing family-run business. I like supporting those places when I can. Again, it wasn’t to be. It took forever to get a proof, and when I asked if I could have the afternoon to look it over — something I’ve been doing with every printing job I’ve paid for over the last sixteen years — the woman I was dealing with got snippy and condescending with me, acting like my request was way out of line. Turned out someone working there wasn’t very good at following instructions. They went ahead and printed the whole run of booklets and inserts before I gave my go-ahead. She didn’t want me to see something I didn’t like and put her in a situation where she had to eat it.

I could have lived with their prices, which were pretty outrageous, but I’m not going to shut up and fork over my money to make up for someone else’s oversight. And if you’re going to talk to me like I’m a piece of shit when I’ve asked to be extended the same basic courtesy as any other customer, you don’t deserve my business.

A friend recommended Herald Press. On my fifth try it looks like I’ve found a place I can deal with. I got them to reprint the booklets and inserts for STEW as a test. Those turned out well, and the price was fantastic. Then I had them make a few prints of some art Greg Maxwell made for the SLEEPWALK booklet. Same story there. The plan now is to get all of the remaining album-related artwork printed in one shot so I’ve got prints of everything to display at the show. It’s pretty great to see these things at their intended size. I’ve got half a mind to put some of my favourites up on a wall in the stock room. I mean, how many people can say they’ve got a room full of (mostly) local art that was made just for them?

That’s the scoop over here. I’ll try to post a bit more often so I can hold myself accountable as the sand really starts pouring out of the hourglass.

There’s nobody here.

On Tuesday we paid a visit to Mackenzie Hall to take a few pictures and shoot a bit of test footage in preparation for the August extravaganza. I wanted to see how the Canon T5i would do in the Court Auditorium with whatever light was available.

It turned out to be a bit of a wasted experiment. We had no access to the pot lights we’ll have the night of the show, and there was little to work with outside of the sunlight leaking in through the windows. Even in these conditions the camera’s stock lens acquitted itself better than I expected it to, and Johnny Smith was kind enough to take some pictures of me pretending to sleep in various different positions. Stretching out on a row of chairs and making them into an improvised bed is more comfortable than you might think.

It was surreal being in that room again. I guess eight years of distance will do that to you. It’s more spacious than I remembered. Fitting a whole lot of musicians in there isn’t going to be a problem. And it’s pretty neat to hear your voice halfway disappear into the natural reverb when there are no other bodies filling the room and soaking up some of the sound.

I’ve been searching for someone to film this show since 2015. I wasn’t even sure the show was going to happen back then, but I wanted to get that side of things squared away just in case.

What I’ve learned and experienced in that time doesn’t flatter this city’s filmmaking community at all. My main takeaway has been this: almost everyone is all about the money. Not making art. Not having an opportunity to collaborate with other artists. Not building a unique body of work. Just money. If they don’t think they’re going to be able to squeeze as much out of you as they want, you’re nothing to them but a waste of time.

How bad is it? Make yourself a bowl of popcorn and I’ll tell you. I’m not going to name any names, but some of these interactions need to be preserved. You know, for the history books.

At first I couldn’t get most of the filmmakers I contacted to acknowledge me at all. One of the few people who did respond to an email told me he refused to film anything at Mackenzie Hall because it didn’t look exciting enough on camera. He wouldn’t quote me a price. He told me if I grew a brain and decided to put on the show at a cooler place like The Olde Walkerville Theatre maybe he’d be interested. Otherwise, there was no point in the two of us having a conversation. The condescension was so thick my internet connection almost gagged on it.

And yet…in 2012 this same person directed a five-minute “film” documenting the making of the first album by now-defunct Windsor group The Walkervilles. Guess where it was filmed?

Mackenzie Hall.

I had to guess at the amount of money I would need to pay a filmmaker when I was putting my grant proposal together. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was finally able to get people to start talking to me with some level of consistency, and when that happened it made me miss those glorious years of being ignored by everyone.

One guy wanted all of the grant money and a few thousand more. He did offer to cut me a deal, though. For $1,500 he said he would film the show and give me a final edit that was two minutes long.

Two minutes. 

That would be like me recording an album for someone and then giving them a CD not with full songs on it, but three-second snippets of each track. The end result wouldn’t be worth $15, never mind $1,500.

You can probably guess what I wanted to say to that guy. I bit my tongue and swallowed a river of blood instead. It wasn’t worth it.

Another person showed up at the house and told me he had no idea who I was, had never heard of me, hadn’t heard a lick of my music, and only knew what a few friends told him when he mentioned my name, which amounted to, “Johnny’s a genius and you’re lucky to have an audience with him” (their words, not mine).

This is how he made use of that audience. First he bragged about big money jobs he was involved in and B-list celebrities he knew. Then, when I handed him a stack of CDs and it struck him that I wasn’t some clueless hobbyist, the gloves came off. For three hours he lectured me on what I should be doing with my music and why everything I do is wrong. He told me I was selfish for hiding it from the world. He told me no one was going to knock on my door and ask for some of my CDs (someone really did do that once, but he wasn’t going to be distracted by details like that). He said making all of this music and sharing it with so few people was akin to having a massive library of books that was inaccessible to the public. He said the work had no intrinsic value if it wasn’t available for everyone to hear.

The best part came when he brought up Martin Shkreli — the hunk of human waste who paid two million dollars for the one existing copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (don’t even get me started on the idiocy of that whole enterprise).

“Let’s say someone came here,” filmmaker dude said, “and offered you two million dollars to buy this album you’ve been working on for the last five years with all these different people on it. The catch was, once they gave you the money the album was going to be locked away forever and no one would ever hear it. What would you do?”

Two million dollars is a life-changing amount of money. But an incredible amount of work has gone into this album. I think it’s home to some of the best songs I’ve written and some of the best work I’ve done as a singer, musician, producer, arranger, and recording engineer.

It’s been a profound test of my resilience. A staggering amount of people ignored, rejected, or flaked out on me on my way to assembling the supporting cast. More than once I wrote a song for a specific person to sing, only to find myself forced to find someone else to sing it in their place when they came up with some bogus last-minute excuse to get out of doing what they told me they would do. The frustration has been worth wading through, though, because a lot of great people have contributed some beautiful musical performances and pieces of visual art, and almost all of them have done it for no renumeration.

The whole thing has been one of the great artistic adventures of my life. And while sharing my music isn’t what gives it value for me, a lot of friends have been looking forward to absorbing the culmination of all of this work for a long time now.

If I took that money and threw the album in the garbage — because that’s what I’d really be doing — I would probably be set for the rest of my life if I played it smart. I would also be miserable. I would feel like the world’s biggest sellout, flushing five years of my life down the toilet in exchange for some smelly paper. I imagine I’d fall into a deep creative slump. I might stop making music altogether.

So, as stupid as it might sound, I would say no to the massive payday offered to me by this hypothetical stranger. My artistic integrity is worth more to me than any amount of money, and as I’m so fond of reminding everyone in my album liner notes, my music is not for sale.

All of this is what I told him, more or less.

“That’s a beautiful answer,” he said. “And it’s a fucking lie. You’d take the money, and then you’d go in that fucking room and you’d make another fucking album, because that’s what you fucking do.”

At this point he was shouting at me. I mean full-on belting, on the edge of screaming. Words can’t convey the unique horror of having a stranger yell at you in your own home, claiming to know everything about you after admitting they don’t know the first thing about you.

Around the fourth hour of our visit he brought up filming the show for the first time. We talked a bit about it, but by then he’d talked himself out of the job several times over.

I started thinking there were only two scenarios that would work out in my favour. I either had to find someone who was so passionate about the idea of the show that they were willing to set aside their ego and cut me a deal, or I had to find someone who was inexperienced enough that they would look at this as a portfolio-building opportunity and charge a more reasonable amount of money to reflect that.

I found both of those people. Not that it did me any good.

Option A arrived in the form of a filmmaker who said he would be willing to film the show for free if I didn’t get the grant, and if the grant did come through, he would do it for an amount of money that wasn’t grotesque. He said all the right things. Then he went home, checked his calendar, and said, “Uh…it looks like I’m not going to be in town the day of your show or the dress rehearsal, so I can’t do this after all. Sorry.”

(Maybe you could have checked your schedule before you sat down with me and all but committed to the project, huh?)

Option B was a guy my friend Rob Fraser found. He said he would film and edit the show for such a low price it made my head spin. Then he disappeared. We came to find out he sold all of his film equipment and decided he no longer had any interest in filmmaking as a career or a creative pursuit.

It looked like my best bet was going to be investing in another good camera and filming the show myself.

Then Dave Konstantino, who was trying to help me find someone sane and interested in filming the show, said, “You know what…this is ridiculous. I’ll just film it for you myself.”

Unlike all of the other people I talked to (or tried to talk to), I’ve known Dave for a long time. I know he understands and respects what I do. From the work he’s done with Greg Maxwell for the CJAM Sessions video series, I know he knows what he’s doing. And he’s got extra lighting if we end up needing it.

Talk about a relief. It’s so much easier dealing with someone you know you can trust, instead of hoping someone who has no real interest or emotional investment in what you’re doing won’t screw it up. And if I have to, I’ll just edit the raw footage myself. I’ve done enough video editing over the years to get a pretty good handle on that side of things.

Now I need to start looking at putting a setlist together so we’ve got something well-defined to work on during rehearsals. Good luck with that, self.

Give us this day our first-ever grant.

I’m proud and a little bewildered to share this bit of news: I’ve received a generous Arts, Culture, and Heritage Fund grant from the City of Windsor to help fund the production of an ambitious live show featuring many of the artists I’ve been fortunate enough to work with in recent years.

Ever since YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK became something more than a vague idea, I’ve had this crazy dream to release the album at a Mackenzie Hall show inspired by The Band’s Last Waltz. The idea was to have a pretty large core band in place. We would play some of my songs. At some point a guest would come up and take the spotlight for a song on the album that featured them. Maybe they would also perform a few of their own songs with me backing them up. Then someone else would come up, the same thing would happen again, and it would go on happening until everyone — or almost everyone — was sharing the performance space at the same time and making a huge communal racket.

I thought it was a pipe dream at best. I knew it would be expensive to make the show what I wanted it to be. I’d have to find someone to film it. And my chances of getting all the musicians I wanted on board were pretty slim. Still, it was fun to toy with the possibilities, and whenever I mentioned the idea to anyone they seemed excited about it.

In January I had a little unexpected brain drizzle. Ron got an ACHF grant to support the recording of his soon-to-be-released new album (the one I produced and played a bunch of stuff on). I started thinking maybe I had a shot at getting a grant to cover some of the costs involved in putting on this hypothetical show. The financial assistance would allow me to pay the musicians something fair without killing myself. It would give me a budget to get the thing filmed at a level of professionalism that would otherwise be beyond my reach. It would even help to offset some promotional expenses, like getting posters printed and planting demonic messages in the cell phone ring tones of strangers.

I only had a few weeks to work with before the deadline, so I threw myself into the process of applying for a grant for the first time in my life. I made a curriculum vitae. That was a strange experience. I dug up and scanned old newspaper articles from that brief time when The Windsor Star deemed me important enough to pay attention to. When I learned it wasn’t possible to submit any physical materials, I made a whole mini-website from scratch to serve as a preview of both the album and the show. I wrote and rewrote my proposal until it felt like it was tight as a drum. And I solicited letters of support — something the ACHF requires you to do when you’re not a corporation.

I thought I’d try to cover as many bases as I could. I asked Dale Jacobs (professor and published author), Brady Holek (CJAM station manager), Kelly Hoppe (one of the higher-profile musicians I’ve worked with), and Dan MacDonald (AM 800 and The River DJ/radio personality) if they would be willing to write letters for me. All of them said yes without any hesitation.

I was expecting to get a paragraph or two of generic back-slapping. Those expectations were obliterated. Some of the things these people wrote made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The passion and respect they expressed for me and what I do was kind of overwhelming.

Really, the outpouring of support from everyone I asked for any kind of help was pretty incredible. Rob Fraser and Johnny Smith wrote letters clarifying their roles in helping to make the show a reality (Rob is handling the audio recording side of things, and the Smithster is doing a little bit of everything). Rob, Ron, and Greg Maxwell all offered great advice that helped me to shape my proposal. Cathy Masterson, my Cultural Affairs contact, was patient and helpful beyond all reason. Merry Ellen Scully and Joey Ouellette were wonderful to deal with at Mackenzie Hall, as they always are. And I owe an immense amount of gratitude to Michelle Soullière. I asked if she had any advice to offer, knowing she had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. My proposal wouldn’t have been half as strong as it was without her help.

I had a good feeling about this from the moment I submitted all my materials online. That isn’t like me. I tried to temper the optimism with some more realistic ideas about my chances, but the good feeling would not be defeated. It didn’t make it any less surprising when I got an email telling me I got the grant. It’s a pretty cool feeling when a jury that has no vested interest in you at all determines you’re worthy of their support.

The craziest thing of all is the people I’ve managed to snag for the show. I swung for the fences and asked the musicians and singers in Windsor I would want playing and singing with me if my life was on the line. I didn’t expect everyone to say yes.

Everyone said yes.

My trombonist backed out when I sent a message to re-confirm his involvement, so my dream of a three-piece horn section is no more. But it’s no big thing. I mean, check out this lineup.

(This is a placeholder poster I made myself. I’m hoping to have a Greg Maxwell special to spread around in the next month or two so I won’t have to use this one. Still, it’ll give you an idea of what’s going down.)

I didn’t want to put a conventional band together and try to recreate album arrangements in a live setting. That would be boring. What I wanted to do was get some of my favourite people and players together in one place, and then see what kind of energy there would be. We haven’t had our first proper rehearsal yet, but I think there’s the potential for some pretty fascinating textural things to happen with two horns, violin, cello, and everything else going on there.

That’s not all. The artwork created for the album booklet will be displayed, and then the prints will be donated back to the artists who created the imagery that adorns them. It’s the least I can do to thank those people for donating their talents to the cause. Free copies of the album will be available for whoever wants them. There will be free non-alcoholic things to drink and munch on. No vodka-infused crackers, I’m sorry to say.

Free handshakes and hugs will have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. I tend to be pretty generous with that stuff. As long as you don’t try to grab my flounder fish, we shouldn’t have a problem.

Though I think this part goes without saying by now, it’s going to be a free, all-ages show. It’s happening at Mackenzie Hall on Saturday, August 17 — the day after my birthday. It felt too poetic not to snag that date.

I need to do everything I can to keep things in check now that I’ve somehow managed to convert my sleep schedule to that of a normal human being, so it’ll be a pretty early show for a Saturday evening thing. The music will start at 7:00 p.m. and we’ll probably wrap up around 9:00 at the latest. If there’s anything else you’d like to do with your Saturday night, you’ll have time leftover to make it happen. Want to go pretzel-bowling with your friends? You can still do that!

One thing I can’t stress enough: when I say the music starts at 7:00, I mean it really starts at 7:00. Not 7:30. Not 8:00. I know a lot of people are incapable of showing up on time for anything. A lot of live shows start late to account for all the latecomers. I hate that crap, and I refuse to participate in it. I can understand extreme situations, but being “fashionably late” isn’t cool anymore.

I might wait until ten or fifteen minutes past the hour to accommodate a few stragglers. That’s as far as my goodwill is going to stretch. Show up an hour late at your own peril, knowing if you do you’ll miss half the show and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

Anyway. If a wild musical extravaganza with me acting as the ringleader is something you think you’d enjoy, you might want to save the date.

Re-Make/Re-Model.

Since moving into this house a little less than twelve years ago, a former bedroom has served as my stock room. It’s where I keep CD booklets and inserts, mailing supplies, spare copies of albums, and other such things.

Over the years it’s gone through a number of transformations, alternating between “more or less uncluttered” and “total chaos”. It’s probably been nine years since I last sat down and organized things in any sensible way. I’ve just been throwing more and more stuff in there, hoping it wouldn’t get too unruly.

My hope was in vain. For a while now it’s been almost impossible to take more than two steps into that room without tripping over something. It was time for a change.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

The picture at the top of this post is from somewhere around the halfway point of the room being gutted and reorganized — something I did with a whole lot of help from the indispensable Johnny Smith. I’m a little sad I wasn’t crafty enough to grab a shot of what it looked like in there before we got started. Words can’t do justice to what a horrifying mess it was.

I’ve never been any good at throwing things out. I’m a bit of an emotional packrat. I attach nostalgic value to items that should be chucked in the trash without a second thought or invent some impossible scenario in which they might prove useful at some later date. It’s not so bad that you’ll ever see me show up on a reality show about hoarding, but we filled at least four large garbage bags with stuff that served no purpose and liberated no less than half a dozen boxes full of similarly useless stuff.

There were some fun surprises along the way. I dug up a stash of random blank CDs I didn’t know I had. I found extra inserts for some albums I thought I was running low on. And there’s this thing — a homemade album display case I made for my own amusement.

One decision transformed the whole room. I’ve always used this beautiful antique coffee table to keep all my copied and printed CDs together. It found its way into the stock room because we didn’t know where else to put it. Now it felt almost criminal to keep something so unique covered up like this…and there just happened to be a huge shelf taking up space in the basement, doing nothing, feeling unloved.

Out went the table, in came the shelf, a bamboo vase I’ve always loved but never known what to do with found a home at last, I cleared everything off of the desk and the shelf that holds album artwork so I could dust and tidy things up, and what we’re left with now is a series of images that tell a tale of redemption and grape soda.

It’s a much more functional room now in every way. You can walk around in there! You can even see the cheap double-neck acoustic guitar I bought when I was working on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and have never used. I’m still waiting for a call from Robert Plant, as you might have guessed.

Return of the uke.

Zara was back in the studio this past week to record the songs that will make up her third album. We got started on Monday and wrapped up on Friday.

This time there was a pretty even division between guitar songs and ukulele songs. Zara brought her own uke but gave my wizened Gibson LG-2 some more run after playing it on UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS way back in 2014. One new wrinkle: we double-tracked her voice on a few songs. I always enjoy hearing the way a voice almost morphs into something new when it’s doubled or tripled to become an exaggerated version of itself.

As intense as Zara’s music is, she’s great fun to work with. There’s a lot of laughing, and it doesn’t feel much like work. All I really do is move a few microphones around and try to capture the way she sounds in the room, and then mix the results in such a way that the dynamics are left intact.

It feels good that she would want to keep coming back here five years after we recorded her first album. Makes me think I must be doing something right.

I should have everything mixed by the end of the month, or early May at the latest. There’s a bit of video footage to share as well. This time I used the Canon T5i instead of one of my little Flip friends. We’ll see what impact that has on the quality. The lighting in the room on the day wasn’t great, so it might still be a little grainy.

Most exciting for me — I asked Zara if she would be up for singing on another song of mine. She said yes. The trick now is writing the right song. I tried to get something ready for Friday. In a rerun of what happened with Tara, a bunch of ideas came tumbling out, and none of them quite felt like “the one”.

I would love to drape her voice over some weird ambient electronic ballad. Knowing the way my brain works, I’ll probably end up with something folky and acoustic guitar-based instead. She’s in town for another four weeks (she moved to British Columbia a while back), so there’s a bit of time to play with.

Oh yeah — yesterday was 420, the day of celebrating all things marijuana-related. To mark the occasion, here’s a grainy video still of me taking a drag from a joint in 2002.

Most of the time 420 doesn’t register for me. I haven’t smoked pot in more than twelve years now. Even if I had a debilitating illness and marijuana was the only thing that would alleviate my symptoms, I don’t think I would touch it again.

Don’t get me wrong. I used to smoke. I caught a buzz for the first time in late 2001 while working on SUBLIMINAL BILE, and it became a fun weekend thing for a while. I appreciated the way it made every conversation feel profound. Stupid things became hilarious. Music I already liked seemed to develop new dimensions, and music I had no interest in became almost tolerable.

I cut out everything a year later after getting a good amount of self-destructive energy out of my system. I tried smoking again in 2005, found it was still fun, and started using it as a substitute for going downtown and getting drunk on the weekend. Why waste my money on an aching bladder and a hangover when I could stay home, light up, and watch a Werner Herzog movie or listen to Miles Davis, waking up the next day without feeling like I got hit by a bread truck?

The first mistake I made was turning it into a solitary thing, and not something I only did once in a while in a social setting. Now that I had a consistent hookup and could smoke pot whenever I wanted, I found I liked it a little too much. It also made me lazy. It was a way to have a good time without having to do anything. Why work on music when I could sit around thinking about how great my ideas were? Why flatten them out into finished things when they were doing just fine floating around in my head?

My second mistake was buying a bong from a friend in the summer of 2006. I thought it would be an easy way to make my stash last longer. Since no one told me one toke from the bong was all I needed, I treated it like it was a pipe, got way too high, and found myself singing for my soul to two different higher powers. It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. The sound of a street cleaner set me off on a dissociative loop from hell, and I became convinced I was dying and stuck in some sort of limbo.

I couldn’t make anything that sounded like music happen on a guitar, but I still had my voice. Music became my weapon and my one hope for salvation. Over the next two hours I sang almost nonstop, improvising an entire a cappella concept album in which I bartered with both Satan (arguing I could be of some use to him if he allowed me to spread his message through my music) and God (promising to be a good Christian if he would save me). I felt the strong presence of both good and evil higher powers at different moments, and I felt myself being judged by both of them. As long as I kept singing, I knew I could at least buy myself more time. Being judged was better than being taken.

Right around the time my high wore off, I saw some sunlight filtering through my bedroom window. Instead of hearing a choir of angels singing and ascending to some heavenly afterlife, I went downstairs to get myself something to drink — my throat was killing me — and then came back upstairs and watched Millennium Actress.

To this day, part of me regrets not hitting the record button on my camcorder and capturing at least some of the madness. I remember some of the bits I sang. There were some pretty catchy song fragments in there. Whenever I was singing to Satan I would slip into this exaggerated James Hetfield voice. At one point I got into some beatboxing and borderline throat singing, coming up with some pretty strange vocal sounds. A much sweeter voice came out when I sang to God.

I stopped believing in most of the Christian ideology I was taught right around the time I went through puberty, so I thought it was odd how things split themselves into such clear divisions between good and evil. The whole thing fascinated me. I found I could laugh about it. More than that, I felt a swell of something resembling joy. It was as if I’d come through some dark night of the soul and emerged a better, happier version of myself.

Reluctant to cut my strong-smelling friend out of my life altogether, I chalked up the bad experience to smoking some stuff I bought from an untested source. It must have been cut with something nasty. A week later I tried smoking some of my “normal” supply out of the bong. I should have just gone back to joints and pipes, but I was confident I knew what I was doing.

The high that followed was much more frightening than my first bong experience. This time I felt no higher powers judging me. I lost control of my body — or my mind convinced me I did — and became a vegetable trapped in my bed, unable to move, knowing I really was going to die this time and there was nowhere for me to go. No sunlight was going to save me. There was nothing waiting for me on the other side but a vast expanse of oblivion.

I like to believe there’s something beyond this level of existence after we die. There are too many preternatural happenings that can’t be explained away as simple coincidences. I don’t pretend to know what comes next, but it gives me some comfort to think there’s some kind of afterlife, and that we go on in some way. Some atheists find comfort in the idea that there’s nothing more than this, and once we die it all goes dark. That scares me more than I can tell you. I don’t even know why. I think it’s something about the finality of it all that unnerves me.

The high wore off after a while, I was able to move again, and life went on. But this time there were after-effects. I felt disconnected from myself. I developed issues with stairs. I felt anxiety that didn’t exist for me before, and there were some borderline panic attacks — though they were nothing compared to the fun I experienced after the break-in of late 2008.

After a while I felt more or less like myself again. I’m not sure if my brain eventually got rid of whatever lingering weirdness was hanging on there, or if I accepted the new normal and adjusted to it. One thing was clear: I couldn’t smoke pot anymore. It was toxic to me now.

There was one more little adventure a year later when someone I thought was a friend pressured me into smoking one last time. I should have told him to get out of my house, but I didn’t have the guts. My reward for that bit of cowardice was locking myself out of my own house a few minutes after getting high. This time the universe decided to cut me a break, and an ex-con friend who just happened to be passing by took it upon himself to help me break back in. Which we proceeded to do. In the middle of the afternoon.

You can’t make stuff like this up.

The high wasn’t as bad this last time, but there was none of the euphoria or false sense of heightened mental acuity I got from marijuana in the past. All it gave me now was a feeling of dread that fanned out over everything like a filthy blanket.

I thought I would miss it. After that last hurrah, I didn’t have any trouble leaving it behind.

I bring this up because a few weeks ago someone was over at the house to get down some piano and vocal tracks. My name might not carry much currency in the local music scene anymore (thank God for small miracles), but apparently I’ve become known as “the guy in Windsor who has a real piano in his studio that isn’t a hunk of junk and will maybe let you use it if you ask politely”. I got a message from a guy who also has a home studio, asking me what I would charge to record him playing piano and getting down some vocal tracks so I could then send those raw tracks to him and he could build around them in his own studio.

It struck me as a somewhat convoluted way of going about it — wouldn’t it be easier to record the tracks onto his rig and then have his way with them? — but I have this impulse to help people in situations like these, when what I should probably say to them is, “If you want the sound of a real piano in your songs, do what I did and buy a real piano.”

I told him if he wanted to throw me twenty bucks to put toward my next piano tuning it would be appreciated. Other than that, I felt funny charging anything. I looked at it as one producer helping out another.

I won’t get into the specifics of the recording session. The one bit I want to mention is this. Before we got started, the guy asked me if I smoked. He said when he mentioned he was paying me a visit he was told to bring a joint as a peace offering.

It seems there are still some people out there who assume I’m this massive pothead based on the amount of music I’ve made and its refusal to stay in one place. Here’s the thing about that. If I hadn’t stopped smoking pot more than a decade ago, none of the music I’ve made from 2008 to date would exist, and what little work I might have done in its place wouldn’t be any good.

Drugs inspire some artists and open them up to different ways of thinking. They never did that for me. At least not in any way that had a positive impact on my music. Pot didn’t just sap my motivation, leaving me content to brainstorm forever — the few times I did try writing or recording while under the influence, the results were unusable. When I was high I thought all my bad ideas were good and all my good ideas were great.

I would try to record a miserable song about a dying relationship with Gord and Tyson and laugh my way through the whole thing after forgetting the lyrics that were right in front of me. Like so.

Cottonmouth (GWD version)

Fun? You bet. Album material? Not on your life. Compare this to the version recorded two months later for BEAUTIFULLY STUPID and it’s not even a fair fight.

My point, if I have one, is this: I don’t judge anyone who smokes pot or puts any other foreign substance into their body. Their life, their choice. But I never got one good song out of being high, and I feel it does something of a disservice to the body of work I’ve built when someone assumes it’s the product of an altered state of consciousness.

Life is bizarre and maddening and inspiring enough as it is when viewed through the prism of a clear mind. If you need a drug to help you come up with your ideas, I’m not sure you’re trying hard enough.

A comedy of terrors.

Here’s the song Tara came by to lend her vocal magic to. I’ve spent the last few mornings picking away at editing the recording footage I grabbed along the way, and as much as I’m trying to keep things under wraps until the album is finished, I can’t resist putting this one out there as something resembling an advance single.

The thing I can’t get over is how catchy it is. I didn’t go out of my way to make that happen…it just happened. Must be the groove. I blame the djembe and the shaker that almost looks like an edible pepper. They’re always up to no good.

Editing this was a bit of a pain in the posterior, with everything I had to find a way to fit in there. It was rewarding to see it all come together, though, and I think it’s one of the better editing jobs I’ve done along these lines. It’s always fun when your cuts move in rhythm with the music. It’s a subtle thing, but I find it makes for a video that feels like it breathes a little better.

Also, dig those pyjama pants. Lately I find myself doing a fair bit of recording in the morning, before I’ve put on normal people clothes for the day. When you’re recording drums at 9:43 a.m. the last thing on your mind is throwing on some jeans. Me wearing boxer pants in a video is nothing new, but I don’t think any pair has ever been given quite this much screen time. Maybe these ones are special.

While I’m proud of all the elements that make up the thick soup of this song’s sound, the real secret sauce is the Yamaha VSS-30. I swear it keeps finding new ways to sneak its way into a song and add the texture that’s needed. It’s ridiculous how useful and versatile a little “toy” keyboard from the 1980s can be. You can get so many different sounds just out of sampling a bit of Wurlitzer and warping it (which is what I did here).

In less pleasant news, here are some words I never thought I would type, say, or even think: I won’t ever do business with Minuteman Press again. I won’t even recommend them for the simplest of jobs. If you’re in Windsor and you have any printing needs beyond what you can do yourself at home, I urge you to go somewhere — anywhere — else.

Here’s the deal. In early 2003, when I first thought it would be worthwhile to try giving my CDs a somewhat professional appearance, Johnny Smith said, “I’ll take you to Minuteman Press. That’s where I get my business cards done. I bet they’ll be able to help.” And they did help, printing a two-sided insert I slipped like an embarrassed apology into the abomination that was the initial album art for OH YOU THIS.

In short order, Minuteman Press became my go-to place for all things related to album packaging. Over a period of sixteen years they printed the booklets and inserts for fifty different albums (that’s not a typo), along with two posters and a handful of redesigns when I decided I wanted to “reissue” something or print the lyrics for an album that got slighted the first time around.

In the beginning it was pretty clear they’d never done this kind of work before. The initial inserts (or “tray cards”, if you like) for NUDGE YOU ALIVE had only one tab with the album’s name on the spine instead of the traditional two, leaving one side of the CD jewel case bereft. For my part, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to arranging text and images. We both got better in a hurry. They started producing more professional-looking results with more experience, and I taught myself how to handle the layout side of things.

By 2010 we were a well-oiled machine. I started handing in polished image files with proper bleed lines instead of asking them to set things up for me, and Heather and I almost had our own verbal shorthand. She was always great to work with. If I still sometimes got inserts that were a hair too tall to fit into a jewel case and I had to take a little off the top with my own cutting board to compensate, it was a small price to pay for being able to give my albums the visual presentation I wanted on a DIY budget.

Heather left a few years ago. The people who stayed on still did pretty reliable work. Then the ownership changed altogether in late 2017, and every familiar face was gone.

The woman who took over the business was a great surprise. Her attention to detail was incredible, and the packaging for both the long-overdue remaster of YOU’RE A NATION and the Papa Ghostface sign-off WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD came out looking better than I thought possible. It seemed safe to assume I could keep giving Minuteman Press my business forever.

Everything changed when I swung by a few weeks ago to have the booklets and inserts for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC reprinted. The woman with the great attention to detail was gone. Another woman she once referred to as her “colleague” was now running the show. I’ll call her Esmerelda, because it’s a world away from her real name and it sounds a little evil.

There was a disgruntled customer ahead of me in line, and she was giving Esmerelda the business. The conversation went something like this:

CUSTOMER:
I paid a professional designer to put this flyer together. The printing is all wrong. The bleed lines are off, and there’s all this white space.

ESMERELDA:
Yes. It’s like because the format we were like given. We can only like play with it so much.

CUSTOMER:
No…this was done by a professional. There’s nothing wrong with it. Something went wrong with the way it was sized after I gave it to you. You’re the ones who made the mistake.

ESMERELDA:
Yes. Like when you give it to us, like we can do almost nothing. You have to like give it to us in a different format.

CUSTOMER:
My event is a few days away. I can’t use this. This is no good.

ESMERELDA:
If you want to like give it to me in a different format maybe we can like fix it, but the way you gave it to me there’s nothing we can do.

Put that on a loop for about ten minutes and you get the idea. The Smithster and I got tired of waiting after a while and turned to leave.

“No, no,” Esmerelda said.

“We’ll come back tomorrow,” I said.

“No, I can wait on you.”

She slid a smiling man with grey hair into her place and took my order. I gave her my original materials and asked for another thirty copies of each. She said she’d call me in a day or two to come look at a proof, and then she’d print it. Easy as cake.

More than a week went by. There was no phone call. I called and got Esmerelda’s son on the line. He talked to me as if he was the new graphic designer of the operation. He told me my file of sixteen years — once a monster of a thing — was now all but empty, and almost none of the work any of the previous employees had done for me was in there. I would have to give him the art files for these booklets and inserts, and they would have to be printed from scratch.

I dug up the old art files from early 2011, dumped them onto a flash drive, and brought them in. Son of Esmerelda told me he would email me a proof later that day. He did no such thing. The next day I popped in to see my proof. It wasn’t ready.

“Oh, he had some car trouble,” Esmerelda said. “He told me he’s going to send you an email tonight. Like a hundred percent, for sure he’ll do it tonight.”

He did not, like a hundred percent, for sure, email me anything.

I came back the next day.

“I was just going to call you,” Esmerelda lied.

She printed up a proof for me. The insert looked fine. The smiling man stood there staring at the song titles, looking bewildered. I like to think “Taylor Swift Sings Death Metal in My Dreams” gave him a brain cramp.

The booklet wasn’t fine. It was a mess. The image and text on the cover were both too small. Inside, the size of the font increased and decreased five or six points at a time from one page to another. I always make sure to keep the font size consistent through all my image files, so it was a bit of shock to see things looking so out of whack.

Esmerelda’s explanation: “Yes. You gave us JPEG, and like we can do almost nothing. If you give it to me in like a Word document, then I can like size it myself and everything will be like perfect.”

For nine years JPEG files were never an issue. All Son of Esmerelda had to do was drag and drop the image files into whatever program he was using and make sure they were the right size. Instead, he took it upon himself to increase the size of the text on every page that had any appreciable amount of white space. Of course, Esmerelda wasn’t about to admit it, and he wasn’t around to answer for his screw-up.

She said she would email me a proof once I sent her the lyrics in a Word document. I sighed, went home, and put together what she said she needed. I emailed it to her the next morning. She didn’t email me back.

Thursday was the day of reckoning. I showed up to ask what the hell was going on. Son of Esmerelda looked horrified when he saw me walk in the door. He ducked into an office as fast as he could, where I assume he watched videos of dogs slobbering in slow motion while contemplating the nature of existence.

“Our server has been down all day,” Esmerelda said. “We haven’t been able to like do anything. But we almost have it like fixed now. If you come back at 12:30, I’ll have it for you. You don’t need to call. Just come back around 2:00 and it will be ready.”

Not just anyone can make an hour-and-a-half leap like that almost in the middle of a sentence without even acknowledging it. I had to genuflect in respect.

I should pause to tell you Johnny Smith was with me for each of these visits, and he noticed Esmerelda had a habit of looking at him instead of me when we were talking to each other. It was weird.

A little after 2:00, we came back.

“I just printed it,” she said. “I’ll have it for you in a moment.”

In a virtuoso display of lying to someone’s face and assuming they’re too stupid to notice, she walked a few feet to a printer and proceeded to print what she told me was already printed.

She brought the pages over, and I saw my body text in the booklet had morphed from Bookman Old Style into Arial.

“You changed the font,” I said.

“Yes. It’s much clearer now.”

“No,” I said, opening the original booklet to show her. “This is the font I used. See? I used the same font in the Word document I sent you, because that’s the font I want.”

“Yes,” she said. “It was Times New Roman. I changed it to Arial, but I can just like change it back. I just thought it looked better like this.”

“It wasn’t Times New Roman. But you know what…let’s do this. The other part that’s fine — the insert? Let’s go ahead and print that, and forget about the booklet.”

“No,” she said. “I can change the font back.”

“I’d like my original booklet back please, and we’ll just print the one piece that doesn’t have any problems.”

“I’ll just change the font back.”

“No. It’s been one thing after another. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Yes, but I’ll just change the font.”

Right here is where Johnny Smith took it upon himself to break the loop of stupidity, slipping into what I can only call “Punisher Mode”. He told Esmerelda we were done. She tried to come up with some bullshit. He told her to give me back my original booklet and insert. She wouldn’t budge. He had to cut her off at least ten times before it sunk in for her that this was one person she wasn’t going to be able to wear down with smiling condescension. She gave me my booklet and insert back, said, “Well, I’m very sorry to hear it,” and we walked out.

I’ll never set foot in that place again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re out of business a few months from now. Word spreads fast, and awe-inspiring incompetence is not something most people look for when they need something printed.

It’s a shame. Once upon a time there were some good, honest people working there who did fine work. Not anymore.

We made a list of about half a dozen other local printing businesses to try. I brought the packaging for STEW to A&A Printing so I’d have something to offer as a sample. The manager came out to talk to us and I asked a bunch of questions. He told me they had a lot of experience doing CD-related work. PDF files were the best format for them. They would have a proof for me the same day I brought in my art files, the job would be finished the day after that, and for fifty each of these two pieces of packaging I could expect to pay a little over a hundred bucks.

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

He said all the right things. There didn’t seem to be any need to check out any of the other places on our list. On Friday, around noon, I spoke with a woman at the front desk. I asked if I could have a lyric booklet and a separate insert made, and presented her with samples of the original pieces (again for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC) and the relevant PDF files on a flash drive. She told me she would have a proof ready for me in two hours and she would call when it was finished.

Something I’ve learned: when someone tells you they’re going to call you for anything business-related, they’re almost always lying. We came back at 4:00 and a different woman claimed she’d called us to let us know the files I provided didn’t work. When we told her we never received a phone call, she said, “Well, I was trying to call you.” That made for two lies in less than ten seconds, unless in her mind “trying” meant “thinking about maybe doing something and then not actually doing it”.

She invited us into the work area and brought me over to her computer, where she showed me the files wouldn’t work when she tried to open them.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I saved them all as PDF files. That’s what the manager told me to do. He told me that was the best format for you. Everything worked fine on my computer.”

She started laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” Johnny Smith asked her.

“Because the manager told you to do that, and the files don’t work.”

“What about that is funny?”

She didn’t have an answer.

Laughing at your customer’s misfortune isn’t a great way to get their return business. Just throwing that out there.

The woman who took my order earlier in the day tried the flash drive on her computer. She had no problem opening the files. Way to troubleshoot, people! She told us if we could wait five minutes in the other room she would print up a proof.

Half an hour later she had a sheet printed out to show me the paper stock they were going to use for the booklet. She said the binding would take three hours to do and she didn’t realize there were so many pages.

Johnny Smith told her we’d just left a printing business after sixteen years because of mishaps and miscommunications like this. She apologized and let loose with a stream of excuses. They had a lot of unexpected cutting work that day. There was more work involved in putting the proof together than she thought there would be. The printer jammed. She thought the booklet was a flyer with no pages in it (the second you touch or even look at the booklet, it becomes clear it isn’t a flyer).

She said she would work on it over the weekend and call us on Monday whether the work was done or not.

Believe it or not, on Monday there was a phone call. We came in to look at the proof with some sneaky feelings of optimism. Those feelings were dispelled soon enough.

The woman who showed me the initial printout wasn’t around. The one who laughed at us was there instead. She showed me a booklet that had the font at the right size throughout, but the print quality left something to be desired. The printout I was shown on Friday made the text look nice and smooth. Now it was bleeding all over the place. The text on both spines of the insert was way out of alignment, and instead of fixing it themselves she and the manager told me it was my job to edit the image file, guessing at where they needed it to be. I’ve been doing this long enough to know where the text is supposed to go. This was their mistake, not mine.

Worst of all was the cost. Because there were a few extra pages in this booklet, the price I was quoted on Thursday tripled.

The woman asked for a 50% deposit. I gave it to her and left feeling defeated. Over the next few minutes my attitude shifted from just wanting to get the booklets and inserts reprinted, to thinking this was more of the same garbage and I didn’t want to stand for it anymore.

We went back. When I brought up the bleeding, the laughing lady said she could try lightening the text to see if that helped. I told her the price was another sticking point. She disappeared into the back of the work area for a while, and when she came back she said the manager was willing to come down almost a hundred bucks. If you can afford to do that, either your profit margin is sickening and you’re cheating people out of their money, or your business isn’t as prosperous as you’d like your customers to believe it is. Either way, it wasn’t good enough.

I asked for my money back and we left. They still have my memory stick and original lyric booklet. I need to get those back sometime this week.

Instead of trying more local printing places I thought I’d contact a business that makes album packaging full-time. I sent an email to someone at Duplium, which is where Ron got Tobacco Fields manufactured. The lyric booklet for that album came out looking great. While I’m waiting to hear back from them, I might email another place in Canada that does similar work. I prefer to be able to go in and see a proof in person, but if I have to go through something like this again on my way to finding someone in Windsor who knows what they’re doing, I think I’m going to tear my own face off.

Hopefully something good shakes loose. I’m running low on booklets and inserts for a good half a dozen albums, and I’d like to be able to get more of them printed somewhere.

The flute of truth.

Making art and trying to involve other people can lead you down some pretty circuitous roads.

I sent Lianne Harway a Facebook message three years ago when my search for local woodwind players led me to her. She never saw it. As I’ve learned, if you send a message to someone you’re not already Facebook friends with, said message almost always gets stuffed into a secret spam folder somewhere deep in the ass crack of cyberspace.

A few months ago I asked Tara Watts if she’d be interested in singing on something. She responded with an enthusiastic yes, so I wrote something with her in mind. The more I sat with the song, the more it started to feel like second-tier material. And she deserved my best.

I wrote at least half a dozen subsequent songs, hoping to find one that shouted its rightness at me. None of them did. I thought I had a good idea for a potential duet one night when I was cooking some green beans. That didn’t go anywhere interesting either.

Then a song came out of nowhere when I wasn’t trying to make anything happen, and I thought, “This would be a good one to have Tara sing harmony on.” A lot of my songs are directed at one “you” or another, though I’m not often singing to a real person anymore. I liked how this one took a turn away from implied specificity, limiting itself to images and statements. There was no “you” at all.

I recorded the thing and sang placeholder harmonies of my own. Then I started to grow attached to those harmonies. Pretty soon I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone else singing them after all — even someone with a voice as great as Tara’s.

What I really wanted was to showcase her voice in more than a supporting role. I just couldn’t seem to write something that felt like an appropriate vehicle.

As soon as I gave up on the idea of writing a song Tara might have some fun singing lead on, the right song all but wrote itself. Ain’t that the way it always goes?

I have a thing for slinky, jazzy, sensual songs with musical backdrops that are either semi-electronic or full-on trip-hop/downtempo. I’ve wanted to try doing something like that with a female singer for a long time, with no success. Whenever I reach out to a singer who lives in or near Windsor and has a voice that seems appropriate for that sort of thing, they either ignore me or feign interest before disappearing.

This time I was lucky enough to have a singer lined up and waiting in the wings. And I guess the subconscious part of my songwriting brain said, “You know that thing you keep wanting to do? Here’s an opportunity to do it. NOW DO IT.” I recorded all the music, got down a guide vocal, and sent a rough mix off to Tara. She liked that it was something a little outside of her usual musical wheelhouse. We made plans to get together so she could take a stab at singing it.

Yesterday those plans came to fruition. I felt a little awkward taking pictures while we were recording, but Tara was kind enough to pretend to sing for me in hilariously exaggerated fashion after we were finished, allowing me to capture an image that’s sure to become iconic in the years ahead.

This is not that picture. The world isn’t ready for that kind of visual intensity. Instead, this is an “accidental” shot that I thought turned out pretty nice.

Sometimes when I ask someone to play or sing on one of my songs they’ll show up having spent no time preparing, and before we can get anything useful recorded I have to teach them the song they’ve had weeks or months to sit with. It doesn’t bother me, and it’s never stopped me from getting a good performance out of anyone. It’s just a thing that happens.

It didn’t happen with Tara. She did her homework. I didn’t even have to play her my guide vocal before we started recording. She slipped right in there like she owned the song. My only regret is maxing out every track on the mixer but one (reserved for the lead vocal), because she told me she heard some potential harmony lines in there. Maybe I’ll have to write something else with her in mind and leave some space so she can harmonize all over the place. I don’t think anything bad could come of it. Tara’s a master when it comes to vocal harmony.

That other song — the one I thought I was going to ask Tara to harmonize on before I decided I liked my own harmonies enough to keep them around — had an instrumental chorus/refrain. There was almost a Celtic feeling to it, I thought. It needed to be played on a flute to really put it over the top.

I asked Facebook if anyone knew someone who played flute and might be interested in doing some session work. I didn’t expect the question to even be acknowledged. As proof that social media is about as unpredictable as a naked meteorologist, recommendations came pouring in. One Facebook friend tagged Lianne, and she said she was interested.

Three years after I sent her a message that was never seen, I sent a friend request and a new message that didn’t end up in limbo. That was a few weeks ago. This past Thursday Lianne was over at the house, replacing my wordless vocal melody with flute-shaped goodness.

I moved the Pearlman TM-1 in front of her, put it in omni, and was reminded for about the seven-hundredth time how ridiculously versatile this microphone is. You’d think a high-register wind instrument like a flute would need some EQ to tame it, but no. A little kiss of reverb and it sounded just right — bright and lively without being harsh.

Like Tara, Lianne came prepared. There were three sections of the song that wanted flute, with the first iteration of the melody subtly different from the final two. Within fifteen minutes of putting on headphones and getting the microphone in place, we were done. It would have been foolish to ask her for another take. She nailed it every time, and though the melody was already written, the way she played it glued the whole song together.

Sometimes persistence rewards you, even if you have no idea where you’re going until you get there.

I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway.

Damn it, man. First Mark Hollis, and now this? The year is already gunning for a failing grade in its stunning lack of preservation of the artists who have been mainstays on the soundtrack of my life.

If you want to know a bit about what Scott Walker’s music did for me (and to me), I wrote about that once over here. If his album Tilt hadn’t blown my brain apart when I was fourteen, I’m convinced my musical vocabulary would be very different. Maybe another album would have performed a similar mind-expanding role for me, but the experience and its aftershocks wouldn’t have been the same. Tilt upended all of my ideas about what a song could be, and after wrestling with that music to the point that I was able to understand and appreciate it, nothing ever sounded inaccessible again, no matter how far-out it went.

And then there’s that voice. There’s never been another quite like it.

Scott’s four self-titled albums from the late 1960s are chamber pop of the highest order, approachable without surrendering their twisted sense of humour and pessimistic worldview. His work from 1978’s Bizarro World Walker Brothers reunion album Nite Flights forward, on the other hand, is not for everyone. It makes for a musical journey into some pretty dark places (including the mind of Mussolini’s mistress as she faces her execution). The man seemed to delight in setting fire to his former pop persona and poking around inside of its charred husk to see what kind of reverb chamber it made. Some have found the results pretentious. I find a lot of the music thrilling. Even his obligatory “80s-sounding album” Climate of Hunter, with its period-correct drum sound and fretless bass groans, is like nothing else anyone released in the 1980s, with the weirdest Billy Ocean cameo of all time.

The whole idea of the maverick artist seems to be slowly turning into just that — an idea. It doesn’t help that we just lost two of the greats in the space of a month.

If it came from a bull, and it smells like a bull…

There’s this thing called the RPM Challenge. It started back in 2006. Participants record a full-length album that’s ten songs or thirty-five minutes long, and they do it inside the month of February.

I’ve never done this. I used to record albums in a matter of days all the time, but for whatever reason I don’t think any of them were started and finished in February. Not since I started working in the digital domain twenty years ago, anyway.

My friend Joshua Jesty, on the other hand, has been a proponent of the RPM Challenge for about as long as it’s existed. He hasn’t made a “February record” every single year, but I think his latest instalment is his sixth. That’s some serious commitment to the cause right there.

This time around he asked a bunch of different friends to contribute to the album. I was one of those people. The thing is, he didn’t just ask me to play on one of the songs. He asked me to make the cover art too. And if you know me, you know I’m not someone who’s ever asked by anyone to do that sort of thing, because I’m not really a visual artist.

I am, however, a little bit nuts. I like to make up for my inability to draw freehand by tracing on top of existing pictures in a computer program that wasn’t designed with that in mind and then warping the context. In this case I took a photo of Josh holding a bowling ball in front of his face and turned the bowling ball into a massive mound of crap. Then I added a gloating bull to make the album title Nonstop Bullshit literal.

He used that image for the cover art, unmodified.

The song he asked me to play on is a pretty, atmospheric ballad called “Endless”. Josh felt it needed some dobro at the end, so I pulled out this guy, who’s been feeling a little neglected.

I’m not one of those crazy bluegrass pickers who can play frenetic, brain-melting slide solos. I tend to gravitate toward simple, melody-based things. I sat with Josh’s song for a bit until I felt I’d figured something out, recorded a handful of takes with a single Pearlman TM-250, and picked the second-last one. It wasn’t the best technical take, but it felt the most like me. Then I sent it off as a WAV file and Josh stuck it in his song.

Check it out.

I feel pretty good about that solo, I have to say. It isn’t flashy, but it works.

Elsewhere, things are getting back on track. My pseudo-vampire sleep schedule, while workable, drifted to the point that I wasn’t seeing a whole lot of daylight anymore, I didn’t have a lot of energy, and I couldn’t get much done. After not having to go a night without sleep to reboot my sleep cycle for more than a year — a pretty monumental accomplishment when I used to have to do it every few weeks — I admitted defeat and did it again. I’ve now been back on days for almost two weeks, and though readjusting to eating meals at normal times was a little strange at first, it’s nice to be reminded just how much time a proper day gives you to accomplish things.

My goal now is to pick a song every day and either evolve it in some significant way or finish it. So far, so good. Guest-related fun is starting to pick up steam again as well. Tara Watts is supposed to swing by in a little over a week to sing on something (remember her? I used to play in her band six million years ago!), and a few days after that a flautist is supposed to come over to record magic flute things.

I just might manage to reach my goal of thirty musical contributors on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK after all.