So said David Bowie. And while I don’t claim to possess his powers of knowing what to do and when, I do seem to have rediscovered my ability to get things done.
All of the sudden, fourteen songs slated for inclusion on the PG album are either CD-ready or the mixes just need a few adjustments. That leaves six or eight more songs to work on, depending on what I decide to do with the two I’m starting to feel iffy about.
Trying to guess at a release date is always a good way to jinx myself, so I won’t do that. I will say this: the finish line just got a whole lot closer. It’s a good feeling.
On the subject of things that aren’t too far away from being released, Ron snuck a song off of his forthcoming album onto his website. You can head over HERE if you’d like, scroll down a little bit, and click on “Sweet Solitude” to get a sneak peak at what’s around the corner.
What else is new? I keep feeling a strange urge to start an Instagram as an excuse to motivate myself to take more pictures, and to have a place to put some of the images I can’t share here unless I want to turn this into a glorified photoblog. The trouble is, Instagram is owned by Facebook, Facebook has some pretty troubling ideas about who owns your intellectual property, and it can lead to people like this giant dildo who calls himself an “artist” profiting off of your work without permission or ascription.
As I’ve said a few times before, this blog began as a half-assed stab at bullying myself back into being productive after falling into a shiftless state. If you dig into the archives, you can trace my progress from not knowing what to work on and settling for recording the occasional stripped-to-the-bone tiny song, to starting to regain some momentum, to finally kicking open the floodgates and recording eight very long full-length albums inside of three years before drifting into another less fruitful period.
CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was the beginning of that whole creative resurgence. I knew it was an important album for me when I was making it. I knew I was proud of it when it was finished. I didn’t expect more than two or three other people in the world would have any interest in listening to it.
For years I tried to get gigs, tried to network and exchange music with other artists, tried to make friends, tried to play the game — everything you’re “supposed” to do, and everything I don’t do now. No one would give me a show. With a few fleeting exceptions, no one would talk to me. No one was willing to take the time to listen to my music to work out whether or not they even thought it was any good.
I didn’t know the right people. I wasn’t considered cool enough to be worthy of a seat at the table. It was made very clear to me, in a myriad of ways, that I wasn’t wanted.
One guy started telling me he was going to make it his mission to get me signed to a record label. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but it was a nice feeling to have a fan who claimed to have some industry connections and seemed willing to try and help me out. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him so we could talk about putting a game plan together.
The number he gave me was out of service. All he ever did for me was blow a bunch of hot air in my face.
That’s a good example of the sort of thing networking got me in those days.
I was able to get a show early in 2005. The bassist in the band that opened for me was one of the many people I tried and failed to connect with when no one was interested in anything I had to say. Now the landscape was a little different and he tried to paint himself as an ally who’d been in my corner all along. He said he would get me some more gigs around the city, helping to find bills I would make some amount of musical sense on. He was my new best friend right up until the moment I started playing my set.
I opened with an instrumental ambient electric guitar piece. He stood stock-still and glared at me. Maybe he didn’t think I was supposed to be able to get up on a stage and make that kind of atmospheric racket on a guitar with no amp and no effects outside of a cheap, obsolete-even-then Digitech GSP-21. Maybe he wasn’t expecting me to be any good and it bothered him that I wasn’t embarrassing myself, robbing him of an opportunity to pat himself on the back and say, “See? This is why no one would give you the time of day or listen to your music. I knew it all along.”
I’m not sure what his deal was. But he stood there and stared at me for a while with contempt sucking the warmth out of his face. Then he walked out before I was finished my first song. He didn’t come back.
He didn’t help me get any gigs. He never talked to me again.
It wasn’t like I was the talk of the town or anything. But now that some people who were considered cool decided I was good enough to pay attention to after all, the general attitude of the city’s music scene seemed to shift from, “Fuck off, freak,” to, “You’re okay, I guess. Come on in and hang out with us if you want.” Almost everyone I came in contact with was all talk. When it came time to turn thought into action, they would never show up so we could do anything together, or else they would stop talking to me after a while with no explanation, and then they would never acknowledge me again.
That put a pretty bad taste in my mouth. I washed it down by not playing any more shows and shoving myself off the face of the earth, killing whatever small-scale hype there was before it had a chance to hit puberty. The way I looked at it, if I wasn’t good enough before, no way was I good enough now that a few of the cool kids wanted to hang out with me. They didn’t get to have it both ways. And I’ve always had contempt for people who let their mouths write cheques their asses can’t cash.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t develop a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the whole thing. But I think it was justified. And sometimes you don’t have any popcorn to munch on when you’re watching a movie. A random chip or two can be useful in a situation like that.
I got on with trying to make the best and most honest music I could, keeping it to myself for the most part. I did manage to make a handful of friends through music, but they were few and far between. That was fine with me. I was content to hang out in the shadows, away from all the empty talk and double-dealing.
By the time CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN came along, I was a few years removed from that one post-high school live show. I tried doing the sideman thing for a while, backing up a few friends at Phog or the Room or the FM Lounge when they asked me to. That was as far as it went. Playing my own songs live wasn’t a consideration anymore.
I was excited to share this album with some friends and a few people at CJAM, but I didn’t expect anyone to like it much. As happy as I was with it, and as much as I felt like it marked something of a creative rebirth for me, it was pretty freewheeling stuff even by my standards, with a lot of very short songs and some pretty bizarre subject matter.
I gave a few copies to Liam at Dr. Disc and Tom at Phog and said, “I don’t think anyone will be interested in this. But if anyone wants a CD, they’re free for whoever wants to take them.”
A week or two later, I took a look at the CJAM website. My album was at #2 on the “general” chart and #1 on the folk/roots/blues chart. I did a mental double-take. I wasn’t listening to the radio at all at the time. I wasn’t expecting this music to get any airplay. I started digging into the MP3 archives and heard one DJ after another playing CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN songs and talking about the album with what sounded like real excitement.
A lot of people said some very kind things, but the most surprising and meaningful on-air moment I was privy to was this one.
The quality is pretty fuzzy. Something strange was going on with the MP3 archives in the late summer of 2008, and for a while anything you downloaded from the site was pitched down about half an octave and swimming with white noise.
(Side note: this was how I first heard the David Gray song “Knowhere”. To this day I can’t listen to it at its intended speed. It doesn’t sound right to me if it isn’t slowed down.)
I was able to restore this bit to the proper pitch and speed, but too much clarity got lost when I tried to remove the noise. So it’s very lo-fi.
Angela was one of the first people at CJAM to really champion my music. She got the music director to take notice and move my albums over to the on-air library for the first time so they were eligible to chart. She was the main reason I got that show back in 2005. Unlike the aforementioned Mr. Hot Air, she even solicited some record labels on my behalf in an effort to get them to acknowledge me.
We’re not friends anymore. It’s complicated. But there’s a part of me that will always love her for what she said about me on her show ten years ago when this album was new. The first time I listened, it made me feel like crying.
I got a call from Liam not long after that. “The album is awesome,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to sell it? All the copies you gave me are gone. Everyone who hears it wants one.”
I had to start giving Liam and Tom small boxes to hold free copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. I couldn’t seem to keep them stocked longer than a week at a time. The attention my music stirred up back in 2004 and 2005 for a short spell was nothing compared to this. I got blog comments and emails from people in different countries asking how they could get a copy of the album. And with an almost rabid enthusiasm, I was hurled into a music scene that had once treated me like a leper.
The strangeness of it all is difficult to put into words now.
My twenty or thirty minutes of local fame/infamy aren’t worth getting into in any great detail. A lot of that story is already preserved here in old blog posts. I made friends — some of whom later revealed themselves not to be friends at all — and enemies, had some interesting adventures, watched as the whole free public distribution thing stirred up all kinds of mixed reactions, became the subject of some pretty outlandish speculation, and came to understand this wasn’t a world I wanted any part of.
Once I got what I thought I wanted, I saw it wasn’t at all what I built it up to be in my head. I consider my time spent as a semi-present member of this city’s music scene to be a worthwhile experiment, but after a while the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze anymore. There was too much pulp for my taste. So I backed away and scaled things down until I was pretty much back where I started. The group of people who had some genuine interest in what I was doing was a little larger than before, but otherwise I was still chiseling away at random rock formations from the comfort of my cave.
Without CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, whatever’s left of that audience today probably wouldn’t exist. It remains the album I’ve made with the most reach and the largest, most diverse fan base. It’s also one of my own personal favourites when I look at all the work I’ve done. For all the weirdness I thought people would find off-putting, the songs still stand up and feel like some of the best I’ve written — especially in their remastered form, without the digital clipping some of them were marred by the first time around.
Not long ago, Ron Leary’s album theroadinbetween turned ten years old. He played a handful of live shows that featured the whole album performed front to back. My “breakthrough” album hasn’t had anything close to the impact his debut full-length did, and it hasn’t reached half as many ears over the years, but I got to thinking it might be worthwhile to try doing something similar. After all, you don’t often get the chance to mark meaningful musical milestones like this.
I could try putting a band together to play the whole album. That would be kind of crazy, teaching a group of people more than thirty songs. I could go it alone. That would be almost as crazy, and it might be a little less interesting for an audience to listen to so many songs with a more limited palette of sounds to support them. I did sit down one afternoon to try playing a bunch of the songs at the piano as an experiment. It opened them up in an interesting way and gave me a new appreciation for some of them.
But I’ve also been stewing on an idea to put on a big show at Mackenzie Hall when YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished with as many of the people who’ve contributed to that album as I can get on board. I feel like I’ve got one big show left in me, and that’s it.
As appealing as a ten-year anniversary CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN extravaganza is in theory, between trying to finish two different albums and some other business that hasn’t yet been written about here, I think the timing isn’t quite right. Don’t be too surprised if there’s a show sometime next year, though. If it’s the last thing I do in a live setting with my own music — and it might be — I’m going out with a bang.
Ron’s album is officially finished. The final mixes and master have been approved. Brand new dances have been invented and danced with gusto. Now it’s just a matter of Ron taking care of the packaging and duplication side of things. I can’t give you an exact release date, but my hope is that it sneaks out into the world before the end of the year.
It was strange coming to terms with it all being over. I don’t think this sort of thing used to register at all, but these days a lot more time, thought, and effort is involved in making an album for me, whether it’s my music I’m recording or someone else’s. There’s almost always some sort of emotional investment that happens along the way, and when the album is finished it feels like the end of a relationship. In a way I guess it is. Sometimes you get to play some of the songs live and have a nostalgic roll in the hay after the fact. Most of the time you just move on to the next one.
Now I find myself with nothing but my own music to focus on, for the first time in four or five years. When I channelled all of my energy into finishing Ron’s album, I got pretty ruthless about it. It was good to be reminded how efficient I can be when I’m dialled in and working toward a well-defined goal.
With that album complete, I’ve done my best to take the energy I tapped into near the end and redirect it into my own music. So far, so good. As before, I’m working on finishing that Papa Ghostface album first, so I can then focus on that other big thing without any distractions. Right now there are twenty-two keeper tracks. Whether or not they all end being kept is a matter for time to decide. Six of them have mixes that feel good enough to be left alone. Eight only need a small amount of work — either a better mix or a few final touches. Another eight need some serious surgery.
I’d say things are moving along pretty well. If I can manage to get at least one song somewhere near the final mix stage every day or two, I’ll be in good shape.
You’re probably wondering who’s playing trumpet in that picture up there at the top of the post. That would be Austin Di Pietro. He was over here last week scattering magical music dust all over the place.
I’ve had pretty rotten luck with horn players throughout this whole YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK adventure. For every Anthony Giglio and Michael Stone — great guys who played some great flugelhorn and trombone, respectively, on songs you’ll hopefully get to hear soon — there have been something like a dozen trumpet players who have either ignored every effort I’ve made to start a dialogue with them or expressed an interest in playing on something only to turn around and stop acknowledging me for no apparent reason.
You don’t want to know how many musicians in general have done that to me. It’s getting a little scary. I’ve learned a lot through this whole lumpy process. Some of it’s been about me and how I’m a more capable and adaptable producer than I thought I was (yay for me!). A lot of it’s been about our city’s music scene. It isn’t quite as inclusive as it wants you to believe it is. There are some very talented people in Windsor’s artistic community who also happen to be open-minded and generous with their time. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with several of them. There are also some self-important douche canoes who have no interest in interacting with anyone outside of their established circle of collaborators and hangers-on. And some people mean well but are just giant flakes.
To that end, I was in touch with a trumpet player who seemed enthusiastic about doing something right up until the moment I figured out what I wanted him to play on. I sent him a rough mix of the song and never heard from him again. Austin ended up taking that person’s place and playing on a second song as well.
I have Amanda Hanson to thank for this. She was another horn player I talked to, and when I finally got around to sending her a message with a few songs I wanted to run by her, instead of ignoring me she levelled with me and said her improv chops weren’t where she wanted them to be. She was concerned she wouldn’t be able to give me what I was after. She did know a few people she could recommend to take her place. At the top of her list was Austin.
One thing I’ve discovered about myself while working with so many different singers and musicians over the last few years: I can usually coax a good performance out of someone if they need some coaxing, regardless of their skill or comfort level. And that’s rewarding work. But when you get someone in the studio who’s such a good musician they don’t need any significant direction and you can just stand back and let them do their thing…those are fun moments.
Austin is one of those people. The first song he played on was a laid-back bossa nova-inspired thing. We got a few takes down with him playing trumpet, and I would have been happy to live with one of them, but then he switched to flugelhorn and nailed it in a single take. Something about the mellower tone of that horn and the way he played it felt like it completed the song. As usual, I stuck the trusty old Pearlman TM-1 in the middle of the room, put it in omni, and all was well in the world.
To mix things up, I asked Austin to play on a twisted spoken word piece that lived on a different planet from the bossa nova tune. For the first song I had a written melody (or “head”, if you like), and then there was room for a bit of improv. Here there was nothing mapped out at all. It was wide open for him to do anything he wanted. I ran his trumpet through my old Digitech guitar effects processor friend, using my favourite ambient effect. Instead of being put off by the weirdness of all the cascading delays smearing the sound of his horn, he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to go a little crazy, using the effect to build up dissonant chord clusters. Again, it was just what the song needed.
I grabbed some video footage while he was here, but I don’t want to give too many more surprises away before these albums are done, so I think I’ll sit on that for now. Good things are coming, though. Believe you me.