This is the first solo album I’ve made since 2011’s GIFT FOR A SPIDER. It took almost six years to make. It’s home to the largest supporting cast I’ve ever had for an album with my name on the spine — and I’m not someone who normally has a supporting cast of any size. It also comes with a twenty-eight-page lyric booklet full of visual art.
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 bring such a long-range project to an appropriate end.
At the same time this was happening, I was 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 like I belong anywhere else. No matter what’s happening in my life, I’ve always found a way to spin it into something constructive and make art 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 done, didn’t bother recording any of the new songs I was writing, 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. 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. Now it’s just what I do. Not having to pay someone else for studio time and not having to count 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:
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. If they were a musician, they had to play an instrument I either couldn’t play myself or didn’t have access to. And 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. 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 singing and 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 was pretty merciless — the outtakes outnumbered the songs that made the cut two-to-one — and this still might be the most eclectic album I’ve made, taking in folk, blues, jazz, ambient electronica, doo-wop, bluegrass, bossa nova, lo-fi hip hop, chamber music, shoegaze, and more. There are songs in which gutted candles inspire words of devotion, the feelings of clouds are considered, and fraught lullabies are sung to children not yet born.
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. 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 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 visual artists who got involved. Every image they sent my way was a great surprise. I think I’m almost as proud of the way the booklet turned out as I am of the music.
I hope the end result is an album that encourages 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. That’s the idea, anyway.
I don’t know if the sum total of all of this work is the best album I’ve 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 was able to capture some great performances from a host of talented singers and musicians. The artwork 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.
I haven’t touched on any of the individual songs the way I normally do on these album pages. That’s because I’m in the process of writing a huge blog post that breaks down every song. There’s also a video component to the album, which you can watch right here if you’re so inclined:
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. 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 isn’t going to wow you visually and it 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 a lot 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. For all the guests involved, in the end this is not the collaborative album I once thought it might become. I was open to writing with other people. The problem was they never showed up to write anything with me. So I wrote all the songs myself. Most of the parts played and sung by others are parts I wrote as well. And I still ended up playing all the instruments on almost every song out of necessity.
Would I have liked to feature strings, horns, and guest vocalists on every song? Sure. I’d also like to live in a cloud and get daily massages from rainbow-hued angels made of liquid chocolate.
Some things aren’t meant to be. And maybe it’s for the best that it worked out the way it did. Maybe it wouldn’t be a Johnny West album if I had anything resembling a band backing me up.
On an artistic level, putting all of this together was a rewarding experience. I got to paint with a few new colours. Most of the songs I wrote with specific singers in mind found their way to someone else’s voice when my first choice bailed on me (or else I wound up singing the songs myself), but when the right singer met the right song it felt like magic. Layering a single cellist into a virtual string quartet and getting to sing on top of that after years of settling for synth strings was an emotional high point. A handful of folks were wonderful to work with (and a few got booted off the album after how shitty they were to me).
On a personal level, it was a different story. Making this album the way I wanted to make it probably took a few years off my life. I kind of had to gut it out, and it’s a lonelier album than it should be for all the different faces you see on the cover. I’ve never been ignored, blown off, stood up, lied to, and strung along in so many different ways by so many different people. If I could go back and do it again, I wouldn’t. I’d do something else.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad this album exists. At least I have something to show for all the love and spit and spite I poured into it, and no one can take that away from me. But I won’t ever do anything like it again.
From the beginning, my plan was to put on a 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. It was going to be my take on a Windsor-centric version of The Last Waltz. I received a generous grant from the City of Windsor’s Arts, Culture & Heritage Fund to cover expenses and pay all the performers. The event was going to be professionally filmed and recorded so there would be a lasting document everyone could 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. I couldn’t get any meaningful group of people to show up for a single rehearsal. I also couldn’t get anyone in the media to give me the time of day — not even those who’d written about my music in the past and painted themselves as allies. 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. And though a nine-year gap between solo albums is pretty horrifying any way you look at it, I think this one makes up for lost time.
Don’t Let the Preamble Ramble
Embedded Ignitable/So Happy
Later Than Soon
Lullaby for Unborn Child
Archaic Units of Measurement
Do Not Don’t Do That
Cathedral in Ruins
A Constellation of Conditions
Nothing to See, Nothing to Say
When the Bottom Drops Out
Buying Time at the End of the World
Oxygen Damage Due to Lack of Brain
Freedom as a Child (Five Cellos)
These Psychic Pants Are Slimming
Just Another Face in the Clouds
Your Dishrag Soul
I Don’t Want to Get over Getting over You
A Star Is Stillborn
Your Music in Commercials After You Die
Cure for the Uncommon Cold
Milk That Expires on Your Birthday
My Inflamed Lung
Sweet Hot Hell
Your Mother and I
Wherever the Lord May Be
The Possibilities Are Quite Possibly Possible
The Stillness of Us
We Were Wolves