Bruce Cockburn: 50 Years of Songs

“Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage/ Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage/ Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights/ What did they think the politics of panic would invite?/ Person in the street shrugs ‘Security comes first’/ But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse/ The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”—Bruce Cockburn “The Trouble with Normal”

Finding the right words to express the zeitgeist has never been a problem for Bruce Cockburn. Take the lyrics from the chorus of his 1983 hit cited above. Normal is what everyone pines to discover in a year marked by fear and uncertainty. Let’s hope when normalcy returns, it’s not a harbinger of the next wave of bad news. For more than 50 years, the iconic Canadian songwriter has been carefully crafting words and phrases into storied songs—some more politically charged than others. Over the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to share a half dozen conversations with the Canadian Songwriting Hall of Famer. Getting a good quote is never an issue. Finding a way to weave as many of his wise words as possible into my finished feature is the challenge.

Like everyone in the music industry, 2020 has been a challenging year for Bruce. His plans for 2020 are on hold. Shows cancelled, rebooked, and rescheduled until whenever it’s safe to play live again. This year was supposed to be a celebration of a milestone—50 years as a songwriter and the golden anniversary of his self-titled debut on the label founded by his manager Bernie Finkelstein. Instead, Cockburn released a limited edition vinyl box set via True North Records and participated in several multi-artist streamed shows.

“I’m not nostalgically inclined by nature, but it’s interesting to say I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” he reflects. “50 years is 50 years of being beaten by the weather, metaphoric, and actual, but it still feels like a milestone. I’m happy True North did this 50thbox set. More than anything, it finally gives vinyl versions of a couple of records I think are the best I’ve ever done.”

Asked about the secret to his 50-year business relationship—and friendship—with Cockburn, Finkelstein says: “I guess we are just two people that want to stay together. It’s that simple. I joke that since Bruce and I never had a formal management contract, he doesn’t know when it is over! We just are on the same track on what needs to be done. We’ve been right more than wrong and here we still are.”

The 50th anniversary vinyl package was limited to 750 copies personally signed by Cockburn. No surprise, it sold out within the first month. True North—A 50th Anniversary Box Set includes the songwriter’s debut Bruce Cockburn; and a pair of records that have never appeared before on vinyl: The Charity of Night (1997); and the JUNO-winning Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu (1999). Colin Linden, Cockburn’s long-time friend, producer, and frequent bandmate, re-mastered the records. Linden loved Cockburn as a fan long before the pair became friends. His brother had a copy of the songwriter’s debut and Linden recalls seeing the guitar virtuoso perform for the first time on his 11th birthday: April 16, 1971. Linden produced both The Charity of Nightand Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu; the Grammy-winning artist feels these albums are two of Cockburn’s best. He remembers well that night 24 years ago when Bruce showed up at his Toronto apartment with The Charity of Night demos. Linden says listening to sketches for songs like “Pacing the Cage” for the first time was “life-changing.” “It was just one brilliant song after another,” Linden says today from his Nashville, Tenn. home. “After Bruce left that night, I asked if I could do some overdubs on the demos. My wife [Janice] and I had some ideas for additional parts and textures. I made a rough mixtape of the songs with our overdubs and Bruce really liked them. That is how I got the call to produce that record.”

After laying down the bulk of the tracks at Toronto’s Reaction Studios, Linden and Cockburn travelled to the San Francisco Bay area to do some additional recording at Bob Weir’s studio where they also added vocals from Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur. New Orleans was the final stop where Calgary-born John Whynot mixed the record at Kingsway—Daniel Lanois’ studio. “Mixing in Lanois’ studio changed everything for me in terms of how I’ve made records for the last 25 years,” says Linden, “just the whole aesthetic of how Dan creates a recording environment. You can see the fruits of that in my home studio today. Making that record was a life-changing experience.”

Catching up with Cockburn in the middle of a pandemic finds him as contemplative as ever, happy to chat about his career, his approach to songwriting, and life in 2020. When we chat, the 75-year-old is enjoying some family time in the college town of Arcata, California with his wife and eight-year-old daughter. The family of three is in the midst of a road trip in an RV, cruising up the Pacific Coast, and visiting with friends—at a social distance of course. After three months shut-in at home in San Francisco, Cockburn needed a respite from the monotony of domesticity.

“I was expecting to be doing a whole bunch of shows,” he says. “It was unfortunate to have to let go of that. It’s hard to stay motivated at times with no gigs. And, I can’t get together with others to get inspired, so that is also a bit odd, but contrary to my expectations I’ve been very busy, helping my daughter with online classes and getting lunches made.”

In an election year, for a songwriter who has never shied away from making his opinion known on political matters, does he feel the need to capture his mood in a new song or two? “I feel like there is so much blather right now, I don’t need to add to it,” Cockburn says. “It’s not that all of what people are saying is not meaningful, but there are just so many voices clamouring I don’t have much to add to that conversation. I have opinions and feelings that will eventually show up, but at this point, what am I going to say about Trump that hasn’t been said and who needs it anyway?”

After 50 years of writing songs, I ask if his approach has changed. “The process is not so different,” he explains, “it’s just more deliberate now. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started writing songs. I didn’t understand how it all worked. I wait around for a good idea and write down anything that is useful: images, and other bits and pieces as they come. Eventually, some idea will show up that triggers an actual song. What is different now is I pay more attention to the details and I’m fussier, but it still takes an emotional trigger or a phrase of some sort to get it going. Sometimes I have an idea that sounds good and then realize I said that 40 years ago.”

Cockburn’s songwriting journey began more than five decades ago in Ottawa, Ontario. After a couple of years studying at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, majoring in composition, he dropped out of school in 1965 and returned to his hometown to start a band (The Children). Finkelstein recalls seeing a young Cockburn as part of this short-lived group when they opened for The Lovin’ Spoonful at a show in Kingston, Ontario. “The Children were interesting and good, but they left no great impression on me one way or the other. Bruce was just a member of the band.”

Once Bruce left The Children to pursue a solo career, and started to pen his own material, is when he really left an impression on Finkelstein—enough of an impression that he signed him to a record deal, the first for True North Records. The memorable gig occurred at The Pornographic Onion, a coffeehouse at Ryerson University run by Eugene Martynec. Martynec (who went on to produce Bruce’s first 10 records) heard his friend was starting a record label and told him he had an artist called Bruce Cockburn that Finkelstein had to hear. “I didn’t realize how good he was until after I signed him,” recalls Finkelstein, who sold True North Records in 2007, but still manages Cockburn. “He played ‘Going to the Country’ and my ears lit up. I thought that could be a hit. Within one month I signed Bruce and that December we went into Eastern Sound and made his debut album.”

Pornographic Onion poster featuring a young Bruce Cockburn courtesy of the Ryerson University archives.

 

Thirty-four albums later, 13 JUNO Awards, an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, and an Officer of the Order of Canada, Cockburn could easily rest. Alas, putting down their notebook and ignoring the muse is not part of an artist’s DNA.   

Until a vaccine is found and it’s safe for a return to the new normal, whatever it looks like, Cockburn, like all artists, is waiting. He’s hopeful to hit the road and play selections from his half-century catalogue of songs to live audiences again sometime in 2021.

“There is reason to be hopeful, but right now it is a game of wait and see,” he concludes. “If people would just get more responsible – and take the steps necessary to get past this pandemic. If it follows the pattern of the 1918 Spanish Flu, it will run its course and eventually fade away and we will all forget about it until the next one comes along – and there will be a next one I’m sure. It’s really important that we as a species and culture use the stresses and openings that have been provided at this moment to move ourselves forward.”

How the Song Happened: Cory Marks’s “Outlaws & Outsiders”

 

Got a gypsy soul, I’m a rebel and rogue
And I’m always on the run
With a fire inside I ain’t ever gonna die
I’m a locked and loaded gun

– “Outlaws & Outsiders”

After a country-rock song you wrote surpasses 25 million cumulative streams worldwide, a move to Music City, where the heart of the industry lives, might feel like the logical next step.

Not for Cory Marks. Despite “Outlaws & Outsiders” reaching Top 10 on rock radio South of the border – and peaking at No. 3 in Germany – the songwriter is content to stay close to home. He lives in Sturgeon Falls (population 6,798), 39 km West, along the Trans-Canada Highway, from his hometown of North Bay. This fact is no surprise. As “Outlaws & Outsiders” suggests, Marks writes songs filled with truths learned from his rural upbringing. At heart, he, too, is an outsider.

“A lot of my songwriting is based on real and honest things that have happened to me, or close to me,” he says. “I would much rather write a true story – and [have] my own story really resonate – than create one with five or six other writers in a room with the hopes of a big hit. I always try to keep it real that way.”

Catching up with the songwriter on an autumn afternoon finds Marks enjoying time at home, writing more songs (he figures he probably has close to 50 set aside for his next record), hitting the gym, and finishing the requirements to obtain his private pilot’s license.

“Outlaws & Outsiders” started as simply a cool title for the cross-Canada tour Marks did with Aaron Pritchett five years ago. Canadian country radio is where the songwriter would love to land, but like the song’s title, he’s an outlier. His sound isn’t poppy enough to fit the mainstream mold. “I feel like I’m a country artist, first and foremost,” he says. “I want to give country radio something different for the fans and for the genre.”

“Country music needs change, and I want to be that change”

Before the song’s global success, the journey to 25 million streams started in Las Vegas in the fall of 2015. Marks joined Kevin Churko at the eight-time JUNO nominee’s studio, The Hideout. The pair wrote the bones for “Outlaws and Outsiders” in less than a day. Churko then used his influence to land some heavy-hitter guests: veteran country music icon Travis Tritt, Ivan Moody of Five Finger Death Punch, and Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe.

With or without the support of Canadian country radio, Marks will stay true to the outlaws and outsiders who inspired him: from Hank Williams to Buck Owens, Willie to Waylon, and Steve Earle to Sturgill Simpson. Growing up in North Bay, the artist was an aspiring hockey player, and picked up the drums as his first instrument. His dad turned him on to these country legends, and he simultaneously discovered hard rock, becoming a fan of bands like Rush, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, and Deep Purple.

“It’s unfortunate for artists like myself, with more of a rock edge, that we don’t often get the respect from the country establishment,” he says. “Country music needs change, and I want to be that change.”

Sno Babies Synch
As if the streaming success of “Outlaws & Outsiders” wasn’t enough, Marks also landed a synch with the song in Sno Babies (2020) – an independent film that looks at the dark realities of addiction. Better Noise Music, Marks’ label, produced the film, and the soundtrack, and felt his song fit well with the theme. “To watch the movie unfold, and have your song come on, that was such a cool moment,” he says. “As an artist, you dream of having a hit on the radio, but getting one of your creations featured in a film is also an incredible honor.” Come 2021, Marks’ song “Blame It on the Double” is set to appear in another Better Noise Films feature, The Retaliators.

Photo by Ed Regan

Elliott Brood: Trio Experiment with Vintage Instruments to complete their timeless new recording

“And the seasons change/ Everything gets rearranged/ But tonight I’m stuck in a yesterday haze.” “Stay Out” 

One thing the pandemic of 2020 has taught us is this: change is inevitable. No matter our job, or our financial situation, nothing is as it seems. We must adapt often. We must not fear change. We’ve been reminded what Greek philosophers said centuries ago: “Change is the only constant in this life.” No one understands this better than artists, who have chosen a career that — at the best of times — is one of the most precarious. As Elliott Brood captures in the lyrics quoted above, taken from the single “Stay Out,” everything gets rearranged; often, this leads to getting stuck. 

“Nothing is normal ever even though we state it is,” says band member Mark Sasso. “Along the lines of that – as a band – we are good at always adapting and that is the new norm. I like that aspect of it. We like to put hindrances on us when we are recording anyways: record in small places or record over a short time. We are just using the new norm.”

Luckily getting stuck is not something Elliott Brood believes in. The band formed in Toronto in 2002. And nearly two decades on, the trio of talented multi-instrumentalists: Casey Laforet, Sasso, and Stephen Pitkin are still making memorable music for its legions of fans. After a dozen years roaming around from label to label the JUNO-award winners returned to the little indie (Six Shooter Records) who released their first full-length LP (Ambassador) back in 2005. In their absence, the label has grown, but kept the same ethos espoused by founder Shauna de Cartier: “Life is too short to listen to shitty music.” 

“It’s good to be back,” Sasso says. “Casey was the first to suggest we should approach them again. They were our first family and have remained huge fans and supporters. We always felt like they are the ones that loved us, so it really felt like coming home. We’ve been wandering around and are now coming home to something familiar, to people who get everything we are doing and are 100 per cent behind it.” As de Cartier jokes, “the prodigal sons have returned!” 

These prodigal sons are now older and wiser, balancing families and living apart [Laforet lives in Los Angeles and Sasso and Pitkin live in Hamilton]; yet, they are still making timeless and progressive music. Songs are fragments. Put together they often form a whole. When it comes to folk-rock trio Elliott Brood, usually it’s a complete puzzle – each song connects to the next. That’s is the case on their latest – the brilliant soundscape that is Keeper; a keeper of a record indeed, featuring 10 new songs released on Six Shooter September 18.  

Fortunate for the band, Keeperwas more or less finished before the pandemic hit. It was mastered in March and originally scheduled for a May release. Keeper, a title Pitkin came up with, is all about relationships. We all have them. We all want them. And, sometimes – many times– we don’t know what to do with them. Laforet sums this theme up: 

“All these songs have to do with people and relationships that you keep even when they are tough or damaged,’ he explains. “You could be that person to someone else … you are a burden to someone but they won’t ever let you down or let you go. That is the idea that runs through all the tracks in one way or another. Once the title came [Keeper] it made way more sense. 

“We are still a full album band and are fans of that in the world of singles,” he adds. “We always try to put together a novel of sorts with some sort of story that flows through with sequencing.”

To help construct this novel of soundscapes and storylines in songs, Elliott Brood enlisted the help of some heavy hitters in the industry.  “Stay Out” one of the more poignant tracks that speaks to change, questioning, and uncertainty, and the overarching theme of relationships with these lines: “I got healthy kids and a beautiful wife/ But I don’t wanna go home/ I’m proud and thankful and terrified/ But I don’t wanna go home,”was mixed by Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers) and engineered by Daryl Neudorf (Neko Case).

The songs were written over the course of several years in a variety of locales, as the band is known to do. Songs were penned during a three-day sojourn last summer in a cabin in the Swiss Alps following a performance at CosmoJazz Festival in Chamonix/Mont Blanc.Other sounds and ideas were gathered during a five-day Artist in Residence stint at the National Music Centre (NMC) in Calgary, Alberta in 2018, where a band already known for experimenting with different instruments added some cool new sounds made with vintage instruments they discovered at this museum such as the world’s first synthesizer Novachord and the melotron. “We came out of there with some cool ideas, new tones, and a different palette,” says Laforet. This is seen most clearly on songs such as “Oh Me,” and “The Coast” with its synth folk-rock feel.

The pandemic has made the trio adapt in other ways: getting more familiar with technology and figuring out how to market and promote a new record without the usual cycle of touring. They enlisted an animator and made a video while in quarantine for the first single “ “ and they joke maybe they will make videos for every song on Keeper.  

“We might as well make videos,” says Sasso. “Maybe we will do a Beyoncéthing. The Lumineers did that; they made a short film for their last record. It was all a narrative, one long movie set to 10 songs. Regardless, we understand we need to get more creative and learn new stuff.” 

Despite the uncertainty of when the live music industry will return, Laforet is confident the band will survive and their legions of fans will stick around for the ride. 

“I think of our band as the small Canadian town of bands because we play those places,” he concludes. “Some of our best shows are in those places where no one goes. For us, it’s not about major markets, we can do a 10-town tour and that is what we will do when we get back to it. Those people keep coming back. I wouldn’t come see us 20 times, but it’s reassuring that they keep coming. I feel like what we’ve built over the last 18 years will be waiting on the other side.”

Published in the Summer/Autumn 2020 issue of Penguin Eggs.

JULIAN TAYLOR, ON HIS BREAKTHROUGH ALBUM THE RIDGE

There’s a westbound wind
Blowing through the ridge again
You can stay in, or go outside
And wait for it to die
But either way, it never ends

—“The Ridge” Julian Taylor

Our past is always present. Even when we try to leave lost memories behind, they return in unexpected and unimaginable ways. How or why these pieces of our personal history reveal themselves is different for everyone. For Julian Taylor, the spark that took him on a nostalgic trip of contemplation started with death.

Julian Taylor

Not just the passing of one person, but losing everyone on his mom’s side of the family tree (three aunts and his step-grandmother) in quick succession. To process those losses, the singer-songwriter wrote a series of letters to those who cared for him when he was young, dictating them to his phone. These digital epistles became the skeletons for The Ridge. The new batch of songs was recorded at The Woodshed (Blue Rodeo’s studio in downtown Toronto) and released on June 19thin honour of his grandmother’s birthday, and Juneteenth (aka Emancipation Day) in the United States.

A mellow, acoustic departure from his work over the past few years with the  Julian Taylor Band (self-described “Pilgrims of Funk, Soul, and Roll”), The Ridge has surpassed 300,000 cumulative plays on Spotify and counting; earned rave reviews in publications across North America (including coverage from American Songwriter); and seen Taylor earn significant airplay on BBC 2 in the U.K., and on 70 stations in Australia, as well as accolades from fellow artists such as William PrinceAHI, and Rhett Miller (of the Old 97s). All of which is humbling for Taylor, who’s also the host of the weekday drive-time radio show on Indigenous-forward radio station ELMNT-FM in Toronto, and has been appointed to an advisory committee for the Toronto Blues Society.

“I’ve been banging on the wall for a long time,” he says. “You put something out and share it with the world and you just hope people will enjoy it.”

“The ridge is like a cut — a divide, in half, of me”

If they’re enjoying it, it’s because the songs connect with listeners, via universal themes to which they can relate. Some speak of hope and love (“Human Race,” “Ola, Let’s Dance”), but mostly, the songs look back to take stock of one’s place in the universe. Taylor cites one example of how these songs have resonated, describing a note he received from a Black farmer from the U.S. Midwest who told him how much “The Ridge” meant, as it dispelled the stereotypes that all Black folks live in urban areas.

Reviewers have commented that The Ridge is fresh, yet also has a vintage sound. “All my records sound like that,” Taylor says. “I’ve usually got one foot in the past and one in the future.”

Putting these lyrics and melodies to tape was therapeutic. Taylor tries to heal an unseen scar — one that’s haunted the musician, and marked his existence, ever since he was a child: his realization that he’s an outsider. This is especially true for the title song.

“People have asked me what The Ridge stands for,” the songwriter explains. “First, it stands for Maple Ridge, the short form for the place where I spent my summers growing up. It’s also a metaphor. The ridge is like a cut — a divide, in half, of me — not only from an emotional standpoint, but also from a social standpoint as a Black and Indigenous person growing up in a predominantly white experience.

“The Ridge speaks to the pain caused, and left in me, by losing those people so rapidly,” Taylor adds. “It also speaks to that split, and my feeling of not belonging.”

Taylor started singing and writing songs as a teen. Ever since, he’s been a staple of the Toronto music scene, and Taylor chronicles his early attempts to find his voice on “Ballad of a Young Troubadour.” He found success and a major-label deal on Warner Music Canada fronting Staggered Crossing in the late 1990s and early 2000s; more recently, he’s led the Julian Taylor Band. Despite his affiliation with these groups, the artist says he’s always felt he’s a singer-songwriter first and foremost.

Despite his gratitude for the record’s success, Taylor is struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, and afraid of what the future holds. “I haven’t slept in four months,” he says. “I’m fearful of a lot of things. This time is not like any other I’ve experienced. It’s hard to explain. I’m scared for [the future of] the music industry and the hospitality industry… I’m scared for the next generation. Are they going to be a bunch of germaphobes? How do you teach people not to touch each other? That’s insane!”

While none of us have an answer to Taylor’s rhetorical question, or know when the pandemic might truly end, we do have his songs. And for now, that’s enough to help us heal.

AARON ALLEN: TATTOO ARTIST TURNED COUNTRY SINGER-SONGWRITER

Music brings us together; it helps us heal in these trying times. Artists, and their songs, fill a void when we’re surrounded by emptiness and uncertainty. Aaron Allen, from London, Ontario, is one of many musicians answering the public’s call for new music during the pandemic. Stuck at home, with the family tattoo business – The Taste of Ink (see sidebar) – closed, he’s enjoying time with his wife and two children, and writing away the days.

“I’ve never been busier,” says Allen, who recently landed two Country Music Association of Ontario (CMAO) nominations for both Male Artist and Rising Star of the Year.  “At the beginning, it was hard,” he adds. “Us writers don’t love to do the Skype thing, but now it’s like being in the same room, and I’m firing on all cylinders, all day, every day, doing lots of co-writes for myself and for other artists.”

Allen released Highway Mile on April 3, a six-song EP co-produced with CMAO Producer of the Year Jeff Dalziel. There was a bit of trepidation about putting out new music in the middle of COVID-19, but he figured it was worth the risk.

“I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting”

“At this time people need music more than ever,” he says. The strategy worked: online plays of the new record have already eclipsed two million streams, and continue to climb. The song connecting most with people, and the one recently released to radio, is “Can We Go Back.” Recorded just two weeks before the pandemic hit, it’s a love song to his wife and a nostalgic nod about returning to a simpler time, when they were young and carefree. Allen sings: “I wonder if that tree’s still there/ The one we carved our initials in/ Back when we were kids/ It didn’t really matter where we were at / As long as you were shotgun, holding my hand.”

As if the new EP was not enough, in May, Allen added a publishing deal with Arts & Crafts Music to his resume. He’s excited about expanding his repertoire, exploring more synchs, writing in other genres, and expanding from the sometimes-formulaic structure and rigidity of writing the Nashville way. “In synch you can break some rules, and say some things you normally can’t say in country music,” he says. “I just love songwriting… it’s nice to try something different and learn something new.”

Growing up in London, Allen started penning songs to express his feelings. It quickly became his lifeline. When he was 13, his mother got ill; it hit Allen hard. “She had terminal cancer for many years and I didn’t take it well,” he recalls. “I was really angry. I did not like school. I had this guitar and I locked myself in my room, just shut the world out writing songs.”

Twenty-five years on, Allen still spends endless hours locked away, alone in his home studio, writing away the days. “It’s a part of me,” says. “It saved my life when I was a kid and it’s therapeutic; I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting.”

The Taste of Ink: Tattoo Artist on the Side

Allen and his wife opened a hair salon and tattoo shop about a decade ago. Realizing tattooing pays more, they morphed the store into The Taste of Ink. Allen says it’s a career where you constantly learn and grow. The songwriter sports many of his own permanent markings of the trade. Asked what they mean, he laughs. “When the shop first opened our apprentices needed someone to work on, so I volunteered… I would not be this covered if I didn’t get them for free!” There are times when Allen’s two vocations intertwine: people come into the shop, share a story, and it works its way into one of his songs. One of the standout tracks on the new EP is “Good Tattoo,” an ode to his wife and their everlasting love: “Our love is like a good tattoo/ It might fade a little along the way, but trust me babe, it’s here to stay.”

William Prince: Hard Truths & Timeless Songs

Juno Award-winning songwriter’s hard truths make his latest recording timeless

By David McPherson

Reliever: a noun meaning something or someone that relieves pain, distress, or difficulty.

Long before he won a Juno for Contemporary Roots Album of  the Year, and left side hustles behind to work full time as a musician, William Prince dreamed of a different calling.

The Peguis First Nation from Manitoba set his head, and his heart, on becoming a physician; he wanted to travel to remote communities and relieve people’s pain. What he didn’t realize is this: despite his path diverging during his university years from doctor to songwriter, his art allowed him to become a different kind of healer.

Through his words, metaphors, and melodies, this musical messenger relieves the burdens of others—sharing his struggles and his gratitude. People find solace in his music. In these days of constant noise, the healing powers of his songs are needed more than ever. Spend time talking with Prince and listening to his music and you come away affected.

“William is what the music world needs right now,” comments fellow songwriter and mentor Scott Nolan, who co-produced Prince’s latest batch of songs, Reliever, at his Winnipeg studio (The Song Shop).

“People look for healing and calm in music. William’s music isn’t frivolous or bubble gum for the radio. It’s life affirming. There are healing properties to what he is doing. Authenticity in art is mandatory and William has that in spades.”

When Penguin Eggs connects with Prince, the songwriter is at home in Winnipeg, staring at a cold lunch. When promoting a new record, sometimes just getting a bite in between back-to-back interviews is hard. The artist is not complaining. Prince is full of gratitude.

Despite a recent appearance on CBS Saturday Morning, rave reviews from publications such as Rolling Stone, and sharing the stage in the past with Canadian legends such as Neil Young and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Prince remains grounded. He is happy to talk about his sophomore record with anyone who appreciates his art and is interested in listening. Something about Prince’s honesty and his warm, soulful delivery makes the songwriter a connector.

Reliever, released by Glassnote Records in the U.S. and Six Shooter Records in Canada in February 2020, follows his 2015 debut, Earthly Days. The 11 spirited songs on Reliever offer hope and healing. All are sung with a voice that bleeds passion.

Prince’s pipes are the star instrument, guiding the listener to the heart—and the heartbeat—within each composition. Prince goes through painful reflection. From the heartbreak of realizing the mother of his child is not his soul mate anymore (“Wasted” and “Always Have What We Had”) to coming to terms with the death of his father (“Great Wide Open”) to offering advice to his son (“That’s All I’ll Ever Become”), there is something in these universal human experiences with which everyone can identify.

Take this turn of phrase and wonderful wish from “That’s All I’ll Ever Become”: I want to live to the second last day that my children do / selfishly so I can see them through all that they’ve become.

In “The Gun,” Prince lets go of regrets and realizes he needs to get out of his head before he can truly live and move on, describing this feeling like “living with a loaded gun”. His fatherly advice in this song is simple, yet sincere: It doesn’t matter who you love son / If you don’t love yourself son.

As the songs emerged, Prince’s muse instructed him to throw discontents and resentments out the door. In return, this release offered him a new purpose.

“I was born to sing but I want to exit as a philanthropist, someone who helps and heals,” he says.

As the catharsis of Reliever concludes, gratitude emerges. Each song, like a prescribed pill, offers a dose of medicine that focuses on a different ailment. What he, and the listener, is left with is newfound hope. The simple act of taking these thoughts and letting them pour onto the page was the creative spark his muse needed.

“That was the relief,” Prince explains. “For me to stay alive, I needed to chase these songs. The theme of relief came simply from the fact that that is what I needed most. There are records about drinking, or records of lonesomeness or love, but what I needed most was a break from the ongoing dialogue in my mind: dealing with losing my dad, becoming a dad, the separation from his mother, and the whirlwind from all these hard things I was dealing with in real time.”

Prince sought to balance in his brain these hard truths all while Earthly Days launched the songwriter into stardom. He lived with the grief of these unresolved feelings for years while his career took off. This record was the overdue amends and release he needed to make before he could find internal peace.

“I was in the midst of a dream, yet there was still a cloud hanging over me that I could not shake,” he recalls. “I wrote these new songs as a way to reflect. The songs are not filled with anger, spite, or resentment, but a place of love. Reliever is a piece of art that shows resilience. It tells people how to survive when your engines fail or there is a hole in your boat.”

This honest writing makes Reliever a timeless record. It’s only Chapter 2 in a lifelong story. Forty years from now, just like seminal songs from his writing heroes such as Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, and Neil Young, Prince believes these pieces will survive and still resonate.

Now that he has found his calling, he plans to make records and continue to heal himself—and others—from Manitoba to Berlin, and wherever else his music finds a home, for as long as his muse delivers these songs as gifts for this reliever to offer the world.

David Crosby: Remember My Name Documentary Turns Honest Lens on a Rock And Roll Legend

David Crosby: Remember My Name Documentary Turns Honest Lens on a Rock And Roll Legend

By David McPherson

Time is not on David Crosby’s side.

If this is indeed his final act, the legendary songwriter has no plans to go gently into that good night.

As a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash) with five decades of pop stardom behind him, the reality is that musically he has nothing to prove; yet, in the last five years, since the dissolution of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY), following the supergroup’s 2015 tour, he’s had one of the most productive periods of his career, releasing four records (with a fifth on the way).

This creative reawakening piqued the interest of filmmaker A.J. Eaton. The result: the director’s first full-length documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name, which had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this past January.

Honesty is the film’s central conceit. Twelve-step programs teach us that honesty is all we’ve got. As a past AA member (for 14 years) the songwriter embraces these teachings. Rather than resort to a puff piece or hagiography—like so many celebrity documentaries—Eaton, co-producer Cameron Crowe, along with their main subject Crosby, knew that to do this right, it had to be the most honest piece on the pop icon ever produced.

BeatRoute: Why now? What was the inspiration to create and release this documentary at this time?

David Crosby: Largely because of this surge of work. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I was supposed to be dead 20 years ago. At the end of your life, you should just wave and go off into the distance gracefully, but instead I’ve made four records and into a fifth one. That is not how it is supposed to go. This got AJ’s [director A.J. Eaton] attention. He thought it was fascinating and said he wanted to do a documentary about it. I was like, ‘Yeah kid, sure, whatever!’ Then producer Jill Mazursky mentioned it to Cameron Crowe. He’s known me since he was 15. You know the Almost Famous movie, right? He was the kid and we [CSNY] were the band. Cameron said, ‘Let me ask him the questions.’ Since he is my friend, they knew I would open up to him; he knows where all the bones are buried. He was in the dressing room when the bones were being buried!

BeatRoute: As you told me when we jumped on this call, some people felt this film is too in-your-face, that there is too much truth and honesty to handle, but that’s the point, right?

Crosby
: Definitely. Cameron [Crowe], AJ [Eaton] and I have all seen how other people make documentaries and we did not want to do that. What I call a shine job, where they say, ‘isn’t that great, isn’t he cute, he is so lovely, etc. etc.’ Those types of documentaries are bullshit. They are as deep as a birdbath. They don’t tell you anything about the person you want to know. I want to know what is that person really about: who do they love, what do they want to fix, what is going on in their head, and what really matters to them, not how many records they sold in their prime. All three of us had a unity of purpose. We knew the level that was acceptable to us.

BeatRoute: Staying with the honesty theme, you mention in the film that you’re a ‘flawed human.’ I loved this brutal honesty. Not many people are confident enough and/or are too scared or afraid of what others will say. How and why did you do it?

Crosby
: It’s a matter of choice and how you go about things, really. None of the three of us thought we could do it any other way. If we were going to do this film, it had to be brutally honest. Cameron asked me the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked.

BeatRoute: Were there any you didn’t or couldn’t answer?

Crosby: No, I made a promise that I would answer every question he asked me.

BeatRoute: That must have been uncomfortable for you.

Crosby
: Yes, very uncomfortable. There were a couple of times I said to them, ‘Don’t put that in the movie,’ and they still put it in; my only job in the movie is to not lie. That was my main contribution.

BeatRoute: I’m guessing there was a real cathartic effect to the whole exercise. Was a weight lifted for you during the process?

Crosby
: It definitely is a catharsis. It’s the real deal man! I got to lighten my load; that’s what they teach you in 12-step programs: to look at your life, your mistakes, and your achievements, then learn from it, set it down, and move on. You really have to look inside yourself.

BeatRoute: I loved the stories of your earliest music experiences and how these moved and shaped you. First seeing the symphony with your mom and later hearing Miles Davis for the first time. Music really is your life, isn’t it?

Crosby: For sure. I feel music is the gift I was given. That’s an obligation. If life gives you a scalpel you don’t use it to dig weeds, you do surgery.

CARLY PARADIS: MAKING EPIC MUSIC OF THE HUMAN CONDITION

CARLY PARADIS: MAKING EPIC MUSIC OF THE HUMAN CONDITION

Story by David McPherson | January 15, 2020

The touchstones of our lives often present themselves when we least expect them. These messages from the universe remind us that the journey we’re on is the right path. Songwriter Carly Paradis recently received one such sign. The object: a letter featuring a stamp of Elton John’s classic 1973 double-LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This brought back early childhood memories of discovering the gems in her parents’ record collection, and those first feelings of a raging fire in her soul to write, and to create, that never went away.

“When I was really little I would listen to my parents’ vinyl,” Paradis recalls. “As a child, that Elton John record blew my mind; ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’ was such an epic, genre-bending tune. I decided right then that one day I would make epic music like this.”

Catching up with the songwriter via Skype, just before the Christmas holidays, finds Paradis in a contemplative mood at the London, England, studio she designed in an old warehouse building.  We chat about the human condition (the central conceit of her new solo instrumental record Nothing is Something), the creative process, and her journey from Ontario indie rocker to award-winning film and TV composer, now based in London, England.

Born in Hamilton, Paradis grew up in nearby Stoney Creek. At nine, she started writing tunes. Later, she studied classical piano, but admits she always felt more like a rock ‘n’ roll player. After completing a music and multi-media degree at McMaster University, Paradis honed her skills playing in bands and learning about production. This led to a desire to get tracks synched. On a whim, in 2006, she reached out via MySpace to Clint Mansell (who scored Darren Aranofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan), one of her favorite composers. “I told him how his music made me feel,” Paradis recalls. “I did not expect a reply.”

Mansell was moved by Paradis’ message and did reply. This correspondence led first to a longer coffee conversation in Los Angeles, and then into a lasting friendship. The songwriter joined Mansell’s band, arranged and played the piano parts for the composer’s songs, and toured with him around the world. Through his mentorship, Paradis also started to place songs in films and TV programs. Some of these successful synchs include the end credits theme from the successful Netflix original series The Innocents; writing the score for every season of the No.1 BBC drama Line of Duty; and compositions in trailers for True DetectiveHomeland, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve connected deep down with things I didn’t understand, through music.”

Nothing is Something is the songwriter’s third solo record. The orchestral, brooding collection of original compositions and collaborations features a diverse range of global musicians – from Norwegian composer EERA, to Jonas Bjerre (the lead singer of Danish rock band Mew), to U.K. spoken-word artist PolarBear. In scope and complexity, it’s as grand as those seminal songs first heard in her youth. “This album draws back to those early musical experiences,” she says.

Seven years in the making, some parts of the album were recorded at her London studio, but most was captured at Hamilton’s legendary Grant Avenue Studio, where she played her favorite piano: a vintage Yamaha, circa 1979. With song titles like “The Crushing Weight of History,” inspired by a visit to La Rocca Cefalu in Cefalù, Sicily; “Heaven Ain’t a Place”; and “One Light in the Sky,” the record explores the state of being human, and the range of sensations we all face.

“It’s been quite an emotional journey,” Paradis explains. “The concept of the title Nothing is Something is this: if you think you have nothing, see nothing, it is really something. Just look into outer space. There is so much stuff we can’t see. If you’re feeling hopelessness and loneliness, that is something… to feel that emotion is part of the human condition. We all feel these things. You can find comfort in knowing we are connected by these negative emotions, and you’re not alone. When you go through that journey, you realize it’s OK.”

For Paradis, music expresses emotions, thoughts, and feelings you can’t – or don’t want to – vocalize with words. “Ever since I was little, I’ve connected deep down with things I didn’t understand, through music, and I’ve written and created sounds that match those feelings,” she says. “This album is a diary of the last eight years of my life. It feels like a big book. A chapter is closing. It’s that moment before you open the next one.”