writing

That’s all the naked parakeet wrote.

It’s a little awkward trying to wrap your head around the realization that something you’ve made isn’t as good as you thought it was when you were making it.

I’ve done my best to avoid this very personal kind of disappointment over the years. As slapdash as some of my albums may sound on the surface, for a long time now a lot of thought has gone into determining what shape each collection of songs wants to take. I don’t put something out there unless I believe in it and feel it’s an honest representation of where my head and heart are at in that moment.

I think as long as you work this way it’s difficult to be embarrassed by what you’ve done. My ambition has never been to make a Masterwork That Stands the Test of Time, but rather to document the entirety of my musical life, warts, growing pains, nose hair and all. While it might not all be top-shelf material when we look back at the whole discography in 2079 as I’m wheezing my last digital breaths here, at least I can say I always gave it everything I had and never compromised my artistic vision, even when that vision was murky.

By and large, I’m proud of the work I’ve done up to this point. But every once in a while I’ve found my feelings for an album souring once the honeymoon period wears off.

(The internet tells me a traditional honeymoon period lasts between six months and a year. For me it’s more like two weeks.)

As much fun as it was to make the second Papa Ghostface album, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it rambled a little too much over its two and-a-half hour running time. There was no focus. The first disc was pretty strong, and then everything degenerated into a massive improvised free-for-all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about massive improvised free-for-alls. But I started thinking PG album number three might benefit from a more considered approach. I wrote a bunch of lyrics — most of them while pretending to pay attention in grade eleven math class — grabbed what I thought were the eight strongest selections (leaving space for two improvised instrumentals), and declared, “This will be our next album.”

My thinking went something like this: Given how well Gord and I play off of each other and how often our improvisations seem to produce good moments, if I’ve already got the lyrics sorted out before we start recording and I don’t have to make all the words up as I go, I’ll be able to channel all my energy into the music. That’s going to make everything better. When the dust clears we’ll have a great album.

For at least the first week or two after SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was finished, I thought we did have something brilliant on our hands. I even went to the trouble of making more than two copies of the CD, which was unheard of at the time. I gave one to a classmate I wanted to impress, one to my drama teacher, and another to my piano teacher. I wanted everyone to hear this stuff. It felt like some of the best work I’d ever done.

Once the initial excitement wore off and something closer to objectivity set in, it hit me that the album was no masterpiece. It was a mess. The weirdness that had been such an integral part of our music from day one was barely there. I came off less like the live wire I was used being on record and more like an impotent firecracker with a faulty fuse. Trying to force the improvised music to fit the shape of the written lyrics led to songs that sounded unsure of their identity. Aside from “Compassion to Deceive — a rare example of music and lyrics merging as if they’d been born wrapped up in each other’s arms — the songs were just sort of there, not daring to do anything very interesting. Worse, almost none of the lyrics I wrote were about anything. There was some fun wordplay, but it didn’t add up to much.

It didn’t help that the sound quality was pretty awful throughout, with some serious clipping whenever I came close to screaming and a lot of mud in the low end. I had no outboard mic preamps, no outboard anything aside from a guitar effects processor, and though my mixer offered built-in EQ and compression that could have helped the cause, I had no idea how to use those tools. I thought I would screw things up even worse if I messed around with them, so I didn’t try. The results weren’t pretty.

Aside from OH YOU THIS, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such a quick turnaround from thinking an album was great to deciding it was a total piece of crap.

I was determined to make up for my error in judgment with the next Papa Ghostface album. I kept writing lyrics in class — I couldn’t stop doing that if I tried — but allowed the words to grow much more depraved. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at the time. Some of that was my fault for embracing my night owl tendencies. My almost-stepsister’s bedroom was right next to mine, and she had a habit of watching TV late at night with the sound turned up past any sane level. She wasn’t a big fan of closing her door. That was another factor.

There came a day when all the sleep-deprivation caught up with me. I staggered home a little after 2:00 in the afternoon — I had a fourth period spare that semester — and fell into bed. It wasn’t unusual for me to nap for an hour after school to give myself an extra shot of energy. This time I was so exhausted I woke up in the dark five hours later. I got up, ate some chicken stir-fry, listened to a bit of music, and went to bed around 11:00. I had no trouble getting back to sleep. By the time I got up to eat breakfast I was operating on no less than thirteen hours of sleep, when I was used to getting less than a third of that.

I felt an almost disturbing sense of mental clarity all day. Every part of my body felt like it had been replaced with an upgraded version of itself. I was Super Johnny the Full-of-Energy Man.

It was a fluke. I didn’t get another sleep like that on a weeknight for the rest of my high school existence. The very next day I was back to alternating between being tired all the time and oversleeping on the weekends to balance things out. But I saw an opportunity to use the mental fatigue to my advantage. When I was tired enough, my brain got to a place where all the usual inhibitions sloughed off and anything at all might come out of my mouth (or pen). It made for some interesting lyric-writing sessions.

The first thing I wrote with the fourth Papa Ghostface album in mind was something called “19 to Go”. We tried recording it. I’ve got a dub of a rough mix on a cassette tape somewhere. It isn’t worth digging up. I made the mistake again of marrying written words to improvised music that wasn’t given enough time or space to figure out what it wanted to be.

The lyrics didn’t go anywhere interesting anyway. “Your nudity inspires me to reach heights that were previously unattainable,” went the first line. I went on to list all the other positive and negative things this imaginary person’s naked form inspired me to do, from “[standing] tall in the face of all things malignant” to destroying valuable antiques.

Not some of my best work.

Separate from that failure of a song, I had some music in my head I couldn’t seem to find the right words for. I heard this dark, swirling soundscape, inspired in part by the Pulp song “This Is Hardcore”.

How was I supposed to build anything even half that dense and compelling with only six tracks to work with on my eight-track mixer? I had no idea. After one abandoned attempt at writing lyrics that matched the imagined musical mood, I wrote in my spiral notebook:

I was trying to write something dark to accompany the stark musical landscape within my mind but found myself to be an utter failure. I know there is darkness left inside of me! There has to be!

There was. I only needed to wait another twelve hours to find it.

The next morning in math class I wrote a set of lyrics about a guy who catches his wife cheating on him with a horse. The horse turns out to be both kinky and immortal — repeated gunshots kill him, but he rises again after each apparent death. The desperate cuckold sleeps with the horse’s wife to get back at him. She indulges his foot fetish but otherwise isn’t the most sympathetic partner. His wife returns and tries to make amends with an offering of cornbread pancakes. When the dude scarfs them all down like a thoughtless pig, she grabs his gun and he makes a run for it. There’s at least a happy ending when he finds someone who accepts him for who he is, human-sized genitalia and all.

(What the hell went on in my sixteen-year-old brain? I couldn’t tell you. Writing accessible pop music clearly wasn’t on my radar.)

I started laughing at the ridiculousness of the lyrics and the crude illustrations I added. Kevin Heffernan — not the actor, but a guy who sat in front of me in math class — turned around and said, “Did you smoke up before class, John?”

“No,” I said, giggling. “I’m just tired.”

Kevin wasn’t buying it. “He’s ripped,” he said to a friend sitting next to him.

I was stuck for a title. Now I wrote Rippin’ at the top of my two-page saga. Thanks, Kev.

I envisioned it as a jaunty country song in a major key. Though it was never recorded in that form, I remember how it was supposed to go. Here’s a brand new GarageBand demo to give you an idea.

Rippin’ (countrified demo)

Gord came over to record again a few days later. I threw out the country song business and made up my mind to build an approximation of the ominous sound world I’d been carrying around in my head for a few days straight.

When you don’t have a lot of tracks to work with, you learn how to create the illusion of layers through a bit of trickery. I made a drum loop on the Yamaha W-5 synth and messed around with built-in distortion and reverb effects until each snare hit sounded like it was ricocheting off of itself. Making use of the synthesizer’s sixteen-track sequencer — something I almost never thought to do — I played some fifths in time with the drum beat on a second track, using a synth cello patch, and made that a part of the loop. Then I set it up to record on a single mono track on the mixer.

I started the loop without the string part, faded it in, decided it was too loud, and pulled it back a little to where it felt just about right. I grabbed those twisted lyrics I wrote with a country song in my head and stood them up on my music stand, playing my hunk of junk Vantage acoustic guitar and singing while Gord played his white B.C. Rich Virgin. I had only one amp at the time and was years away from recognizing how useful it was, so Gord played straight into the Digitech GSP-21 effects processor, using the foot controller to switch between clean and distorted tones.

When it felt like the song had pretty much run its course, Gord encouraged me off-mic to get into some primal screaming. I didn’t have it in me, and it didn’t feel right for the song. It was starting to occur to me that there were other ways of conveying madness through sound. As a way of getting my point across without verbalizing it, I pressed the microphone grill against the strings of my guitar and used it as a slide, making harsh, atonal sounds. After a bit of that I put the guitar down, walked over to the W-5, and faded the drums out of the loop, playing some synth string improv on top of the looped fifths.

We overdubbed a few splashes of Arp Omni-2, both of us playing at the same time. I was trying to play things that made some melodic sense. Gord was hitting random notes. It made for some fun dissonance. I messed with the resonance and VCF to give it a little extra character.

“You want to add some bass?” I asked Gord.

“You should play bass, man,” he said.

I did that, alternating between holding down the low end and playing improvised melodies and runs higher up on the neck. Gord contributed a little audio postscript of his own with a bottle of blue Powerade he was drinking, using his mouth and the liquid in it to make some strange, guttural sounds.

The next day I added a few bits of vocal harmony to some unused portions of the Arp Omni-2 track and mixed the song to the best of my ability. I had some fun with the intro, swamping the drum loop in reverb for a second and then taking it away, adding a rotary speaker effect to the loop for a bit, then adding it to Gord’s guitar for a few bars, and much later in the song using it to process my voice.

Just six tracks, and there was the most sonically ambitious thing I’d ever done. For some reason it never seemed to drag over its thirteen and-a-half minutes the way some of our other extended pieces did. It wasn’t identical to the half-formed musical idea that wouldn’t leave my brain alone, but it was close enough, and maybe better.

Of the nine songs that would end up on the album, six feature words that were written beforehand. Only two of those six songs aren’t warped by additional improvised lyrics and music that’s unafraid to flirt with chaos. “She’s Awfully Lovely” ends with an unrehearsed hook topped off with distorted screams, and then there’s a little a cappella addendum that has nothing at all to do with anything that came before. “Piss on Me” sheds its established structure like an exoskeleton around the halfway point for a long post-bridge section that’s all improv. “The Happy Dentist” begins with a spontaneous Neil Young piss-take and ends with several minutes of uncompromising sonic mayhem. “Spandex” is a self-immolating piñata that keeps beating itself until interesting surprises start to leak from its broken skin.

Instead of forcing the music to do the lyrics’ bidding, the written words were treated as a rough guide and nothing more.

“She’s Awfully Lovely” was the first thing we recorded at our next session a week later. The title came from Gord. He suggested Awfully Lovely as an album title. I liked it but wasn’t sure it was right for the material.

I was renting a Les Paul to supplement my cheap Strat copy. It was the first “good” guitar I ever played. It had a sparkle finish. I want to say it was green. It looks green in my memory. I loved that thing. The cloth that lined the hardshell case smelled like heaven.

The Strat copy, which doesn’t appear on the album at all, became a five-string — and stayed that way for a long time — when I broke a string on the Les Paul and didn’t have an extra pack of strings on hand. I recorded a bit of Gord tuning up after making the transfer because I thought it sounded cool. Then he handed the guitar back to me.

This song is probably home to my best guitar-playing on the whole album. There’s even some volume swell stuff in there. It’s nowhere near the atmospheric textures I’m capable of creating today, but it works. I don’t think I’d ever tried doing that before. I was growing in confidence, unrefined as my playing was.

The lyrics are about a “fake aunt” (my stepfather’s sister) and her impending motherhood. She always said she never wanted children. Now she was married and pregnant, and I was convinced her impending bundle of joy was in for a rough ride. She was a horrible, emotionally abusive person, and that’s the kindest thing I can think of to say about her.

Hey, hey, she’s pregnant.
What’s she gonna do to that kid?

Is she gonna torture him?
Is she gonna make him feel inadequate?
Is she gonna raise him up —
raise him up to the sky?
Is she gonna fill his head
with all of her lies?

Pretty serious personal business there. Not the sort of thing I was used to singing about. Of course, I married those lyrics to some chunky power chords and got Gord to scream with me into a mic that was plugged into the Digitech guitar box, just to throw a wrench in the works. Then we tacked on the improvised singalong about someone with magical breasts.

“Spandex” was recorded next. I must have mixed it out of sequence, because it shows up before “She’s Awfully Lovely” on the album. Or I might have decided the album would work better if I flipped the order of those two songs. I can’t remember what happened there. It’s unusual either way, because these were the days of dumping songs on CD in the order they were recorded and giving no thought to the ebb and flow of things.

When Gord and I first met up outside of school in 1998, it was to work on writing a song for a grade ten English assignment. He played me a pretty, melancholy piece of music he was messing around with on guitar, I worked out some things to play on piano that complimented what he was doing, and within about three minutes we had our song. All I had to do was write some lyrics the next day and we’d be finished a week ahead of schedule.

Problem was, the lyrics I wrote didn’t suit the music at all. I could find a way to sing them that would work, but the whole thing was going to feel way too maudlin.

When we got together a second time three days later, Gord brought his girlfriend Amanda with him. She sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of my tiny basement studio as we hammered out some new music much better suited to the defiant nature of my lyrics. The song was called “Pacing the Cage”.

After jamming on pieces of a bunch of classic rock songs and running through our own song a few times, Gord started playing a single-string variation on the main riff that ran through the verses of “Pacing the Cage”. I played along, started singing about Kermit the frog wearing spandex, and this happened.

Spandex (initial improv, 1998)

I’d kill to have video footage of something like this. At least I had the foresight to record our first jam sessions on cassette tape, using a single RadioShack mic plugged into a Magnasonic boombox from the 1980s (my main method of recording at the time, and an upgrade over the Sony boombox I’d been recording everything on since 1994).

“Pacing the Cage” may be the first thing we created together, but “Spandex” marks the true birth of Papa Ghostface. It was the first time we conjured something out of thin air in a communal act. You can hear the excitement in the room as it starts to dawn on us that we could have the seed of something interesting here.

A little over a year later, that fiery two-minute improvisation was still on my mind. You could call the version we committed to CD a “re-improvisation”. After a partial reconstruction of the original fragment, the song fanned out and became something much more expansive and dramatic. I rifled through different keyboard sounds and effects. Gord strummed my acoustic guitar with such force he managed to overload an SM57 — no mean feat. We both added overdubs: demented harmonies from me, African drums and a distorted mid-song howl from Gord.

Spandex for you. Spandex for me. It felt almost operatic. It was ridiculous, outlandish, fun, and everything that had been missing from SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.

Spandex (remastered)

“We’re All Gonna Go” was the only song on the album that set out to do one thing and didn’t stray from the path. For years I thought it was the least interesting track by some distance. Now I view it as a necessary break from the madness that surrounds it.

It’s all about the idea of an afterlife in hell being inevitable — how in spite of our best efforts to fight the good fight, some unseen force is lurking just out of sight, waiting to drag us down to a place where “sometimes, on special occasions, you don’t even perspire”. I didn’t really believe that then, and I don’t believe it now, but I enjoyed flipping the conventional wisdom on its head, imagining hell as a picturesque resort where serene family reunions take place. As opening lines go, “Down where the drunkards collide,” is pretty evocative, I think, though it didn’t stand out to me at the time.

The music I first wrote to accompany the lyrics was nothing like what ended up on the album. It was this sweeping orchestral thing, or as sweeping and orchestral as something played on a keyboard’s synth strings setting could hope to get. I don’t remember if I worked out music for the bridge section. I do at least remember how the verses went.

We’re All Gonna Go (quick comparison)

I’m not sure what inspired me to give those words a different musical backdrop at the last minute. The memory is fuzzy here. I either picked up my acoustic guitar before Gord came over, started playing a few chords that sounded good to me, and thought, “I wonder what ‘We’re All Gonna Go’ would sound like if I sang the words to this,” or it happened when he was present and the evening was winding down.

In any case, it made for a much catchier tune. It became almost uplifting in a warped way, ending with the comforting thought, “All’s well that ends in hell.”

You can hear me saying, “One more and then we’re done,” to an inquisitive Johnny Smith before the music kicks in. It was about time to call it a night. We rehearsed for all of thirty seconds. I tried to show Gord a change I worked out on the fly, but he didn’t really grasp what I was doing. When I called out a chord change in the middle of the recording, he just kept doing what he was doing, oblivious. Some interesting accidental harmonic interplay came out of it.

Here I used a drum pattern built into the Clavinova instead of creating one myself on the W-5, setting it up so the damper and sustain pedals would let me trigger fills and transitions with my feet at the same time I was playing and singing. I added some vocal harmonies the next day and a pair of rudimentary guitar solos, one in each stereo channel. Gord surprised me by telling me he liked them.

Our next session produced another three songs. This time we were alone in the house. I’m not sure where everyone else was.

Before we got started, Gord asked if I wanted to smoke a joint with him. I’d never been high in my life. I said sure.

We ducked into an alley. I felt a little uneasy. I still remember the long-sleeved white shirt I was wearing (hell, I still have that shirt). I had no idea how to inhale the right way. I think Gord assumed I’d done this before. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was a rookie. I did my best to fake it.

I didn’t get high at all. It would be another two years before that would happen for the first time.

Back inside, I did feel…something. Must have been a contact buzz. It was a very low-level thing, almost subliminal, but it was there. We plugged in, put on headphones, and recorded “Piss on Me”. I don’t think I even showed Gord what chords I was playing. He ran through different effects on the Digitech in search of something trippy and blissed out. I cranked up the reverb on my voice for extra dreaminess, ran another Clavinova drum pattern through a bit of a chorus effect on the mixer (an Ace of Base-style Euro reggae beat, of all things), and shook a homemade Mason jar percussion instrument into my vocal mic for a few seconds before getting down to business.

Subtitled “a love song in the key of Sinatra” on my lyric sheet, the song wasn’t really a paean to golden showers. It was more of a celebration of meaninglessness. “What does it matter if we defile one another if nothing matters?” More of a figurative pissing than the literal act of taking a leak. Although, “Piss on me before it starts to rain,” is pretty literal (and sensible).

At the same time, there was room for lines like this:

Rotting fish within the threshold of man.
Bamboo cartilage dropped by five degrees.

If you have any idea what that means, let me know. I’ve still got no idea almost two decades later, and I’m the guy who wrote it.

There’s also one of my favourite nonsense rhymes on the album:

It is only this that grows
through an affidavit’s nose.

We kept going for another six minutes after I ran out of written lyrics. “Tie me at the crossroads with a metal bow,” I sang. “I’ll always be yours when the seedless garden grows.” That became a mantra. Tie me at the crossroads. It felt poignant somehow, and more poetic than “tie me to the train tracks”, even if it made less literal sense. Gord played some inspired guitar throughout, from a few licks that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a death metal song to some beautiful extended lead lines. I let loose with some wild runs on a simulated Wurlitzer electric piano patch on the W-5, and it all came to a head with a speaker-blowing cry of, “So piss on…..MEEEEEEEEE!”

I’ve always been glad I captured Gord asking if we were recording at the very end. One of those neat little slices of life. And I still remember the look on his face. It said, “Please, for the love of God, tell me you got that!”

There’s something joyous about letting a song unfurl like this, with only a torn scrap of some strange map and no certain destination. I was lucky enough to have a lot of those moments with Gord. I might have been the voice and the main creative engine behind the music, but there was a fearlessness in his playing that made him an ideal companion when I was navigating creative dirt roads that might lead anywhere or nowhere. He wasn’t afraid to make a mistake in pursuit of something great.

Another mark against SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN was the absence of a spoken word detour. Having at least one spoken word piece show up on each album was a Papa Ghostface tradition from the beginning.

This album features two of them, back to back, almost like an act of penance.

“The Happy Dentist” is pretty self-explanatory. A perverted dentist with a sweet tooth gets a character sketch, and then he gets what’s coming to him. Gord managed to make it sound like he was playing both bass and electric guitar at the same time by sticking a slide on his pinky finger, throwing in creepy little glissandos here and there. I kept accidentally whacking my guitar mic with my own slide and felt like my guitar-playing was the shittiest shit in the universe. I was limited to bits of open chords, single-note runs, and some discordant slide guitar, when I wanted to be able to do some interesting harmonic things and treat the instrument an extension of myself. It was frustrating.

I would get there. It was just going to take a while. But man, I’ll never forget that feeling of wanting to do more than I was capable of in the moment and running face-first into a brick wall. All my limitations on the instrument were thrown into stark relief all at once.

Listening now, I have to say my guitar-playing did the job just fine, in spite of my feelings of musical uselessness in the moment. The song didn’t need anything flashy. And I’ve always loved the singalong chorus, with Gord sing-shouting, “The happy dentiiiiiiist!” at the top of his lungs. We did two or three tracks with both of us singing into the same SM58. Just like Springsteen and Little Steven.

This time I used a drum loop already programmed into the W-5. These loops were triggered by pressing a key on the keyboard, but as soon as you removed your finger the loop would stop. You couldn’t lock it into continuous-play mode. The only way I ever found to get around this was by using a sustain pedal to trick the loop into thinking the key was still pressed down. Gord is credited with “foot” in the liner notes for some of our albums from this period because he would always volunteer to take care of that side of things so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

There was an odd quirk to some of these loops. Using the modulation wheel, you could sometimes uncover another layer of synthesized percussion. A lot of these hidden accents had a habit of slowly going out of tempo. The longer you kept the loop going, the worse it would get. You can hear this happen in real-time on the SHOEBOX PARADISE song “Partners in Crime”.

Halfway through “The Happy Dentist” I did the little modulation wheel trick and found the sub-loop was so unsynchronized with the main loop it threw everything off, destroying all sense of rhythm.

You’ve got two choices when a thing like this happens. You can either kill the song, or you can embrace the chaos.

With Gord’s foot still on the sustain pedal, I hit a number of keys low on the synth to trigger even more arrhythmic loops, creating a giant mess. Then I sat back down with my acoustic guitar, went nuts with the slide, and started singing faux-Japanese gibberish.

This was too far from home for Gord. He went along with it, but in later years he told me he thought it ruined the whole song. He wanted a coup de grâce, and here I was prolonging the suffering. For me it’s always been one of the album’s defining moments. I love how everything falls apart in such an absurd, exaggerated way. It’s a great example of something that never would have been allowed to happen on SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.

For the record, there was no racist intention behind what I sang as all hell broke loose. It was little more than some silliness that came to me in the moment.

Cha chaka chee cha, chicka chee cho.
Two dogs fuckin’ in the sand.

To this day I can’t make it to the end without collapsing into a laughing fit. If I do manage to get most of the way through, the part that kills me is, “Suck my dick ’til my ass falls down.”

You gotta have fun, even if it’s not always in great taste. Besides, who on earth could take the idea of someone’s ass falling off at the moment of climax seriously in the first place?

I ended the song by spitting the gum I was chewing into my vocal mic, screaming a deluge of profanity through a kazoo, and dropping the loudest F-bomb of my life.

If you ever wondered who the wildcard was in Papa Ghostface, I guess now you know.

With “Nothing from Nothing”, for the first time I had no written lyrics to work with. The tale of a secret society of damaged people hellbent on self-annihilation almost seemed to construct itself. I made one giant boner of a grammatical error at a climactic moment and went from addressing the Charlie character as an established member of the group to making him sound like more of a novice without seeming to notice — such is the danger of improvising for almost thirteen minutes and trying to keep your story straight — but that didn’t stop it from becoming one the most effective things of its kind in the whole PG catalogue. Gord made the unusual (for him) decision to play a few bit parts, contributing some great moments and giving me something to play off of.

Even the things that didn’t work seemed to work. We were able to incorporate the drum loop’s initial skittishness into the narrative without missing a beat. Gord played some evil-sounding electric guitar, setting the perfect tone, and I managed to hold things down on bass without getting distracted from the scene I was trying to paint. I overdubbed a bit of W-5 electric piano but it felt a little superfluous, so I kept it brief.

I owe a huge creative debt to John Cale and Tom Waits. Those two brilliant madmen taught me it was possible to make compelling “talkies” without being pretentious. I’d listen to “The Jeweller” or “9th & Hennepin” and sit spellbound, hanging on every word, wanting to know how the story was going to end. They were little movies in sound form.

I didn’t have that kind of poetry in me. Not yet. But their work gave me something to aspire to without trying to mimic or recreate what they’d already done.

(The pinnacle of my work in the spoken word department might be a song called “Average Jim” that’ll show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE one of these days. It’s a good one. The one that’s going on the next Papa Ghostface album is no slouch either.)

We couldn’t end the album on such a dark note. We got together one more time and recorded “Fatties”. Jesse, the classmate I wanted to impress (more on him in a bit), was working with me by then — or I should say I was working for him without getting paid anything — and he came over for a bit before Gord did, leaving his acoustic guitar behind. He didn’t feel like lugging it home. I was tasked with bringing it to school for him the next day.

It was serendipitous. Gord picked up Jesse’s acoustic, I reached for my own, and we were recording before we knew what we were doing.

“Fatties” is really two different improvised songs grafted together. The first is about smoking pot in Willistead Park — something I’d never done, but I knew a lot of students who did — and the effects of a month or so without cable TV on a teenage male libido — something I was all too familiar with. Whatever my guitar-related shortcomings were on “The Happy Dentist”, I made up for them here with a nice little slide solo and some walking bass lines, my unresolved chords playing off of Gord’s closed majors and minors. (My guitar is in the right stereo channel. Gord’s in the left.)

Apropos of nothing, my grade ten geography teacher Mr. Kuszowski worms his way in there — as a narc or a pothead, it isn’t made clear. All three of his favourite catchphrases appear, one after the other:

“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
— Said to discourage us from asking him anything about what he was teaching us.

“You got the answer? Shut your mouth.”
— Said when someone raised their hand to answer a question he asked the class.

“You want a week or a month?”
— Said when he was threatening someone with detention.

“What have you,” was a verbal tic my grade nine science teacher would often use to end a sentence. I threw that in there too.

I don’t know why I did that. But the overlapping Mr. Kuszowskis admonishing the listener not to ask stupid questions while a frenetic modulated synth-sitar line is introduced never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

Once that felt like it had gone as far as we could take it, we stopped recording and I got a drum loop going. It was the same one used on “The Happy Dentist”, only a little slower and deeper this time. I introduced a new chord progression in a different key and Gord picked out some lead lines when he wasn’t shadowing what I was doing.

There was a marked change in the lyrics now, with the silly sex talk and drug references forgotten.

Light
in the east,
in the west,
in the south.
From the north,
to the underground,
to my home room,
to my hometown.

(I always liked that “home room” / “hometown” bit.)

After the impressionism fades, this section reveals itself to be a wistful look back at a failed relationship. I’d never had a girlfriend and didn’t think I ever would. I wasn’t about to let a thing like that stop me from delving into matters of the heart (and genitals).

I used Gord’s voice in a way I never had before and never would again, feeding him lines, making both of us supporting players to my lead narrator. I got a huge kick out of directing him. There’s nothing quite like this tapestry of our voices in anything else we did together, and it’s somehow fitting that the backdrop is by far the prettiest music on the whole album.

After some fun duelling guitar action, Gord took his foot off the sustain pedal and started strumming a D major chord without warning when I was still playing a C. I switched to playing lead, sang, “That’s all the naked parakeet wrote,” repeated the line in a near-scream, and everything ended with a neat little callback to “Spandex” from Gord.

I didn’t like the way my last almost-screamed line came off, so I replaced most of it by saying, “And that, my friends, is the story of the penis farmer from Brazil.” You can still hear my wailing bleeding into the guitar mics. When I was doing the harmonies and faux-baritone bit (how I got that low back then, I have no idea), Gord added a little overdub right at the beginning of the second section, rubbing a metal slide against a mic that had some heavy distortion on it and singing a falsetto melody before my singing came in. I let out a little shout of affirmation in the background.

As for me swearing at my headphones and telling them to stay on my face after dedicating the song to Priscilla Presley — I was just starting to grow out my hair for the first time, and I liked the way it looked. I was so particular about keeping it in place, I would wear headphones upside down with the headband beneath my chin. It was a short-lived arrangement.

“Fatties” felt like a fine ending, but I still had a tiny bit of space left to work with on the CD. In those days before reliable eighty-minute CDs were available I liked to squeeze every millisecond I could out of the seventy-four minutes I had to work with. Gord took off for the night, and I recorded the unlisted final song by myself with every track running through the Digitech. I held a mic in front of the bass and smacked it with my fist, overdubbing myself singing about the song I was singing:

This little song —
it isn’t very long.
There isn’t lots of time left,
so I have to make it short.

It went on for a while longer like that. Felt like it lost steam pretty quick. I recorded over what I’d done as soon as that first “verse” ended, beat-boxing and screaming about a grasshopper. I cut that off to play a few seconds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Clavinova, also plugged into the Digitech to give it some extra hair. Then I mashed the keys and found the last few seconds of the beat-boxing section worked well enough as an outro.

The funny thing is I usually had to chop up a hidden track in order to make it fit on a CD, and I almost always ended up losing moments I was fond of. This time I went out of my way to chop the song up, only to discover there was just enough space left to accommodate it.

It’s less than thirty seconds long, and it’s probably my favourite unlisted track I’ve ever committed to a piece of spinning plastic. Its unbridled lunacy feels like the perfect ending to an album full of unhinged moments.

Awfully Lovely didn’t sit right with me as an album title now that I had all the pieces in front of me. I reached for one of my playing-with-words titles and called it YOU’RE A NATION. Seemed appropriate. The “Piss on Me”/urination connection never entered my mind.

The moment it was finished, I knew this album destroyed SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN. I could feel it in my bones. This time my feelings didn’t change after the honeymoon period passed. In a lot of ways it was the first Papa Ghostface album that felt like an album instead of a group of songs sharing the same space.

The sound quality…that was the trouble. I still couldn’t quite get things where I wanted them to be. I tried to get around the clipping issue by riding the fader and bringing down the volume of my singing during some of the more intense passages. There was a little less distortion in places, but there were moments when my voice all but disappeared (“Spandex” is a good example). About halfway through the album I gave up on that altogether and let things go into the red.

Today I know how to ride a fader if I need to, making minute adjustments that don’t call attention to themselves. Nineteen years ago…not so much.

Another thing I didn’t know much about was mic placement. I had two Shure SM57s and an SM58. That was my whole mic cabinet. No condensers. No ribbons. Those SM57s got pretty close to the sound hole of whatever acoustic instrument they were tasked with recording. I could have countered the mud by cutting some lows, but EQ was a foreign concept to me. I lived with the mud. I couldn’t even hear some of the mud — I was still monitoring on that old Magnasonic boombox.

My recordings of the bass guitar itself were a mixed bag. On some tracks, like “Rippin'” and “We’re All Gonna Go”, it was at least running through the Digitech and somewhat controlled by some built-in compression. On most of the other songs Gord or I plugged straight into the mixer with no compression. The dynamics were all over the place. For some reason I’ll never understand, I added a low boost effect to my bass on “Nothing from Nothing” and introduced even more mud.

To be fair, I was only a few months removed from starting serious work with this mixer. Digital recording was still brand new to me. I had to figure out everything on the fly, learning through trial and error. And my “monitors” weren’t giving me the most accurate imaging or frequency response. But it wasn’t my finest moment as an engineer.

I made a copy of the album for myself and a copy for Gord. My own CD travelled with me through all my classes the next day, and a few students asked to hear what I was listening to on my DiscMan. There was a lot of giggling whenever “Fatties” was played. One guy who was always a bit of a dick to me was obsessed with the hidden track. That was funny. Nothing crazy happened, though. I didn’t put any effort into spreading the music around. I was years away from even thinking to do that sort of thing, and it would be another month or two before MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS became a weird little high school sensation behind my back.

You’d be surprised what kind of legacy an album can have when only about eight people in the known universe have heard it. For instance, YOU’RE A NATION once helped endear Gord to some police officers who might have been looking to make an example out of him.

He was hanging out with Amanda in a city park not long after I gave him his copy of the album on CD when some cops who were canvassing the area saw them, grew suspicious of the two teenagers who looked like they walked straight out of the Woodstock film, and started asking questions.

They found some roaches and a small amount of pot on Gord. He found himself in the back of a police car, scared shitless. He was going to jail for only having enough marijuana in his pocket to roll one joint. He was sixteen.

Amanda was crafty. Gord might have been too terrified to speak, but she was friendly with the cops. She talked to them. She told them her boyfriend was a musician. Told them he was making all this crazy music with his friend. Told them she just happened to have their new album right here in her purse. Did they want to see it?

They did.

Those two cops looked at our song titles and my goofy drawings of us showing our asses to the world and thought it was pretty cool. They warmed up to Gord. They let him go with a warning: keep your drugs at home.

Talk about a weird album to save someone’s ass.

Jesse (I told you we’d come back to him) had a more troubled relationship with this music. As soon as he heard SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN he saw an opportunity, and he was on that shit faster than a dog on a shiny new fire hydrant. Today anyone can record an album on their laptop for little or no money. In 1999 things were a little different. Having the ability to record music at home and put it on a CD when you were a teenager…that wasn’t normal.

Halfway through the recording sessions for YOU’RE A NATION, Jesse was over at my house for the first of what would be many recording sessions. I was excited to work with another singer and songwriter my age. Gord was a great musical companion, but he wasn’t a writer. Aside from the odd thing like “Rotten Fruit”, he would never show up and say, “Check out this song I just wrote.”

I saw the potential for a unique creative partnership with Jesse. Not only did he and I both write our own material, but we had different influences and ideas. That could be exciting. We could push each other into uncharted territory by writing together.

My vision of our future was only half right. Jesse saw potential too, but it involved getting free recording time and absorbing my musical ideas to improve his own songs. And that was pretty much what our relationship was all about for the next few years, until he no longer saw any use for me and stopped hanging out with me. I was there to make him sound better and to listen to him spew hot air about how great he was and how lame everyone else was. When I asked him for a little bit of money after years of thankless work, he bolted.

I put up with this for as long as I did because I didn’t have a lot of confidence in those days. And to be honest, for a while I kind of looked up to the guy, before I realized he was a bit of an ass. He had charisma. That stuff can be pretty powerful.

The creative friction between us was interesting, even if he was the only one benefitting from it. Here was someone who wanted to take over the world, and he was convinced he was only a few steps away from his goal. I was the audience for a number of monologues in which he detailed his aspirations. He was going to The Top. He was taking me with him to The Top, whether I wanted to come along for the ride or not. He didn’t care who he had to step over or betray on his way to The Top. He knew he had the goods, and to hear him tell it, he was one of the only people on the planet worthy of this kind of success.

As someone who had no grand ambitions to conquer anything and was content to make music that didn’t fit into any particular box, his ego bewildered me. Meanwhile, I think I seemed like some sort of alien to him. The few times he did try to write with me, it was never about meeting me on my wavelength. It was about trying to get me to write the way he did. And that wasn’t gonna happen.

I’ll never forget him saying to me once, after listening to some songs that would end up on SHOEBOX PARADISE, “You’ve got so much talent it makes me fucking sick. You know, these could actually be good, commercial songs if you got rid of all the weird shit. I don’t know why you’re just throwing your talent away.”

There was contempt in his voice. He looked like an angry parent chastising a misbehaving child.

The “weird shit” was the whole point for me. I was a weird teenager with a twisted sense of humour and a wide range of interests. I wanted the music I made to reflect that. More than that, I wanted my music to sound like me. Not something somebody else had already done. It didn’t matter if no one else liked it. What mattered was I enjoyed creating it, it came from a place that was real, and I could enjoy listening to it.

I was art. He was commerce. It was that black and white.

Here’s an illustration of the war we waged:

That first time we met up outside of school in mid-October, I had a chance to play Jesse some music and watch him react to it. Giving my work a look-in was nothing more than an afterthought after we’d spent hours honing and recording a number of his songs, but I still wanted to share some of what I was working on.

The synthesizer stabs on “Rippin'” were “science fiction movie shit”. Jesse made it through three or four minutes of the song before he told me to play him something else. He made it all the way through “Spandex” but liked it even less. He told me Gord’s distorted screaming and a lot of my own singing was horrible, and the only way I could salvage the song was if I got rid of all that garbage.

I played “She’s Awfully Lovely” next.

“It sounds like you recorded this in your garage,” he said. It wasn’t a compliment.

I didn’t bother playing him “We’re All Gonna Go”. Having my work denigrated after I gave his soulless, brain-dead, emotionally vacant love songs a fair shake wasn’t my idea of a good time.

Two days later Jesse was over at the house again to work on some more of his music. He brought his friend Steph with him to sing some harmonies. Before we got started he said, “Play ‘Spandex’ for her.”

It was strange to me that he’d want anyone else to hear a song he had so little affection for, but I gave Jesse and Steph the two pairs of headphones I had and listened to the bleed I was able to pick up from across the room.

Steph laughed a few times. It wasn’t the laughter of someone who was put off by my lyrics about lycra-clad frogs, breasts from Montana, and my distaste for geography class. She was enjoying the song. For his part, Jesse had a look on his face like he was staring at something horrifying and couldn’t quite make himself turn away. It was hilarious.

Gord screamed, “Spandex for MEEEEEEEE!”

Jesse shook his head. “I told you to get rid of that shit. You left it in, huh?”

I smiled and shrugged.

“What do you think?” Jesse asked Steph once the song ended.

She told me she thought it was fun and she liked my vocal harmonies. That felt good.

“We need to get Johnny here to start writing normal songs,” Jesse said.

Here was the real tragedy of that night. I wrote two songs at school earlier in the day with the idea of asking Jesse and Steph to sing harmonies on them. One was a piano ballad. The other was a more uptempo thing. Both featured lyrics that were about as “normal” as I could stand to let myself get without lapsing into uninspired cliché territory (that was Jesse’s bread and butter, not mine). There was nothing weird about them. They were good, straightforward songs.

I had the music all worked out. I was ready to prove I could hang with Jesse as a songwriter — ready to assert myself and bend this into a true collaborative situation. I was convinced I would win his respect. And the thought of us singing three-part harmonies on my songs…that was thrilling.

I never got to hear it happen. Didn’t get to play even half a verse of one of those songs for my guests. As soon as “Spandex” was out of the way, Jesse made the night all about him. He had no interest in anything I had to say, musically or otherwise. He acted like it was his house, his equipment, his time. By the time he was trying to coach me into giving him the vocal tone he wanted for a third part harmony I was adding to one of his songs, bitching at me for not getting breathy enough, I was ready to tell him to get the hell out of my house.

I should have done that. I wish I wasn’t so gutless for so long when confronted with people whose unchecked arrogance sucked all the fun out of making music. It’s a serious regret.

At least I did one thing right. After he went home I annihilated the song he had us working on with one grotesque, ill-fitting overdub after another, taking everything he hated about my music and injecting it into his.

As passive-aggressive revenge scenarios go, that one was pretty satisfying.

I ran into Jesse at lunchtime one day in early November. By now I’d recorded almost a whole album for him between Papa Ghostface sessions and work on my own foul-mouthed Christmas album. He noticed I had the just-finished YOU’RE A NATION in my hand. He invited me to eat lunch with him in the music room. I didn’t have anything better to do.

He asked to see the album after we sat down. I handed it over. As soon as he saw “Spandex” written on the back insert his face lit up.

“You have to hear this song Johnny made,” he said to the six or seven other people in the room. “Check this out.”

He fired up Mr. Ross’s hi-fi system, slid the CD into the disc tray, hit play, and cranked up the volume.

No one seemed to know what to make of it. A girl named Katie Goertzen looked mortified. Jesse was smiling. I couldn’t believe it.

Just as Gord’s acoustic guitar was threatening to blow up the world, Mr. Ross appeared and killed the sound. He popped out the CD and asked who it belonged to. I reached out my hand and took it. He gave me a dirty look but didn’t say anything more.

“That’s fucking bullshit,” Jesse said. He was pissed.

Two weeks earlier, when he first heard “Spandex”, he was disgusted by it. Now he wanted everyone to hear it.

He never did come around to my way of looking at music as an art instead of a business. But I think that song broke his brain a little.

The best moment of all came when I was walking with Gord and Amanda in the park, probably a few more weeks down the road.

“I’ve had this song stuck in my head forever,” Amanda said. “Who does the song that goes, ‘We’re all gonna go down slowly’?”

“That’s one of John’s songs,” Gord said, laughing.

“Really?”

I sang a bit of it for her. Gord sang along on the chorus.

“That’s the song! I love that song!”

When you’re in high school and a beautiful girl has a song you wrote stuck in her head…it doesn’t get much better than that.

Over the years YOU’RE A NATION has remained one of my favourite Papa Ghostface albums. It’s foul-mouthed, idiosyncratic to the core, full of mistakes and human moments, and the music makes no concessions to the listener. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of what PG meant to me, and it paved the way for albums like SHOEBOX PARADISE and PAPER CHEST HAIR.

The thing that’s always killed me is the sound quality. It’s not an album I think a lot of people would enjoy or “get”, and to those who’ve only heard the music I’ve made over the last decade or so it would probably be a shock, but I’ve been reluctant to share it with anyone at all for a long time because of all that clipping and low end mud.

Too self-conscious to share an album you’re proud of. That’s a funny place to be.

Remixing it has never been an option. I have a very clear memory of staring at the mixer nineteen years ago and making the decision to erase every single YOU’RE A NATION track without backing any of them up. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t think I was ever going to get very good at this whole recording thing, and there wasn’t any reason to believe returning to this material in a year or two with fresh ears would make any difference.

And yet I backed up all of SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN.

Ugh.

My only recourse was to find a mastering engineer willing to take a crack at it. I started giving that some serious thought around the time the album turned ten years old.

In 2009, when I was beginning work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I sent an email to a mastering engineer I won’t name. I felt it was time to give the professional mastering thing another shot, and that album felt like it was going to be especially dynamic and worthy of a master’s touch (ooh, a pun).

At the time, this guy was willing to master a single song for free to give potential clients an idea of what he could do. I sent him “Knee-Jerk Howl”. He told me his free samples were done on a “first come, first served” basis, so it could take a few weeks, but he would get to it when he could.

Nine years later, I’m still waiting to hear back from him.

In 2011 I emailed another mastering engineer I won’t name. This time I cut right to the chase. I told him about YOU’RE A NATION, detailed the album’s issues, and sent along a sample track to give him an idea of what he’d have to work with. I asked how much he would charge for a project like this and what the turnaround time would be.

I’m still waiting for a response.

It was just like the demoralizing weirdness I went through when I was trying to make friends with fellow musicians and get gigs in Windsor in the days before CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN made me “cool” overnight, only now it was mastering engineers who decided I was so insignificant they didn’t even want to take my money.

The YOU’RE A NATION Reclamation Project became a bucket list item for me. Something I hoped to get done someday, assuming I could ever find a mastering engineer who would give me the time of day. I wasn’t optimistic. I put it on the back burner and went about my business.

A lot of mastering engineers charge an awful lot of money. I understand why. You put a lot of time, money, and work into building a studio that’s acoustically treated just right and you hone your craft. Your ears and your gear are valuable — often indispensable. You provide an important service. You need to make a living.

But with the Loudness War showing no signs of fading, it’s become difficult to asses the kind of work some professionals are capable of when maximum loudness isn’t a consideration. I’ve heard $3,000 and $5,000 mastering jobs that sound like something a dead squirrel could have done with a stolen plug-in. And I know this isn’t even always the mastering. Some mastering engineers are given awful mixes by recording and mixing engineers — mixes that are intentionally distorted and devoid of headroom so they won’t be “tampered with” — putting them in an impossible situation. The issue still stands. When so much music is crushed beyond the point of no return and almost no one offers free samples anymore, how are you supposed to even guess at what someone might do to your music if your priorities are dynamics and musicality?

This is why I’ve been doing it myself for a good long while now. It keeps things simple.

Still, a few years back I got to thinking it might be worth one more try. One name I kept coming across on the internet was Scott Craggs. His rates were incredibly reasonable. What’s more, every shred of evidence I could find told me he did great work and was a pleasure to deal with. I listened to some music he mastered. It wasn’t squashed. It sounded good. I read some things he wrote. He was funny. He was articulate. He was against the Loudness War. I liked this guy already.

I sent Scott an email. He wrote back the same day. I almost had him master STEW. It was a shorter-than-usual album for me, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out what a real mastering engineer could do with my stuff now that I knew a lot more about the whole recording thing.

About five seconds after that email exchange, money-related things went straight into the toilet and paying a mastering engineer was no longer an option for me. So much for that.

These days things are better. And after losing most of September to that stupid cold and some subsequent bronchitis (boo), I felt the time was right for YOU’RE A NATION. There was never going to be a more opportune moment to cross it off my bucket list.

I sent Scott “Spandex”, explained what I was hoping to do, and asked if he thought it was a worthwhile project. He said he’d be glad to take a stab at it. He thought it would be fun. He also said the song made him think of a cross between Tago Mago-period Can and teenage silliness.

I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to high-five someone through a computer screen as much as I did right then.

At the time this music was being made, Can was one of many bands on my list of “music to check out”. I read about them and wanted to dig into their catalogue, but I didn’t end up picking up any of their albums until well over a decade later. And then, of course, I thought, “What took me so long?! This is great!”

What was I listening to in late 1999? There would have been a lot of Tom Waits, David Sylvian, and Roxy Music on the menu. Big Star. Kate Bush. Robyn Hitchcock. John Cale. Lou Reed. There wouldn’t have been any jazz, blues, or electronica yet.

I don’t know if much of that seeped into YOU’RE A NATION. But I know if anyone had dropped Can as a reference point in 1999, I would have flipped out. Might have asked them to marry me if I was feeling bold.

I wanted to make Scott’s work as painless as possible, so I experimented with the “Clip Fix” tool in Audacity. According to the manual, it “attempts to reconstruct clipped regions by interpolating the lost signal. It is only likely to be effective for repairing lightly clipped audio.”

It was a good deal more effective than that. Some of these songs were a mess of clipping all the way through. I was able to undo almost all of that junk. As I’ve said before, I know it isn’t technically possible to replace information that’s been lost through digital clipping. An algorithm like this can only “guess” at the way things might have sounded before the clipping occurred.

I applied it to whole songs, and it wiped out nineteen years of frustration in one fell swoop. It was unreal. The only sounds I couldn’t repair were those where distortion was burned in, either from a vocal effect being hit too hard at the source (“The Happy Dentist”) or a microphone overloading (“Spandex”). I expected as much. What I wasn’t counting on was being able to give Scott WAV files that had some actual headroom and lots of dynamics.

Score a major coup for Audacity’s guesswork.

In a way, I think something like this is the ultimate test of a mastering engineer’s skills. It’s one thing to work on an album that’s been well-recorded and well-mixed. When that isn’t the case and there are giant, gaping flaws that need to be addressed, you get to find out what an audio surgeon is really capable of.

I tried to keep my expectations low, given the source material. When Scott sent me the remastered songs, I burned them onto a CD, put on the same Sennheiser headphones I used when I was recording and mixing the album in 1999 (headband up this time), and braced myself.

If I hadn’t been listening in bed, “Rippin'” would have knocked me over. It had a punch to it I’d never heard before. The first W-5 drum hits smacked me right in the chest. For the first time I could hear everything my acoustic guitar was doing in the left stereo channel, and all my weird little bass runs, when those tracks used to be twin layers of mud. The Arp Omni-2 bits came alive in a whole new way. It was like a thick blanket had been lifted from the sound to reveal hidden abdominal muscles and a tasteful nipple ring.

Gord’s acoustic guitar overload on “Spandex” was now a cool lo-fi sound that didn’t bring way too much low end energy with it. On “She’s Awfully Lovely”, “Piss on Me”, and “Nothing from Nothing”, out-of-control bass tracks were reigned in until they sat right in the pocket. Hearing the songs like this was almost like hearing them for the very first time. The drum loops all had a whole new depth to them. The keyboard drums on “We’re All Gonna Go” almost sounded like real drums, they were so dynamic and full. My acoustic guitar sounded like it had been recorded by someone who knew what they were doing, and not a clueless teenager shoving an SM57 too close for comfort. Even my beat-boxing on the unlisted track had a new depth to it.

It was everything I didn’t dare to hope for and more. An album I thought was destined to have a saggy bum forever now had a tight, powerful bottom end. And the mud! Did I mention the mud? It was gone! Dead! Kaput! On some songs Scott had to contend with both acoustic guitar-generated mud and electric bass-generated mud. He killed them both without ever sacrificing the body of the sounds.

I asked him how he managed to do a thing like that. It was pretty amazing to me. Some people would scoff at this kind of question and say, “I’m not telling you how I work.” Not Scott.

Here’s some of what he told me:

From memory, it was basically something like this: De-esser on most songs, around 4-5k. EQ was a high pass filter around 25-30, usually a cut somewhere between 100-200, maybe another cut between 200-400. I added some high end on one or two of them. Nothing drastic, 1-2db at most. Couple songs might have had a dynamic EQ doing a bit of low end control as well. Then there was a compressor in M/S, just working on the M. I was trying to reign in the vocals a bit. So, high ratio, hard-ish knee, mostly just working to grab the louder vocal stuff. Then a regular broadband compressor, low ratio/soft knee, slow attack/fastish release, just tapping along doing a db or so. A little saturation, a tape sim, and a limiter….again, all of those just tapping a lil bit each. A couple of the really loud vocal bits I just went in and turned down manually.

That might not mean much to you if you’re not into recording and audio, but to me it’s riveting. So many different things, all doing small amounts of work that add up to a profound sonic difference. It’s a good lesson to me, too, about how less is often more even in situations where you’d assume otherwise. I thought an album like this would need huge EQ moves and a lot of compression to get it to sound right, or as close to “right” as it could get.

You know what else? It’s dynamic. It breathes. The volume is right in line with the ballpark range I try to shoot for these days when I’m mastering one of my own albums. The jarring moments like my scream of “Oh Jesus!” in “The Happy Dentist” are still jarring, as they were meant to be. They just won’t destroy your listening equipment or your ears now.

I mean, take a look at this beautiful waveform:

That’s how you do it. That’s how the game is won.

If I had the opportunity to remix these songs today, I could clean them up something fierce. I think that would be a mistake. Scott understood that without me even telling him. Instead of trying to make the album something it wasn’t, he respected the funkiness of the original recording and kept it intact, concentrating on making it the best possible version of itself.

It’s still a lo-fi beast. But now it’s got some shiny fur, some sharp teeth, and I’m no longer embarrassed to share it with anyone who’s brave enough to dive into the insanity. The best part is I can enjoy listening all the way through without any reservations for maybe the first time in my life. I used to almost want to weep when I heard how much out-of-control low end there was on a song like “Nothing from Nothing” or “Piss on Me”. It ruined the songs for me. That’s all gone now. It’s a little shocking to find myself thinking, “That’s a pretty cool bass sound,” when the only bass sound I thought this album would ever have was “shit”.

Huge thanks go out to Scott for making this stuff sound better than I ever dreamed possible, and for being so open and easy to work with. Fellow recording adventurers: if you ever find yourself in need of a mastering engineer who’s going to approach your music with an open mind, is responsive, has a quick turnaround time, won’t charge an arm, a leg, and a lung, and just does great work, Scott gets my strongest recommendation. You won’t find a nicer person or a better set of ears. I know who I’m going to now if I ever feel like an album needs an extra little something and it’s in the budget. The man is a sorcerer of the highest order.

You’d think this would be the end of our tale, but no. Now I had to think about cover art.

The first time YOU’RE A NATION was issued on CD with proper cover art I had no idea what to do. I went with a picture of the room the music was recorded in, more out of desperation than anything.

This picture was taken at the door. The room doesn’t look smaller than it is. It really was that cramped. I think it was ten feet by ten feet, if that. I spent a lot of time in that big chair, sometimes wheeling it over here when I wanted to play things with keys:

This would have been about a month before sessions for the album began. The rented acoustic bass is a dead giveaway.

I felt the first picture worked well enough as a cover image in a “you are there” way. Now I think it’s a little too bland for an album this nutty.

I didn’t feel up to commissioning an artist to draw something for me. I thought I’d see if I could scare up any interesting public domain images on the internet. I found a striking drawing Georges Méliès made during the production of his 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans le Lune (A Voyage to the Moon). I know an astronomical body and a stable community of people are two different things, but check out how cool this thing is.

The film itself is well worth viewing. It’s almost eerie to watch something that was made over a hundred years ago, knowing not a single person who was involved in front of or behind the camera is still living.

But maybe that was too classy for an album like YOU’RE A NATION. I wasn’t sure Georges would approve of a song like “Piss on Me”.

I looked at all kinds of abstract art in the public domain, from scrolls made in the 1300s to modern day digital drawings. A few things caught my eye.

Arthur Dove’s “Foghorns” from 1929:

And Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sunrise”, from the 1930s:

These were just too pretty for an album that worked so hard to avoid prettiness.

I was about to give up when I typed “public domain melting face” into a Google image search and this came up:

It was a sticker someone created and left on a website for anyone to use in any way they wanted. I downloaded it, reversed the polarity so it became white on a black background, and bingo. There it was. Something simple and off-kilter enough to feel like an accurate representation of what’s under the hood.

The plan is to go to Minuteman Press sometime next week and have a small amount of inserts made. I can’t wait to see that creepy smiley face on an album cover. It feels right. Almost iconic.

One thing I have to say: revisiting this album at the same time I’m wrapping up work on the last Papa Ghostface album there’s ever going to be has made for some interesting symmetry. In spite of all that’s changed, I’m proud to say the spirit of experimentation and anything-goes-ness is still alive and well. I think you’d have to kill me to get rid of it. Sorry, Jesse old pal. I just wasn’t made for the mainstream.

The heavenly poultry lady with a percussion instrument.

THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE just turned ten years old. That’s insane to even think about.

As I’ve said a few times before, this blog began as a half-assed stab at bullying myself back into being productive after falling into a shiftless state. If you dig into the archives, you can trace my progress from not knowing what to work on and settling for recording the occasional stripped-to-the-bone tiny song, to starting to regain some momentum, to finally kicking open the floodgates and recording eight very long full-length albums inside of three years before drifting into another less fruitful period.

CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was the beginning of that whole creative resurgence. I knew it was an important album for me when I was making it. I knew I was proud of it when it was finished. I didn’t expect more than two or three other people in the world would have any interest in listening to it.

For years I tried to get gigs, tried to network and exchange music with other artists, tried to make friends, tried to play the game — everything you’re “supposed” to do, and everything I don’t do now. No one would give me a show. With a few fleeting exceptions, no one would talk to me. No one was willing to take the time to listen to my music to work out whether or not they even thought it was any good.

I didn’t know the right people. I wasn’t considered cool enough to be worthy of a seat at the table. It was made very clear to me, in a myriad of ways, that I wasn’t wanted.

There was a quick little ripple of something different when I put out the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP, BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, and GROWING SIDEWAYS almost all at the same time. Some people at CJAM started playing my music a fair bit. That stirred up some attention.

One guy started telling me he was going to make it his mission to get me signed to a record label. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but it was a nice feeling to have a fan who claimed to have some industry connections and seemed willing to try and help me out. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him so we could talk about putting a game plan together.

The number he gave me was out of service. All he ever did for me was blow a bunch of hot air in my face.

That’s a good example of the sort of thing networking got me in those days.

I was able to get a show early in 2005. The bassist in the band that opened for me was one of the many people I tried and failed to connect with when no one was interested in anything I had to say. Now the landscape was a little different and he tried to paint himself as an ally who’d been in my corner all along. He said he would get me some more gigs around the city, helping to find bills I would make some amount of musical sense on. He was my new best friend right up until the moment I started playing my set.

I opened with an instrumental ambient electric guitar piece. He stood stock-still and glared at me. Maybe he didn’t think I was supposed to be able to get up on a stage and make that kind of atmospheric racket on a guitar with no amp and no effects outside of a cheap, obsolete-even-then Digitech GSP-21. Maybe he wasn’t expecting me to be any good and it bothered him that I wasn’t embarrassing myself, robbing him of an opportunity to pat himself on the back and say, “See? This is why no one would give you the time of day or listen to your music. I knew it all along.”

I’m not sure what his deal was. But he stood there and stared at me for a while with contempt sucking the warmth out of his face. Then he walked out before I was finished my first song. He didn’t come back.

He didn’t help me get any gigs. He never talked to me again.

It wasn’t like I was the talk of the town or anything. But now that some people who were considered cool decided I was good enough to pay attention to after all, the general attitude of the city’s music scene seemed to shift from, “Fuck off, freak,” to, “You’re okay, I guess. Come on in and hang out with us if you want.” Almost everyone I came in contact with was all talk. When it came time to turn thought into action, they would never show up so we could do anything together, or else they would stop talking to me after a while with no explanation, and then they would never acknowledge me again.

That put a pretty bad taste in my mouth. I washed it down by not playing any more shows and shoving myself off the face of the earth, killing whatever small-scale hype there was before it had a chance to hit puberty. The way I looked at it, if I wasn’t good enough before, no way was I good enough now that a few of the cool kids wanted to hang out with me. They didn’t get to have it both ways. And I’ve always had contempt for people who let their mouths write cheques their asses can’t cash.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t develop a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the whole thing. But I think it was justified. And sometimes you don’t have any popcorn to munch on when you’re watching a movie. A random chip or two can be useful in a situation like that.

I got on with trying to make the best and most honest music I could, keeping it to myself for the most part. I did manage to make a handful of friends through music, but they were few and far between. That was fine with me. I was content to hang out in the shadows, away from all the empty talk and double-dealing.

By the time CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN came along, I was a few years removed from that one post-high school live show. I tried doing the sideman thing for a while, backing up a few friends at Phog or the Room or the FM Lounge when they asked me to. That was as far as it went. Playing my own songs live wasn’t a consideration anymore.

I was excited to share this album with some friends and a few people at CJAM, but I didn’t expect anyone to like it much. As happy as I was with it, and as much as I felt like it marked something of a creative rebirth for me, it was pretty freewheeling stuff even by my standards, with a lot of very short songs and some pretty bizarre subject matter.

I gave a few copies to Liam at Dr. Disc and Tom at Phog and said, “I don’t think anyone will be interested in this. But if anyone wants a CD, they’re free for whoever wants to take them.”

A week or two later, I took a look at the CJAM website. My album was at #2 on the “general” chart and #1 on the folk/roots/blues chart. I did a mental double-take. I wasn’t listening to the radio at all at the time. I wasn’t expecting this music to get any airplay. I started digging into the MP3 archives and heard one DJ after another playing CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN songs and talking about the album with what sounded like real excitement.

A lot of people said some very kind things, but the most surprising and meaningful on-air moment I was privy to was this one.

Angela talks about “Chicken Angel Woman” on Braille Radio

The quality is pretty fuzzy. Something strange was going on with the MP3 archives in the late summer of 2008, and for a while anything you downloaded from the site was pitched down about half an octave and swimming with white noise.

(Side note: this was how I first heard the David Gray song “Knowhere”. To this day I can’t listen to it at its intended speed. It doesn’t sound right to me if it isn’t slowed down.)

I was able to restore this bit to the proper pitch and speed, but too much clarity got lost when I tried to remove the noise. So it’s very lo-fi.

Angela was one of the first people at CJAM to really champion my music. She got the music director to take notice and move my albums over to the on-air library for the first time so they were eligible to chart. She was the main reason I got that show back in 2005. Unlike the aforementioned Mr. Hot Air, she even solicited some record labels on my behalf in an effort to get them to acknowledge me.

We’re not friends anymore. It’s complicated. But there’s a part of me that will always love her for what she said about me on her show ten years ago when this album was new. The first time I listened, it made me feel like crying.

I got a call from Liam not long after that. “The album is awesome,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to sell it? All the copies you gave me are gone. Everyone who hears it wants one.”

I had to start giving Liam and Tom small boxes to hold free copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. I couldn’t seem to keep them stocked longer than a week at a time. The attention my music stirred up back in 2004 and 2005 for a short spell was nothing compared to this. I got blog comments and emails from people in different countries asking how they could get a copy of the album. And with an almost rabid enthusiasm, I was hurled into a music scene that had once treated me like a leper.

The strangeness of it all is difficult to put into words now.

My twenty or thirty minutes of local fame/infamy aren’t worth getting into in any great detail. A lot of that story is already preserved here in old blog posts. I made friends — some of whom later revealed themselves not to be friends at all — and enemies, had some interesting adventures, watched as the whole free public distribution thing stirred up all kinds of mixed reactions, became the subject of some pretty outlandish speculation, and came to understand this wasn’t a world I wanted any part of.

Once I got what I thought I wanted, I saw it wasn’t at all what I built it up to be in my head. I consider my time spent as a semi-present member of this city’s music scene to be a worthwhile experiment, but after a while the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze anymore. There was too much pulp for my taste. So I backed away and scaled things down until I was pretty much back where I started. The group of people who had some genuine interest in what I was doing was a little larger than before, but otherwise I was still chiseling away at random rock formations from the comfort of my cave.

Without CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, whatever’s left of that audience today probably wouldn’t exist. It remains the album I’ve made with the most reach and the largest, most diverse fan base. It’s also one of my own personal favourites when I look at all the work I’ve done. For all the weirdness I thought people would find off-putting, the songs still stand up and feel like some of the best I’ve written — especially in their remastered form, without the digital clipping some of them were marred by the first time around.

Not long ago, Ron Leary’s album theroadinbetween turned ten years old. He played a handful of live shows that featured the whole album performed front to back. My “breakthrough” album hasn’t had anything close to the impact his debut full-length did, and it hasn’t reached half as many ears over the years, but I got to thinking it might be worthwhile to try doing something similar. After all, you don’t often get the chance to mark meaningful musical milestones like this.

I could try putting a band together to play the whole album. That would be kind of crazy, teaching a group of people more than thirty songs. I could go it alone. That would be almost as crazy, and it might be a little less interesting for an audience to listen to so many songs with a more limited palette of sounds to support them. I did sit down one afternoon to try playing a bunch of the songs at the piano as an experiment. It opened them up in an interesting way and gave me a new appreciation for some of them.

But I’ve also been stewing on an idea to put on a big show at Mackenzie Hall when YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished with as many of the people who’ve contributed to that album as I can get on board. I feel like I’ve got one big show left in me, and that’s it.

As appealing as a ten-year anniversary CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN extravaganza is in theory, between trying to finish two different albums and some other business that hasn’t yet been written about here, I think the timing isn’t quite right. Don’t be too surprised if there’s a show sometime next year, though. If it’s the last thing I do in a live setting with my own music — and it might be — I’m going out with a bang.

You are much more adept at enunciating with a shoe in your mouth.

Ric was over here tuning the piano on Valentine’s Day. My Yamaha U1 has the Piano Life Saver System installed, pulling double duty as an internal humidifier and dehumidifier. It’s helped a lot during those times when the air has been less than kind to instruments that crave moisture. Even so, Ric said it might not be a bad idea to pick up a hygrometer and a room humidifier, to guard against the damage the cold months can do and keep the piano happy.

Enter this little guy:

And his co-conspirator:

The humidity in the studio is now hovering between 30 and 40% all the time. Not quite ideal, but a marked improvement over the horrifying 16% the hygrometer was reading before the new humidifier started doing its thing. It should help pick up some of the slack so the Life Saver System doesn’t have to work so hard.

It’s funny what a difference it can make when you’ve got something to counteract the way your furnace sucks all the moisture out of a room. Breathing the air in there even feels better now.

I thought I’d take the opportunity to perform a little humidity treatment on a 1939 Kalamazoo mandola. I have a habit of leaving this instrument out of its case for long stretches of time (not smart, I know), and when winter shows up it lets me know it isn’t happy. It’s about as upset with me right now as it’s ever been.

The other day I shoved a Dampit inside of each F-hole and stuck the mandola on top of the Ace Tone combo organ, as close as I could get it to the humidifier without putting it somewhere I might forget about it and knock it over. Already we’re down from four or five dead frets to just one that’s a little bit buzzy. Talk about a fast turnaround. If I promise to make sure the mandola gets the moisture it needs from now on, maybe it’ll find it in its headstock to forgive me.

The dying gasp of that residual coughing crap is still hanging on, but my voice seems to be fine. Time to get back down to business and regain some of the momentum I had going at the end of 2017 before stupid germs stole it from me. To paraphrase the great Dolph Lundgren: “If I cough, I cough.”

I wanted to post a song to make up for the relative scarcity of blog updates so far this year. Of course, instead of working on something new, my brain made a direct beeline for the past. I had to go along for the ride. You really don’t have a choice in a situation like that, unless you want to experience spontaneous psychic decapitation.

If you were around during the infancy of this blog, you might remember a little sketch I posted in July of 2009. Here it is again. Blast from the past!

(Washed-out image care of the Flip camera’s protective adhesive plastic lens cover, which I didn’t realize you were supposed to remove until a day or two later.)

It took a while for the sketch to turn into a finished song. The music was easy. That came right away. The words were the tricky part. I got a verse or two right off the bat, and then nothing for a few months, until the rest of the words decided to show up one day without any fanfare.

Over the back half of 2009, Mark Plancke (owner and operator of Sharktank Productions, a long-running Windsor recording studio) reached out to just about every music-making life form in the city and invited them to be a part of a compilation he was putting together called From the Tank. I was one of those life forms.

The idea behind the compilation was this: he would record as many artists and bands operating in as many different genres as possible. The end result would be a convenient musical business card he could use to advertise his services. In return, the musicians involved would get to record a song in a professional studio environment.

Sounded interesting in theory. I’ve written before about how some part of me will always wonder what would happen if, as an experiment, I tried recording in someone else’s studio and let an outside producer have their way with my music. With the passage of time that part of me has shrunk down to almost nothing, but I think some vague echo of it will always be there.

When I was mulling it over, the first and only song that came to mind was this one. It was a very clear, immediate thought: “If I decide to go through with it, this is the song I want to record.”

I was curious to see how the other half lived — how people did things in a “proper” studio. And Mark had an impressive list of gear. But I had some good gear of my own. A lot of money and time and effort went into accumulating those tools and teaching myself how to use them. For someone who’s spent a lifetime working in untreated rooms, I’ve had a ridiculous amount of luck, never finding myself saddled with a space that’s posed any serious acoustic problems. I was happy with my room and the recordings I was making in it.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get involved or not. What knocked me off the fence was the discovery that the Tank, like most other local studios, didn’t have a real acoustic piano. Once I got my upright, there was no going back, and no amount of expensive processing was going to make a digital piano sound like the real deal.

I recorded the song myself in the summer of 2010 while working on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, knowing it was destined for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE if it ended up anywhere at all. The whole thing was built around a nice Larrivée acoustic guitar I was trying to make a point of playing more after neglecting it for a while. I spent one afternoon in June working on it and then left it unmixed for over a year.

In late 2011, after getting GIFT FOR A SPIDER out of my system, I gave it a fresh listen, added some combo organ and a bit of melodica, and mixed it. Around this time, someone told me they thought the snare drum didn’t come through in my mixes as much as it should. That got stuck in my head for a while, and I ended up making some mixes that were far too drum-heavy in an effort to make up for that supposed oversight.

Good sense prevailed before too long, and I decided the drums were right where I wanted them to be. But the original mix of this song is one that came out of that short-lived Jack up the Drums period of uncertainty. For more than six years I’ve been meaning to revisit it and give it a new mix. Today seemed like a good day to get it done.

Bass Shakes the Salmon

I didn’t change much. All the HELLHOUND-period effects — the medium delay I was favouring on my vocal tracks at the time, the reverb on the organ, the ping-pong delay on the piano — were left intact. The drums got pulled down quite a bit, but not so much that they disappeared. They sit in the pocket better now, driving the music without getting too vocal about it. The electric guitar came up a titch, and I snipped out a few lip smacks and unwanted ambient noises I was too lazy to get rid of the first time. Other than that, I left it alone.

I like how the bridge section feels kind of aimless, with the singing sounding unsure of what melodic logic it wants to follow, and then everything kicks back in after the first of two false endings with a renewed sense of purpose. The piano and electric guitar are both first-take scratch tracks I meant to either re-record or get rid of. I improvised them without knowing what I was doing. All this time later, I like the way they provide a bit of colour without ever settling down into conventional or studied “parts”, and the way the piano drifts into jazzy dissonance now and then to keep things a little off-balance. So they get to stay, unedited.

The little lead melody during the instrumental break was supposed to be a guitar solo. For whatever reason, it seemed more compelling to me when I played it on the combo organ and then doubled it with melodica. Take that, intended guitar solo!

The piano line at the beginning might sound familiar if you’ve listened to a fair amount of my music. When I wasn’t sure if this song was album material, I took that little musical idea and repurposed it, sticking it in the middle of the instrumental bridge section in “No Better Than Before”, the opening track on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC. Most of the time I try to avoid recycling melodies and riffs with about as much force as I try to avoid being subjected to the musical halitosis of my old pal the Paddle Pop Lion, but every once in a great while you come across an idea that wants to get out and make some friends. To clip its wings would just be cruel.

The title can be read as either one fish shaking another, or sound frequencies causing the salmon to vibrate. If you want to get absurd, it can even be an action performed by a bass guitar with a mind and a will of its own. I still haven’t decided which reading I prefer, and none of them have anything to do with what the lyrics have to say.

You can look at it as a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of thing.

This is also the song I was listening to when it hit me what important roles silence and space have come to play in my songwriting.

For some weird, logic-defying reason it’s one of my favourite ANGLE songs. It’s more of a lazy lope of a deep album cut than anything, showing up well past the halfway mark on the first disc of my failed attempt at sequencing and finishing the album back in 2012. I can’t explain what it is. There’s just something about the song I’ve always really liked.

Today I kind of wish I could say I went ahead and tried recording it at the Sharktank around the same time I was recording my own version at home. It would be fun to be able to compare two very different recordings of the same source material, interpreted by two producers with profoundly different philosophies and methodologies. I can only guess at how the recorded-by-someone-else version of this song would have sounded. The drums probably would have come out sounding a lot more “produced”, with more microphones on the kit. You’d have Wurlitzer in place of the piano part and Hammond organ in place of the Ace Tone. The melodica-and-organ solo would probably be the more conventional guitar solo it started out as in my head. The mics and their placement, effects, and mixing choices would all be very different.

It would have been interesting. But I’m not sure it would have really sounded or felt like me. So maybe it all worked out the way it was supposed to.

Speaking of the quadruple CD that almost was…

In 2012, THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE had my undivided attention. I was convinced I would be able to shape that years-in-the-making mess into something that made sense as a self-contained album. I was so sure of myself, I went ahead and sequenced the first two discs of an intended four-disc set, paid to have inserts printed, copied a large batch of CDs, and gave everything a copyright date of 2012.

The plan was to put a different picture I’d taken on the cover of each individual CD. Then those pictures and others would form a collage that would serve as the “master cover”, and all the CDs would be housed in a fancy slipcase. All I had to do was finish the other two discs, get a huge lyric booklet printed, and work out how and where to get a slipcase made.

I thought it was a smart move. It turned out to be a serious tactical error. By dating the back of those first two CDs, I gave myself a limited amount of time to tie up all the loose ends. I took my best shot at it, recording a lot of new songs, mixing and remixing a lot of old ones, but I just couldn’t get it done in time. 2012 gave way to 2013, I started feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing, and before too long I’d kicked it to the side and given up on it — not for the first or last time.

I was at least able to repurpose the CD jewel cases for other albums. The hundreds of inserts I had printed became useless, along with the hundreds of CDs I spent hours copying and printing myself. I had to eat those expenses.

Lesson learned: don’t package your album before it’s finished.

I have no idea what the sequencing of ANGLE is going to look like when it’s finished, but I know it won’t even begin to resemble what I put together in 2012. Half the songs that made it onto those two discs back then might not even make the final cut. Whatever album it might have been had I managed to pull it together six years ago, I’m convinced it’ll be a much stronger piece of work when it finally sees the light of day in 2089.

A home at the end of the frozen river.

Ten years ago Sufjan Stevens set this thing in motion called The Great Sufjan Stevens Xmas Song Xchange. The idea: people would submit original Christmas songs. Sufjan would select the song he felt was the best and most original of the bunch. The winner would get the rights to an exclusive Christmas song of Sufjan’s, and he in turn would get the rights to theirs.

I’ve talked before about what I think of most music-related contests. In this case there didn’t seem to be any way for anyone to cheat or turn it into a popularity contest. I didn’t expect or even really want to win, but I thought it might be pretty neat to get one of my songs to Sufjan’s ears even if I would probably never know how he reacted to it. And I liked the idea of challenging myself to write a Christmas song that wasn’t profane and offensive for once. It would be unbroken songwriting ground for me.

So I decided to go for it.

I didn’t have a real piano then. I sat down at the Clavinova and wrote a song that was sung in the voice of a homeless man who tries to get his wife and kids through the Christmas season with some amount of hope intact, struggling to find beauty in the face of adversity. I spent the better part of a day chipping away at it, committed to crafting the lyrics and music into something serious and meaningful.

By the time I sat down to record the song I’d lost all interest in it. It sounded like just the sort of sappy thing that would win this kind of contest, but it didn’t feel authentic.

This was also right about the time it started to sink in that the sound of a digital piano wasn’t cutting it for me in the studio anymore. So that didn’t help. I got down piano and guide vocals, and that was the end of it.

A few weeks later I sat back down at the Clavinova and started writing a new set of lyrics to some very different music that had a lot more energy in it. “The temptress of the ice will swallow us whole and cough us up as we wish to be,” the opening line went. That felt more like me. I plucked a few of the more interesting lines from the first song and tried to incorporate them, but I couldn’t get it to a place where it felt finished.

The day of the deadline for submissions, I threw out all the music to the second song, grafted together a few different ideas I’d been kicking around on the mandolin without knowing what to do with them, took what I liked from the words I’d written, improvised the rest, and recorded and mixed the whole thing in about half an hour. I wanted to add more acoustic guitar, some stomping and clapping, more vocal tracks, maybe some bass, and maybe some Wurlitzer or something, but there wasn’t time for all that.

It wasn’t a perfect performance or mix, and the acoustic guitar dropped out a little early at the end. Even so, I was pretty happy with the way it turned out. Felt like I found a way to write a Christmas song that sidestepped the obvious imagery and well-worn phrases. Aside from a silly little riff on “Frère Jacques” and one line at the very end, there weren’t any overt references to Christmas at all. And the closing verse tempered that with a healthy dose of cynicism.

A Home at the End of the Frozen River

When the winning song was announced, it wasn’t mine. I was expecting that. What surprised me was the song that did win. It was one of the worst things I’d ever heard in my life. The lyrics alone were so awful they defied belief.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out this bit:

For I’ve got a secret that no one else can know
that keeps my temperament even during times of snow.
I’ve got the perfect present, one not wrapped up in a bow.
It lifts my spirits high when I’m feeling low.
Others long for the holidays, yes indeed they do.
But every day is Christmas when I’m with you.

We were told our songs were being judged based on their originality. Here was one trite, clichéd, unoriginal turn of phrase and predictable forced rhyme after another. As for the music, it was a few simple chords that never strayed far from the key of C.

There was no complexity or invention to any part of it. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, there was no there there.

Sufjan had this to say about his decision:

“I fell most in love with one particular song because of its happy simplicity: Alec Duffy’s ‘Every Day Is Christmas.’ It feels, at once, like a classic show tune, the perfect parlour song, a lackadaisical bar ballad, and a church hymn. It is unencumbered with the pejoratives and prophetic exclamations of Christmas, the most complicated of holidays. Oh sure, I continue to indulge in the Christmas blues, the heavy winter dread, the melancholy expectations of the season. And I still marvel at the sacrilege, the subversive satire, and the silly nonsense of Christmas as commodity, patterned with the cartoon characters of Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and Rudolf. For me, the entertainment of these bipolar fantasies will never quite fade away; they are fundamental to the mysteries of Christmas. But when it came down to it, I just wanted the simple relief of ordinary, everyday love, the love between two people, the kind of love that doesn’t obligate itself to the trumpet fanfares and jingle bells of a holiday spectacle. Alec Duffy’s unfettered song ‘Every Day Is Christmas’ summarizes this simple phenomenon with the most effortless of words and melodies, somehow making perfect sense out of a senseless holiday.”

I read that and thought the dude must have some kind of magic ears capable of turning the sound of a rake scraping across sidewalk into choirs of angels singing. The song sounded like none of those things he said it did. It accomplished nothing he claimed it did. Listening to it again today for the first time in ten years, my feelings haven’t changed. Not every song aspires to be some great, incisive piece of art. Not every song needs to be that. But bad is bad. And I can’t fathom how anyone could listen to that song and hear anything but bad.

As for Sufjan’s song, most of us will die without ever having a chance to hear it.

It came out that the contest-winner was the director of a theater company. He said his plan was to take Sufjan’s song and build a play around it. Fair enough. There was one problem: by forcing people to buy tickets to see a play if they wanted to hear this elusive Sufjan Stevens song, the guy was defeating the explicitly stated purpose of the song exchange. It was supposed to be about sharing music without money being involved, and here he was going to use the spoils of his victory to line his pockets and raise his own profile. Talk about missing the point.

At first I assumed Sufjan just didn’t have very good taste. A few dozen of what must have been hundreds or thousands of submitted songs were put up on a media player on the Asthmatic Kitty website for a while, and every single one of them put the winning song to shame. Then I read something that mentioned Alec and Sufjan worked in the same building at some point, and everything got a whole lot clearer. There was evidence to suggest the two of them knew each other a little bit before the supposed contest was even created, at least in passing. It didn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the rest.

Hey man. You heard about my Christmas song contest, right? What do you say you whip something up? It doesn’t even have to be any good. I’ll juggle some words to justify why it takes home the prize when there are many more deserving candidates, and in return you’ll work my song into one of your productions and introduce my music to a whole new audience. You make money and get more attention, I expand my reach, a bunch of people get to feel like they had an honest shot at something that was rigged from the start — everybody benefits.

Maybe that wasn’t what happened. But it would have explained a lot.

The play was never produced. I’m not sure why. Instead, the winning songwriter and the music director of his theater company decided to host listening sessions where a handful of people would be allowed to come over to one of their homes and listen to the song while having tea and cookies. Which was great if you were in Brooklyn and they deemed you worthy of a visit, and not so great if you lived anywhere else.

A blog post was written to explain the reasoning behind all of this. It was supposed to be about bringing some of the mystery back to new music in the internet age, bending the act of listening back into a more meaningful experience. And part of me can appreciate that. The loss of mystery is another thing I’ve rambled about before. It’s one of the main reasons I go to great lengths to keep money far away from the music I make and keep it a very low-key thing, only sharing it with a small group of people I know have some genuine interest in it. I like knowing when you get a new album from me you have no idea what you’re going to hear, because there’s no way to stream it beforehand. It’s a physical thing you have to sit down and spend some time with.

Having said that, imagine for a second you found your way to this blog and sent me an email asking how you could get your hands on an album or six, and instead of responding with, “All I need is a mailing address and I’ll send you free CDs wherever you are,” I told you the only way you were ever going to hear any of my music was if you came to my house. If you didn’t live nearby or couldn’t get out this way, you were out of luck. And if you did manage to make it here for a little listening party, all you would have to take with you when you left would be your memory of the music you heard, because I wouldn’t even consider sharing any of my songs with you in any way other than a one-time “fire it into the air and watch it disappear” in-person experience.

I don’t imagine you’d leave that exchange with a lot of good feelings about me. You would probably think I was a pretty arrogant person with an inflated sense of my own importance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned you off enough that you wouldn’t want to hear any of my music anymore in any format.

I mean, if you own the music, what you do with it is your choice. That’s the bottom line. But the endgame here has never made any sense to me. There has to be a better way of keeping that sense of wonder alive than making people jump through flaming hoops to hear one song. I don’t go out of my way to call attention to my music, but if someone in Alaska sends me an email asking for some stuff, I’m going to send them whatever albums they’re interested in even if it costs me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t care if you live on Mars. I’ll still send you music. Discriminating against the majority of the human race because they don’t live close enough to make things more convenient for you smells pretty self-defeating to me, not to mention elitist and kind of messed up.

(As for how to describe the scent of self-defeat, well…that’s a discussion for another time.)

About the nicest thing I can say here is I lost a lot of respect for everyone involved. Then again, maybe a lot of it really does come down to Sufjan having crummy taste. He recorded a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” a few years back. It’s an insult to the universe. He took a beautiful little open-hearted love song and turned it into shallow-sounding pop pablum with every trace of humanity removed.

I guess just because you’re capable of writing some great songs, it doesn’t mean the intelligence required to do that extends to your interpretation or assessment of anyone else’s work.

Anyway. Back to my Christmas song up there. It was only ever made available on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, and there are probably only a few dozen people in the world who own that reckless, sprawling thing. It also landed on a CLLCT Christmas compilation way back when, but that site has been gone for years now and I’m not sure how many people still have the MP3 hanging out on their hard drives. I thought it was about time to dust the song off again.

Even in its less-layered-than-I-wanted-it-to-be form, it’s a very clear precursor to the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN sound. The triple-tracked lead vocals, the emphasis on acoustic instruments and organic sounds, a mix that’s more interested in energy than polish — it’s all there already. I even lifted an overlapping vocal bit from “Mismatched Socks”, a song that would later end up on that album (it’s the part that goes, “White, white, white, white snow melts into your braided hair”).

“Mismatched Socks” got its revenge when it came time to record that song. Every time I tried to sing the overlapping vocal harmonies it came out sounding like a mess. I had to reconstruct the vocal melody on the fly and take it to a different, harmony-free place.

I was prepared to give A Home at the End of the Frozen River a fresh mix, but aside from the vocals getting a little quiet in some parts and the glockenspiel being maybe a little too upfront, I don’t hear a whole lot wrong with it. This is one of those rare times I got away with a pretty loud mastering job that didn’t introduce any ugly clipping, and it might be the best I’ve ever heard those Neumann KM184s capture my mandolin. I’m starting to think I should try playing that thing with a pick more often.

If I probably won’t be moved to write another Christmas-themed song at any point in the next fifty years, at least I went out with something I can still share without shame. And that’s half the battle, isn’t it?

Merry Creased Mousse to you and yours. May all your mistletoe find four other toes to complete the rare and precious mistlefoot.

Little letters.

I don’t share many music-related things — or meaningful-to-me things in general — on Facebook anymore.

The last time I linked to a blog post that had some personal content I thought might be interesting to some of my Facebook friends, I think three people “liked” it. Nobody commented. A picture of a salad I made at four in the morning, meanwhile, got something like eighty likes and twenty comments.

This is the nature of the social media beast. Most of your internet friends don’t care about what makes you tick. Recycled memes and pictures of what you just ate or are about to eat are fine. Share something that takes a few minutes to read and you can forget about getting any kind of response or stimulating a little discussion.

This used to bother me. I accept it now. It’s easy enough to avoid the disappointment of being ignored when you feel you have something to say that’s worth hearing. You keep your mouth shut, you talk to yourself when no one else is around, or you talk to yourself in a crowd and laugh about it later.

Facebook is useful as an easy way to keep in touch with a handful of people through private messages. Otherwise I treat it as a panoramic internet scrapbook. You get some stuff that’s compelling, some that’s entertaining, some that’s infuriating, and a whole lot of meaningless crap. You make an emotional investment at your own risk.

I made an exception to the “not sharing meaningful things on Facebook anymore” rule the day Gord Downie died. I recorded a little cover song that felt like a prayer and decided to share it over there. I knew I had some Facebook friends who were Tragically Hip fans. I thought they might find some comfort or something of value in the music. I expected another three likes and no comments.

That didn’t happen. It got dozens of likes, a lot of comments, and a lot of shares. All these people I didn’t know acknowledged the song and connected with it. These days I think I average something like a dozen blog views a day. That day I got a few hundred.

So that was unexpected.

One comment from a stranger stood out. It was the only negative thing anyone had to say. “Well said, to be sure,” a woman wrote, “but the all-lowercase thing is annoying and detracts from your point.”

I responded in all lowercase letters.

The “all-lowercase thing” didn’t start for me until about ten years ago. I’d seen other people stylize their text that way in emails and on personal blogs. I liked the look of it. I gave it a try. It felt natural, so I started typing that way. Then I kept doing it. Figured if it was good enough for E.E. Cummings it was good enough for me.

It wasn’t about laziness. It was a creative choice. Even in a lyric booklet, the words looked more interesting to me when there weren’t any big letters knocking knees with the little guys.

In all the years I was doing this, I got one snarky comment from some random person who landed here. “I find myself missing capital letters,” they wrote. I told them that was a valid emotional response, and there were countless other blogs and websites where those capital letters were leading fulfilling lives.

No one else ever seemed to mind.

And still, that one Facebook comment wouldn’t leave me alone. Yeah, it was a nitpicky, unnecessary thing to say, and as far as I could tell she didn’t even bother listening to the song when the song was the whole point. But it got me to think about this aesthetic choice for the first time in years. Did the absence of proper punctuation give some people an excuse to discount what I was saying? Did it make me look lazy or unprofessional? Was Uncle Kanye having unsettling dreams about me again?

The more I turned it over in my head, the less it mattered to me what anyone else might make of my blog’s lack of case distinction. There was one clear, simple thought I couldn’t shake.

I’ve outgrown this.

Maybe it was time to reintegrate some of those uppercase letters I neglected for so long. Maybe a long post would be a little easier to read if your eyes had some familiar landmarks they could use to better orient themselves within the dense maze of words.

I did what any sensible person would do at the end of that chain of thoughts. I edited every single post and page to capitalize what needed capitalizing. More than nine years of stuff. Well over five hundred posts and almost a hundred pages on the sidebar separate from those posts. More than half a million words — 636,568 of them, if you really want to know — plus most of my responses to comments, though I know I missed a few of those.

It took a while.

I still like the look of all-lowercase writing. It might see some use in future lyric booklets if it feels like the right way to go. Not here, though. Not anymore.

Who says you can’t teach an old blog new tricks?

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 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 the folks at 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 — people 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 (and it’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but I always seem to want to hear a little more grit or weirdness or something that isn’t quite there).

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 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.

Until the sun blows up, I’m never gonna let you down.

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.

Ode to Boxer (2002 demo)

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 a 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.

Ode to Boxer (2016 demo)

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, including them 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 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.

Everything you maybe didn’t want to know about an album you probably haven’t heard yet.

AFTERTHOUGHTS (2016)

After an easy birth, a pretty happy childhood, and an interminable adolescence, the debut O-L West album has grown up and gone out into the world to fend for itself.

It’s called AFTERTHOUGHTS. It exists only as a physical album. You can’t buy it anywhere, because it isn’t for sale — though if you’re reading this, you probably knew that part already.

It’s the first thing I’ve ever been a part of where there are two distinct dominant voices throughout. Things are split pretty much down the middle between songs I sing lead on and songs Steven sings lead on. On some level, an album where we both share the writing and lead singing duties feels like a natural outgrowth of the work we were doing with Steven’s Tire Swing Co. songs. It was probably only a matter of time before we started writing together.

The thing is, you can never predict how — or even if — that’s going to work. You really don’t know until you sit down with someone and start bouncing ideas and creative energy around. Sometimes the energy is right. Sometimes it isn’t. I’ve had both experiences. With some people collaborating has been effortless, and with others it’s been about as easy as plucking out a polar bear’s ass hair with chopsticks.

With Steven, it’s as natural as breathing. We just click, in a way I’ve only ever clicked with a few people. It’s a joy making music with someone when that happens.

If you’re a friend and/or someone who contributed to the album, you probably already have a CD, or else one is on its way to you from one of us right now. If you’re not on my “mailing list”, or if we don’t know you but you’d like a copy, feel free to get in touch with me or Steven and we’ll do our best to get one to you.

Each Polaroid that makes up the collage on the album cover is related to one of the songs. Here’s what that’s all about, along with some of the stories behind the music — including most of the existing relevant demos, in case you want to compare some of those to the definitive versions and ruminate on what changed, what didn’t change, and which spontaneous late night arrangement ideas had staying power.

I suggest not listening to too many of these demos until after you’ve heard the full album. You don’t want to spoil too many surprises. But hey…I’m not here to tell you how to live your life.

Paint as You Like and Die Happy

paint as you like sharpened

Along with Trespassing, this was the true beginning of the O-L West. We jammed out the music one night in the fall of 2014 — Steven playing acoustic guitar, me on lap steel — and made a quick recording to preserve the idea.

Paint as You Like and Die Happy (demo)

Steven came back with some great lyrics the next time we met up. We got down his acoustic guitar and lead vocal, and then I added the bass and lap steel.

That felt like almost enough. But it needed a little more.

On a musical level, the song is all about drift, with long instrumental passages leading into and out of the verses and choruses — which aren’t really choruses, because the words are different each time. Any kind of extended solo or conventional drum part was going to chip away at the almost dream-like quality of the thing. What I needed to do was find the right accents.

One of my favourite things about working with Steven is the uniqueness of his voice, and getting to play off of it with my own voice. Here I threw in some high whispered background vocals on the chorus sections. Also added some piano to the second half of the song.

On a different kind of tune I’d float around and improvise a lot more. In this case, the simpler and sparser I kept my playing, the better it seemed to work. Sometimes just a few notes played on a piano can contribute an incredible amount of depth to a song. It’s a little nuts.

(Digital pianos need not apply.)

The little synth-sounding melody that runs through the second verse, never to recur, is the Casio SK-1 set on the flute sound with some subtle effects added. Even if it didn’t allow you to sample anything, the SK-1 would be worth the cost of doing business just for that flute patch. Though it sounds very little like a real flute, it’s got a great soul to it. It’s a sound that works in places you’d never expect it to.

Here’s the SK-1 on top of a small pile of things, staring at you all stiff-upper-lip-like, as photographed by Joey Acott.

the-tower-of-preamps-compression-and-keys

The other synthy wash of sound that’s more of a background colour and doesn’t go away once it’s introduced isn’t a synth at all. It’s another lap steel track. I plugged the steel into the old Digitech guitar effects processor that’s been making a bit of a comeback lately, found an ambient-sounding patch I’ve always liked, and played around with harmonics and volume swells.

The problem with this patch is it can sometimes introduce some hiss when you’re feeding it a low-output instrument. It did that here. You probably wouldn’t notice unless you listened on good headphones or a nice hi-fi. Even so, as much as I like my rough edges, something like unintentional-but-audible hiss drives me batty. If I didn’t do something to cover it up, it was going to bug me for the rest of my life.

I recorded a soft brushed snare part to act as another little sonic accent, since nothing else seemed like a viable hiss-hiding solution, and hoped for the best.

These days I almost always record drums in one very specific way, with a stereo ribbon microphone set up in the middle of the room. It gets a slight boost from a tube EQ to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, a bit of compression, and that’s it. No close mics. No other ambient mics. I did throw in a distant room mic a few times on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART so I could slap a gated reverb or some delay on it for a bit of additional texture, but that’s not the norm for me.

There are three reasons behind this:

(1) I’ve grown to like the natural, unhyped, “drums in a room being played by a person” sound this approach imparts a lot more than the “close-mic’d up the wazoo, sound-replaced, and smashed to hell with compression until it doesn’t sound anything like a real drum kit anymore” sound I hear coming out of most modern recording studios. If I want drums that don’t sound a whole lot like acoustic drums, I’ll use a synth or a drum machine. If I’m playing a drum set, I want it to sound like a drum set. That’s just my own personal taste.

(2) With only sixteen tracks on my mixer and more ambitious arrangement ideas than I used to have, every track counts now.

(3) I spent years messing around with different drum-mic’ing configurations. I don’t have the patience for that anymore, unless someone’s paying me to record them and they want something other than my typical homegrown drum sound.

By the time I started thinking about drums in the context of this song, I didn’t have two leftover tracks to work with anymore. I only had one. I sort of close-mic’d the snare with a Pearlman TM-LE since it was the only part of the kit I planned on playing anyway, and left it at that.

The sound lived in just the right frequency to mask the hiss. It even added a little bit of extra glue to the drift.

Don’t you find your drift needs some extra glue sometimes? No? Just me?paint as you like early draft

There’s one last thing to tell you about this song, and that’s the weird trembling sound that comes in for the last chorus. You’ll never guess what it is.

It’s a ukulele pitch pipe.

Late one night, I got the idea to try sampling that little thing with the SK-1. For some weird reason it worked really well. The way the sampled sound took the natural vibrato created by the way I blew into the pitch pipe and altered the speed of it based on what notes were being played, generating a sound much more complex than its humble origins would ever suggest, was a total happy accident.

I like how this song sounds like it’s going to stay a stripped-down thing for the first few minutes, and then out of nowhere it fans out into a much wider, deeper soundscape. I think we both knew it needed to be the opening track pretty early on. Sometimes you gotta kick things off with something quick and punchy. Sometimes it needs to be a more immersive track the listener can get lost in for a while.

As for the picture, that’s Steven sitting on my front steps holding the actual photograph he’s singing about in the first verse. Pretty nifty, eh?

UVB-76

radio cropped

This song is about a mysterious Russian shortwave radio station no one has been able to explain for three decades, with the second verse made up of snippets of cryptic dialogue listeners have picked up over the years. It’s probably the closest the album gets to “moody rock”, Afterthought No. 3 notwithstanding.

It didn’t start out sounding like that. The rough jam that planted the seed of the song was acoustic guitar-driven.

UVB-76 (rough jam)

So was the demo that followed.

UVB-76 (demo)

And I thought the non-demo version would keep it that way. Many of these songs were born while the two of us were playing acoustic guitars. It made sense to use that as a starting point and build from there. But after a while, I got to thinking it might be a nice bit of contrast to have one or two songs not lean on acoustic stringed things at all, and I started to wonder what this one would sound like electrified.

I grabbed the Kay Thin Twin and gave it a try. Natalie reminded me what a great friend that guitar was when she played it for a few songs on CAT & CORMORANT after I’d been neglecting it for a while. The two interlocking main guitar parts were played on the Kay. The other guitar accents and the distorted not-quite-lead guitar that comes in for the instrumental end section were all played on a Telecaster. The little harmonica bits from the demo carried over, along with the hazy wordless vocal stuff near the end.

UVB-76

It took me a while to get the lead vocal right once I wasn’t singing it cross-legged on my bed into a tiny laptop microphone I couldn’t see. Too much force and the meditative mood would be broken. Not enough and it would sound like I was sleepwalking through the song.

I think I found the right balance in the end.

I wanted to wedge a small shortwave radio inside of a tree with a hole large enough to accommodate it and small enough to hold it in place, and then take a picture of that. It wasn’t to be. I couldn’t find the little shortwave feller I’ve got kicking around somewhere in the basement (or the garage, or Switzerland…who knows where that thing is), and I was going to have a tough time finding a tree sympathetic to my plight.

Took a picture of this big old tube-driven character with shortwave capabilities instead. It was the first picture I shot with The Impossible Project’s temperamental black and white Polaroid film that didn’t come out overexposed to the point of being unusable. The framing is a little askew, and now I kind of wish I took another run at it, but it works well enough in the context of the collage. And in these troubled times, collage context is more important than ever, isn’t it?

Trespassing

trespassing cropped

This one is discussed in detail, complete with all the demos, over HERE. It’s a musical dialogue, with Natalie’s singing on the choruses-that-aren’t-really-choruses adding something special. The way the story unfolds, I think it almost feels more like a short film than a song.

By the time we were thinking about images to accompany the songs, the house that inspired Steven’s initial concept for this one wasn’t looking so abandoned and evocative anymore. I always had the Walker Power Building (aka “the Old Peabody Building”) in my head. Some of the imagery in the first verse came from thinking about that place.

trespassing 1

trespassing 2

A picture of the whole building felt too distant, in every sense of the word. Then I got closer and lucked into seeing the No Trespassing sign.

Maybe that’s a little on-the-nose. But when it’s right, it’s right.

Time Erodes

scrap metal brighter

I kind of hijacked this one, similar to what happened with Trespassing.

It started as a jam. Steven had the verse chords and a vocal melody, but there weren’t words yet. I heard him singing what sounded like “and I know” a couple times. It got stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave. The same night of the initial jam I added some more music, wrote a bunch of lyrics, and sent along a demo of the finished thing at about one in the morning.

Time Erodes (demo)

There was no concept in my head when I was writing these words. They were just the words that came out in the moment. But it was fun to find a way to work some boxing-related imagery in there, and now I’m pretty sure the bridge section has to do with faculty-dulling substances and the recklessness of darker days.

time erodes 1

time erodes 2

There isn’t a single proper guitar solo in any of the other songs on the album. So it stands to reason that the one song to buck the trend would have not one, but two solos.

Getting down the solo at the end was pretty straightforward. The first one was a different story. I recorded a bunch of takes of a totally different, flashier solo without ever quite nailing it to my satisfaction. Then I threw it out and tried something simpler and more melodic. That worked a whole lot better.

The arrangement for this one vexed me a little. It was the last song left that needed some work before I could focus on final mixes. It got almost all the way there, but it was missing one last bit of sonic wallpaper. It needed something to give that long bridge section a bit of a different feeling.

I tried lots of things — backwards piano, additional electric guitar, lap steel, synth. Not one proverbial coat of paint I threw on felt like it was the right colour.

I sat down with Steven and we knocked our heads together to try and figure it out. I played him a rough wordless ambient vocal thing I tossed in as an idea when I was trying out anything I could think of. He liked it. He suggested building on it and then taking out the drums for almost the whole bridge section.

That did the trick.

The intro…now that was a bit of a surprise.

I thought a dreamy little ambient piece might act as a nice segue into the song proper, to shake things up a little. A few different ideas toppled out in one night, but the one thing that felt like it could work in the context of this song wasn’t so dreamy after all. It was this evolving loop I made using the Strymon El Capistan’s sound-on-sound function. I can’t remember if I ran the El Capistan into the Yamaha FX500 or if it was the other way around, but I know the FX500 was in the signal path adding a little extra ambience.

You can do some interesting things with the El Capistan’s tape emulation settings, forcing a loop to keep degrading until the source sound is unrecognizable. Every sound in this loop was made with a guitar, and it’s just one track, but there’s something weirdly menacing about it in a muted sort of way. I like how it smash cuts to the start of a song that’s a lot catchier than the intro sets the listener up to expect.

The clean electric guitar lines that run through the body of the song also got some help from that pedal. There it’s more of a background effect, adding a bit of shimmer that doesn’t call much attention to itself but would be missed if it was gone.

For a long time I wasn’t much of a guitar pedal guy. I’ve turned around on that over the last little while, building up a small group of pedals that might someday live on a board (if I ever get a power supply to run them all at once). The El Cap is a versatile beast that does pretty much everything I think I’d ever want a delay pedal to do, and I haven’t found a way to make it sound bad yet.

So, all else aside, this song is a bit of a showcase for a few of the tricks the El Capistan has up its sleeve.

The “gospel” vocal wailing in the background near the end before the final section really kicks into high gear was just me being silly, singing from behind the drums to kill time until I had to start hitting them again. I never dreamed it would end up in the final mix. But I grew to like it as a little bit of unexpected oddball character, and Steven was into it too, so it got to stay.

I had no idea what to do for a picture for this one. All I knew was, I wanted an image of something eaten by time. Wasn’t sure what the eaten thing should be. It wasn’t a bust of Jennifer Connelly’s face with a wounded nose, though I gave it an honest try.

I’m serious.

One afternoon, hunting for things to photograph around the city, I snapped a picture of a heap of scrap metal. It came out a little overexposed and ancient-looking.

Problem solved.

Another Turn

broken umbrella crop brightened

You could build a pretty convincing argument for this song being inspired by William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in the Secret Sea. It wouldn’t be true, but it would be an easy untruth to sell.

I haven’t read that book. I didn’t know it existed until after the song was written. I’m going to guess Steven hasn’t read it either.

What happened here was, we’d written all the songs we wanted to put on the album. We were kind of holding back from letting ourselves write any more, because there’s this thing that happens when the two of us sit down with a few guitars: we can’t seem to avoid coming up with song ideas. Even if we’re going out of our way not to write, we’re probably going to end up writing something anyway. It can’t be helped.

This one wanted to come out. It didn’t care what we wanted. I set up a microphone or two in the room as really rough audio floodlights, not even trying to place them sensibly or get good sounds — just trying to capture enough of what was happening to make a useful documentation of what we were doing — and we played for a while.

Another Turn (demo)

I listened to it later that night and was struck by how well the improvised lyrics worked. I tweaked a few lines and added a few new ones to introduce a little more shape, but left the bulk of it alone, as you can hear. The end result is about a 70/30 split, with what Steven improvised making up the larger portion of what’s there.

another turn

Only when the song was finished did it hit me that it seemed to be telling the story of a couple struggling to hold themselves together in the aftermath of the unexplained death of their young child. None of that was in Steven’s head when he was winging it, or in mine when I was transcribing and tidying up what he winged. The song decided for itself what it was going to be about.

These are almost always the most interesting songs for me — the ones that tug you somewhere you’re not expecting to go and construct their own hearts out of materials you didn’t know they had access to.

There was a sleepy quality to Steven’s singing in the demo we both came to really like, and he was able to tap back into that without any trouble. For my part, instead of singing straight harmony I messed around with wordless backup vocals over the “chorus” sections, stacking one line on top of another until there was a blanket of four-part harmony.

This is the only song where I thought to grab video footage of the whole recording process so I could edit it into something like a music video later on. I meant to put an effort into documenting more of what we were doing, but it kept slipping my mind. What can you do?

The picture fell into my lap the same day I snapped the pic for Trespassing. Getting a shot of a little raincoat wasn’t happening, but there on the grass, feet away from the Walker Power Building, was a broken child’s umbrella. Less literal. More atmospheric. Even better.

We played this live once at Taloola as a three-piece O-L West/Teenage Geese hybrid. My wave of overdubbed four-part vocal harmonies over the long coda were impossible to reproduce, for the obvious reasons. Our workaround was layering live three-part harmonies one voice at a time. Steven started it, then I came in above him, and then Natalie came in on top of both of us.

Hearing a thing like that happen live and being a part of it made the hair on the back of my brain stand up.

Afterthought No. 3
(Shining a Light, Making a Scar)

As a rule, I don’t go into a solo album with all or even most of the songs that are going to end up on the album already written. Usually I’ve got a couple I think I might want to group together, or maybe just one idea I want to develop, and I start recording. Then I write more, record more, maybe pull a few things from the giant pile of songs that have been hanging around waiting to find a home, get rid of some things that don’t feel like they fit anymore once more pieces are in place, and figure out what the album wants to shape itself into along the way, making adjustments as needed, improvising, experimenting, seeing what happens.

Over the years a few people have labelled me a “reluctant editor” of my own work. I think the assumption goes something like this: I make long albums. Some of those albums have a lot of songs on them, and some of those songs are weird and/or very short. Therefore, I must never throw anything out, and I must have a pretty murky concept of the dividing line between what constitutes album material and what belongs in the out-takes bin. Otherwise, I would make compact ten-song albums like a normal person.

That couldn’t be more wrong.

The amount of written and recorded material that doesn’t make the cut on any given album sometimes outweighs what’s allowed to see the light of day. You don’t want to know how many things I’ve got slated for inclusion on the followup to the first volume of OUT-TAKES, MISFITS, AND OTHER THINGS. And you would either think I was lying or you’d want to punch me if I told you how many songs I’ve written just in the past two years or so for the still-in-progress “solo album with many guests” that’s calling itself YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.

I write a lot. I record a lot. I don’t release everything I write and record. Not even close.

A lot of time and thought goes into discovering what each album wants to be and what makes emotional and sonic sense taking up space on it. Album sequencing alone involves a great deal of consideration. I never put anything out there just for the sake of putting it out there, and I don’t believe in “filler” tracks. Even the most random-seeming segue has a purpose, and some of my favourite things end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. That’s just the way it goes.

The point is, I make long, unwieldy albums by design. And while I value imperfection and make a point of retaining and sometimes emphasizing it, it doesn’t mean I don’t put a lot of work into what I do. The absence of excessive gloss isn’t a manifestation of laziness, and it isn’t an accident. It’s a deliberate choice.

Perfection, especially when it’s achieved through artificial means, bores the shit out of me. I’m more interested in getting at something that’s got some character, that has something emotionally interesting crawling around in its guts. Give me that over technical precision without feeling any day.

Even when I have a pretty clear picture of where I think I’m going, I almost never end up with an album that’s much like the one I thought I was going to make when I started. That’s not because I need an outside producer to reign me in or focus me, though a stranger showed up here once to make that suggestion. It’s because I let the albums tell me what they want to be.

Going about it this way keeps the process fresh and engaging. I don’t think creative energy is something to be bent or bullied where you or someone else thinks it’s supposed to go. I think it’s best served by letting it find its own way, and letting yourself be surprised.

The day the music ceases to surprise me, there won’t be any point in making it anymore.

I say all of this because this album — even though it isn’t a solo mission — is pretty long. It’s also one of the more crafted things I’ve been involved in. Steven and I went on such a songwriting tear together, very early in the recording process we already had a group of about a dozen songs we knew we wanted to make up the framework of the album. And almost all of those songs are here. But new ideas kept falling out anyway. And in spite of our best efforts to hold them back, we liked a few of them far too much to keep a lid on them. So we let the most convincing of them squeak through while doing our best to keep the quality control pretty unforgiving.

We decided to call the songs that came a little later and didn’t want to be denied “afterthoughts”. Another Turn was an exception, and the one late addition to get a proper title.

We wanted the album cover to be a collage of pictures that commented on each of the songs in one way or another (that was Steven’s idea, and man, was it a good one). The more songs there were, the more difficult it was going to be to come up with an appropriate image for each of them and then create a collage that made some amount of visual sense. Elbowing a few songs into a different category did a neat job of getting rid of that potential stumbling block.

It was also a nice way to play off of the album title. We called it AFTERTHOUGHTS, in part because it began as a very casual thing, sort of an unassuming detour, before exploding into something that obliterated whatever our expectations were. TIME AWAY would have been a full-length album if this one didn’t strong-arm its way in there and demand our attention.

At the same time, a lot of the reasoning behind the name has nothing to do with the “tossed-off” connotation the word sometimes carries. This album is a lot of things, but tossed-off it ain’t — it took two years of intermittent work to finish. It has more to do with things that are thought of, said, or felt after a bit of distance has grown between you and whatever you’re commenting on or turning over in your head. There’s a lot of that going on in these songs.

The first afterthought we wrote and recorded didn’t make the cut. As with several other songs, we liked it but it didn’t belong here. It was that emotional thing. The other three were sequenced according to feel rather than strict chronology.

This is why you don’t see an “Afterthought No. 1” anywhere, and why the first one to appear is the third one we wrote.

afterthought no. 3

This afterthought is one of the shorter, sharper, catchier things on the album. When it was just starting to hatch, it sounded like this.

Afterthought No. 3 (genesis)

It cracks me up to hear us talking about me hijacking it over the next few days, and Steven predicting it won’t even take that long for it to turn into a fleshed-out song. He was right. Later that night I recorded this.

Afterthought No. 3 (demo)

On the demo all the singing is me, and I carried over that little seesawing guitar riff of Steven’s (which didn’t make it into the final recording). On the album it’s him singing lead for the first two verses with me backing him up. Then I take the wheel for the big chorus that not only never comes back but ends the song just as it’s picking up steam, letting the bottom drop right out.

I love doing that sort of thing.

I snapped into “let’s make a rock song” mode here and tried building everything around some pretty distorted electric guitar. It sounded a little too obvious. Letting acoustic guitar drive it instead and using the electric guitar to play off of that seemed to get everything breathing a little better. The drums were getting lost a little in the last section when more electric guitar came in, so I overdubbed an additional drum part with a single room mic to give it a little extra excitement.

This is one of the few places on the album where the “textural ambient guitar” thing I mess around with sometimes comes to the forefront. I try not to overuse it, but it’s something I really enjoy doing when a song is agreeable. I blame the great John Berry.

West Coast Blues

danielle blurred

Another one that came out of a jam early on, though it was really Steven’s song from the get-go. The words he improvised when we recorded the rough demo were so good, he was able to keep most of them when he was putting the final lyric sheet together.

West Coast Blues (demo)

The above is another pretty lo-fi sketch, recorded with a few distant mics and the preamps saturated like crazy just to see what would happen.

Post-demo, we recorded some group backup vocals with Jim Meloche, all of us standing around a single microphone, and I added more harmonies on my own a little later. Jim’s voice brings something to the song that’s difficult to put into words. You don’t always hear him that well, because there’s no separation between our voices, but you feel him there. If you’ve only ever heard the great fire he forces from his lungs when he’s singing with Orphan Choir or Worry, you might be a little surprised by what he does here.

There’s an even bigger Jim-shaped surprise at the end of the album. But more about that when we get there.

When we all come in together, I always picture us huddled around a piano in a saloon, half-drunk, sad about something but smiling through the pain. I can’t explain it. There’s just something evocative there, and it wouldn’t exist without Jim.

Thought about adding drums and electric guitar and some other things. In the end, the feeling of the stripped-down demo felt too good to deviate from much. So this one stayed percussion-free, and I held back a little when it came time to play piano over the instrumental passages. It didn’t feel appropriate to go too crazy there. I did add a little bit of bluesy harmonica, though.

west coast blues 1

west coast blues 2

This is the one place where the acoustic guitar Steven’s playing isn’t my old Gibson LG-2. He brought in his Martin (the one mentioned over here — I’m going to guess it’s a D35), and it added all kinds of tasty glue, playing really well off of the sound of my own double-tracked 000-15.

For the picture, we wanted to capture someone sitting on some stairs looking forlorn. Finding a model wasn’t going so well. Steven asked his fair lady Danielle if she’d be willing to help us out, and she saved the day. It seems fitting somehow that hers — and not either one of ours — is the only face to appear on the cover.

You know what I always say: “If you’re only going to have one person’s face on your album cover and it isn’t going to be your own, make it the face of a beautiful woman.”

The Yuan Dynasty

yuan dynasty new

I was feeling a little guilty about some of my hijacking tendencies and thought it was Steven’s turn to get in on some of that action. I sent him some sketches I had that kind of stalled before they could become finished songs and asked if he had any ideas for lyrics. This was one of those.

Who Did You Say You Were? (demo)

He came up with the story of a fleeting connection on a train, retaining my refrain from the demo (some of the only coherent words I threw in there), making for one of the more playful moments on an album that’s pretty dark stuff for the most part.

Not that I’d have it any other way. You know me. I like those shadows and dark corners.

the yuan dynasty

True story: that’s Steven hitting the gongs at the beginning of the song.

In one of those “you can’t make this stuff up” moments, we found out he had a period-correct vase that played right into the whole Chinese history theme. Trouble was, it was impossible to get a picture that captured its personality and did it justice.

I took a picture of some train tracks instead. As with the image for Time Erodes, it came out looking like something very old that got dug out of an attic-dwelling shoebox.

Sometimes you get lucky with these things.

Dorsal Venous

ol drum brightened

I wrote this thinking it would be fun to have a song where we both kept trading off on singing lead — something where our voices would give the “A” and “B” sections very different personalities. Did my best “poor man’s Matt Berninger” for the verses when I demoed it.

Dorsal Venous (demo)

Then Steven did his best “rich man’s Steven” when we were recording it for real.

Before it had drums, he played some djembe. It was a nice touch, but once the drums were in there it wasn’t working anymore. Someday after we’re both gone someone will restore that lost djembe part for an “alternate mix” and they’ll make it a bonus track on an unauthorized reissue released in an effort to give their fledgling record label some added credibility, selling something that wasn’t made for money and was never meant to be sold, and Pitchfork will hail it as “the best obscure reissue we’ve heard since last week’s re-release of Wilford Brimley’s long-lost prog-metal/rap album from 1982”.

Just you wait and see.

dorsal venous

I played a lot of harmonica on this album. I think it’s the most harmonica I’ve played on any album in my life. It was one of those things that happened without any real thought going into it. On this song it gets a little more impressionistic.

That I’ve reached a point where “impressionistic harmonica” is even a feasible thing I can do is kind of mind-boggling to me. I have no idea how that happened.

The thing that comes in during the last chorus-that-isn’t-a-chorus and sounds a little like a wheezing carousel organ is sampled recorder, courtesy of the Yamaha VSS-30. That thing and the SK-1 play very well together.

The stop-start drumming was really the only approach that made sense here. I tried a more conventional drum pattern first. All it did was lay there like a dead thing. Filling up the spaces between guitar strums with a more unpredictable rhythm gave the whole thing a much more interesting pulse.

Getting a picture for this one was tricky. The lyrics are more imagery than story. You would think that would help, but it was maddening trying to find an image to pluck from the song. Tried barred-up windows. Didn’t turn out. Tried to find a diagram of a hand’s inner workings in an old medical journal. Couldn’t find an old medical journal to save my life. Tried to get someone to eat an apple so I could snap a picture of them mid-chew (you know, to tie in with the whole “original sin”, apple-in-the-Garden-of-Eden thing). Couldn’t get anyone to show up and eat an apple.

Then I thought, “What if I stop trying to come up with an image that’s related to the lyrics? The song has a pretty prominent harmonica part. I’ve got this cool-looking big old harmonica. Maybe I should throw it on top of my battered snare drum, take a picture, and see how it turns out.”

It came out looking better than I thought it would. And that was the end of that.

Afterthought No. 4
(Waiting for Armageddon)

The most non-afterthought-like afterthought of them all.

There are more than a few places on this album where I’m singing words Steven wrote, or he’s singing words I wrote, or one of us is singing words we both wrote together. There are some things that are more or less solo pieces one of us wrote on our own, but for the most part who wrote what is all over the place.

This is the only song where we’re both singing lead and whoever’s taking the lead at any given time is singing their own words. It starts with Steven backing me up and ends with me backing him up, though our voices blend together to the point that it can be difficult to differentiate.

We each wrote lyrics without having any idea what the other was writing. There wasn’t even a basic concept discussed beforehand. When we got together to compare notes, it was surreal how well my two verses and Steven’s one long verse worked together. Each part completed the other.

You know you’re pretty in sync with someone when you can write pieces of a song separately and have them fuse in such an organic way no one would ever guess you didn’t write the whole thing together in the same room in one sitting.

afterthought no. 4 my part

afterthought no. 4 steve's part

This is a demo I made for the first chunk of the song before there were really any words at all from either one of us. I can’t help hearing, “It’s salami,” instead of, “It’s alarming.” Happens every time.

Afterthought No. 4 (demo)

I tried a lot of different things when the words were there and it was serious recording time. I got the arrangement just about right, but again something was missing. What ended up pulling the whole thing together was some delay-drenched Omnichord.

The Omnichord is another one of those funky little tools that rewards you for sneaking it into places no sane person would think to put it. I love the uniqueness of its voice. Once you turn off the auto-chording function it starts to sound like some sort of ghostly synthesized harp.

This one crept up on us and became one of our favourite tracks on the album. It feels like a perfect fusion of our sensibilities, with elements of INAMORATA, TIME AWAY, and my post-GIFT FOR A SPIDER solo work all coagulating in the same pot. If a musical scientist stitched together a Tire Swing Co./Johnny West Frankenstein creature, this is what it would come out looking and grumbling like.

Dying to Be Born

ashes

The first dedicated O-L West writing session produced three song ideas and three demo recordings to go with them. The first was what became Paint as You Like and Die Happy. The second was a song we didn’t revisit. The third was this one.

Dying to Be Born (demo)

I love the little accents and fiddly bits Steven improvised while I was playing the main fingerpicked part. I did my best to emulate them when I was recording all the guitar parts later on.

When I finally sat down and wrote some lyrics to go with the music, there was a clear idea behind them: aging in reverse, literally, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button-style. But you know what? In his own way, John Cassavetes brought the seed of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to the screen long before David Fincher did.

There’s a movie called She’s so Lovely that came out about twenty years ago. It’s based on an unproduced script John wrote, given posthumous direction by his son Nick. You know Nick as the director of The Notebook and My Sister’s Keeper — sentimental Hollywood movies that are pretty much the embodiment of everything his father spent his life kicking against and offering a jarring antidote to in the fiercely uncompromising films he wrote, directed, and usually paid for out of his own pocket.

John tried to make She’s so Lovely when he knew he was dying. Back then it was called She’s Delovely. Sean Penn was supposed to star in it. But Sean wanted to draw up contracts and have all the details hammered out in advance with lawyers, and that wasn’t the way John worked.

There was another problem. Sean was married to Madonna. He wanted her to play the other lead role opposite him. That wasn’t happening on John’s watch. “I’ve worked with lots of non-professionals,” he said, “but I have to draw the line somewhere!”

The two had a falling out when Sean went off to act in Casualties of War without explanation after balking at John’s insistence that his friend Peter Bogdanovich serve as “backup director” in case his health broke down in the middle of filming. John put a solid year into trying to get the production going, but he passed away before he could get the script off the ground.

As it exists now, it isn’t really a John Cassavetes movie. It’s not even really a John Cassavetes script. Nick admitted to getting rid of whole chunks of the text that didn’t make sense to him and rewriting a lot of what he didn’t throw away because he felt it needed to be “simplified” for the actors. He pumped up the drama and filed down the heart, missing the whole point of his father’s work.

So the “written by John Cassavetes” credit is somewhat disingenuous.

John said he liked to make movies that didn’t “go”. The problem with She’s so Lovely is it goes too much. Jonathan Rosenbaum did a neat job of summing this up when he wrote in his contemporary review that the film offered “a fascinating glimpse at what Cassavetes was from the vantage point of what he wasn’t”.

If you know the man’s films, watching this one is a bit of a disorienting experience, even after you accept that of course it’s going to feel a little different because he’s not behind the camera this time. To offer just one quick illustration of how wrong it goes, there’s a scene where Eddie (Sean Penn’s character) talks on the phone with Maureen (Robin Wright’s character). She was his wife. They were in love. By the time they’re having this conversation, they haven’t spoken or seen each other in ten years.

As Nick directs it, the scene is loaded with feeling. But he doesn’t respect you enough as his audience to let you figure that out for yourself. He beats you over the head with it. There’s melancholy music swelling on the soundtrack while the characters are talking, all but screaming at you, “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO FEEL. NOW FEEL IT, YOU MINDLESS IDIOT.”

I can’t stand that stuff. It’s the kind of simplistic cinematic shortcut John never settled for. Bo Harwood’s music is an important part of several of his movies, but it’s music that’s rough and human in all the right ways — not at all typical “movie music”. It’s an extension of the art, sometimes co-written by John himself. It’s never used to cheapen or simplify a scene, or to tell the audience what to feel. It doesn’t cheat.

Nick cheats. He embraces that shortcut, dry-humps it, and whispers something dirty in its ear for good measure.

Which is fine. That’s his thing. It works for him. It’s made him rich and successful. I enjoy Alpha Dog in an “unplug your brain and let yourself be entertained” kind of way. I can admit that without any shame. I think it’s good for what it is. Not everything has to be great, meaningful art all the time. And there’s a moment near the end that redeems the whole movie. Sharon Stone’s character is talking about the death of her son when her eyes, from behind an unnecessary and not-entirely-convincing fat suit, go to some dead place for a few seconds as she taps into a kind of horrifying primal grief — a pain beyond pain, where laughing and weeping are the same thing. It’s so real, it makes me flinch every time I see it.

But — Sharon’s unexpected grace notes aside — if that’s who you are as an auteur, save it for your own scripts or the ones you commission from other living writers. Don’t turn good writing into Swiss cheese and dumb it down so it can walk around in Hollywood without getting thrown in jail. And for God’s sake, don’t do it to a guy who risked everything every time he made a movie, who was always digging at some deeper truth, resisting easy answers. You don’t strong-arm his work into somehow being cute. You don’t do that to him after he’s dead and he can’t do a thing about it.

And yet…

As much as the original vision has been gutted and diluted in She’s so Lovely, there’s still some of the father in there that the son can’t kill — enough to make it interesting and throw things off-balance sometimes. There are moments and bits of dialogue you can tell weren’t tampered with. A little bit of John’s soul is buried in that movie. You just have to squint pretty hard to see it.

There’s a small scene about halfway through that’s pure Daddy Cassavetes. Eddie’s been committed to a psychiatric hospital. This is the last time he’ll see Maureen for a decade, though he doesn’t know it. He’s in a straitjacket. And this is what he says to her.

There might be more going on emotionally in this minute-and-change than most films manage in their entire runtimes. And hey, Sean still got his leading lady of the time to be his leading lady in the movie. He was just in a relationship with a more capable actress by the late 1990s.

No disrespect to Madonna Louise Ciccone.

What could have been with John directing his original script (impossible dream cast: transplant it to the 1970s, before it was actually written, and have Cassavetes himself play Eddie, slide Peter Falk into the role John Travolta ended up playing, and substitute Gena Rowlands for Robin Wright)…well, that’s one of the great cinematic what-ifs.

But anyway. What was I saying? The lyrics. Right.

dying to be born

When I looked at them later on, it felt like they could also be read as a meditation on how aging in a linear fashion mirrors childhood. As my Bubi used to say, you’re a baby twice in your life — when you’re born, and then again when you die.

It works both ways. However you choose to interpret it, it’s not exactly the stuff of summer pop songs. But this is one of the side effects of a protracted, hopefully perpetual self-imposed exile from anything resembling a romantic relationship. It forces me to draw inspiration from other places and write about different things. I have to use my heart and my brain.

It’s fun.

I don’t know what it is about this one, but it makes me think of a lullaby. Maybe it’s that delicate little guitar figure that drives the verses. It stayed a stripped-down acoustic thing for a long time, and then it got a little more layered and interesting all at once, with several interlocking guitar parts, lap steel, and some of my more effective harmonica-playing added to the mix.

I used two different steels on this album. Most of what you’re hearing throughout is Kelly Hoppe’s 1950s Silvertone 1315. Here it’s a Magnatone, also from the ’50s.

I have no idea what pickup is in the Magnatone. It’s embedded in the guitar, hidden beneath the mother of toilet seat (MOTS) finish. It’s a magnet-based pickup — that much I know — and it’s a lot brighter than the Gibson P13 in the Silvertone. It’s not bright in a bad way, but I find myself rolling off a fair bit of tone to get it where I want it. That’s pretty unusual for me. I almost always play electric stringed things with the volume and tone wide open, altering my playing if I want a brighter or darker sound.

Those lap steels both have their own personalities. They’re both good friends to have.

We had a tough time getting a picture here. It felt all kinds of wrong asking someone if we could take a picture of their child, or a grandparent near the end of their life, or both, as powerful as the image might have been if it was done right.

I got the idea to have a makeup artist make the two of us up to look like old men and have someone take a Polaroid of us sitting on a park bench, creating the feeling of decades of shared history between us. I thought it might be a pretty unique experience to be able to see ourselves age half a lifetime or more in a day and then wash the makeup off and become ourselves again.

When that didn’t work out thanks to the flakiness of a few makeup artists, Steven suggested doing something with ashes. I took a few pictures of him blowing a handful of them on my front lawn with Danielle egging us on, not realizing until it was too late that I had the camera’s exposure set too bright for the amount of natural light we had to work with. None of those shots came out looking so hot.

I grabbed the best one and found it had a certain washed-out quality to it that worked. The sweater comes through with more clarity than the ashes. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.

Running Wild

running wild crop

This is another one Steven hijacked. One afternoon he went on a tear, writing great lyrics for three or four half-formed musical ideas I sent him in one shot. Dude was a machine.

I sent him this roughage.

Running Wild (rougher than rough piano demo)

The lyrics he wrote for it caught me off guard. The last thing I was expecting was a meditation on Anne Frank and the difficulty of believing in a God who allows unspeakable things to happen to innocent people. It was a pretty far cry from my initial nonsensical improv. Sing it with me, friends: “Back then there was an opening for birds to shit and men to sing.”

running wild

I demoed the finished thing on acoustic guitar, because it’s hard to haul an upright piano up the stairs to your bedroom, and there’s something to be said for not always having to think about mic placement. It still surprises me how well that microscopic microphone built into my laptop acquits itself when I’m playing and singing into it at the same time on one live track (I never record vocals and guitar separately when I’m demoing things in GarageBand).

Running Wild (guitar demo)

(For the record, the Steve referred to in the first verse is Stephen Hawking, and not our Steven with a v.)

Then it was back to the piano for the recording that would end up on the album.

I had an idea for a little string part. It was pretty disappointing when I tried it out with synth strings to get a feel for what it would sound like and it felt clunky. Matter of fact, each time I tried to dress the song up beyond the piano/bass/acoustic guitar bed tracks, everything felt clunky. It didn’t help that I couldn’t seem to get my singing right.

This album is home to some of the most restrained singing I’ve ever committed to digital tape. While I’m not that much of a belter these days as a rule, some of the hardest songs to sing are the ones where your range isn’t being tested, but you’re not pushing out a lot of air, and you’re trying to find a good middle ground between delicacy and strength. Especially when you’re singing about serious stuff like this. Wordless vocal weirdness wouldn’t cut it here.

What set me free was returning to the triple-tracked lead vocal approach that became a bit of a signature sound on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN but hasn’t seen a whole lot of action in recent years. After that, the arrangement fell into place. Keeping it simple turned out to be the best approach. Just some clean electric guitar, lap steel, and brushed drums — mostly floor tom and snare — on top of the bed that was there already.

Here I wanted a picture of a broken-down old bookshelf that looked like it had been through hell. Finding something scarred enough to fit the bill proved impossible. I got lucky with this old church (suggested by Johnny Smith), figuring it would play off of the whole “loss of faith” theme.

The picture came out overexposed in a way that makes it look a hundred years old. Just what the song wanted.

Afterthought No. 2
(Black Hole)

Within a day or two of getting my hands on that Yamaha VSS-30, I was showing Steven how you can sample your voice and manipulate it with the effects built into the keyboard to create a really cool, eerie sound. He surprised me and said, “We should do something with that.”

I sang into the VSS-30, did a little mangling, and improvised around the ghostly sampled vocal sounds. Steven grabbed my Telecaster (it was in a nonstandard tuning, plugged into the FX500) and did some improvising of his own. Then I added some distorted harmonica and we both gave a little mutual yell.

There’s no demo for this one. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, done and dusted before a demo could be made.

I experimented a little with adding other sounds later on. It felt like the more fleshed-out the music got, the more power it lost. There was something a little unsettling about it as a weightless thing. When the yell came in, it sounded like a desolate cry echoing through the ruins of a dying world. After the song had some bottom end and more bells and whistles, it just sounded like a yell.

We left it half-naked out of respect for that yell. It was the only sensible thing to do.

Zebra Stripes

zebra stripes crop more

We started writing this one by throwing lines and ideas back and forth. Steven had most of the music already worked out. He hit on the image of an old Italian rug as a lead-in to a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, and we went from there. Later on I added some more lyrics to fill in a few blanks.

Getting into the crimes themselves felt like the easy way out. We attacked it from a different angle, giving more attention to the little details hiding in the margins of the story.

On a random note, “green side-gabled bungalow” is a phrase that rolls off the tongue a lot easier than you might think.

I handled the singing on the demo. You can hear there’s a verse missing that hadn’t been written yet (it showed up about ten minutes after the demo was recorded), along with a line or two that changed later on.

Zebra Stripes (partial demo)

On the CD it’s Steven singing lead, with me backing him up. I think it’s got a good bit more gravitas in that form. Some of those low notes are tough for me to hit. Steven just sings ’em good and true every time. Plus, it’s cool to hear him inhabiting a darker character like this. He sang the words in a much more rhythmically unpredictable way than I did, which made adding harmonies a little tricky. But I enjoyed the challenge, and I think it makes the song that much more interesting. It feels less like you’re being sung to, and more like you’re being told a tale.

My idea of a working title was “And of Course in the End Hope Is Just Another Wrong Turn”. Steven came up with the much better, more concise Zebra Stripes. The song’s narrator/central character takes an honest shot at living the straight life, but he can’t escape who he is or who his partner wants him to be. That stuff won’t wash off.

zebra stripes 1

zebra stripes 2

The ghost of the main guitar figure that runs through The Yuan Dynasty returns here in the form of a very similar banjo part. Once I realized that was happening, I liked the little bit of unexpected continuity. In a way, you could look at this song as a follow-up to that one — one idea of what might have happened if the flirtation snowballed into a full-blown relationship once those two people stepped off the train and then everything went a little sideways.

The instrumental coda came about when it felt like there needed to be some sort of palate cleanser before the final track. It couldn’t just jump straight from those last banjo notes hanging in the air to the beginning of Pave over It All. Besides, it’s fun to keep things a little unpredictable. Every sound there is coming from the VSS-30. It’s all samples — electric guitar, harmonica, and piano.

The first time Natalie heard this song she said she thought the lyrics were Leonard Cohen-esque. Given the towering giant of song Leonard is, it was impossible to take that as anything other than a mighty compliment.

And then there’s the picture. There’s a line in here that goes, “Couldn’t say if they were tears of joy, or the runoff of ambivalence cooked by crooked power lines.” Sometimes you see exactly what you need to see when you’ve got your Polaroid pal in the back seat. That’s what happened when I noticed these power lines on one of those “driving around looking for inspiration” jaunts.

If I’ve taken one good Polaroid picture with my Spectra 2 and this sometimes-maddening black and white film, it’s this one.

Pave over It All

pave over cropped darken

This must be one of the best songs I’ve ever had a hand in writing. It’s also one of the bleakest. As if the last few songs leading up to it weren’t dark enough!

Again it started as a jam. Steven had the first two chords and a vocal melody. I added the D major-to-A minor turnaround and the vocal melody that happens there. He wanted to incorporate the image of something being buried, and in the course of the jam I heard him sing something about someone taking a beating and something about someone’s crooked mouth.

I put all that in my head, let it stew a while, and later that night a song about separated-at-birth conjoined twins who hitchhike out of town after killing their abusive father came pouring out.

pave over 1

pave over 2

A little later we came up with the little musical tag that bookends the body of the song and I threw in a vocal harmony idea.

Pave over It All (second demo)

Then Steven got the great idea to have a rotating cast of singers — a different voice delivering each verse.

There are nine verses to the song. So we were looking at nine different singers. After accepting that the logistics of getting that many people to show up to sing on one song were a little insane, we downsized a bit. Decided two or three verses for everyone might work better. And I thought maybe we could all come in together for the last verse to bring things full circle as a group.

What we ended up with was a cast of four: me, Steven, Dave Dubois, and Jim Meloche, all of us taking turns telling the same tale.

Dave’s voice was made to sing a song like this. But the real revelation here is Jim. It’s a different Jim voice than you’re probably used to hearing, and he nails it. When he sings the bit about nothing coming out of Billy’s “dry, crooked mouth” and the strings paint a little counter-melody around him, that’s one of my favourite moments on the whole album.

Mixing this one was an interesting challenge, because all four of our voices live in slightly different ranges. It was tricky trying to get it sounding consistent, so no voice felt like it commanded more or less of the spotlight than any of the others. When Greg Maxwell told me it felt to him like the four of us were all the voice of the same character at different ages, I was pretty sure I had the balance right.

Joey Acott (who sat in on a few of our recording sessions and took some great pictures) grabbed a bit of video footage of us laying down the group vocals at the end. The quality his camera produces is so much better than what I’m accustomed to seeing with the stuff I film myself, it’s unbelievable.

Almost makes me wish I’d invested a lot of money in a really good camera at some point. Almost. But I feel like the whole grainy, DIY, not-really-a-filmmaker thing works for me. Besides, the file sizes would kill me with a camera like Joey’s. I think a two or three-minute clip would come out to something close to a gigabyte.

There are more people playing and singing on this one song than on all the others combined. In addition to the singers-in-the-round thing, Kelly Hoppe contributes some of the best harmonica-playing you’ll ever hear in any genre. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I’ve had the great fortune to have Kelly contribute sax and harp work to a number of different things over the last little while (most of which haven’t been released yet). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s one of the best living harmonica players.

What he does here is some of the best work I’ve ever heard him do. The amount of soulfulness and melodic invention he’s able to pack into a short amount of time is staggering. There’s a part where he “plays” the rain. Seriously. You have to hear it to believe it.

And Stu Kennedy becomes a whole one-man string quartet — and then, briefly, a sextet — playing both violin and viola, acting as a wordless Greek chorus, adding another emotional and dynamic layer to everything. I think he might have outdone himself too.

Those guys are two of the most talented people I’m lucky enough to call friends, and also two of the most genuine.

When all the elements were in place and I was able to dial up a rough mix of the finished thing for the first time, it hit me so hard I started to tear up a little. No music I’ve been a part of in my life has ever done that to me. And I’ve been making music for more than twenty years now, since before I even knew what armpit hair was.

For the picture, I was trying to get a good shot of a ditch out in the county. It was a losing game. Too much detail was getting lost. Right when I was about to give up I saw the No Exit sign.

Accidental existentialism for the win.

We were going to end the album with one more afterthought — the very first one we recorded — closing the book on a somewhat hopeful-sounding note. By the time this song was CD-ready, that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. You can’t follow something like this with a little sixty second burst of sunshine. You just can’t. It would cheapen the journey. The intensity of it needs to linger and be reckoned with.

So that’s the album, and those are the details, about as well as I can give them to you.

One quick technical note before you go (assuming you’ve made it this far and haven’t jumped ship or fallen asleep yet): this is the quietest mastering job I’ve done in at least ten years. More and more, the whole “everything must be louder than everything else” mentality seems a little pointless to me, and more than a little destructive. I’d rather get the stuff sounding as good as I can and leave it at that, instead of pushing the volume a little more only to look back in a few years and find myself wishing I’d used a lighter touch — which is exactly what’s happened with a few of the albums made during my short-lived “hey, I can make things competitively loud, so why not?” phase.

I need to kick off a little Quieter Is Better (2008 – 2011) remastering campaign someday soon for my own peace of mind. Been meaning to do that for a while now.

You can always turn up the volume on your computer/CD player/iPod if you’re listening to something that wasn’t mastered all that hot and you want it louder. With music that’s been hammered at the mastering stage to infuse it with built-in perceived loudness, no amount of turning it down is ever going to make it sound good again, and the more you turn it up, the harsher and more fatiguing it’s going to get, and the less your ears are going to like you.

Long story short, you’ll need to turn this one up a little. I think it’s worth the tradeoff. Dynamic range is our friend!

All in all, it always takes some time before I can pull back and look at an album with some amount of objectivity, but I think we did good. There’s a lot going on here, both lyrically (not a whole lot of rhyming, quite a bit of variation in subject matter) and texturally (I’m not sure I’ve ever put this much thought into the production of a thing). I think/hope it’s the kind of album that will reward careful listening.

On a visual level, the collage turned out better than I ever expected it to. The same is true of the layout of the lyric booklet, even if some of that comes down to luck, as it always does with me.

On a personal level, Steven is a great friend, and recording these songs with him — and getting to involve other great friends like Natalie, Jim, Dave, Stu, and Kelly — was a deeply rewarding experience.

I have no idea where the music will take us next (EDM, maybe?), but I’m looking forward to the ride.

Allied with sin and solitude.

trespassing cropped

In the fall of 2014, before we knew we were working on something that wasn’t going to be a Tire Swing Co. album, Steven came over here with some chords, a few vocal melodies, and an idea for a song. Something about a guy who’d hidden himself away inside an abandoned-looking house, and a woman who wondered about him.

I’m not sure if what I was starting to do with musical dialogues for male and female voices on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK rubbed off a little, or if it was just divine inspiration, but he had the idea to see if we could get Natalie to sing the part of the good-natured voyeur. And he had a title: “Trespassing”.

So there was a concept and a skeleton. But there weren’t any words. I set up a few microphones to record our acoustic guitars and we played through the half-formed haze of a song that wasn’t written yet, Steven improvising words and not-words, me doing my best to harmonize without knowing what he was singing, introducing a bit of harmonic friction with my guitar-playing and ripping out a solo just past the four-minute mark that was more confident than it had any right to be.

Trespassing (rough jam)

(Whatever I improvised for that little solo there when I had no idea what i was doing, I was never able to replicate it once the song was nailed down.)

Later that night I sat down and listened to the improv. A few lines stuck out and felt like solid building blocks. I went a little nuts, and wrote a lot of lyrics of my own to go with them.

The whole thing took on a darker hue as I was fleshing it out. Started to sound like maybe there was some history between these two characters. Maybe the woman wasn’t just curious about someone she didn’t know. Maybe the man was a ghost haunting the house, and maybe that explained the place being so rundown. Maybe it was a sad kind of love song, the two of them singing to each other from opposite sides of life and death, his memories of whatever they shared eroding in a sort of death beyond death, hers as clear as they ever were, both wanting to connect but not knowing how.

I recorded a rough GarageBand demo at about 4:00 in the morning and sent it off to Steven. I had no idea how he was going to respond to it.

Trespassing (demo)

Lucky for me, he didn’t mind that I pretty much hijacked the song, and he liked the words I came up with. So I sent it to Natalie too, and she said she was up for singing on it.

I changed “thorn tree” back to “thorn bush” about five seconds after recording that demo. Liked the ring of it better. And I think that closing verse is one of my favourite verses of anything I’ve ever written. I don’t know. It just feels like it brings things full circle without resolving anything. There’s this weight of sadness there, with a bit of hope tugging at its shirtsleeves.

(Side note: I ended up hijacking other songs after this. I’ve learned if you give me a skeleton of a story, or even just a few chords and a vocal melody, it’s going to light my brain on fire. Once I snap into fill-in-the-blanks mode, songs happen pretty fast.)

We got down the guitars first. With the odd exception, I’ve been recording acoustic guitars with Steven the same way since INAMORATA. First I record him in stereo with a pair of Neumann KM184s. Usually he’s playing my old Gibson LG-2. After that, I’ll play something to accent or shadow what he’s doing. Instead of recording myself the same way, I stick the Pearlman TM-LE in front of my guitar and double-track it. A lot of the time I’m playing the newer Martin 000-15.

Some people have complained about the KM184s being bright and hard-sounding compared to the KM84s they succeeded. I don’t doubt that the originals are great microphones, but my 184s have never let me down no matter what I’ve stuck them in front of (acoustic piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, Wurlitzer, hammered dulcimer, toy piano, and who knows what else).

The LG-2 has a bit of a darker, rounder sound to it. The Martin is a brighter, punchier guitar. Those guitars and those mics just seem to play well together. It all makes for a nice bed of sound to build on.

I added bass next, and Steven recorded a lead vocal (we would replace it with a new take later on). Then Natalie came in to record her part.

With all the writing I’ve been doing for voices that are not my own, I’ve had the great fortune to record more than a dozen different singers over the last year or two. No one shows up with the song they’re going to sing committed to memory. Ever.

That’s not a problem. It’s never been a barrier to getting a good performance out of anyone. It just isn’t a thing that happens.

It happened with Natalie. We’d recorded a fair bit of CAT & CORMORANT by this time, so there was already a comfortable recording rapport there, and I knew she was going to do something good. What I didn’t know was that she was going to show up with all the words memorized. She’d absorbed the song to such an extent that having the lyrics in front of her threw her off a little. She didn’t need them.

Her voice gave the whole thing a great kick in the heart. She brought this quality of vulnerability to it that didn’t exist before she sang on it. And she altered the vocal melody just a little, leaning up on the end of the words “trespassing” and “sleepwalking” for the choruses-that-aren’t-actual-choruses instead of dipping down the way Steven and I did when we were singing those parts. Kind of like one of those freed flowers the song mentions, stretching to see the sun.

Right about then, I asked Steven, “Is this a Tire Swing Co. song? Or does it feel like maybe it’s supposed to be something else?”

I get to contribute a lot of musical and arrangement ideas to the Tire Swing Co. material (at least with the recordings — the live band is a different beast), and it’s really rewarding work, but the songs themselves aren’t mine. Those are Steve’s babies. I’m just the tailor, giving them nice things to dance around in.

This was different. This was something we built together, before even thinking about what clothes it was going to wear when it grew up.

“I think it needs to be an O-L West song,” he said.

And that was it. Just like that, the O-L West became a serious collaborative project.

“Trespassing” wasn’t the first O-L West song we recorded. It was the second. But it was the one that made it clear we had the makings of something interesting here, and we’d be wise to see how it played out.

(How it played out: we made an album with fifteen songs on it, both of us sharing the writing and lead singing duties. It could have turned into a double CD if we didn’t hold ourselves back a little once we had all the material we wanted in place. But the album isn’t quite ready for public consumption yet, so more about that another time.)

I added my high harmony for the verses. It’s a lot easier doing that once you know what the words are. Toyed with some third-part harmony and decided I liked it enough to keep it. We added the leg slaps when we weren’t sure yet if the song wanted drums. The lap steel and Fender Rhodes were things I added in the course of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall, after the song said, “Go ahead and give me some drums. I can handle it.”

For whatever reason, I’ve found myself playing harmonica on quite a few of these songs. That instrument’s rebirth as a meaningful tool for me began with STEW, and it’s carried over to just about everything else.

I’ve only been able to teach myself how to bend one note, and that’s only happened in the last year or so. A lot of the sounds someone like the magnificent Kelly Hoppe can coax out of the harmonica are way beyond me. But I feel like I can do a lot more with the instrument now than I ever could before, minimal bending and all. I know my way around better these days, even if a lot of it’s still guesswork for me.

I’m not sure what changed. It’s not like I’ve been practicing much.

The point is, it’s fun to be able to drop the harp into a song where it feels like it fits, and to be able to have some options beyond the old “blowing sloppy chords like young Bobby Dylan with numb lips” trick.

Here I thought there should be some lead-like thing happening over the mid-song instrumental break. A guitar solo like the one I played for the initial improv was going to be a little too busy with everything else going on in there. Improvising at the piano didn’t feel like the way to go either. So I pulled out my D harmonica — the first harp I ever bought — found a few notes that felt right, and there it was.

Watching that, I’m realizing I sometimes move the harmonica around like I’m trying to generate vibrato after a note has already trailed off and I’ve stopped blowing. It’s not a conscious thing. Come to think of it, I do the same thing with an electric guitar sometimes, minus the blowing. I guess I just like to shake things.

Here’s what the song sounds like now in finished form. Not sure if it’s a final mix, but it’s probably about as good as it’s going to get. If we were signed to some satanic record label and releasing singles, this would be the track we’d send out into the world as a lead-in to the full-length album.

Trespassing

I swim through the streets of Valatie.

dog 2

You get to a place where you’re tired of writing songs about people, for people, to people. You’ve seen that movie. You’ve directed it. You’ve acted in it. You’ve been your own stunt double. You’ve been your own script doctor. You’ve fired a caterer who wasn’t on the level. You’ve been through the crowd-pleasing happy endings, the soul-perforating unhappy endings, the non-endings that leave half the audience unsatisfied and the other half nodding and laughing because even if they don’t get it they still admire your guts.

You’ve written enough songs about people who are real, broken relationships, feelings, urges, all the was and the never-will-be, all the could-have-been-but-probably-shouldn’t-have-been.

So you stop. You write songs that are other things. Stories. Thoughts. Impressions. The things you write that sound like they’re about someone aren’t about anyone. It’s more interesting writing about imagined people. You can give them whatever attributes you like. There’s no less inspiration. You’re just drawing blood from a different vein.

There are so many more things to say than, “I want you, I need you, I love you, I hate you, you took a piss on my heart and I still can’t get rid of the smell.” There are words beyond those words.

But sometimes you can’t get away from the way the world is. People will be people. Some of them will be real. And the songs are going to say what they want to say.

In 2003 the internet is not what it will be in 2016. It’s not the ghost town it was a few years before. It’s some in-between thing. You can still type a random phrase into a search engine and not know where you’re going to end up. You can still find quiet ways to be surprised.

This is how you come to the online diary of a girl who throws up her depression and addiction on the internet for the world to see. An exorcism in black and purple and white. You’re drawn to her intelligence and her struggle. You’ve burned away a lot of your own self-destructive energy, but you’d be lying if you said there wasn’t still anger and depression there. You want to know her, talk with her, drink coffee with her, feel the caffeine tickle your brain.

She’s in New York. And you’re very far away from New York. So that isn’t going to happen.

You read, and you eat microwaved stir-fry, the kind that comes in a box with green beans the size of peas and chicken the size of stamps, and you drink a can of Coke, and you listen to Tim Buckley sing his soul out through his throat in a demo for “Because of You” that strips the skin from the song — the one on The Dream Belongs to Me, where you know it’s Tim playing electric twelve-string and Maury Baker shuffling behind the drums, and you know whoever put the liner notes together was asleep at the wheel, because if that’s Buddy Helm and Joe Falsia playing, you’re a dead rat in a three-piece suit. You do that, and you read some more.

You don’t know why you remember these things. But you do.

She stops updating her diary. The silence lasts a long time. Years. You send an email. You don’t think she’d want to talk to you. You’re only a stranger reading her public-private thoughts. But you try to reach out. Try to connect. As with so many of your other attempts at connecting, nothing comes back.

You can take it one of two ways. Either she isn’t interested in starting a dialogue with you, or she’s dead.

You choose to believe she isn’t dead. It’s better that way.

In 2012 you get an email from her. You don’t know what it is at first. You don’t know who she is. Then it comes back to you. She says she was a mess back then. She was touched by your concern. She’s better now. She’d like to talk to you, if you’d like to talk to her.

Soon you’re sending long emails back and forth every day. You already did the long-distance internet relationship thing a few times as a teenager. It didn’t go well. You’re not doing that again. Not now. Not ever. This isn’t that. This is a friendship. This is someone you can talk to about depression and anxiety and things you’re not comfortable pulling out with most people. This is a two-way support system.

You send her mail. She sends you mail. Letters. Music. Things. You don’t know what she looks like. You have a dream of her climbing out of a door in the ground and walking through an abandoned city, silent, wide-eyed, moving like a frightened animal. You don’t know what it means.

Hurricane Sandy hits. Her streets are flooded. Her power goes down. You don’t hear from her for a while. You worry.

She lives in Valatie. You find out it doesn’t sound the way it looks. It sounds like a mumbled sigh. Va-lay-shuh. You play something simple on a guitar. Words fall out. You write a song.

You think of the way a flood could almost be beautiful, if you had the right eyes to see it with. Drain it of everything destructive or dangerous. See it that way. See a city underwater, nothing lost, no one harmed. See a waking dream.

You see yourself swimming through the streets to get to her. Just to see her looking down at you from her apartment window and waving. That would be enough. You see yourself pushing a small raft beside you, loaded with tea and good wishes, knowing the tea will be cold by the time you get it to her. You have candles to light the way, to be your floating lantern. You throw in a bit about penguins only she’ll understand.

Valatie is a village. Town sounds better in the title. Town it is.

Singing it is easy. Dressing it up is easy. It’s the drums that give you trouble. You don’t know what they want to be. Nothing works until you start hitting them with bundle sticks. Birch dowels. You play a shuffling thing and get the take you want, imperfect but right. You stick the song in an email and send it to her.

Dread sets in and eats at your stomach. Fear cooks your brain. You don’t know how she’s going to take it. It isn’t a love song, though there’s love in it. It’s a friendship song. You’re used to the songs you write about living people coming when all your good feelings for them are dead, knowing the words will never reach their ears. This is different.

There’s a scared part of you that thinks the doomsday theorists are right and the world is going to end in a few weeks. If time really is running away on you, might as well embrace the impulsive gestures and let the people you care about know how you feel.

Her power comes back on. She takes it the way you were hoping she would. The world doesn’t end.

Then she starts to go away. You don’t hear from her as much. She sends you emails that are suicide notes, the drink and drugs chipping away at her spelling and grammar, slurring in a way you can see. She says she loves you, she’s sorry, she doesn’t want to be here anymore. She says goodbye. Then she comes back. Then it happens again. And again. And again.

You can’t knock on her door. You can’t call her. She won’t give you her phone number. You can’t get her to reach out to you if she doesn’t want to. What good are you? You’re no good at all.

You try to do what you can. Try to let her know you’re there. You care. You’ll never judge her. You just want her to stay, to talk to you, to be there. She hints at things she could tell you but doesn’t. The support system crumbles.

And then one day she’s gone. The diary goes dark. The emails stop.

You type her name and her village into Google once a week. You expect to find an obituary. You feel like you failed her. You keep sending emails, knowing nothing’s coming back. Your friend is gone. Your friend is dead.

In 2014 you get an email from her. But it isn’t her. It’s her fiancé. He tells you he was there all along. She’s carrying his child. Now he’s reading these emails he knows he shouldn’t read, and there are dozens of them, maybe a hundred, and some of them they say “love”, and in some of them she brushes him off, marginalizes him, denigrates him, lies about him to you, says he’s no one, nothing.

He doesn’t know what to feel. That makes two of you.

He colours in the picture. She’s not dead. She’s fine. She was always going to be fine. You were a distraction. A game. She was never leaving. She was never there. She’s done this before.

You fill in the rest. She could go on lying to him, or she could go on lying to you, but she couldn’t go on lying to both of you at the same time, keeping each of you hidden from the other. Too many spinning plates.

Her solution was to erase you and keep lying to him, hoping he wouldn’t someday find himself compelled to do some digging.

But he did dig. and now he knows everything, and you know almost everything, and the only reason you know what you know is because he decided you were at least entitled to that much.

You feel for him. All you did was step on a land mine you were never meant to find. You’ll write one bitter song you won’t record, the limb you lost in the explosion will grow back, and you’ll be fine.

He got hit with the whole nuclear blast. Emotional atom bomb. You can see the mushroom cloud it made all the way over here. You can pity her. You can hate her. You can feel whatever you want about her. He has to find a way to keep loving her, to trust her again, to hold it together for the kid. And that’s going to be a project.

The strangest thing in all of this is reaching out to him after he reaches out to you and getting not hostility, but wit and basic humanity slicing through the pain. You would be friends if you met a different way. You can feel it. She robbed you of that.

You have a few more dreams about her. One time she’s just words on a screen. Another time she’s a webcam model who never makes any money. Some people want to type at you and tell you what they want to see and not pay for any of it, but that isn’t it. She doesn’t get paid because no one’s watching her.

You watch. You’re the only one. You feel the way you guess you’d feel if you were watching something awful on television, too bored to change the channel.

After that she’s nothing but a story you tell to other people in dreams, until you’ve told it so many times you start telling it in a language you never learned to speak but now know well enough to swear in, until you tire of telling the story and she’s not there at all anymore.

You always thought it was interesting the way someone’s manifestation in the dream world was influenced by your experiences with them and your feelings about them in the waking world. Heroes become villains become heroes again, become spanish curse words, become out of work actors, and then you guess they make a stack of cheap straight-to-DVD movies with names like I Fell in Love with an Evil Marmoset on Thursday and Fifteen Things I Love About Hating the Idea That I Could Be in Love with You If You Just Changed Your Hairstyle.

You know what you know. You can guess at what you don’t know. One thing you know is that she goes on lying about you to him. As if the right lie could set her free. Says you’re just some guy whose music she liked. You had some weird crush on her. She never liked you at all.

She turns you into that.

You hope she’s a better mother than she was a friend.

The one true thing you’re left with is the song. The person you wrote it for never existed. But the love that’s in it did, if you can call it love, if that’s what it was. So you’ve got that. And you have other people you’d swim for, if that was your way to get to them, cold and wet be damned. So you’ve got that too.

At least if you’re me, it’s a little like that, maybe.

Swimming Through the Streets of Your Town