something to viddy

Quiet beasts don’t seek acceptance.

Yesterday it was April Fools’ Day and Easter on the very same day. And yet I had nothing ludicrous to report. It’s shameful, I know. In all honesty, this goof right here — which somehow fooled at least two or three people at the time — was always going to be hard to top.

A few kernels of news:

Mixes for Jess’s album have been approved, so that one should be out in the world as soon as she feels the time is right to release it. The video up there will give you a bit of an idea of what to expect. From beginning to end, it’s been a pleasure working with her. She even gave me one of the most challenging (and rewarding) drum assignments of my life. It’s a great surprise to be tested on what you think is one of your weaker instruments, only to come away from the experience thinking, “Hey…I did pretty good!”

I know I said this before, but it’s worth saying again: what a difference it makes working with a camera that’s a little more robust. It’s nice to be able to shoot handheld and move around without everything degenerating into a total shaky mess. Instead of being limited to static shots, it allows me to introduce a bit of movement when I’m not stuck filming myself. It wouldn’t be pretty if I tried to do the same thing with one of the trusty old Flip cameras.

About half of the songs on Ron’s album already exist as rough mixes, so some serious progress is being made there. It’s a very different project from Jess’s album. Where that one was recorded live for the most part, with her doing everything on every song but one, here my job is much more about arranging and fleshing out the songs. It’s fun having that kind of contrast in your work, where every gig is different.

The next Papa Ghostface album now has a title and cover art. One less thing to worry about during crunch time. That one’s been sitting on the back burner for a while, but it’s starting to come into sharper focus. I think we need to record a few more songs, and then all the necessary raw material will be there. Haven’t been filming any of the recording process so far, when my plan was to grab more footage of us working on this one after only documenting a little bit of STEW. Thankfully there’s still time to remedy that.

My oft-mentioned solo album with many guests continues to hum along. I’m not even going to try and work out where I am with that one anymore. I’ll just keep chipping away at it, and eventually it’ll be finished.

If all these things manage to see the light of day in 2018, maybe this will be my real making-up-for-lost-time year. Here’s hoping.

And this bird you cannot change.

The piece those four nice people wrote about me has gone up over at the Sound Collective blog. If you’re interested, the Diane Motel piece that sort of mirrors mine is over here, with an audio interview here.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve read anything about myself that weighs more than about half a paragraph. It’s strange at first, trying to calibrate the old brain to the experience. But I have to say, of all the things about me that have appeared online and in print media over the years, this is one of the few — along with Dalson Chen’s Windsor Star article from early 2009 — that will give you some useful information if you aren’t familiar with my work in the field of tonsil upholstery.

The bits about Tara and Jesse made me cackle out loud. Talk about unexpected. Also unexpected: the mention of Tyson’s influence. These folks did some serious digging into the blog’s rarely-explored sidebar to pick that up. But I’m glad it’s there. As much of a miserable teenager as I turned into for a while, that band I had with Gord and Tyson long ago was a great adventure. Even if Tyson and I didn’t always see things the same way, he had some ideas that changed the shape of our music for the better. At a time when I hated the sound of my voice and didn’t ever want to overdub anything, he pushed me to record vocal harmonies, and though I resisted more than I should have, I learned to love doing it in a whole new way once I made some amount of peace with my vocal cords later on. I’m not sure it would have happened the same way without his encouragement.

Having read the Diane Motel piece first, I assumed part of the theme would be working me into the context of the larger Windsor music scene — a scene I’ve had a bit of a checkered relationship with. I was wondering how you stitch someone into the fabric of something they’re not really a part of anymore. Reading what they wrote near the end, it struck me that I’ve worked with a lot of the people in this musical community in some capacity, at one time or another. Maybe there’s a way to be part of a scene while choosing to be more or less invisible. I have a hard time believing anything I’ve done has had a palpable influence on anyone else, but you never know. Maybe some of my fingerprints are in there somewhere even if I don’t think they are.

All else aside, “genre-melding outlier” has to be one of my favourite things anyone has ever said or written about me. I’m keeping that one.

Check out the video interview for Maximum Beardage.

Two takeaways from this video:

1. This was the least awkward I’ve ever felt in an interview situation. I think it shows. I’m not sure if they caught me on a good brain day, or if I’ve just passed the point of caring how I come across to anyone in any situation and it’s freed me up to be more comfortable in my own skin-coloured birthday suit. Either way, for once I can listen to myself speak about something I know a thing or two about and think, “Hey! I sound like I know what I’m talking about! Go me!”

2. I was thinking it was about time to trim the beard. Now I’m having second thoughts. I mean, look at that thing! It’s been at least a few years since I’ve let it go this long without a serious trimming-down. Looking at it in the bathroom mirror every day is one thing. Seeing it like this and getting some idea of how it looks to other people has me considering letting it go a while longer. I kind of like the grey hairs that have snuck in there, too. Makes me look like a low-rent elder statesman in training.

What good does the night do me?

I came to the music of Shudder to Think in a pretty backwards way. My introduction to the band was their soundtrack for Lisa Cholodenko’s underrated 1998 film High Art.

Every poster, DVD cover, and promotional image makes this movie look like a steamy soft porn flick. It’s a universe away from that. The story goes much deeper than “pretty people getting naked”. There’s some sex in the film, but it grows out of the characters and their interactions in an organic way. It isn’t there to titillate. When it happens, it means something. Ally Sheedy gives what might be the performance of her life in the role of a talented but troubled photographer, and the always excellent Patricia Clarkson is terrifying as a drug casualty who’s much more intelligent and manipulative than she lets on.

As good as the film is, the music was what stayed with me. When “She Might Be Waking up” played over the end credits, it was a hard kick to the chest that made a devastating ending hit even harder, and I knew I needed to own the soundtrack album.

I ordered it online. There was no way I was ever going to find it in a record store anywhere. When the CD showed up in the mail, the packaging was just as it was supposed to be, but the music on the disc wasn’t the High Art soundtrack. It was live jazz. The first track was “All Blues”. Given the crisp drum sound and the large band, I assumed it was a single-disc distillation of highlights from Miles Davis’s 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival performance.

I loved Miles even back then, but I didn’t listen beyond the first song. This wasn’t what I paid for, and I was a little pissed. I ordered another copy of the CD, got the music that was supposed to be on it in the first place, and tossed the “defective” copy aside. I forgot all about it.

A week or two ago, that mysterious jazz album popped back into my head. I was pretty sure I still had it somewhere. It took a while to dig it out of my CD collection, but I found it hidden away in one of the dustier corners. I was long overdue to give it a real listen and figure out just what I had here.

Two songs in, someone started singing, and I knew straight away it wasn’t Miles. It was Chet Baker. There’s no mistaking that voice for anyone else’s.

What I got, on what was supposed to be my first copy of the High Art soundtrack, was My Favourite Songs: the Last Great Concert, recorded in April 1988, two weeks before Chet died. It only took me close to twenty years to realize it.

The story behind the album goes something like this: some German fans who were involved in the music business wanted to honour Chet. They probably knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer. They said, “Chet, here’s the deal. You tell us what your favourite songs are. We’ll take care of the charts and put a big band and an orchestra together, and we’ll record the show. All you have to do is show up and play.”

Chet took that a little too literally. He didn’t bother to materialize for rehearsals. He walked into the concert hall for the first time the day of the show. You’d never know it to listen to the recording. It isn’t late-period Chet at his absolute best (for some of that, check out 1979’s Broken Wing and then Chet Baker in Tokyo from nine years later), but it’s still great stuff.

Watching video footage from the last years of Chet’s life is like eavesdropping on a ghost. He looks far older than his fifty-something years, with the crumbled majesty of his once beautiful face serving as hard-won proof that heroin can turn James Dean into the Grim Reaper. Then he raises the trumpet to his lips and is transformed, playing with a level of grace and invention someone in his condition shouldn’t be capable of.

One of the great twisted tragedies of the Chet Baker story is that he made some of his best music while he was slowly killing himself. He bragged about never needing to practice, but in his later years he played more than he ever had before, taking every gig he could get. He needed the money for drugs. The more shows he played, the better and deeper his playing became.

Rarely has such beautiful music been made under such sordid circumstances.

The mystery for me is how what might be the last recording Chet ever made ended up packaged as a Shudder to Think soundtrack CD. Every issue and subsequent reissue of My Favourite Songs is on the German label Enja. The High Art soundtrack was issued on Velvel Records, an offshoot of Koch. As fas as I can tell, the two were never affiliated in any way. The only thing I can think of is maybe both labels used the same media broker at some point in the late ’90s and someone fell asleep at the wheel.

At least there’s an easy way for me to differentiate between the two CDs with identical packaging.

As for Shudder to Think, taking in the rest of their discography after only hearing the music they made for High Art was a bit of a shock, the same way I imagine the soundtrack startled fans of their earlier work.

This is my favourite kind of band — the unclassifiable kind. To try and squeeze them into a genre is to drive yourself insane. They were labelled “post-hardcore”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and on some of their early albums on the Dischord label you can hear traces of Hüsker Dü. By the time you get to an album like Get Your Goat, they sound like no one else.

The tricky time signatures, unorthodox guitar riffs that balance melody and dissonance on a knife edge, and pinpoint dynamic shifts might have slid them into an uneasy position somewhere in the realm of math rock if they were an instrumental band. But then Craig Wedren’s unique, elastic, theatrical voice (once described as sounding like “Michael Stipe’s psychotic uncle on LSD”) bends everything in a different direction. It’s at once the last voice you would ever expect to hear singing this music and the only voice that makes sense. Imagine Jeff Buckley singing with Stone Temple Pilots after being held hostage for years by The Dillinger Escape Plan and developing some serious Stockholm Syndrome, and you’re still only halfway there.

When they signed with Epic Records in the mid-’90s, a lot of fans cried “sell-out”. And yet the first album they delivered to their new label, Pony Express Record, is probably their finest moment. It sounds like a distillation of everything the albums that came before were working toward.

From the hard rock deconstruction of “Hit Liquor”, to the power ballad from another planet that is “Earthquakes Come Home”, to the eerie beauty of “No Rm. 9, Kentucky”, it’s a funhouse mirror album of elements that shouldn’t work together finding a way to coil themselves into something harmonious and wonderfully strange. No list of the least commercial albums ever released by a major label is complete without it.

The lone cover song is a deranged take on Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You”, exposing the latent creepiness buried beneath the soft rock sheen of the original.

Random confession time. When I first heard the ARS version on the radio as a twelve-year-old, I thought the opening line was:

When you walked into the room, there was doo-doo in the vase.

Not quite the romantic sentiment of “voodoo in the vibes”. But if a whirlwind attraction can survive the smell of random crap, surely it’s built to last, no?

The next Shudder to Think album, 50,000 BC, was seen by some as a betrayal of everything the band was about. One angry fan called it “art rock for losers”. It didn’t help that an Epic press release hailed it as “a totally commercially accessible album that includes pure alternative rock ‘n’ roll songs and simple ballads” — in other words, the opposite of everything Shudder to Think had ever done.

I can’t help feeling this album got a little more hate than it deserved. It does feel like a bit of a step back, and if there was some record label pressure to make music that was more accessible to the masses, well…it sounds like it. The confrontational energy of Pony Express Record is gone. But this band was incapable of making boring music.

Listen to the opening track, “Call of the Playground”, with its stop-start rhythm and some sweetly-sung lyrics that read like a confusing childhood nightmare. It sounds more like a demented parody of an alternative rock hit than anything anyone ever could have believed stood a chance of garnering significant airplay on mainstream radio. And “Red House” is a glorious song by any measure, even if it was first recorded for 1991’s Funeral at the Movies, recorded another three times after that, and loses a bit of its punch in this final, more polished incarnation.

The fans that didn’t jump ship after hearing 50,000 BC were probably baffled by the mood pieces that made up the soundtrack to High Art. Recorded for the most part in Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson’s respective apartments, this music is more about creating atmospheres and soundscapes than constructing or deconstructing conventional song shapes. Only “Battle Soaked (Amnesian Mix)” features the sound of Craig’s voice, multi-tracked and mostly wordless, adding splashes of colour to a funky electronic workout.

The one song with a full set of lyrics just happens to be one of the best songs you’ve probably never heard, and it’s proof that Craig wasn’t the only great singer in the band. Guitarist Nathan Larson takes the lead for “She Might Be Waking up”, revealing a voice capable of moving from a broken, half-whispered croon to a soaring falsetto. In a way, this is a dress rehearsal for the songs Nathan would go on to write for Jealous God, his first solo album. It’s also better than anything on that album — darker, deeper, and with the lo-fi production lending it more character.

There was more soundtrack work ahead, with the band contributing a few songs to Velvet Goldmine and then a whole pile of tunes to First Love, Last Rites — a classic example of the soundtrack being a lot better than the movie it’s attached to.

This last one is a bit of a mixed bag of genre exercises, but the idea to write songs for a lot of different singers and then play the whole thing off as a series of radio broadcasts throughout the film was kind of brilliant, and there are some real gems knocking elbows with the near-misses. You could make a pretty wonderful EP out of “I Want Someone Badly” (sung by Jeff Buckley), “Appalachian Lullaby” (sung by Nina Persson), “Speed of Love” (sung by John Doe), and “Day Ditty” (sung by Angela McCluskey).

And then the band very quietly called it quits.

Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson have both gone on to have successful film scoring careers punctuated by the occasional solo album. There have been a few reunions here and there and a live album or two, but there hasn’t been a new collection of Shudder to Think songs in twenty years now.

Elsewhere in the abandoned old bowling alley of life, Dale Jacobs asked me a few weeks back if I would be willing to be an interview subject for a class he’s teaching at the University of Windsor called Writing about Music.

I’ve unofficially “retired” from granting interviews to anyone, for any reason. I think the last one happened back in 2011, and it might not even exist on the internet anymore. I had a few good experiences during my thirty-eight minutes of local fame/infamy, but after too many run-ins with agenda-humping writers who had no interest in learning anything about who I am, what I do, or why I do it the way I do, I decided it was better to let the music speak for itself. Besides, there’s already more information about me and what I do available here than anyone could ever want to know.

Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but I’m not talking about something as simple as not being a fan of someone’s writing style or not liking the way I was presented in a certain piece. I’m talking about shit like this:

I once spent an hour or two talking to a writer, giving him a ton of material to work with, and when the article he wrote was printed, I learned he didn’t use a single thing I said. Not one word. Instead, he lifted uncredited quotes from my blog, defeating the whole purpose of meeting with him.

This is someone who began the interview by complaining about other people plagiarizing his work. Then he turned around and did the same thing to me.

Smooth move.

Another writer invented quotes I never said in an effort to bend me to his purpose, because I wouldn’t say what he wanted to hear. He thought he could bully me into submission by painting me into a corner. When that didn’t work, he took every opportunity he could to denigrate me in print and deliberately misrepresented the nature of a show I was playing to try and perform some small, impotent act of subterfuge. When that didn’t work, he settled for trying to drag my name through the mud whenever I came up in the course of a conversation he happened to be privy to.

I’ve been told by a number of people this is something he still does from time to time. How do you respond to that kind of absurdity? I don’t know if it’s funny or sad. Maybe a bit of both. I guess a half-hearted laugh-shrug is appropriate.

My point is, you have enough experiences with people like that, and you don’t feel much like giving an interview to anyone anymore.

This was a little different. Dale has been supporting my music for years. He was one of the people who gave CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN some serious airplay on CJAM during the surreal summer of 2008, back when he was still hosting Steel-Belted Radio. And when he told me the other local interview subjects were going to be members of Diane Motel, I thought, “I might be able to offer an interesting contrast to that interview.”

So I said sure. Why not?

Earlier this week, four students from Dale’s class — half of a group called The Sound Collective — came over to the house and interviewed me. I went into it with an open mind while bracing myself for the usual one-size-fits-all questions.

My least favourite, and one that’s come up in almost every interview I’ve ever done: “What are your influences?”

I hate this question. I hate it because it implies the person asking it couldn’t be bothered to listen to any of my music to work out for themselves what they think they might hear in it. It also says to me, “What you do can be boiled down to a sentence and a musical reference or two.”

I’m not sure that’s true of anyone. I know it isn’t true in my case. I’ve always thought the whole point was to discover and develop your own voice — not to see how much mimicry you can get away with without being called a ripoff artist.

There are two ways I can answer this stupid question.

I can tell you my music has always been more influenced by my personal life, where I am emotionally at any given time, and the people I interact with. It’s the truth, but it sounds pretty pretentious.

Or I can name some of the bands and artists who have had a serious impact on me. But if I do that, I want to explain why their work grabbed me and how it spoke to me. I want to tell you how certain singers turned me on to the idea of using the voice not just as a vehicle to deliver the lyrics, but as an instrument in its own right. How hearing a specific album at a specific time in my life short-circuited my brain and forced me to recalibrate all my ideas about what a song could be. How pianists as disparate as Thelonious Monk, John Cale, and Nicky Hopkins changed the way I approached playing the piano.

Most writers don’t want to hear all that, because they’re not really writers at all. They don’t want a story. They want a soundbite.

The other night, that question I hate wasn’t asked. In its place was this: “Is there anything you’re listening to right now that you find is influencing you or inspiring you in some way?”

A very different, much more thought-provoking question, this one. And it opens the door for a story to sneak through.

Every question they asked me was unexpected, and intelligent, and forced me to give some serious thought to how I wanted to respond. They did some actual research beforehand, which is more than I can say for most of the folks who interviewed me in the past. What’s more, they all seemed genuinely engaged and enthusiastic to be talking to me.

It was the most enjoyable, surprising, and stimulating interview I’ve ever been involved in. Kind of restored my faith in the whole process.

Thanks to Brittany, Iovan, Aria, and Shannon for a really positive, memorable experience, and thanks to Dale for asking me to be a part of the project. It’s the first time in years I can say I’m looking forward to reading something that’s being written about me instead of dreading it. I’ll link to the piece here when it goes live on the Sound Collective blog.

That dusty old radio.

A little less than a week ago, this blog turned ten years old. Every single other personal website or blog-ish thing I once maintained has long since turned to digital dust. Still this one persists. It defies explanation.

I wanted to do something special to commemorate a decade of bloggage. Maybe make a silly video or something. But the only thing my creative energy seems to want to fling itself into right now is music. As luck would have it, I was able to find a video made by someone else that carries with it a suitable feeling of triumph. If this doesn’t get your pulse racing, I’m not sure what will.

All the bed tracks for Ron’s album have now been recorded and tucked in, and I’ve already started working on the arrangements. I have a feeling the “production” side of things isn’t going to take too long there. Every time I sit down with one of his songs I seem to find myself maxing out the mixer in an afternoon. Rough mixes for Jess’s album have been delivered and approved, so all I need to do there is some fine-tuning to arrive at what will hopefully be final mixes. The followup to STEW has ground to a halt for the moment, but work on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is starting to pick up again.

All in all, I’d say things are just about back on track.

I hear music.

For ten years running now, almost every time I’m ramping up to finish work on something after a period of relative inactivity or uncertainty, a big bad mega cold comes out of nowhere and knocks me out for a good week or two. I should have known another one was on the way.

It hasn’t been all bad. For one thing, between coughing fits I found that video up there. I think it’s fifteen minutes of your life well spent. Count Basie was the coolest, and there will never be another Judy Garland. Her take on “A Cottage for Sale” at the end of that block of music has to be the song’s definitive treatment. Frank Sinatra does a masterful job singing it on his great album No One Cares, but Judy takes it somewhere even deeper. You sense she feels those words because she’s lived them.

If I could stop coughing and sneezing all the time, I’d sing some things too. Soon, hopefully.

Radio killed the video star.

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.

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 McEentire’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 that run the gamut from “good” to “ugh”. 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).Aand 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 have grown 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 be 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.

A Well-Thought-Out Escape

(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. 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.

Twelve strings.

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.

Champagne Suicide (2000)

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 fix a broken pair of studio headphones 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. Take it out back and shoot it.”

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 all 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.

Getting in tune.

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:

Bum
Bum hair
Bum hair
Bum hair

Bum
Bum hair
Bum hair
Bum hair

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 an 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)” that was captured in this way, 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 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 Pianos.

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 to me. 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 a few 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 gave much thought to 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, more robust 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.

Nothing worked.

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 and 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.

Someday Our Children Will Give Us Names

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.

You say you got a need for a celebratory season.

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 almost 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:

Popsicle head 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.
Number five — 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 acoustic 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 much rougher shape than I thought it was. 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, and there’s no way I could ever shoot handheld with either of the Flip cameras and get movement this smooth.