i’m just gonna leave this here.
i’m just gonna leave this here.
you make a thing. you decide how you feel about the thing. sometimes you know while you’re making it. sometimes it takes a while before you know. sometimes you think you know, and then your feelings shift.
i like to say it takes me a year or two before i can stand back and really see where an album fits into the bigger picture. that isn’t always so. there have been albums that felt like some of my best work when i was recording them and still feel that way today, albums i thought were shaping up to be great only to find they sounded like garbage to me not long after they were finished, and albums that felt kind of slight or sub-par at first but have grown on me over the years — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
then there’s GIFT FOR A SPIDER.
since the world didn’t end the other day, in spite of all those doomsday theorists doing their best to convince us all that this time they were right and everything was gonna go kaboomy-bye, i thought it was time to revisit that album. plus, i was doing some final level-matching tweaks as part of the remastering process and had to listen to the album from start to finish to make sure i got it right anyway.
i was never sure how i felt about this one. i was waist-deep in the making of another (still unreleased) album when the need to do something different bubbled up because i found myself with some serious butterflies in my stomach about someone when i didn’t think butterflies were something i would feel again after some of the soul-destroying romantic adventures of yore. i got all of three or four warm and fuzzy songs written before it all went to hell, and suddenly instead of making my first true album of love songs for a living, breathing human, i was making a breakup album when i didn’t think i’d ever have a reason to make one of those again.
there’s no clearer illustration of the jarring shift in tone than “nightside”, where you get to hear the change happen in the space of one three-minute song.
the words and music were written when i thought the burgeoning relationship had a great future ahead of it. i’d just finished spending the better part of a weekend with the person i was pretty sure was my new girlfriend, and it felt like i was gliding with my feet a few inches off of the floor when i walked. she really did jump sideways on the bed to get to me. it was a fun moment. the spoken addendum was improvised later, after things fell apart, trading in sunny-eyed optimism for foul-mouthed venom.
i liked the songs but couldn’t tell how well they played together as a larger piece of work. a lot of them were coming less from craftsmanship than a need for catharsis. i had such a difficult time sequencing everything in a way that felt like it made sense, i got a headache trying to suss out the order of the songs.
in all the years i’ve been making music, i can’t say any other album i’ve worked on has ever done that to me. and i’ve made double and triple CDs that have been packed with as much music as the media could handle.
when it was done, it just felt too raw to hang out with for any length of time. it wasn’t one of those cloying, maudlin breakup albums full of self-indulgent exercises in self-pity. it had sharp teeth. it had a goofy rap song and some insane slowed-down scream-coughing in-between songs of love and post-love. it was pretty eclectic, both sonically and emotionally. but it took a lot out of me, taking all the mixed feelings i had in the aftermath of that intense, ill-fated, whirlwind relationship and shaping them into songs. it isn’t a coincidence that i haven’t made a solo album since (though that’ll change soon enough).
i listened to it once or twice to make sure everything felt like it flowed okay. i played some of the songs live at the second mackenzie hall show (though not very many of them, which is pretty funny in hindsight, since that was the only proper “album release show” of my own i’ve ever played). after that, i kind of wanted to keep my distance. the last time i gave it a listen all the way through was about five years ago at kevin kavanaugh’s studio space, when i was knocked out by how good it sounded on his mega hi-fi system, even with my too-hot mastering job. those speakers of his meant serious business.
listening to the album now, it’s not so raw anymore. it’s amazing what some moisturizer and half a decade away from something can do for you. and i’ve gained enough emotional distance from what inspired the songs to realize something: i like this album.
“some things are better left buried” felt a bit like filler at the time. it doesn’t anymore, especially now that all the stupid distorted vocal peaks are gone. i really enjoy the way some of the catchiest, most uptempo music on the album is juxtaposed against some pretty morbid lyrics. i liked “a puppet playing possum” fine back then. now it’s one of my favourite songs i’ve ever written. “light sleeper” remains the bruised heart of the album for me. i can still feel the hope and uncertainty that went into that one.
part of me still wishes the last section of “different degrees of wrong” wasn’t such a tease. the segue from a rare venom-free love song into the violent lunacy of “surrender to thee” will probably always crack me up. and a fresh, saner mastering job allows me to hear that i did a pretty solid job with the recording and mixing side of things, when i wasn’t so sure at the time.
the album title was one i had kicking around for years before i knew what to do with it. at the house before this one, for a while there was a spider that spent a lot of time upstairs in my bedroom and the bathroom. i started to think of him as something close to a pet. i wondered what to get him for christmas, if he stuck around that long.
he didn’t. he came out of nowhere and bit me on the back of the leg while i was sitting on the toilet one night. i don’t like to kill any living thing if i can help it, aside from mosquitos (fuck those guys), but biting me when i’m dropping off some kids at the pool…that ain’t right.
i’m sad to say i didn’t develop any spiderman-like super powers.
there’s also the whole “partner as a spider trapping you in their web” thing i lucked into as a useful accidental metaphor for a breakup album.
finding cover art to play off of the title was always going to be tricky. but around the time of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, johnny smith hired bree gaudette for a photo shoot and she captured a bunch of evocative images out in the county. i kept coming back to a few shots of a dilapidated barn. they just happened to feature a pretty prominent spiderweb.
as much as i liked the original colour version of the picture that became the cover image (seen above), there was something about the black and white edit i couldn’t shake. something in there felt right.
there’s another accidental meaning behind the album title — something i never knew it meant until just recently.
there’s something called a nuptial gift. “food items or inedible tokens that are transferred to females by males during courtship or copulation,” trusty old wikipedia says.
it isn’t specific to insects by any means, but in certain species of spiders the male will offer the female a gift wrapped in silk as a way of enticing them to mate. as a rule, what’s being offered is prey caught by the male. if the female accepts the gift, she eats it while the male hops on and does his little sex dance.
some spiders are crafty little guys. because of their ability to wrap and obscure the gift they’re offering, the female has no way of knowing what’s inside until she removes the proverbial wrapping paper. two specific species have been known to wrap plant seeds and insect exoskeletons devoid of any edible parts. by the time the female figures out what she’s been given and realizes how useless it is, the male has already done his business.
that an insect with a brain the size of a poppy seed would think to do something so duplicitous is kind of amazing. i wish i could say i knew about this and it was in my head when i was deciding to dust off that old title for this group of songs, but i had no idea.
what’s strange about relationships as doomed and damaging as the one that fed into this album is the way the passage of time seems to dull some of the bad feelings while shining a light on the little pockets of happiness.
one unexpected bit of common ground i shared with the person a lot of these songs are about was a still-strong affection for the animated disney films we loved as kids. we watched oliver & company and the aristocats while she leaned back on me and ashed her cigarette in a coffee mug. i felt like i was five years old again, only now i was a five-year-old in a grownup body with my hands cupping someone’s breasts through the thin fabric of a thing they called a shirt.
all five-year-olds in grownup bodies should be so lucky.
the suits at disney have marketing down to a fine art. they take these classic movies everyone loves, the ones that helped shape your childhood, and they deny you access to them for years. decades, even. then they make a big show of releasing one of them on home media, letting you know it’s only going to be a limited release before the movie goes “back in the vault”.
it allows them to charge a ridiculous amount of money for something people will be glad to shell out for, given its scarcity and sentimental value. and if the movie you’re after is out of print by the time you show up, well, you can always find someone generous enough to sell you their used copy on the internet for a week’s pay.
the one she wanted most but couldn’t find was the lion king. disney had put it back in the vault. i wanted to surprise her. i found someone selling it on DVD for a pretty decent price and bought it.
with a perverse sense of timing the best fiction couldn’t invent, it showed up in my mailbox the day after we broke up. i chucked it in a dresser drawer and made myself forget about it.
six years later, i’m doing some long-overdue cleaning and reorganizing when i dig the lion king out of the bottom of its wooden tomb, still in the bubble bag that has my address written on the front. now it’s nothing but a relic from a few weeks spent trying to pry love or something like love from the mouth of indifferent animal instinct. now it’s a little bit funny.
it’s good when you get to a place where you can laugh about the things that used to sting.
the music video as an art form is far from dead. there are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. but these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.
MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. that was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. otherwise their programming now consists of 80% tyler perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.
muchmoremusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in north america — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. even bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. now their programming seems to be made up of hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.
there are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. so that’s a thing. but if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is much (or, as we used to call it, muchmusic). and if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the 80s and 90s called much retro lunch and the occasional near-naked nicki minaj.
even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. a few weeks ago much retro lunch was running for three hours every weekday. now it’s only a one-hour segment. in place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got anger management and TMZ. a one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what the wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and elton john’s falsetto. i imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.
CMT is dead too. oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. it still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. but the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “country music television” is reba mcentire’s mid-2000s sitcom reba.
when the CRTC licensed a series of new canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was the country network. this was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in canada. in the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. the canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (new country network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.
almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. that was part of the deal with the CRTC. it dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.
last year the CRTC decided CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly chevy top 20 countdown.
a week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. their official website and facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms. fridays and saturdays are twenty-four-hour everybody loves raymond marathons.
for some of us, this is what hell looks like.
maybe it’s a little strange that i would mourn the loss of this channel when i’ve never been all that into country music.
well, that’s not quite right. the truer thing to say would be that i didn’t think i was into country music until i heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — folks like johnny cash, kris kristofferson, emmylou harris, gram parsons, glen campbell, patsy cline, waylon jennings, hank williams, the louvin brothers, rodney crowell, and too many more to mention.
in some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as i’m concerned.
i can’t claim i started watching with pure intentions. the long and short of it is this: i was going through puberty, and i thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. leann rimes, faith hill, patty loveless, and beverley mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.
but here’s the thing. in the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.
bruce cockburn’s “night train” showed up more than a few mornings when i was waking up my brain before heading off to school. once in a while i’d catch springsteen’s “i’m on fire” and lennie gallant’s “meet me at the oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got). and every so often i’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.
matraca berg was one of those. her songs were huge hits for trisha yearwood and deana carter. her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. she had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. how she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.
my best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 harry nilsson and laura nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.
i will argue until my voice gives out that matraca’s “back when we were beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. i almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. it was released as the second single from her 1997 album sunday morning to saturday night. it didn’t even chart.
one of the biggest country singles that year was “how do i live”, sung by both trisha yearwood and leann rimes. trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a grammy nomination. next to “back when we were beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.
but don’t take my word for it. have a listen.
we live in a world where taylor swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics are so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.
so maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like matraca berg never became a household name. i just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.
the same applies to song interpreters. nothing against reba and trisha and faith, but dawn sears blew them all away. there was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. she could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.
chances are you’ve never heard of dawn sears even if you’re a country music fan. i rest my case.
but i digress. sort of. maybe.
in recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. but you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform wide open country program.
there at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of corb lund, lindi ortega, brandi carlile, jerry leger, and serena pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “i’m on fire” or something more recent like “devils and dust”.
there’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs i’ve written wouldn’t exist. it just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” i’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.
when i played “a well-thought-out escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by ashley kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought i was joking. i wasn’t.
for years now i’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. here’s some video of the genesis of what became “a well-thought-out escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “everything he asked you” mixed in.
i came up with this little cyclical chord progression i liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. the words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so i sang random gibberish for the most part. i had CMT on in the background while i was playing the six-string banjo. ashley kranz showed up to introduce a video while i was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so i sang her name to fill up some space.
later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well have been giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…i have no idea). and still, ashley stuck around. it would have felt wrong to get rid of her. she was there from the start, after all. instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.
(side note: i always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep ashley around longer. she had a fun personality. “endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)
i don’t know if the bits of country music i heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. it’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when i wasn’t paying attention. it’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments i lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap teisco that was the only electric guitar i used for the whole album, the earthiness of the regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.
i do know without ashley kranz on my television screen “a well-thought-out escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. i’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but i think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. so maybe it’s best to leave it be.
fare thee well, CMT. i’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but i’ll always have the memories of what you once were.
this is a takeharu WTK-65H twelve-string acoustic guitar. it was built in japan in 1977.
gord found it at value village seventeen years ago. he left it at my house not long after getting it, for at least a day or two, so i could try it out. i remember putting it in an open tuning and strumming the chords to “the ballad of el goodo” and john lennon’s version of “be my baby”, feeling the sound fill up the room. it wasn’t anything fancy as guitars go, but it had soul, and it showed up on a handful of papa ghostface and early guys with dicks songs.
if it came with a case, i don’t think gord ever used it. he left the guitar leaning against a wall wherever he was living at any given time for anyone to play. some drunk person would always pick it up and break a string.
it became a running joke: the twelve-string that never lived up to its name. sometimes it was an eleven-string. sometimes a ten-string.
for gord’s nineteenth birthday i bought him a new set of strings, and for a moment the guitar was whole again. that lasted about a week before someone got drunk and careless and broke another string.
at some point in its life it either fell or was thrown into the detroit river. i’m pretty sure it also caught some embers from a bonfire one night.
when gord brought it over a few weeks ago for a long overdue visit, he left it here for me to borrow again. i think he just couldn’t get much use out of it anymore and thought maybe i’d be able to pull something out of its dust-covered guts because of the way i play. a thumb that’s spent years dancing across fretboards might be more forgiving than the other fingers.
the pickguard was hanging on through sheer force of will, the glue or adhesive solution having lost most of its hold a long time ago. it was so sucked-in it made the whole guitar look warped. the action was so high, about all you could do was play with a slide. fretting a chord was almost impossible. when i tried, it felt like i was going to break my thumb off. the intonation up the neck was about the worst i’ve ever heard on a stringed instrument. two strings and a bridge pin were missing. there were cobwebs inside the soundhole.
there’s neglecting a guitar, and then there’s this.
i brought it to stephen chapman, because he’s the guy i bring guitars to when they need work.
“who gave you this guitar?” he asked.
“a friend,” i said.
“this is not a good friend. give it back.”
you know it’s bad when someone who can find a way to macgyver a broken pair of studio headphones back together tells you a derelict guitar is a lost cause. he lowered the action as much as he could and said that was all he could do. “don’t even try to tune it,” he told me. “you’ll just start snapping strings.”
i’m nothing if not stubborn. back at home i lowered the tuning so there’d be less stress on the neck and the messed-up bridge. i took it slow. none of the strings broke. it was pretty comfortable to play now, but one string was buzzing something awful. we raised the action back up just enough to get rid of the buzz. i found some extra bridge pins i had sitting around and replaced the one that was missing.
i have three almost-complete sets of strings for acoustic twelve-string guitars. they’re incomplete because every time i’ve broken a string on my own twelve-string, it’s always one of the high E strings that goes. it never fails. and i never feel like restringing the whole thing.
wouldn’t you know it — one of the missing strings on mr. takeharu was a high E. i had none of those left.
i improvised. i stole a high E from a spare set of strings for a six-string guitar. the gauge looked about right. it worked. then i replaced the other missing string with one that was meant to live in that place. you wouldn’t think two strings would make much difference on a guitar that’s got twelve of them, but the change was striking and immediate. the sound went from just sort of being there to filling up the room again.
johnny smith peeled off the dying pickguard and tried to scrub away the ugly scar the glue on its underside left behind. it was slow going. we decided it made more sense to get a replacement pickguard and cover up the ugliness. but it turns out hummingbird style pickguards are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. the new one i ordered was too small.
it was too bad. i liked the look of it.
i got rid of the cobwebs, rescued a blue pick with a skull on it that had been living inside the guitar for who knows how long, and we picked up some of this stuff.
that crazy tape gave the old pickguard a new lease on life.
now it’s almost unrecognizable from the mess of a guitar it was when it landed here.
somewhere along the line i realized i was in a tuning not far off from the one i used seventeen years ago when i first met this guitar. i started playing “the ballad of el goodo” again. it felt like making a full turn. then i played some other things.
on a technical level, it’s still not a great guitar. i’m not sure it ever was, even forty years ago when it was brand new. but it’s got its soul back. all it needed was a little bit of affection and double-sided tape.
the first musical instrument i was able to call my own was a casio SK-10. i had a lot of laughs playing the demonstration songs and selecting a sampled sound instead of an existing preset. my finest moment was probably warping “heigh ho” so every instrumental part was replaced by a chorus of sampled voices saying “bum hair”.
i can still hear the intro in my head:
i got some interesting sounds out of sampling the television, and “wrote” my first real song on that keyboard — little more than a C major scale played forward with one finger and backward with the other, using a clarinet sound.
when i started to get more serious about making music and needed something with more than thirty three keys, we rented larger keyboards. through the back half of 1994 there was a new one every month, thanks to johnny smith. first there was a roland EP-9. then a kawai X40-D. then a few yamahas — a PSS-190 and a YPR-20.
(you don’t even want to know what kind of detective work was involved in figuring out what the model names were for all these keyboards more than two decades after the fact when i never made a note of any of them at the time.)
the first musical instrument i ever fell in love with was that kawai X40-D.
its “super 3D” speakers put out a huge sound, and the ad-lib function allowed me to press one key and trigger a bunch of flashy runs that made me sound like a virtuoso musician. better still, there were song “styles” built in with all kinds of different quirky personalities. while i was faking flash with my right hand, one finger on my left would lead the invisible band in auto-accompaniment mode, with buttons to trigger intros, outros, and fills.
without the manual or any music theory knowledge, i didn’t know anything about getting minor or diminished chords out of the single-finger auto-accompaniment, so everything was always in a major key. most of the songs i recorded during this period have me walking one finger up the keyboard without direction, getting a little carried away with the “fill” button, and not doing a whole lot of singing.
the song titles tend to outstrip the songs themselves for creativity. a few favourites: “kiss me honey, don’t sting me”, “the underwater jellyfish (they jump more than you think)”, and “beyond modern temptation”.
the other rented keyboards didn’t have any auto-accompaniment functions. they forced me to get a little better at playing without help. at the end of the year we stopped renting and i got my very first “serious” keyboard as a christmas present — a yamaha PSR-210.
a huge part of my musical education happened with this keyboard at my side (or in front of me, resting on the dinner table). for a full year i recorded with it almost nonstop, both with and without johnny smith as my musical other half. little by little i figured out how to make music that felt like an extension of myself without relying on the instrument’s artificial intelligence to fake it for me.
early in 1996 we got a clavinova CVP-59S. the week it took to show up after it was ordered was maybe the longest week of my life. there are few things i’ve looked forward to with such all-consuming fury. i have a vivid memory of taking time out from a grade school field trip at an ice skating rink — i couldn’t stand on ice skates anyway, never mind skate — to buy some nachos. i sat, and ate those cheesy chips, and all i could think was, “clavinova. clavinova. clavinova.”
the PSR-210 was a great companion, with enough interesting sounds under the hood to let me go a lot of different places. but the clavinova felt like a huge leap forward. i couldn’t believe how much richer and more realistic the drum sounds were. the piano sounds were meaty and robust. and it just felt good to play — like a real piano, only better (or so i thought).
a few synthesizers would join the fray later. the clavinova would be my main instrument for quite a while. even when i started to gain access to dedicated “studio” spaces (aka “rooms in houses”) and picked up more instruments, it remained an important tool.
for a long time i thought, “what would i ever need a real acoustic piano for? i’ve got the clavinova. it doesn’t need any maintenance.” it was always in tune. when i wanted to record, i didn’t need to worry about mic placement. all i had to do was plug it in. and it allowed me to record on its internal memory when i had an idea i wanted to get down fast.
here’s a small piece of “the things you love (are always the first to leave)”, a good two years before it became part of the finished song that showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.
when i was working on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, the clavinova started to sound a little one-dimensional to me next to the other, more organic sounds i was recording. i worked around it by using either a wurlitzer or a fender rhodes in all the places i wanted the piano to go.
then i fell in love with a yamaha C5 grand at ouellette’s. i’d played acoustic pianos before. usually they were mediocre uprights or grands that weren’t very well cared for. this piano was different. it inspired me. it sang. for the very first time, i understood why you’d want to have the real thing around.
for about five days i was determined to own that piano, until it sunk in that it was prohibitively expensive, and there was no way we would ever be able to make room for it in this house. you’d have to climb on top of it just to get into the kitchen.
i was a little disappointed to have to shrink my dream. but i thought there had to be a vertical piano somewhere out there that would be good enough to give me at least a few gooey feelings, if not the full body orgasm i got from playing the C5.
in the late summer of 2008, operation “find a good upright instead” was set in motion. i played a whole slew of upright pianos in the store. the one i liked best was a YUS series yamaha. the price was a whole lot less insane than what the grand was going for, and it was a world away from the poorly maintained institutional uprights i was used to playing in classrooms and living rooms. the pearl river pianos were alright, but they sounded kind of cheap and tinny. this one had class.
when i told bob i was interested, he said, “can i give you some advice? wait about a week. i’ve got some new yamaha U1s coming in. that’s a nice piano, but if you like that one, you’re going to love the U1.”
i’ve never been the most patient person. when i want something, especially if it has anything to do with music, i want it last year. bob convinced me to sit tight.
that week was nothing like the the week twelve years before when i waited for my clavinova to come in. i was looking forward to trying out some pianos. i wasn’t expecting to hear anything that knocked my socks off.
when the day came, there were two U1s for me to try. i must have spent close to two hours moving from one to the other, trying to decide which one felt and sounded better. there were subtle differences. hard stuff to put into words.
the upright i was going to buy before bob told me to wait a little while was a nice piano. for not much more money, these were on another level. he was right. holding off was the right move.
after a lot of waffling, i settled on the U1 i wanted. my grandfather had just passed away, and after telling me he was writing me out of his will i was shocked to discover he either didn’t get around to making good on the threat or he’d been bluffing all along. i inherited enough to pay for that piano, almost down to the cent. it was surreal.
my U1 was delivered to the house a day or two later. somehow it sounded even better at home than it did in the wide open store. it was a game-changer for me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the first instrument i developed any kind of proficiency on. it isn’t an accident that the first album i recorded with this piano features it on sixteen of its twenty two songs.
that was the beginning of the end of my ability to play a digital piano, live or in any other setting, without feeling like too much soul was getting lost. if you grow up playing keyboards, i don’t think you can appreciate what a real piano gives you until you get the chance to play a good one. just playing a chord and holding the sustain pedal down with your foot or letting a few simple notes ring out is an almost otherworldly experience. there’s so much more living inside the sound than you could imagine. a real piano sounds alive in a way even the best digital pianos haven’t yet found a way to emulate.
nine years later, i’m still in love with this piano. it’s never felt like a compromise. as much as i lusted after that C5, my U1 has always felt like the piano i was meant to end up with. it’s added depth to my recordings that couldn’t have existed otherwise and been a great ally and songwriting tool.
ric was over here about a week ago, tuning it for the forty seventh time in its life. i snuck a picture as he was finishing up. even its guts look like art.
when i told him i still sometimes feel like i’m on my honeymoon with the piano, and it’s been fascinating to hear the tone mature over the years, ric said, “it’s at its peak. it’ll probably never sound better than it does right now.”
that got me thinking about the first song i recorded with the U1 — not the first song i wrote on it, but the first one i wrote specifically for it.
when i knew i was days away from getting my black and white beast, i wrote one last song on the clavinova so i’d have something to tackle as soon as the real deal showed up.
(i wasn’t kidding when i said i never put much thought into whether or not my face and hands were visible when i was using the camcorder to capture ideas and songs in the process of being written.)
the difference in sound when i was able to play the chords on a real piano for the first time almost knocked me over.
you know that thing i said about being impatient? i couldn’t even wait to get the piano tuned before i started recording with it. the factory tuning held up well enough that i didn’t mind a bit of drift. i propped the lid open, moved two neumann KM184s around until things sounded right, and that was it. i’ve been recording the piano the same way with the same mics ever since.
technically this was the first song recorded for AN ABSENCE OF WAY, though it didn’t end up on the album. i made at least four different mixes in rapid succession. i almost never do that. most of the time i’ll do a rough mix, take a look at what needs tweaking, do another mix or two for fine-tuning, and then move on.
in this case every mix was different. the first one had everything in it, the second had less glockenspiel, the third stripped away almost everything but piano and vocals, and the fourth featured most of the instruments minus electric guitar. none of them felt definitive. they all had elements i liked and didn’t like.
three years later i took another crack at it. i always felt the drums were a little weak, both sound-wise and performance-wise. i was expecting to mess with a lot of things, but adding a new, meatier drum track seemed to be all the song needed. i thought i was done.
about a month later, i listened again. all at once, everything sounded wrong. the drumming was too aggressive. i went back and tried it a lot of different ways. something more intricate with brushes. something more subdued with mallets. something more skeletal with sticks.
i thought about ditching the bass part and replacing it with some deep sustained organ notes. i tried recording some metallic bell-like synth sounds. i thought about ditching the triple-tracked vocals. i didn’t know what to do to get this song where it needed to be. the more i tried to change, the less sure i was of where i was supposed to go.
the thing that finally glued it all together was plugging in the alesis micron, playing some simple synth chords to shade what the piano was doing right at the point where the drums came in. i got rid of a lot of the electric guitar, threw out the drums altogether, kept the vocals and the original bass track, got rid of some wordless vocal harmonies near the end, and chopped out a little instrumental electric guitar/bass harmonics bit (i always liked it, but now it sounded a little superfluous).
after three years and far too many different mixes, at long last, the song felt just right.
it’ll probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. i’ve been picking away at that album here and there for ten years now. that’s a scary thought, but one of the benefits of taking such a long time to finish a gargantuan album is giving a song like this the time to find the clothes it wants to wear.
work continues on the next papa ghostface album, though my sleep issues and gord’s rotating work hours have slowed things down a little.
yesterday was our first session in a while. the last time we got together before this, we had plans to work on a specific song. then i started playing a random unrelated thing on an acoustic guitar, gord joined in, i started singing the lyrics for “be sorry” from SHOEBOX PARADISE, and our plans got chucked straight into the trash.
“be sorry” was one of our more accessible songs back in the day. it had a recognizable verse/chorus structure, the lyrics were pretty straightforward, and with a little more polish it might have sounded like something that could have made sense on college radio. it was also one of the songs we always liked best in our own catalogue of work.
whatever high school class i was pretending to pay attention in when i wrote the words, i had joe cocker’s version of “feelin’ alright” in my head. i thought we might do something with a similar good-time bluesy energy when it came time to set the words to music.
but songs have minds of their own, and they were trying to teach me that lesson even back then. the day i pulled out those lyrics in my little music room at the house on kildare, i started playing a descending chord progression on an electric guitar that was more indebted to “all along the watchtower” than joe cocker. gord came up with some inspired lead lines, playing through this cool little zoom pedal he had that’s sadly missing in action now, i found an appropriate drum pattern on the clavinova, and we got down to business.
i ditched a twisted bridge section mid-song because the lunacy no longer seemed to fit:
in a european convict’s mind
you don’t pay attention
blood red blush
in a rush of amputated loveless fear
you don’t pay attention
so kiss my head
my hairless head
kiss my head
or i’ll make you pay
kiss my head
kiss my head
your creation is terminated
what that randomness was supposed to mean is beyond me. i sang the first verse a second time at the end instead of trying to pancake those words into music that didn’t suit them, and then we improvised a long instrumental coda with some fun duelling guitar business.
slowing the song down and playing it in a different key seventeen years later wasn’t planned. it was just one of those happy accidents. the new music felt like it gave a little more depth to some of the simplest words i ever wrote. defiance turned to something weary and maybe a little wiser.
we got down the acoustic guitars. i added some bass. then we left it alone. i meant to record some singing and experiment with other sounds. i still haven’t done that.
when gord came over yesterday, he brought his old twelve-string with him. the idea was for both of us to play twelve-strings and see what happened. there was one problem: his axe is in rougher shape than i thought. the intonation is a mess, and the action is pretty stiff.
my own twelve-string has held up a lot better over the years. i gave it to gord, he slipped it into a tuning a little kinder to fingers that play the conventional way, and we tried adding it to this new version of “be sorry” in a few different places.
i’m not sure any of what we recorded is going to end up in the final mix when all is played and sung. still, it was nice to be reminded again that while this cheap washburn twelve-string might not be anything fancy, it sounds pretty nice when you stick a good mic in front of it. all i did here was aim a single pearlman TM-250 at the guitar and put it in omni.
i still need to mess with some video settings on the T5i and figure out how to get the best results in different lighting situations. this was shot in auto mode, with autofocus on, in a room that isn’t all that well-lit most of the time. i think the ISO got bumped up a bit to compensate. so it came out a little grainy.
but i have to say i’m enjoying this camera a lot. the autofocus seems to do a solid job of keeping the important things in focus. there’s no way i could ever shoot handheld with either of the flip cameras and get movement this smooth, either.
156 songs done. 32 to go.
smells like the homestretch to me. if i can keep tackling at least a few songs a day, in about two weeks i should be finished. then i can finally make good on some packages i’ve been meaning to send to a few people for about six million years.
by now the number of unused and alternate tracks i’ve found for these songs is getting a little crazy. there are even a few alternate mixes i don’t remember making. here’s one of those.
i knew there was a percussion track i didn’t end up using for this little electronic mood piece, because it felt like it worked better as more of an ambient thing. i didn’t realize i went to the trouble of making a mix that included the beat just in case i decided to use it, though.
i still think the right mix ended up on the album, but it’s kind of neat to hear it like this. the aphex twin influence might be a little more pronounced in this mix.
all through high school, i wrote songs for assignments every chance i got. it made life more fun and kept me on my toes. i had the most success doing this when mrs. gilham — one of the few great high school teachers i had — was teaching english or french, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.
one time i stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in french about celebrity endorsements. the song was called “les atheletes qui chante”. “je suis michael jordan,” went one bit. “j’aime les ball park franks.” another time, for a group assignment, i played the part of bill clinton. i was very attached to my pet pig, oinky, played by matt strukelj. when oinky died, i hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music i recorded at home the night before.
i liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.
in grade eleven one of the books my english class dug into was the catcher in the rye. we were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. i asked if i could write a song from the perspective of holden caulfield. mrs. gilham gave me the go-ahead.
i wrote a song called “holden on”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. it was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.
i brought my crummy vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period english class, and sang my song. it went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if i could play it again at the end of the period. that blew my mind a little. i went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that i was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “henry the horny hamster” from my x-rated christmas album before mrs. gilham shot me a look that said, “that’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”
the guitar came with me to my second period society class. sean lauria was one of the guys i shared that class with. he asked me what the deal was with the axe. i told him about my english assignment and “holden on”. he asked if he could hear it. i told him i’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.
he stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. i almost fell over. i handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. he wasn’t giving up, though. he talked ms. davis into letting me play the song for the class. so i sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.
i only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was gord. it seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. the same year my english class was analyzing the catcher in the rye, his was reading animal farm. he wrote a song in the voice of boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.
for a while i only heard bits and pieces of the song. brodie johnston, who was in gord’s class when he debuted his ode to boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. gord played part of it for me outside of school. but i didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.
most of the songs i wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “holden on” was never documented in any meaningful way. gord’s boxer song was another story.
in late 1999 amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. it has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.
three years later i asked gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. he wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. we got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.
and then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.
when we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the boxer song came up. i learned gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.
i finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since i didn’t think it added much.
we both felt this was the version to build on. it lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with gord improvising some words at the end about “sugarcane mountain” that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.
we sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and i recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.
gord first had benjamin the donkey predicting boxer’s fate. a quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig old major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. i tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.
we picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. an instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.
recording it was pretty straightforward. we got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. there’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. in the past we never talked much about what we were doing. we just did it. now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.
when gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “situations” on STEW is a good example. the bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. it dances.
with this song, i thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 sugarcane mountain section if it wasn’t so busy. i asked gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. as for me, after i recorded a rough drum track gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. i tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.
we were both right.
it’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.
a great example of this philosophy in action: i assumed gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. he asked me to sing it instead. i did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.
i really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies i came up with for my demo. when it came right down to it, throwing those in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. so that fell by the wayside. but there was still room for banjo and piano. as for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. this might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.
i thought it was about time i performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because i’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. the moving pictures this time come to you from john halas and joy batchelor’s animated film version of animal farm from 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! the last time i saw it was when my own english class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so i couldn’t remember how much of boxer was in there. as it turned out, there was more than enough material for what i wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than i was expecting them to be.
and there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.
i don’t really fancy myself a mastering engineer of other people’s music. so it was a bit of a surprise when i got the call to master the first two shimmer demolition albums. adam is one of my very best friends, and i had a lot of fun working with his songs, trying to give them the extra volume and punch he was after without going too crazy.
for his third album he decided to go it alone on the mastering front. it’s been a long time coming, but i think the album is only a few weeks away from being released now.
a little over three years ago adam emailed me an MP3 of a song he’d just finished recording — the song that now serves as the album’s first single. as soon as its infectious wordless chorus kicked in and i started singing along, i knew i had to try to talk him into letting me sing on it.
his process is about as insular as mine is. he’s got his creative vision, and he knows how to get the sounds he’s after without anyone else’s help. i get that. but i heard a vocal harmony in my head, and i knew it would work if i got the chance to try it.
he was reluctant at first. i got him to give me a shot by promising if he didn’t like what i did he didn’t have to use it, and i wouldn’t be offended. we sat together in his basement and i sang into a microphone held together with duct tape.
i couldn’t hear myself in my headphones. you’d think that would help my pitch, but i didn’t sing all that well the first time through. the confidence wasn’t there.
i asked adam if he could mute his own vocal tracks. i gave it another shot and pretty much got what i was after. we doubled that. then i threw in a high third-part harmony at the end. we doubled that too. i could feel adam making a slow transition from thinking, “i’m not so sure about this,” to, “maybe it was a good idea after all.”
he made a rough mix and we listened to it upstairs five times before ordering pizza. i did sitting arm pushups with his cat nemo on my lap, and nemo winked at me because he liked the song and my singing on it. at least that’s what i told myself then, and it’s the story i’m sticking with now.
the third-part harmony that came in on the last chorus made me visualize a music video that ended with us dressed up in suits and ties, adam ahead of me, standing outside the bedroom window of the object of his affection, singing to her without words because there weren’t any right ones for the feeling being expressed and “ah” was the only one that would do, so we both opened wide and sang it out.
it was a good enough mental music video for me to put in regular rotation for a while. i realized it was a cliché — the whole “singing at your star-crossed lover’s window” thing. but the music took it somewhere sweet and heavy, almost making it new again.
eight years ago i sang a bit of harmony on a song that ended up on an album the artist now likes to pretend never existed. that was very much a spur of the moment thing. this was different. i had an idea, and thanks to adam i got to run with it, and got to be a small part of what i think is one of the best songs he’s written. of the few vocal cameos i’ve had on the albums of others so far, this is my favourite one.
amanda dug up another four tapes. after spending more than two hundred bucks having her whole collection transferred, i’m no closer to having that papa ghostface footage i’ve been chasing than i was a little less than twenty years ago when i started chasing it. i would bet anything it isn’t lost or dead, but buried somewhere in a garage or at the bottom of a box of random things, waiting to be rediscovered in the next century when human cloning is all the rage and no one knows which generation of themselves they are anymore.
there is one last hope. it’s the longest of long shots, but i know a second video recording exists — or used to exist — of the same live performance i thought we’d unearth somewhere on one of amanda’s tapes. i know because i sat in a classroom a month or two after it was filmed and watched it. i just don’t know who made the tape.
i do know who might be able to answer that question. as unlikely as it is that they would remember who was manning the camera seventeen years ago, and as even-more-unlikely as it is that the tape is sitting around waiting for me to find it with its head crowned by a halo of heavenly light, it’s worth a try.
i have a realistic view of the situation. i’m pretty sure all of this has been for nothing. i just don’t want to give up until i’ve exhausted every possibility.
like i said before, i did end up getting my hands on some great archival material. so it hasn’t really been a pointless effort. it’s just that the footage i want most of all continues to elude me, like the whole thing is a sick little cosmic joke designed to make me swear even more than i usually do.
what else is new? the remastering thing keeps moving along, sort of. 121 songs done now. 67 left to do. if i really dig in, i can probably have it all done inside of a few weeks. it’d be nice to get that taken care of so i can devote all my brainpower to this album i’m supposed to be finishing.
here, for no real reason, is a little song that was filmed ten years ago at the old house and then never recorded or revisited. i miss that shirt. it kept getting rattier and rattier, until by 2011 i don’t think the sleeves existed anymore. check out my dresser mirror reflecting all those empty water bottles lined up like soldiers on a bookshelf.