When the wonder washes out.

The microphone cables I use for the AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic have a habit of contorting themselves into unusual shapes. More than once they’ve formed themselves into a heart. This most recent shape looked to me like a cross between a treble clef and an ampersand, so I took a picture of it.

What can it mean?

I couldn’t say. But I’ve been slacking again with blog updates. Here’s an attempt at shaking off some of the cobwebs.

One of the things I’ve been working on over the last little while is a posthumous compilation of Papa Ghostface out-takes. There were some good things that didn’t make it onto STEW or WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD for one reason or another. I thought I should give those things a home. As much as FLOOD still feels like the best ending there could have been to the Papa Ghostface story, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a bit of unfinished business to take care of.

When I started sifting through the pile of finished and half-finished songs, I realized a lot of things just weren’t worthy of any kind of release. No amount of kicking those songs around was going to make them album material. Instead of being defeated by that, I saw it as an opportunity to shift the focus, dig a little deeper, and reach back farther. It changed the whole shape of the album.

The best of the late-period misfits are still going to be there, but now they’re going to have a lot of company. Instead of just a collection of out-takes, this thing is going to be a love letter to Papa Ghostface, taking in everything from the very first songs Gord and I ever recorded together on cassette tape in 1998 to songs I recorded on my own last week.

One of the most interesting things about putting all of this together has been revisiting songs I wrote more than twenty years ago. There were a few songs I always really liked, but I felt like the recordings we made as teenagers didn’t do them justice. I thought it might be worthwhile to take another crack at them. It’s been a little like having a conversation with a previous version of myself and discovering we’ve got more common ground than I thought we would.

This isn’t one of those songs, though. This one got its start in March of 2017. I asked Gord to bring his classical guitar over for one recording session. The idea was for both of us to play classical guitar at the same time, just to see if anything came out of it. I came up with some melodic ideas, he started shadowing what I was doing, and I hit the record button. I stuck a Pearlman TM-LE in front of my guitar, a TM-250 in front of his, and then we did the same thing a second time. That was my go-to tactic for recording acoustic guitar tracks with Gord. It always felt like there was just the right amount of air in the sound after we double-tracked a live performance, and just the right amount of bleed.

He recorded some bass. And that was it for a while. By the time I came back to the song to see what I could do with it, it was August of 2018 and my relationship with Gord didn’t exist anymore.

I wrote some lyrics. It was an interesting challenge, because I had to bend the words to accommodate the music. I couldn’t shift anything around to make room for an extra line or two. The second verse was longer than the first, and a hook that sounded like it might become a chorus only appeared once. The song title came from an expression that was born during the Spanish Civil War. A fifth column is “any group of people who undermine a larger group from within”. I swear I wasn’t thinking of Gord shutting me down in my own band when I chose that title. I just liked the sound of the words.

The song was a contender for WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD, so I picked away at it a little when I was working on finishing and shaping the album. I recorded some harmonies and a rough scratch vocal. It felt a little uninspired, so I abandoned it.

It took me until last fall to give it another look. I was able to capture a vocal performance I felt good about. I recorded new harmonies and added a new bass track. Gord had a habit of showing off sometimes when he played bass, injecting busy countermelodies where they weren’t always welcome. In this case, some of the things he played didn’t suit the song at all. I added some shaker.

And then I wasn’t sure where to go with the arrangement. I let it sit for another five or six months.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was about time I finished the thing. I recorded drums, electric guitar, trumpet, and a few more vocal tracks. But what really glued everything together was the piano. I thought I’d improvise just to see what would happen. Maybe I’d get a few little bits I could use. I ended up keeping the whole take. Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy sitting down at the piano and floating on top of a song without working out what I want to do beforehand.

The part of the song I struggled with the most was the long instrumental section at the end. I did this little vocal chant over that part. I liked it well enough. But once I got rid of that and let the piano take the lead, everything felt like it opened up. I even got rid of most of the drunken elephant sounds I layered over that part with the trumpet so those atonal anti-harmonies wouldn’t kick against what the piano was doing.

All told, it took four years for this song to find itself. In that time, I went from thinking it was little more than a middling cast-off to liking it quite a bit. It’s fun when songs surprise you that way. Now I think it could have fit onto WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD without much trouble at all.

Fifth Column

There’s a lot of work left to do. It might be a double CD by the time I’m done. But I’m looking forward to pulling all the disparate threads together. I’m calling the album FLARES AND SIGNAL FIRES. I can’t really tell you why. It’s a title that grabbed me, and it felt like it summed up a lot of what I feel about this music.

I asked Amanda Brierty to make the cover art. This is what she came up with:

There’s also this variation on the theme, with a darker colour palette that creates a more apocalyptic atmosphere:

I love how both images look like they’re made out of a fabric you could reach out and touch if you wanted to. There’s something really unique and tactile about Amanda’s art.

There are even more “remixes” — she gave me a lot of options — but these are the two that jump out at me. I’m going to use them both, but I’m having a hard time deciding on which one to put on the cover. Day or night? I think it’s going to come down to how light or dark the album feels when all the sprigs and sprockets are in place.

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