Year of the Sleepwalk (2019)

(This album isn’t quite finished yet, but it’s getting very close now, and I’m impatient. I felt like it was about time all the instances of the album title that are sprinkled throughout a number of blog posts linked to something instead of just sitting there doing nothing. At some point a homemade documentary that follows the making of the album will appear here as well.)

This is the first solo album I’ve made since 2011’s GIFT FOR A SPIDER. It’s also the least solitary album I’ve ever released with my name on the spine.

I didn’t plan it that way.

My goal in the aftermath of GIFT FOR A SPIDER was to finish a massive, eons-in-the-making album called THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I got off to a good start, finishing and sequencing the first two CDs of a projected four-disc set. I printed a bunch of inserts and assembled about a hundred copies of what I thought was the first half of the album. Then the magnitude of the thing started to overwhelm me, I started second-guessing the choices I’d made, and I found myself losing confidence in my ability to pull all the disparate threads together.

I was also trying to wrap my head around turning thirty. I told myself it was only a number, but all the disconcerting questions I thought I found answers to when I was in my early twenties came screaming back at me, and they had some mean new friends backing them up. What was worse, this time around they’d neglected to brush their teeth. It wasn’t pretty.

The most disturbing thing was the way the unease spilled over into my music. Making music has always been my way of coping with dark and uncertain times. It’s given me a place to go when I don’t feel comfortable anywhere else. No matter what’s happening in my life, I’ve always found a way to spin it into something constructive and make music out of it.

Even that felt pointless now. After banging my head against the wall for a while, I pushed THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE to the side, threw away the two CDs I thought were finished, left piles of unrelated songs I was writing unrecorded, and struggled to find the motivation or sense of purpose to do anything. The unexpected work I started getting recording other local artists around this time was the only thing that kept some of my musical muscles from starting to atrophy.

A thought struck me in early 2014. As much of a lone wolf as I’d become, some good friends had come into my orbit through music. Maybe collaborating with some of those friends in a new way would shock me out of the funk I was in. I didn’t feel great about the idea of being an energy vampire, but I was pretty desperate to get something going. Too much time spent not making music has never been healthy for me.

I put the feelers out on Facebook, asking if anyone was interested in being part of a large-scale creative experiment that hadn’t yet come into focus. The response I got was overwhelming.

Of course, when I tried following up on a more personal level, not one of the people who expressed an interest in doing something would talk to me. It was all hot air. But now I had an idea, and I was determined to follow it all the way down the rabbit hole.

A large part of my musical identity is wrapped up in the way I work. I produce and record myself in my home. Most of the time I play all the instruments and end up doing everything short of printing the booklets/inserts and fabricating the plastic used to make the CD jewel cases. I started doing all of this out of necessity, and now it’s just…what I do. Not having to pay someone else for studio time and not having to rely on other musicians to show up are two of the main reasons I’ve been able to make so much music without stopping to take a breath very often. When you have no one to rely on but yourself, you can get a lot done.

What if I kept that identity intact but…messed with it a little? What if I invited other wolves into the proverbial cave and asked them to add their own accents and impressions?

One of my initial ideas was to put a band together. If I’d gone down that road, I think I would still be trying to get everyone to show up for the first recording session. It became clear very early in the game that working with people one-on-one was the only way I was going to get what I wanted, and doing the lion’s share of the work myself was the only way anything was going to get done.

If I was really going to go through with this, I decided there would be three stipulations:

  1. Anyone I invited to be a part of the project had to be based in Windsor, or at least in town long enough to come over to the house.
  2. If they were a musician, they had to play an instrument I either couldn’t play myself or didn’t have access to.
  3. If they were a singer, they had to have a voice I found unique and emotionally compelling.

You’d think that would thin out the pool quite a bit. I still ended up reaching out to more than a hundred different singers and musicians. Some I knew. Some I’d never spoken to before. Some I discovered almost by accident.

There were a number of false starts and near-misses on the way to finding the people who would become part of this thing called YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. There were a lot of firsts for me along the way as well. I wrote string and horn parts — a fun challenge when your music theory knowledge is almost nonexistent — and found real string and horn players to bring them to life. I wrote songs with specific singers in mind and then “pitched” those songs to the people I wanted to sing them. I wrote a few musical dialogues meant for more than one lead vocalist. And I somehow convinced a group of people to stand around a microphone while sing-shouting about horses galloping and trotting.

It was exciting, frustrating, unpredictable, a profound test of my patience and resilience, and inspiring beyond measure.

Well, that’s not quite true. There is one way to measure the inspiration all of this stirred up in me: I wrote well over two hundred songs for this specific album.

You can imagine the fun I had when it came time to try and shave all of that down to some sort of cohesive, somewhat digestible musical statement. I think I managed to carve out an album that goes a lot of different places without feeling like it loses its way, but it was tough to get the sequencing just right.

The visual art became a part of things when I started thinking about album packaging. I knew I would never be able to make an album quite like this again even if I wanted to, and I thought it might be worthwhile to try doing something more involving and ambitious with the lyric booklet.

I reached out to a number of local artists and asked if each of them would be interested in creating a single piece of art inspired by the music. I couldn’t share the whole album with them (it wasn’t finished yet), but I could at least offer them a pretty healthy handful of music. What they created would be up to them. It could be a direct response to a specific song. It could be something that had nothing to do with any of the imagery in my lyrics. It could be anything at all, as long as the music catalyzed the image in some way.

This was one of the most thrilling parts of making the album, because it was out of my hands. I had no idea what I was going to get from any of the dozen visual artists who got involved. Every image they sent my way was a great surprise.

I hope the end result is an album that forces you to sit down and really explore all the sounds, words, and images it has to offer — the way we used to experience music in days of old, before a lot of us started treating it as little more than the audio equivalent of wallpaper.

I don’t know if the sum total of all of this work is the best album I’ve ever made. I don’t think I’m the sort of artist who has a “best” album in them. I’ve been making music almost as long as I’ve been alive, and I’ve always viewed my albums as little more than snapshots of who and where I am at a given point in time. No snapshot on its own is going to tell you the whole story, but line them all up next to one another and you’ve got an audio photo album that spans decades.

I do know this is one of the more panoramic snapshots in that photo album, and in some ways it’s one of my proudest achievements. It should be — I went through hell to make it. I think the songs are some of the best I’ve written. I’m gobsmacked by the performances I was able to capture from a host of talented singers and musicians. I think the artwork has allowed me to give the music a rich, varied visual life. And I learned a lot about myself as an artist and a producer along the way.

You might notice I haven’t touched on any of the individual songs the way I normally do on these album pages. That’s because there’s a video component to the album that covers a lot of that ground. I’ll post it here as soon as it’s finished and edited. I’ll also probably end up writing a ridiculously long blog post that discusses every single song, so there’s no reason to do that again here.

As fastidious as I’ve been about making audio recordings over the years, it’s a serious regret of mine that so little of my musical life has been documented in visual form. There was some great candid footage shot by one band member or another in my teenage days, but most of it’s lost now. I got my hands on a MiniDV Camcorder in 2003. That should have been a serious turning point. The problem was every time I thought I was going to dig in and document myself creating an album or working through a change in musical direction, I would talk myself out of it, convinced whatever I filmed would be boring beyond belief.

The moment this album started picking up some momentum, I decided I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. I started setting up a video camera or two — with the explicit permission of each performer — at the beginning of some of the recording sessions, and I filmed myself talking to the camera and recorded voiceover material to fill in some of the blanks. I wanted to document not only the musical gifts of everyone onscreen, but some sense of their personalities and how we interacted. I also wanted to provide some context for everything, and I was able to dig up a surprising amount of archival material. So you get a lot of background information that may or may not be of interest.

I’m not a professional filmmaker. I hesitate to call the film a true documentary. I hesitate to call it a film at all. It’s more of a very long, rambling, quirky video essay. For the most part my video equipment is nothing special, but when it comes to music I’ve always been a firm believer in working with whatever tools you have available. I thought it was about time I carried that attitude over to the camera, making do with what I had instead of putting pressure on myself to film something brilliant.

While the end result won’t play at any film festivals, I think it tells you a lot about who I am, what I do, and why I do it the way I do. And in a way, I think the roughness of some of the footage suits the way I work. I’ve never been interested in chasing perfection. I’ve always believed mistakes and accidents are where some of the best stuff lives. Those are the moments in which we’re the truest versions of ourselves.

Both the album and its video companion piece could have been finished a lot sooner if I hadn’t taken so much time away from my own music to record other Windsor songwriters over the last few years, and if some people hadn’t forced me to chase them in order to get them over here. As rewarding as the whole thing was on an artistic level, on a personal level it wasn’t always a great experience. I had to fight through an incredible amount of bullshit to make the album what I wanted it to be. I’m glad I stuck it out and fought my way through, but I won’t ever do anything like this again. I’m looking forward to getting back to basics and making pure solo albums again after this.

From the beginning, my plan was to end this adventure with an expansive free album release show at Mackenzie Hall, with all of the visual art displayed, a huge band backing me up, and several guests sharing the spotlight. I received a generous grant from the City of Windsor’s Arts, Culture & Heritage Fund to cover expenses and pay the performers. The event was going to be professionally filmed and recorded so everyone would be able to share in the experience, no matter where they were in the world.

When it came right down to it, almost no one was willing to honour the commitments they’d made, and I couldn’t get any meaningful group of people to show up for a single rehearsal. Thanks to the indifference of my so-called peers, I had to cancel the show after putting half a decade of work into making it a reality. You’re looking at the first person in the history of the ACHF to refund their grant money.

At least I can’t say I didn’t try.

TRACKS

CD 1

Don’t Let the Preamble Ramble
Vector
Losing Light
Embedded Ignitable/So Happy
Later Than Soon
Lullaby for Unborn Child
Archaic Units of Measurement
Dew Point
Do Not Don’t Do That
First Dialogue
Cathedral in Ruins
Alien Eggs
Cicadas
Calcium Oxalate
Boy See
Gold Smoke
Lead Bullets
A Constellation of Conditions
Somnambulist
The Inverse Is Also True
Nothing to See, Nothing to Say
When the Bottom Drops out
Melted Hearts
Buying Time at the End of the World

CD 2

Early
Sweet Hot Hell
Freedom as a Child (Five Cellos)
These Psychic Pants Are Slimming
Just Another Face in the Clouds
Your Dishrag Soul
Second Dialogue
The Thing You Sing When You Think You’re Alone
I Don’t Want to Get over Getting over You
Oxygen Damage Due to Lack of Brain
Firecrackers
Cure for the Uncommon Cold
Neon Roulette
Mystery and Miracles
Milk That Expires on Your Birthday
Wherever the Lord May Be
Saskatoon Pastor
A Will to Love
Your Mother and I
A Star Is Stillborn
Maybe Everything That Mattered Didn’t Matter at All
My Inflamed Lung
Hollow Mast
The Stillness of Us
The Possibilities Are Quite Possibly Possible
We Were Wolves

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