Month: October 2019

Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the veal.

I spent a memorable chunk of the summer of 1996 reading Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison, by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. I started reading that biography in a movie theatre before the coming attractions. I still had my nose in it during a weekend spent in Toronto with Johnny Smith. I was mesmerized by the train-wreck that was Jim’s life.

I remember confusing a fancy packet of blue hotel room liquid soap with hair gel that weekend. I massaged some of it into my hair and watched it start to froth. Then I wiped the foam away and used enough of my own gel in its place to fashion a small animal into a weapon.

There was a homeless girl sitting outside the lip of a store that afternoon or the next. I can still see her face and her hooded sweatshirt. In a small, frightened-sounding voice, she asked a few people if they had any spare change. No one looked at her. They just kept walking.

I think I had some vague notion of what a homeless person was, but the reality of homelessness didn’t hit me until that moment. I was twelve years old, going on thirteen. This girl didn’t look any older than me. It shook me up a little.

I wish I could tell you I sat down and had a conversation with her, if only to offer a moment of human connection and let her know someone saw her. I didn’t have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had anything to say that would help her anyway. I was just a kid. What did I know about anything?

I still think about her every once in a while. I wonder what her name was, if she ran away because things were bad at home, if she found a safe place to stay.

All these years later, I thought I’d dust off Break on Through and skim it a little to see how it’s held up. It might still be the definitive Jim Morrison biography. There isn’t as much of the hero worship some of the other books about Jim get bogged down in, and I think this was the first published piece of writing to reveal how he really died. He didn’t have a heart attack in the bathtub at the age of twenty-seven. He got into his girlfriend’s heroin stash and overdosed.

The other day I was reading about the last months of Jim’s life. He thought he might be able to sort himself out in Paris, but he couldn’t stop drinking, and while he never stopped writing poetry, he felt he’d hit a creative wall he couldn’t scale or chisel his way through.

I read this (not Jim’s words, but James and Jerry’s):

“…being an artist for the long haul means more than harnessing sudden and terrible inspirations. It means being able to study and grow in one’s character as well as one’s art. It means overcoming toil and trouble and mastering that enemy of all creative forces — doubt. In the end, the race doesn’t belong to the swift, but to the one who has the tenacity and the belief in himself or in something greater in order to hang in there the longest. When you come right down to it, it’s much easier to be a genius at twenty-two than it is to sustain it at forty-two — or even twenty-seven.”

And it went through me like a bullet.

I have no memory of reading those words twenty-three years ago. I’m sure I read them. I’m just as sure they meant nothing to me at the time. Today they couldn’t be more pertinent.

Reading that passage helped me to see how I’ve been looking at this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing the wrong way. I’ve been working on finishing this album more out of a sense of duty than anything when that isn’t the way I operate. Even the most miserable music I’ve made has always been driven by a deep-seated need to express something — not an attitude of, “Well, I guess I need to finish this stuff so I can forget about it and move on to something else.”

I’ve been calling the experience of making the album “one of the great artistic adventures of my life”. I still feel that way, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also a difficult, somewhat soul-destroying experience on a personal level. Finishing it on my own after spending years chasing a lot of my musical guests in order to get them over here has become a more emotionally complicated process after a number of those guests caused the collapse of an event I put an incredible amount of time, thought, and work into constructing.

For the most part I’ve been able to separate my feelings of disappointment from the music. I haven’t gone around erasing the contributions of everyone who let me down. It helps that none of these people contributed to the actual writing of any of the songs they appear on. In many cases I wrote their parts for them and they brought none of their own musical ideas to the table. I’m able to look at them less as human beings who failed me when I was counting on them and more as tools I used to bring my creative vision to life.

I’ve been picking away at this album for more than five years now. I was getting a lot of unanticipated work recording other people for a while there, and it took time away from my own music. It took me years to get some musicians to commit to showing up, and I had a very hard time finding people to fill certain instrumental and vocal roles. Many people ignored me or led me on only to jump ship at the last possible second. I lost huge chunks of recording time thanks to unnecessary construction work that dragged on forever (it didn’t help that the people doing the work were lazy and borderline incompetent) and thoughtless neighbours. I tried to commission a number of filmmakers to make me some sort of artistic music video. I wasn’t a high-profile enough artist for any of them to even consider working with me.

All of this is true. There’s been a lot of unpleasant shit to deal with. But instead of looking at the different ways I’ve managed to absorb it, repurpose it, and transcend it, I’ve been fixated on the stink.

Yes, the album has been half a decade in the making. That’s an eternity for me. But one of the benefits of a long-range process like this is the amount of time everything is given to settle into itself. These songs represent the absolute best work I felt I was capable of doing during this specific period of time. Some of my favourite songs have been written pretty late in the game. They wouldn’t be on the album if I’d finished it a few years earlier, and I think it would be a weaker collection without them.

Yes, it’s been an immense amount of work, between writing, arranging, producing, recording, mixing, and mastering all the songs, curating the supporting cast, writing parts for other musicians or setting up structured frameworks for them to improvise inside of, playing all of the instruments myself on most of the songs, and finding a way to fit some pretty textured arrangements onto the sixteen tracks available on my mixer. But I’ve learned a lot about myself as a producer along the way and stretched myself in ways I never thought I could.

Yes, a staggering amount of people have flaked out on me, lied to me, or rejected me in one way or another. Even some of the people who did show up forced me to pursue them with a determination that bordered on insanity. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that musicians tend to be a pretty flaky bunch. I learned “flaky” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Some of them were a nightmare to deal with. I know that’s not a very diplomatic thing to say, but I’ve never bullshitted here, and I’m not about to start now.

And yet…I got all of these people to sing and play on a Johnny West album:

That’s a substantial accomplishment any way you look at it. Especially for a supposed “enigmatic recluse” like me.

My goal was to cobble together a cast of thirty players and singers. I got as far as twenty-nine. So close. Then I kicked a few folks off the album for being douchebags, bringing the final tally down to twenty-six (twenty-seven if you count me). Even here there’s a silver lining, somehow: I got rid of a song that wasn’t really album material, and another song was made stronger by my own voice replacing a guest’s somewhat listless performance.

I got more than a dozen visual artists to contribute to the lyric booklet, though a few pieces didn’t make the final cut. And I’ve been able to grab a lot of great video footage of the music being created and craft some pretty neat DIY music videos all on my own.

Almost everyone declined my offer of payment, making it clear they were happy just to be a part of the album. I’ll always be grateful for that. One person bucked the trend, though, and he was happy to empty my pockets. All of my post-production costs combined won’t begin to approach the amount of money I had to pay him.

He’s a great musician. I’m happy with the performances he gave me. But I had to fight with myself not to remove them from the album out of spite once I found out he was only in it for the money. This is someone who wouldn’t even speak to me unless he was sure the conversation would lead to another payday. Someone like that has no business being a part of my music.

I guess I can chalk it up to a learning experience. I thought I was making a lot of new friends along the way. I came to find out in a pretty brutal way that I was wrong. I feel like this is a lesson I keep learning over and over again. It’s getting a little old now. I did build a few new friendships that have endured past the honeymoon stage, but I don’t ever want to go through anything like this again. I’ve spent most of my life reaching out. My arms are tired. In the future, if someone wants to work with me they can do the reaching. I’m not a difficult person to find, and I’m through with chasing people. There are more enjoyable ways of getting exercise.

There’s a part of me that would be glad to have those five years back so I could pump out a bunch of pure solo albums in the place of this one, trading all the string and horn parts and guest vocalists for a little less grey in my hair and a better opinion of people. I’m proud of these songs and the performances I’ve captured, and I’ve put everything I have into making this album the strongest musical statement it can be, but in some ways I’ve had to gut it out through stubbornness and determination.

To wit: I have a ninety-eight-page Word document cataloguing all one hundred and one singers and musicians, all forty-five visual artists, and all seventeen filmmakers I tried to involve in one way or another. It’s quite the saga.

I’d like to say I’m able to take the long view and appreciate the ride in spite of all the turbulence. I’m not sure how true that is right now, but I think I’ll get there. I’m working on it.

Sample and hold.

My interest in sampling should have started with the Casio SK-10 I had as a kid. Here I had the ability to record and warp short bursts of any sound I could think of, and the best idea I could come up with was getting the built-in demonstration songs to play symphonies of armpit farts. I sampled the TV a few times, but that was as creative as I got.

In the mid-2000s I heard a Bjork song in a restaurant. I think it was right before I really got into her music. I’ve never been able to figure out which song it was, but I remember there was this sound swimming through the whole thing — something like a field of wind chimes being upended by a swarm of locusts.

“Sampling!” I thought. “Yes! I must get a sampler! I must make sounds like this! No more farting with my arms! I’m a grownup now!”

I could have had a lot of fun with the SK-10 right about then, but it was collecting dust in a house full of people I never wanted to see again. So much for an emotional, armpit fart-free reunion.

The Roland V-Synth looked like an attractive option for a while. Then I discovered I already had a synthesizer with sampling capabilities — a Korg Triton LE. For a fraction of the cost of a V-Synth I could get an EXB-SMPL sampling board, slip it into the guts of the Triton, and go nuts.

I can’t remember if the sampling board came with instructions. If it did, they weren’t very helpful. Johnny Smith helped me wedge the thing inside of the Triton, but we had no idea what we were doing. We couldn’t get it to work. One of the high A# keys stopped functioning not long after that, and I’ve always wondered if it had anything to do with my little sampling misadventure.

A few days ago we opened the Triton up for the first time in close to fifteen years. I thought it was about time I got some use out of the EXB-SMPL. Thanks to a helpful YouTube tutorial, it wasn’t going to be so difficult to set up this time.

What we found was…well, this:

What you see there is an empty space where the sampling card is supposed to be. We must have taken it out when it didn’t work and chucked it back in the box. I guess that high A# stopped working all on its own.

Maybe I was never meant to sample anything with this synth. The way it worked out, I found other solutions.

In early 2014, a few months before work began on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I bought a circuit-bent Casio SK-1 off of eBay. An unbent Yamaha VSS-30 followed a little while later. For the last five years, I’ve been having a blast sampling all kinds of things. As great as the SK-1 is — and most of the time I’m not even engaging the bends — it’s the VSS-30 that’s become an indispensable sonic weapon. From here on out, I can’t imagine making an album that doesn’t feature it in a pretty integral role.

There’s one specific sound that’s always appealed to me. It’s what happens when a human voice gets chopped up and bent out of shape. You hear a lot of this in different strains of electronica-driven modern pop music.

A few examples:

That’s right. I just posted a song featuring Justin Bieber, and not in an ironic way. Be afraid. The high-pitched distorted synthesizer-sounding thing you hear during the instrumental choruses is the Biebernator’s voice, believe it or not. That’s what sampling and mangling can do.

Now, if I had access to something like this, I would be in heaven:

Disembodied voices, all primed and ready to be manipulated? Sign me up.

Alas, I don’t use a computer to record, so software like this isn’t an option for me. If I want to get sounds that live in that world, I have to create them myself.

(I know I said I was done sharing excerpts from the SLEEPWALK documentary thing. I lied. Jesus, look at all that grey hair.)

I’m loving the Zoom H1 for voice-capturing purposes when I’m recording video and my face needs to be on the screen. It’s easy to put on a mini-stand and point in my general direction, allowing me to speak freely regardless of where the camera is. Whenever I was using one of the Flip cameras, I always had to try and get my face as close as possible to the camera if I wanted to get something resembling clean, present sound out of the built-in microphone. Now it’s not an issue. Even when I point the H1 at the monitors so the playback takes precedence over my voice, what I’m saying still comes through loud and clear.

Compare the above video to something like this and I think you’ll hear what I mean. You might notice a bit of a difference in the visual quality as well. Three cheers for the Canon T5i (and for opening the blinds to let in some natural light).

Sort of related, a little bit, maybe:

For years I had this itch in the back of my brain. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what would happen if someone else produced/recorded my music. I was pretty sure I would try handing the reigns over to someone else someday, if only for a song or a quick EP, so I could satisfy that curiosity.

It’s not something I wonder about anymore.

For better or worse, I’ve developed a recording aesthetic that’s very specific to me and what I do. By now it’s as much a part of my music as my voice or the way I play piano. Strip that away, put someone else in charge of dialling in the sounds they believe are appropriate and keeping the performances they like best, and I don’t think the results would sound a whole lot like me anymore.

Very few of the sounds coming out of professional recording studios right now do anything to move or inspire me. That’s just my own personal taste. The few producers I would have an interest in working with are nowhere near Windsor, and they charge such a disgusting amount of money for their services, I’d maybe be able to afford five seconds of studio time with them. Even if I won the lottery, after all the time and work and money that’s gone into building my studio into what it is today, it would make no sense to pay someone else to bark orders at me and spend two hours getting a drum sound they’re only going to obliterate later on with samples they bought in a bundle from Waves Audio.

I want to make it clear that I’m not dumping on this way of working. I’m only saying it isn’t what I’m after as a producer. I think any way of working is valid if it gets you the results you’re after.

Earlier this year, Ryan Lewis (owner/operator of RadSouls Studio) came over to record some piano and vocal tracks. When he told me to do whatever I wanted with the basic tracks, I saw it as a unique opportunity to compare my work to another producer’s. Though the song wasn’t my own, this was the closest I was ever likely to get to hearing what someone else would do with my music. We both started with the same source material and took it in very different directions.

Here’s Ryan’s mix:

Luna (Ryan Lewis mix)

And here’s mine:

Luna (JW mix)

As dissimilar as our mixes are in terms of instrumentation and arrangement, what really stands out to me is the use of compression. In my mix the piano is allowed to breathe in a natural way and the snapping is treated as just another sound. In Ryan’s mix the snapping is emphasized, the piano is pumped up with a ton of compression, and everything is a lot louder.

I’m not sure I could come up with a much better demonstration of what I mean when I say my sensibilities are almost violently out-of-sync with what most other producers seem to want to achieve. It’s right there in black and white.

Here’s a bit of a breakdown of some of the elements I added to my take on the song, showcasing some of what the VSS-30 can do when you take the time to create your own samples.

Steel, you turn me on.

A few years ago, I wrote a bit about this song that came from a dream.

If you don’t feel like backtracking to read that post, here’s the original GarageBand demo I recorded when I was still half-asleep, all the way back in March of 2014.

Several Repetitions of a Name You’ve Heard Before (demo)

Ever since I acquired the ability to record overdubs twenty years ago, I’ve always enjoyed layering vocal harmonies. It’s come to feel like a pretty personal thing. Even with all the vocalists I’ve managed to involve in YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, most of their work has been limited to singing lead parts or contributing to group vocals.

I did try to get other people to sing harmony on a handful of songs, just to see what would happen. Only two of those people bothered to show up. One of them was Kaitlyn Kelly, who made time for me when she was in town for the holidays a few years ago and did some beautiful singing on a song that’s going on the album. The other was Leanna, who also sang a lead part on one of the “musical dialogues” I wrote.

The first session with Leanna was great. She came in and sang that part like she owned it. She said the song brought something special out of her. The second session was…not so great.

Five times we made plans. Five times she stood me up. The sixth time she managed to make it here. I was still doing my musical barter thing at the time. I offered to record a song of hers to thank her for singing on one of mine. She brought along her then-boyfriend, who I’ll call Chocolate Bar (his stage name is something pretty close to that), and an additional guitarist I wasn’t told was coming.

We attacked the harmony part on my song first. It was slow going. She hadn’t bothered to learn the song and didn’t seem to be nearly as into it as she was the first time. We recorded it piecemeal. I would sing her a line. She would sing it back until it was good enough to move on to the next line. After about an hour we were done.

The second guitarist asked to use the bathroom. After waiting a few minutes and not hearing a flush, I took a look to see if he was dropping off some kids or something. He never set foot in the bathroom. He was hiding around the corner, taking pictures of my gear with his phone.

If you’re over here working with me and you ask to take a picture of yourself singing into a microphone, playing an instrument, or giving me bunny ears, I have no problem with that. But to lie about having to take a piss so you can catalogue my equipment without my permission…that’s some sketchy shit. It makes me think you’re casing the place so you can decide whether or not it’s worth your while to try and break in at a later date.

Johnny Smith happened to be here when this was happening. When he saw what I saw, he told the budding photographer he could delete those pictures from his phone and sit where we could see him, or he could get the hell out of the house. He did as he was told, but he seemed to find the whole thing funny.

I recorded a song Leanna and Chocolate Bar took turns singing lead on. I let Chocolate Bar play my 1951 Gibson LG-2. He hammered on the guitar like he was trying to break all the strings. It was his passive-aggressive way of shoving a middle finger in my face.

I never mixed that song.

Leanna later apologized for what happened. As for Chocolate Bar, not too long after that he had a short-lived stint as a cashier at Remark Farms. One day he had to check us out and bag our groceries. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone look more uncomfortable. Funny how people who have no problem disrespecting you in private turn into cowards when you see them in a public place. I’ve seen it happen a number of times now. All their arrogance vanishes, they try to avoid making eye contact, and they look like they want to run away.

I enjoy those moments.

A year or so ago, Chocolate Bar sent me a Facebook friend request. I ignored it. I mean, are you kidding me?

Anyway. I had a lot of trouble working out the arrangement for my own song. I couldn’t quite duplicate what I liked about the demo’s piano part. I tried some soft brushed snare, Wurlitzer, and lap steel with a backwards delay effect. None of it felt right.

In late 2016 I took another crack at it. I got rid of everything aside from my acoustic guitar and the vocal tracks, added a bit of third-part harmony, recorded brand new lap steel and piano tracks, and started to like it a bit more. I made a rough mix of what I’d done.

Several Repetitions of a Name You’ve Heard Before (2016 mix)

It still didn’t feel finished, but I didn’t know what else to do with it.

A few days ago I thought it would be fun to give it another look. I dumped it back on the mixer, only to discover I erased most of the tracks without thinking. My only option was to use an earlier backup. Hearing those original lap steel and Wurlitzer parts again, I found myself liking them more than I thought I would. I ditched the acoustic piano, didn’t bother to sing the third-part harmony again, recorded a new drum track, and added electric and acoustic twelve-string guitar.

All at once, it felt like the whole thing came to life.

Several Repetitions of a Name You’ve Heard Before (2019 mix)

I almost never use a high-pass filter on anything unless I’ve got a vocal track with some plosive sounds that are a little too powerful. Here I broke with that tradition. There was some irritating mud in the lap steel and Wurlitzer tracks. A little filtering did a nice job of cleaning it up.

I haven’t decided if this one’s an outtake or not. I like it well enough. I just don’t know if there’s a place for it on the album. If nothing else, it’s another example of the crappy twelve-string I inherited working its strange magic. That guitar may be a hunk of junk, but every once in a while it’s exactly what a song needs.