Ron Leary – Musicians Make Great Construction Workers (2020)

Ron Leary has one of those voices words aren’t good enough to tell you about if you’ve never heard him sing. He could make a pest control pamphlet sound like the truest song ever written. Lucky for us and the insects, he’s got his own stories to sing, and they’re full of the poetry of the everyday and the hard-to-say. We haven’t got too many real folk singers left, but I think it’s safe to say Ron’s one. There isn’t a hint of artifice in his music. It all comes straight from the heart.

I’ve been a fan of Ron the songwriter and Ron the person for a long time. He was at the only live gig I got to play during those lean years when not a lot of people had any real interest in what I was doing while I was busy spitting out new music at a rate that scares me a little now, offering support and kind words.

In the years that came after, we’d run into each other downtown once in a while. We’d exchange music and letters in the mail and write each other emails. We always meant to get together and play some music, but life had its own ideas. Life likes to be a disruptive little stone in your soup sometimes, until you choke on that stone, Heimlich yourself out of trouble, and drink the broth with your lips still halfway numb.

When I was figuring out who I wanted to talk to about being a part of the ambitious album that became YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, Ron was high on the list before I even had a list. He got bumped up higher still after Zara rewired the song she sang on. I thought I needed to have a male voice in there somewhere taking the spotlight for a whole song, doing some similar emotional rewiring.

When you need a voice capable of doing that, Ron’s the guy you want to call on.

I wrote a little thing for him to sing called “Firecrackers”, and he came in and sang it. Hearing that voice coming through my headphones singing words I wrote was surreal. You hear Ron sing a line like, “Winter has a strange heart,” and you start to think maybe you didn’t write it at all. Maybe he wrote it while you were sleeping, but you looked so peaceful he decided to let you keep it.

Not too many people took me up on the “I’ll record one of your songs for free if you sing/play on one of mine” barter I started out offering when I was trying to drum up SLEEPWALK contributors, but most of those who did ended up hiring me to record a whole album for them not long after. That wasn’t what I was aiming for when I made the offer. Still, it was a nice little unintentional side effect. Made for some good experiences recording music that wasn’t my own.

I stopped bringing it up after a while. Instead, I would offer to pay people a session fee and leave it at that. My plate got pretty full pretty fast and that was one way to simplify things. Even then, I really wanted to make the song-for-song transaction happen with Ron. I knew he had some real beauties that hadn’t found a place on any of his albums for one reason or another.

After singing on my tune, he laid down acoustic guitar and a lead vocal for Grimy Old Shoes, which has been one of my favourite songs of his ever since I first heard it when I played piano on a cover version Travis Reitsma recorded in 2009 for an album that never saw the light of day.

I had no idea what I was going to do with this iteration of Grimy Old Shoes. Ron encouraged me to have fun with it. When Facebook told me it was his birthday, I dusted the raw tracks off and added some things, figuring it might make for a fun little present. I sent along a rough mix that afternoon, hoping he’d like what I did.

It felt good working on that song. Once I sussed out the approach I wanted to take with the electric guitar, I probably finished adding everything — vocal harmonies, piano, ambient guitar, bass, and brushed drums — within half an hour. It just clicked. If memory serves, I improvised some pretty good stuff on piano for the 2009 cover version that was never mixed or released. This was something different altogether.

Ron liked it. That was another thing that felt good. I said, “Hey, if you ever want to record another song that doesn’t have a home, let me know. I’d love to do it again.” He came back with, “How about we do a whole ten-song album and build a home?”

Ron has gigged and recorded with a whole slew of talented people. Dean Drouillard produced, recorded, mixed, and played a lot of different instruments on theroadinbetween and Dependent Arising. Andy Magoffin sat in the producer’s chair and manned the boards for Tobacco Fields. Folks like Royal Wood, Adam Warner, John Showman, Rich Burnett, Kate Maki, and Kelly Hoppe have played and sung on those albums.

I would have loved to play piano on something at some point if the opportunity came my way, but I felt a little awkward asking. I think it’s better to let an artist assemble the cast they want when they’re making a record instead of trying to insinuate yourself.

An unexpected invitation came my way when Ron was putting Tobacco Fields together. I ended up playing piano on one song (“Tattooed Lady”) and writing a string arrangement for another (“To Living”). Then we started work on this album.

It was recorded piecemeal to begin with. When Ron had some time to spare, we’d get a few guitar and vocal tracks down. I thought I’d wait until all the bed tracks were in place before doing any serious arranging. I don’t often work that way, but in this case it felt like an approach that would make for a stronger feeling of continuity.

Dependent Arising and Tobacco Fields both feature Ron’s core band and a large supporting cast. This one has more in common with Ron’s first album, theroadinbetween. Dean recorded that one and ended up playing the bulk of the instruments on it. Here it was me moving the microphones around and acting as the tailor, dressing up the songs. Kelly Hoppe plays harmonica on Roadside Motel and bass harmonica on March on Wisconsin. Alison Corbett plays violin on Night and Day. Other than that, it’s just Ron and I.

When I’m recording someone else, this is the kind of album I tend to enjoy making most. I get to dig in and contribute whatever ideas I have. And to have an artist like Ron say, “Do your thing,” well…musical compliments don’t come much better than that.

I didn’t want to derail things too much. And I understand Ron’s sensibilities enough to know he isn’t big on the idea of synthesized sounds showing up in his music. He likes to keep things organic. I did try to give each song its own unique sonic identity without making it too difficult to weave them all together. As always, there were a few surprises along the way.

One unexpected wrinkle was the piece of crap acoustic twelve-string Gord dumped on me near the end of the Papa Ghostface days. Against all the odds, that guitar became something of a secret weapon. Even after the work I did to make it somewhat playable, the thing is still one of the most uncomfortable stringed instruments I’ve ever had the misfortune to try and coax some useable sounds out of — and I’ve played some real junkers. I’m not exaggerating. I can only play it for so long before it starts to hurt my fretting hand. It’s a pretty horrible instrument by any reasonable measure…and yet I found myself reaching for it on three different songs and loving what it brought to the table. There’s a thinness to its voice that can make it a great tool when you want to add a little extra air to a mix.

Then there’s my favourite guitar solo I played on the album. It was recorded in a completely backwards way. It wasn’t even meant to be a keeper track.

I have a perfect amplifier for blues harmonica. It’s this tiny Mason Model 6 made in 1955. The problem is I’ve yet to get around to picking up a bullet mic capable of driving it hard enough to get a good dirty tone. My workaround to get the blues harp sound has been recording harmonica the traditional way, with no amp in the signal path, and then using a guitar amp simulator effect that’s built into my mixer to process the clean sound. Cheating? You bet. But I’m pretty picky, and I think it sounds authentic enough to do the job.

I used this trick for my little harmonica solo during the first instrumental break on Sweet Solitude, and then I kept recording, singing some harmonies and noodling on the guitar into the same mic from a bit of a distance. I wasn’t planning on keeping any of this stuff. The guitar solo that ends the song was just me messing around. I had no idea I would end up liking it as much as I did. By the time I was working on putting an actual mix together, it felt like an integral part of the song. I figured out how to duplicate it and recorded it in a more “normal” way, but it always felt like it lost something no matter how many takes I did. So I kept the scratch track. The reason it doesn’t sound like a conventional electric guitar recording is because it isn’t one — it’s an acoustic guitar being played into a microphone that’s got an overdriven amp simulator effect on it.

This is the sort of thing I expected Ron to balk at when he heard it. Instead, he responded with real enthusiasm and enjoyed the quirkier moments. He even encouraged me to leave in a few bits of between-song studio dialogue. And if you know me, you know how much I love those little candid slices of audio life.

The title track was another one that surprised me. I heard it working as a soft, jazzy shuffle. Nothing I added to the song that leaned in that direction felt like it was working at all. I started picturing Ron sitting on a scaffolding with his guitar, flanked by a few coworkers on each side, slapping their legs and singing along. Then I set out to turn the mental picture into something tangible, adding some simple Wurlitzer chords to support Ron’s acoustic guitar, slapping my legs a bunch of times to create the illusion of a group of leg-slappers, and singing some wordless vocal harmonies.

Instead of a jazzy shuffle, it turned into a gospel-folk work song.

Very little reverb was used throughout. That was a conscious creative decision. When I wanted a little extra hair on a sound or felt like thickening up a lead vocal a bit, most of the time I used a short slap-back echo. Though these songs were built up a layer at a time and not recorded live in the studio, I wanted it to sound like a bunch of musicians playing together in a room, without much in the way of “artificial” sounds. I think the only real extravagances I allowed myself were a few seconds of ping-pong delay on one of Alison’s violin bits to add some dreaminess, and drenching most of my lap steel tracks in delay and reverb, which is something I tend to do anyway.

Most of the vocals are first or second takes. I would have asked Ron for more if I didn’t think he was nailing it, but it felt like he delivered what a song needed the first time out of the gate almost every time.

These may well be some of the most personal songs Ron has committed to record. He always puts himself into his songs, but in just a single verse and a chorus Crazy Dreams summarizes a few years spent mortgaging his physical and mental health to pay the bills before moving back to Windsor and making music his focus again. The title track is even more direct. It’s funny at first, until the insanity of living two diametrically opposed lives at once starts to sink in and you wonder how anyone could get out of a situation like that in one piece. Precious Time was something of a forgotten song, mentioned early on and then lost in the shuffle. I’m glad it was found again in the nick of time, because it makes for a powerful closing track. I can’t imagine anything else in its place.

This album also features the recorded debut of Ron’s longtime touring and songwriting guitar — a 1993 Takamine that shows up on Sweet Solitude, Roadside Motel, March on Wisconsin, and Precious Time. On the rest of the songs he’s playing my 1951 Gibson LG-2. Those two guitars have very different personalities. The Takamine is bright and punchy, while the Gibson is darker and rounder. Ron has such a distinctive way of playing, it sounds like him no matter what axe is in his hands, and both instruments acquit themselves well here.

It was a great pleasure having the chance to work with Ron in this capacity, and my gut tells me this is an album that’s going to stand the test of time. It’s one of my all-time proudest moments as a producer and documentarian of music that isn’t my own.

2 comments

  1. Interesting article, I love getting some background on how songs came to be. Love the anecdotes. Thanks for posting it and the stream for the new album. It sounds great so far , can’t wait to hear the rest !

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