Month: June 2015

Little Big Muff.

elliott gets intimate with fuzz

I’ve never been all that into guitar pedals. I bought a distortion pedal thirteen or so years ago, never used it more than twice (only once on a recorded song), and I sold it along with a tremolo pedal a few months back after getting it back from a “friend” who tried to steal it from me under the guise of borrowing it, leaving only the Vox Wah pedal I’ve had for about half as long as I’ve been alive now.

But to go your whole life without ever owning a fuzz pedal…that isn’t right. And there are certain shoegazey sounds I’d like to have at my fingertips that are a lot easier to access when you’ve got some fuzz around. So I rectified that situation. As you can see, Elliott approves — maybe a little too enthusiastically.

Now your time is your own.

karen dalton with tim hardin

A bit of an addendum to that attempted Karen Dalton oral history thing from a while back:

The story has always been that Karen was a gifted song interpreter who never wrote any songs of her own, and the only “original” material to surface was a poem printed in the liner notes of It’s so Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best.

Turns out the story was wrong. In 2012 Peter Walker self-published a book of lyrics, poems, and writings from Karen’s diaries. I didn’t know anything about that until about a week ago. And now there’s Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton — an album featuring eleven different artists grafting their own music and voices to Karen’s long-lost words, Woody Guthrie/Mermaid Avenue style.

It’s worth owning just for the title track, sung by Sharon Van Etten, with music that for once comes from Karen herself (she wrote the song’s chords above the words). No one sings like Karen did, but I’m not sure I can think of anyone else with a voice evocative and fragile-but-strong enough to do the job in her absence. If anyone does anything more sadly beautiful than this song this year, I’ll produce the dance hit of the summer and eat my invisible hat in one fell swoop.

Like gold from the sky.

ron collage

Ron Leary has one of those voices words aren’t good enough to tell you about if you’ve never heard him sing. He could make a pest control pamphlet sound like the truest song ever written. Lucky for us and the insects, he’s got his own stories to sing, and they’re full of the poetry of the everyday and the hard-to-say. I don’t think we’ve got too many real folk singers left, but Ron’s one.

I’ve been a fan of Ron the songwriter and Ron the person for a long time. A decade ago he invited me to be a guest on, Travelling Salesman, the CJAM show he was hosting at the time. I regret letting that pass me by now. We would have had a good conversation.

My main acoustic guitar at the time — back when I only had a few, most of them not anything you’d call “good” — and the one I was doing most of my writing on was in a bad way after the guys at Riverside Music who sold it to me failed to mention that it wouldn’t respond the same way to changes in humidity as a cheap guitar would. “We usually tell people about that,” one guy said when it had a crack in its belly longer than my middle finger, with the laughing sort of fake apology an unfaithful lover gives you when you’ve been in a car accident after catching them cheating on you and they don’t really care, but some circuit buried deep in their machinery encourages them to pretend they do. “Must have just forgotten to mention it the day you bought that guitar.”

I learned about humidity the hard way. None of my other guitars would have tolerated the tuning I was favouring on that one, and I guess I was a little too skittish to figure something else out until the thing healed up.

Ron was also at the only live gig I got to play during those lost years of not a lot of people having any real interest in what I was doing while I was busy spitting out new music at a rate that scares me a little now, offering support and kind words at Phog. He told me he enjoyed the pure vitriol of “Absolutely Manhole Blues”. What possessed me to end my set with that song, I have no idea. I don’t think I could have even told you then.

Strange to think that was about ten years ago too. Time needs to lay off the amphetamines and slow its ass down.

In the years that came after, we’d run into each other sometimes at Dr. Disc or Elia’s Deli, back when it was still the real Elia’s Deli. We’d exchange music and letters in the mail and write each other emails. We always meant to get together and play some music, but life had its own ideas. Life likes to be a disruptive little stone in your soup sometimes, until you choke on that stone, Heimlich yourself out of trouble, and drink the broth with your lips still halfway numb.

When I was figuring out who I wanted to talk to about being a part of the solo-album-with-friends adventure, Ron was high on the list before I even had a list. He got bumped up higher still after Zara rewired the song she sang on. I thought I needed to have a male voice in there somewhere taking the spotlight for a whole song, doing some similar emotional rewiring.

When you need a voice that can do that, Ron’s the guy you want to call on.

So I wrote a little thing for him to sing, and he came in and sang it. Hearing that voice coming through my headphones singing words I wrote was surreal. You hear Ron sing a line like, “Winter has a strange heart,” and you start to think maybe you didn’t write it at all. Maybe he wrote it while you were sleeping, but you looked so peaceful he decided to let you have it.

Not too many people have taken me up on the “I’ll record one of yours for free if you sing/play on one of mine” offer. Most of those who have taken me up on it have ended up hiring me to record a whole album for them not long after. That wasn’t ever what I was aiming for when I made the offer. It was more of an attempt at a fun musical barter than anything. But it works for me, because most of the experiences I’ve been having recording other people lately have been really positive and inspiring ones.

It’s not something I push anymore. Most of the time I just offer to pay people a session fee when I reach out to them now and leave it at that, because my plate is pretty full. But I really wanted to make the song-for-song transaction happen with Ron. He’s got some real beauties that haven’t found a place on any of his albums for one reason or another.

After singing on my tune, he laid down acoustic guitar and a lead vocal for “Grimy Old Shoes”, which has been one of my favourite songs of his ever since i first heard it when I played piano on a cover version Travis recorded six years ago for an album no one will ever get to hear. Then the bed tracks sat on a backup CD for some months. I’ve had so much going on music-wise over the last little while, some of the things I’ve most wanted to work on have ended up spending time on the back burner. My own songs included.

I had no idea what I was going to do with “Grimy Old Shoes”, but Ron encouraged me to have fun with it. When Facebook told me it was his birthday one day back in April, I thought it was time to give it a shot. So I dusted the raw tracks off that afternoon and added some things, thinking it might make for a neat little birthday present. I sent along a rough mix, hoping he’d like what I did.

It felt good, working on that song. Once I figured out what approach I wanted to take with the electric guitar, I probably finished adding everything — singing harmonies, floating on top with some piano and ambient guitar business, adding bass and brushed drums — within half an hour. It just clicked. If memory serves, I improvised some pretty good stuff on piano for the cover version that never saw the light of day, but this was a different ballgame.

Ron liked it. That felt good too. I said, “If you ever want to record another song that doesn’t have a home, just let me know. I’d love to do it again.” He came back with, “How about we do a whole ten-song album and build a home?”

Ron has gigged and recorded with a lot of talented people. Dean Drouillard produced, recorded, and played a lot of different instruments on Theroadinbetween and Dependent Arising. People like Royal Wood, Adam Warner, Kate Maki, and our man Kelly Hoppe have played and sung on those albums. Andy Magoffin is manning the boards for a new one in the process of being made at his House of Miracles studio in Cambridge. And if you weren’t at Ron and Kelly’s Taloola show in April, you missed out on something special. You get another chance to see those two guys perform as an acoustic duo in an intimate setting like that, you don’t want to miss it. Trust me.

I never dreamed I’d play any role on one of Ron’s albums. I would have loved to play piano on something at some point if the opportunity came my way, but I felt a little awkward asking. I think it’s better to let an artist assemble the cast they want when they’re making a record instead of trying to insinuate yourself.

Now I find myself recording a whole batch of Ron’s songs in my own lair of chaos, and he’s told me to just do my thing with them. Musical compliments don’t come better than that.

You know what else? I think I’m up for the job. There was a time when I would have doubted myself and said, “What business have I got recording a Ron Leary album in an untreated room in my house?” I still don’t feel like I’m a proper producer, inside or outside of my own music. I’ve always done most of what I do out of necessity. But I do know how to make and capture some noises, and I think we can make a great folk album with some interesting, off-kilter touches to keep you on your toes.

So that’s what’s happening. I’m excited about this one. Keep an ear out.

Other voices (redux).

these are supposed to be a bunch of people singing, superimposed on top of one another. i think.

When I first started working on this thing — this solo album with many guests, for lack of a better description — I wanted to take a stab at finally writing for voices that weren’t mine. The idea of doing that on its own was and continues to be so inspiring, it’s insane. I don’t think I’ve written so many songs intended for one specific album in my life, ill-fated ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE thing aside.

I wasn’t sure how many singers I would be able to get involved. I figured I’d be lucky if I got a couple. As it stands right now there are eleven. Eleven different singers who have become a part of this album. And there should be a few more before things wrap up.

Writing for other players and singers is fascinating. That was true when I first started doing it, and it’s no less true now, after I’ve been doing it here and there for about a year. You can set up space for someone to improvise within the framework of something that’s written, map something out in detail for someone to replicate, or use a written part as a jumping-off point for improvisation and fuse the two approaches together. Those are the three different ways I’ve gone about it, at least.

In a way, all-out improvisation is the least surprising approach most of the time. You tend to have a feel for what a musician’s personality is and the way they’ll think through things, so you have some idea of what you’re going to get, even if the performance itself is impossible to anticipate. You know to expect the unexpected.

More surprising is giving someone something you want them to reproduce as precisely as they can — which doesn’t seem to make much sense, but stay with me here. When you’ve never done that before, because you’re used to playing and singing every part yourself, it’s surprising first of all to learn that it is a thing you can do. You can write arrangements and fit the pieces together in a way that isn’t just intuitive. You can operate as an arranger. And with singers, it’s really something to hear someone sing the words and vocal melodies you’ve written, in some cases note for note, while still finding ways of working their own sense of phrasing and their own emotional truth into it. Because those things are always going to worm their way in there somehow.

One example: I wrote a song that was a musical dialogue for two voices, male and female. I recorded a rough demo and sent it to Leanna Roy (who you might know as Lele Danger). A friend put me in touch with her when I was looking for singers who weren’t dudes and not having much success.

Leanna has a gorgeous voice. I thought I had a pretty good idea what it would sound like when she sang her part. I’ve rarely been a huge fan of my own voice, but one thing it’s given me is a surprising amount of range to play with. So I could hit the notes she was going to hit and imagine what it would sound like when I wasn’t the person singing those lines and hitting those notes anymore.

Then she came in, and what she did almost broke my brain. Here she was singing the part pretty much the way I wrote it, but there was all this feeling I wasn’t expecting to be there. She was singing about capsized seasons and disinfected answers to hesitant questions like she felt it in her guts, even if she had no idea what my lyrics were supposed to mean. It was like she invested this character I barely sketched out with all this depth I didn’t even know was there.

That’s because she has her own vocal personality, and it brings something to the song I could never give it myself, because I’m not a woman with a beautiful voice. And it’s because the song brought something out of her that wasn’t ordinary, and she acknowledged that. I love her voice, but I’ve never heard her sing quite that same way anywhere else.

So she brought something special to the song, and the song fed her something special she was able to channel back into it, and out of that came something that could never have existed without this accidental perfect storm of bringing and feeding and channeling.


(There’s more to the song than that, but I ain’t givin’ it all away.)

In some ways it’s a total crapshoot. If I don’t know someone’s voice that well, I’m guessing at what a comfortable range is going to be for them to sing in based on what I’ve heard of their singing and the way that fights against what I want to write and what key it wants to live in. And I have my own way of phrasing things and forming melodies that might not be aligned with the way someone else’s musical mind works.

Zara is a great example of this. She usually won’t sing something exactly the way you ask her to sing it. It always comes back a little different. In her case I think it’s because singing is a wholly emotional process for her. She doesn’t attack it in a cerebral way. She feels it.

With the first song I asked her to sing on — the one about buying time at the end of the world — I probably spent half an hour trying to get her to sing a few lines with a certain inflection. We’d get about halfway there, and then she’d start singing it a different way. We both ended up laughing about it.

In time, I got her to sing it the way I thought I wanted her to. But later, when I listened to what we recorded after she left, I realized her way was better. She has this way of jazzing things up and singing around and behind the beat that’s really interesting. She also has this Chan Marshall, Sharon Van Etten kind of darkness to her voice, which is amazing as a writer — to hear a voice like that singing your words back at you.

The second time I asked her to sing on something, I just played her my guide vocal and then let her do her thing and bend it where her voice wanted to go.

Last night I had another one of those brain-exploding experiences.

jen 1

I found out about Jen Knight by chance, while eyeing music-related classified ads on Kijiji out of curiosity. I found a cover she did of the Radiohead song “Creep” on YouTube, and immediately I wanted to write something and ask her to sing on it.

She has this voice that screams soul. A voice that could lead a gospel choir to higher ground. If you were writing something you might hope to have someone with a voice like that sing, you would think “uptempo soul stomp thing” before you knew you were thinking anything. And yeah, that’s what I thought when I first heard her sing. The voice wants to take the mind there. Go mind, go. Go down where slow secrets go to reinvent themselves as nimbler creatures.

But see, my brain wants to kick thoughts like those in the shins hard enough to snap bone and use the pain-induced delirium to turn the thoughts, warp them, make them something other than what they were born to be. My brain says: What if you took that voice and made it the messenger for a dark folk song with no chorus? What then?

Voices transform words and melodies just by being themselves. When I sang the thing I wrote, I liked it just fine. When Jen sang the thing back to me, I thought, “This is the voice that was meant to sing these words. It never could have been any other way.”

She becomes the character the song wants her to be. If I close my eyes I can see her there inside its heart. She’s come down the other side of a mountain she took a long time to climb, and made her way back around to where you are, and you aren’t even you yet, aren’t even real, but she wants to tell you what she’s seen and how it’s going to be. She’s giving you the map of your life, if only you had hands to grasp it with.

That’s the power of a voice that isn’t yours singing words you wrote, when the right voice meets the right words.