Charlie Mars: Southern Rock Talk

A southern drawl drips from Charlie Mars’ lips between sips of coffee as he deconstructs the South – the musical milieu from where his songs were spawned. Over lunch at Toronto’s Rivoli, a day before his show at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern, the 29-year-old songsmith looks like a man that has been surviving on little sleep. The rock singer is a little haggard since he’s been on the road for more than six months, averaging six shows per week and eating a few too many cheeseburgers. Sporting a Willie Nelson tour T-shirt and a black jean jacket, Mars drowns himself in caffeine.

Mars released three independent records from 1995-2000 and recently signed with V2 Records. Since his self-titled big-label debut was released this past May, rave reviews in major music magazines such as Rolling Stone and Tracks have followed. In his early days of touring, Mars followed the well-traveled path of rock ‘n’ roll excess, but wisely realized that this couldn’t continue.

“You start a band, you make a record, and the next thing you know you’re being paid to play rock ‘n’ roll and there’s free alcohol and a lot of time to drink it,” he says. “I was a little younger and wanted to have a good time, meet people, get drunk, party and experience all that that had to offer, but hey, at some point the party is over. “I think I have a much better balance now.”

Like his name, Mars’ sound is a little otherworldly; it features an atmospheric ambience that echoes Coldplay, mixed with vocals that emulate U2’s Bono to create a hook-laden Southern Rock opus. Mars hails from Oxford, Mississippi, a rich cultural area where Nobel Prize-winning writer William Faulkner spent most of his life. Mars’ blood runs deep in the South. Raised on chicken-fried steak and sweet-potato casserole, his great, great grandfather was from Mississippi and his family still calls the area home.

As he jokes, “If you ever get arrested down there, give me a call and I can help out.”

This same rich artistic landscape, which once inspired Faulkner fuels Mars’ muse.

“The tradition of secrecy that exists there is conducive to the confessional aspect of singing and writing songs,” he says.

“If you read Faulkner or a book by any Southern writer that’s what comes into play. To a large degree, that’s why I started writing songs. If all you’re seeing is the sunny and the light it’s [the dark side] there somewhere and nobody’s talking about it. The artists usually end up being the ones that carry that weight.”

“I also think that the humidity, the heat, the climate of repression and the shame that is carried culturally from slavery, and the need to compensate for that provides further inspiration,” he continues.

While Mars is enjoying the rock ‘n’ roll ride – adding his own chapter to the South’s songwriting history – he has no false aspirations about his musical future.

“You got to roll the dice and then when everything falls apart you pick up the dice and roll them again,” he concludes. “That’s the way the music business works – expectations are just a resentment waiting to happen.”

Cycling is Like a Drug For Jeremy Fisher

Over coffee at Toronto’s Rivoli, Vancouver songwriter Jeremy Fisher happily chats about his new album and his love of riding on two wheels. After getting lost the night before driving back from Buffalo to a show in Kitchener-Waterloo the Hamilton-born guitar-slinger is feeling a little fatigued to say the least; nothing a little cup of joe can’t cure.

“You caught me at a good time, after my morning coffee,” he says. “The first sip is like a placebo effect for me, really. I think the caffeine manages to dull out the headache I would otherwise get.”

Listening to Fisher’s major label debut, Let it Shine, released October 12 on Sony Music, headaches aren’t likely. Fisher’s music literally shines with hook-laden melodies, smart, honest lyrics and a soulful delivery that would make even the most curmudgeonly critic smile. Think the early folk tales of Bob Dylan mixed with the pop sensibilities of today’s troubadours such as Jay Farrar and John Mayer and you begin to picture Fisher’s muse. The 11 tracks that comprise Let it Shine are heartfelt compositions that showcase Fisher’s reflections on a life that he often doesn’t understand.

“I find that I don’t understand my life at the moment,” he says. “It’s only when I can look back five, 10, 15 years that I can gain an understanding for what was really going on in my psyche.”

During the past decade, Fisher’s music has allowed him to travel many roads and delve into the profundity of life. From busking on the sidewalk in Seattle to playing cover songs for drunken jocks, Fisher has traveled across the country several times. He’s no different than the average aspiring rock star, but what makes Fisher’s journey unique is that he’s crisscrossed North America on his bicycle. During his last trek across country, entitled One Less Tourbus, Fisher performed more than 30 shows and covered 7,500 kilometers from Seattle to Halifax over six months riding his two-wheeler.

“It changed my life the first time I did it,” says the perpetual pedaller. “It gave me faith in humanity and it makes you feel great. Getting to a show after riding a bike 50 miles may sound rough, but you get all the endorphins going and it’s better than sluggin’ back a few beers.

“Cycling is like a drug,” he adds. “It really gets your energy level up, and it also gives you something to talk about on stage. I feel really alive when I’m touring around that way.”

With Sony’s backing, Fisher’s days of pedalling from show to show will be more limited as the demands on his time increase, but this major label support is welcomed. It allowed him to film his first video – “Lemon Meringue Pie,” which was taped outside Toronto in a man-made western town called Dockville. The video was added to MuchMoreMusic’s play list in mid-September.

“It was tons of fun,” he says of the experience. “I was dreading it because I’m not a big fan of photo shoots. I thought it was going to be like that, but worse. We had a cast of 25 people and because it was a fairly plot-heavy video and there was such a big cast, I just got to watch for a lot of the day.”

With dogged determination and sincere stories, watch for Fisher to continue to shine for years to come.

Erin McKeown: On Latin And iPod Love

While attending college at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, Virginia-born singer-songwriter Erin McKeown lived in an art co-operative; this is where her true education occurred. Earlier this summer, following an early morning wake up for an appearance on Canada AM, and prior to killing time before her headlining show at the Drake Hotel later that evening, the cerebral 27-year-old songsmith took time to chat about her university education, her love of Latin and her iPod.

ChartAttack: Did attending college influence your musical career?

Erin McKeown: What helped my musical career was to be in classes with people that didn’t think anything of the fact that I would leave to go on tour with Ani DiFranco. I needed two weeks off in my senior year because I had been asked to go do that tour. The other people that I was in class with were leaving to go make a movie or their father was the King Of Monaco. It really wasn’t a big deal because of the kids that were at the school that I went to, so it just drove me to work harder.

Providence is an amazing city. I didn’t live in the part where the university is. I lived in another part of Providence, in the downtown, which is a redeveloped Arts District. I was a resident artist in a cooperative space there for three years. It was there that I learned how to have a daily life as an artist and to figure out what I needed to do to pay my rent, to have regular shows, to meet other people who for the last 20 years had made their lives as artists; even something as simple as there was a seminar they offered us once on taxes for the self-employed, functional things about being an artist and then more life-sized things. I wouldn’t have found that if I hadn’t gone to college in Providence.

Why all the Latin phrases on the album?

The whole record is built around a phrase “Per Ardua ad Astra.” It’s the motto of the Royal Airforce and it means “Through struggles to the stars.” At the time that I was starting to formulate my ideas about this record I heard that phrase and I had taken a lot of Latin at school and it just kind of hit me. It’s just a sentiment that I really liked. The word ardua means hardships and another word for hardships is “aspera.” It’s more of an adjective than a noun. It can mean rough or difficult, and it can also mean thorns or brambles. So, “par aspera through brambles to the stars” forms a theme for the whole rest of the record. “Through troubles, through hardships to the stars such that birds in flight and the sky” this idea of lifting through difficulties is carried through on all the songs. I think it developed into a more spiritual thing.
There is a second part of the phrase that literally means “my body may change, but my spirit will stay” which is the words to the middle section of the song “Aspera.” Again, that is something that is carried through on the rest of the record. There will always be these changes that happen in your life, but at the centre of it there is still something that’s you.

Why did you choose to record the album in New Orleans?

A friend of mine who lives there came to see my show and afterwards she said “let me show you New Orleans,” so we took about a day and a half not sleeping and just visiting all these great places. It made me fall in love with the city. It was important for me to see it during the day and it was also important for me to see it at night.
There’s a real spirit to the city. It’s rundown in a lot of ways, but not defeated. It’s just a really beautiful place architecturally and even in the most dilapidated parts there is still a lot of beauty. It seemed like the right place to come back to and spend a month making a record.

Tell me about your iPod?

My iPod is my best friend. I love to put it on random and just see what comes up. I don’t have a TV and I only just recently got high-speed Internet, so iTunes is a new world for me. I’ve been enjoying that a lot. I’m likely to download any kind of song. As a musician it made me like music again. So much of how you hear music for the first time is about the context of it. That’s the great thing about the shuffle. All the time stuff that’s on my iPod that I didn’t remember is there or hadn’t listened to in a long time will come up and I think “Man this is so good.” If I had sought it out or someone had put it on my desk and I had to listen to it, I probably wouldn’t feel about it the same way. It’s just in that set up of complete surprise when you are open to the newest things.

David Poe: Seeking Artist Sanctuary

Once you find the right subjects in which to engage singer-songwriter David Poe in conversation, you’ll find the critically acclaimed musician has no shortage of opinions.

Catching up with Poe via cellphone in Newmarket, NH, where he was prepping for a show that evening with fellow songsmith Duncan Sheik as part of the Yellow Umbrella Tour, the New-York based artist chatted about his new record (Love Is Red), the new project he’s involved with ( and his views of the current state of the mainstream music industry.

ChartAttack: I understand you recorded your most recent record Love Is Red in Germany in the middle of winter. How did you choose this location and tell us about the experience?

David Poe: It kind of got chosen for us. We had plans to make a live album on our last European tour and logistics dictated that we hunker down in a studio and do it there. I think it was the German label guy that found this strange, old studio in Berlin near where the Wall used to be. It was basically a glorified studio for heavy metal bands. It was funny because we went there and the guy who was in the heavy metal band and also the engineer said “I have 50 amplifiers…” we said “great,” but what he didn’t mention was that he had 49 Marshall Stacks and one Roland jazzcore amp that was in disrepair in the corner… another reason why it became an acoustic record. That combined with the cold and general greyness of Germany in winter. The cool thing about it was that [the engineer] had a bunch of old vintage gear that really lent themselves to making a record like that, which is essentially a live record. We maybe put four overdubs on the record.

Tell me about The Artist’s Den []?

This is a group that believes that great music deserves a great audience. It’s doing independent, strategic marketing for amazing musicians and basically getting those songs and those performances out to the people that still care about this “thing.” This is the thing… you have a lot of people that will pay $100 to go see Neil Young at Madison Square Garden and they have never heard of Ryan Adams, Regina Spektor, Ed Harcourt, Duncan Sheik or whoever. I mention those artists specifically because they are artists we have worked with and put on this compilation.

We are getting sponsorship from non-musical, hopefully non-evil companies to underwrite some of these tours and some of these shows. What it [theartistsden] is, is that we put on concerts in unusual and intimate venues: lofts, galleries, black box theatres. We have done one at the Apple Store in Soho and Christie’s Auction House in midtown Manhattan. So far we have launched in eight different cities and we will probably be 15 by the end of next year, including Canada and parts of Europe. It’s really about getting the music to the people that are going to like it by building up databases in each town. So if we are trying to fill a 500 seat venue we’ve already got 5,000 people that want to come to the show even if they don’t know who the artist is, but trusting us as a curator for something that is significant. If you are living in the suburbs or not in an urban area or you have kids or you are out of college or you don’t have time to surf the internet for the latest Modest Mouse download. It’s very difficult for those folks to find out what’s happening and thus every once in a while you have a gorgeous record like the Norah Jones record or the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack and then all these people, after repeated impressions, poke their heads up and buy the record in droves because it has been vetted by the culture. But, there is nothing on the radio for the most part, there is no MTV for people who write songs with great words and great melodies and for people who are really fantastic songwriters and bands.

What do you think of the mainstream music industry today?

The record companies figured out a long time ago that most people don’t like music. Record companies figured out a way to sell music to people that don’t really like it. They can’t really be blamed for being the arbiters of taste for a culture because they are businesses with shareholders and now more than ever businesses with shareholders need to show a fast return or if not you are going to get fired. The heyday and zeitgeist of Elecktra Records in the ’60s and ’70s or the way Capitol used to be or the way IRS was in the ’80s or Sub Pop was in the ’90s is pretty much gone. The record companies put out a lot of crap and they spend a lot of illegal payola to get stuff on the radio. They do all those things, but they are just businesses, so we shouldn’t expect more from them. Now, not only because of the internet, but because there is a part of the mass culture that really is interested in something genuinely good. Whether it is an amazing glass of wine or a special coffee, or they want to make sure their sweaters were not made by sweatshop workers, so they pay a little more for it; the same thing is true of music. You do the math. I sold 100,000 of my first record and the company was not particular interested in taking it from 100,000 records to one million because so much money has to be spent. But, to me, I was like, “I just sold 100,000 fucking records!” It blew my mind. There is 100,000 people out there that are ostensibly listening to my shit. If I put up the money to make that record and then made the money from selling that 100,000 records everything would be groovy.

Colin Cripps helps craft Maple Leaf Forever Guitar

Colin Cripps love of guitars was first kindled as a Steeltown teen. The musician bought his first axe – a Telecaster copy – at Reggie’s Music when he was 15. Cripps ended up working at Reggie’s (which is no longer in business) on and off, from age 14 until age 23. “I was so enamored with guitars from day one,” he recalls. “The place had a big impact on my early guitar obsession.”

Today, Cripps, 54, lives in East Toronto, but his heart still often pines for his Hamilton home. While much has changed since those formative years, the one constant is his guitar obsession. As Blue Rodeo’s guitarist, Cripps is still a “Tele guy,” but his guitar collection is filled with an ever growing, ever changing variety of vintage instruments. The latest acoustic he adds to hAis arsenal – at least for the next year – is pretty special. Known as the Maple Leaf Forever Guitar, the idea for this instrument was born out of a conversation the musician had in May 2014 with his local MP (Craig Scott, NDP for Toronto-Danforth) while attending the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Awards in Ottawa with the rest of Blue Rodeo.

“While seated at a luncheon I was introduced to Craig and we began talking about his riding, Ward 29, which happens to be where I live as well, and through talking about music, we got into a discussion about the ‘Maple Leaf Forever Tree,’” recalls Cripps, over a croissant and tea at Patisserie La Cigogne. “It is a 170-year-old Silver Maple, which inspired Alexander Muir to write ‘The Maple Leaf Forever,’ unofficially considered Canada’s first national anthem.”

Flash back to July 2013. Cripps heard of the massive windstorm that felled much of the tree. As a wood enthusiast, and guitar lover, his mind immediately wondered what was going to happen to all this wood. Through his conversation with his local politician, Cripps learned the fallen lumber had been cut into pieces and had been sitting in a kiln drying for almost a year. The wood was then to be tendered for projects that would reflect the tree’s cultural history with Toronto, and the rest of Canada.

Cripps proposed to have a friend craft an acoustic guitar using the wood from the Maple Leaf Forever tree. The proposal is that the finished guitar would be passed on to a different musician each year, build its own story, and forever remain in the public trust. Dave Fox, a luthier friend, was brought on board to build the guitar with Cripps’ guidance.

“I had very definitive ideas about the style, construction, and details of the acoustic guitar, and having known Dave and his guitars for quite some years, was confident that we could put together a great instrument,” Cripps explains. “We modeled the acoustic after a classic 1944 (Banner era) Gibson J-45.”

Other features of the acoustic include: a $10 Canadian silver coin on the back of headstock, a Vintage Canada luggage decal on the back of the body and twin maple leafs inlayed at the fifth fret.

In the fall of 2014, Tom Bartlett, another friend of Cripps offered to build an electric guitar using the Maple Leaf Forever wood. Both guitars were completed this past February. For the first year, Cripps will play the acoustic with Blue Rodeo and Paul Langlois will play the electric with The Tragically Hip.

“They are a testament to our passion for great craftsmanship, music and art, and a chance to further both Toronto and Canada’s history through such an iconic treasure,” Cripps concludes.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Gets Back to its Roots

The age-old adage that says, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” could easily apply to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s new recording, “Welcome to Woody Creek,” by making a few substitutions – the word ‘heart’ with ‘music,’ and ‘fonder’ with ‘better.’ The ‘absence’ in this case was John McEuen, who left the band in 1987 to pursue some solo projects, but rejoined his perennial pickers in 2001.

According to guitarist/vocalist Jeff Hanna, McEuen’s return rejuvenated the group. Essentially, it was the first step towards creating Welcome to Woody Creek.

“John returning coincided with us doing the 30th anniversary reissue of the first ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ album,” he explains. “We had a little bit of a chance to work together outside of the studio, and he joined up in the summer of 2001, and we starting touring again, which was great… Then, Capitol Records Nashville asked us if we wanted to do a Circle III album because we had done the second album back in ’89, and we said ‘sure that would be fun, especially with John back playing with us.”

“We did that, which was a special project, not just a Dirt Band album because (of) various other pickers and singers joining us,” he continues. “But, having done that record, which was a return to our roots as it were, inspired us to make a record that was just us, but to do it in a looser fashion.”

With the five veteran Dirt Band members together again, “Welcome to Woody Creek” (Dualtone) represents the band’s first full-length studio effort since 1998.

“We had a nice backlog of songs because we hadn’t been in the studio to make a new record since 1998 and hadn’t done one with John since 1987,” says Hanna. “We had a bunch of tunes that just kind of fell out of the sky. We had piles of these songs, and the ones that sounded the best with us playing and singing are the ones we recorded.”

Before The Eagles, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band blazed musical trails with their hook-heavy melodies and harmony rich country-rock. Joining Hanna and McEuen in NGDB are multi-instrumentalists Jimmy Ibbotson, Bob Carpenter and Jimmie Fadden.

The band’s sound has constantly evolved with each decade. From psychedelic rock in the late ’60s to their first Top Ten pop hit, “Mr. Bojangles” in the ’70s to the middle-of-the road country throughout the ’80s, with number 1 singles on the country music charts such as “Fishin’ in the Dark” and “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream),” there’s little that the NGDB haven’t accomplished in a recording career that spans almost 5 decades and more than 30 albums.

Twenty years ago, they even made headlines as the first American rock band to tour the Soviet Union.

The acoustic-driven “Welcome to Woody Creek” marks a return to the band’s roots. Upon a first listen, the masterful musicianship and the tender three-part harmonies that NGDB fans have come to appreciate throughout the years spills from the speakers in a joyous exclamation to produce one the year’s most honest, heartfelt discs.

So, how does a group that has been playing together for 38 years keep things fresh?

Hanna believes it comes down to the fact that when he and his four musical hombres get together to make music, something magical happens.

“There is an intuitive thing that happens with us when we play together,” he says. “Somebody pointed out that the five of us make a noise together that nobody else does…It’s a simple way to look at it, but it works for me.”

That said, there were times when Hanna and his mates were ready to call it quits, but the allure of rediscovering this unique ‘noise’ has always kept them together.

“It’s a lot easier to break up then stay together,” Hanna says. “It’s weird. There have been times when we felt like throwing in the towel, and then something good would come into our lives, and it would change our minds. I think also that the loyalty of our fans has kept us on the road and in the studio all these year…we enjoy playing together. The touring gets a little old at times, but I shouldn’t whine. It beats the heck out of a real job.”

To record their latest disc, which Hanna describes as “light-hearted and breezy” the band of musical brothers returned to a familiar place – Ibbotson’s mountainside retreat – in Woody Creek, Col.

“Ibby,” as the band members affectionately call him, calls his home studio Unami, after a tribe of peace loving Lenape Indians, Utes and Eastern Arapahoe that used to spend summers in the area.

The band describes the charm of this area in the album’s liner notes: “Woody Creek runs into the roaring fork of the Colorado eight miles down from Aspen. It’s more like Aspen was in our early days…Aspen is a playground. Woody Creek is where the old timers drink and eat and live. Because of the hospitality of Woody Creek citizens, it still feels like home to us.”

Recording in this peaceful, rural retreat inspired these ‘old timers’ to record a pleasing record of down home, country-roots music. “We were shooting for that…trying to get something that kind of harkened back to the music that we made in the seventies when we first started playing country rock,” Hanna says. “When there was a little more spontaneity in our approach and a little less profession involved.”

Jon Brooks: Folk for Folk’s Sake

Just like the late nineteenth century aesthetes who believed in “art for art’s sake,” Toronto-based folk singer Jon Brooks believes in folk for folk’s sake. The passionate artist – who quotes everyone from Jesuit priests and seventeenth century philosophers to Pablo Picasso – speaks more like an academic than like an artist.

I meet up with the truth-seeking songwriter and self-professed idealist following his short set at Toronto’s Winter Folk in mid February. Dressed in a black hat and denim and armed with only his words and trusty Taylor 615 acoustic guitar, Brooks played with several other song slingers as part of the Protest Songs session. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s timeless anti-war song, “Universal Soldier,” sung by Brooks was one of the highlights of the songwriters’ set.

After he packed up his gear, we grab a pint of Guinness and head to the backroom at the Irish pub across the street. With a band playing out front, we engage in a discourse on Brook’s folk thesis. With each answer, Brooks pensively strokes his grey goatee, laying out the astute arguments of his oral essay.

“For my money, the folk song is the only thing violent and brutal and loving and tough and brave enough to get inside people,” he says. “I see it every night, whether it is my own songs or the Buffy Sainte-Marie song I sing, you make an effect on people and they’re forever changed.”

Brooks feels Canada has always struggled to classify its art and there is a certain inherent insecurity with the celebration of these home-grown forms of expression. He says the music industry today is so glutted that pop singers are getting invited to folk festivals; it frustrates the songwriter that no one really knows how to define folk music since, for him, there is but one definition.

“Folk music is the intent to arrest in song the truth about a particular people at a particular time and place … that is folk,” he explains. “All the great rap records of the late 80s and 90s had their roots in folk. “All the great punk rock of the 70s had their roots in folk. Of course Guthrie is the obvious example, but folk is an artistic decision. The artist looks at his or her world and decides to show it to others in the hopes of showing it we stand some chance at improving it … that’s folk to me. All the rest is pop music.

“Folk music is that opposing blend of opposites,” he adds. “You have lyrics, which are rational poetry, but then the music comes along and mixes with it and the way it works on it is more irrational … you mix those two things together and you’ve got a very violent instrument of change.”

The 2007 Ontario Council of Folk Festival’s “Songs from the Heart” winner is in the midst of writing a folk trilogy that he hopes taken together can be used as an instrument for change in what he deems “dangerous and diseased times.”

Brook’s debut No Mean City (2005) chronicled the underbelly of his hometown Toronto while exploring the metaphorical homelessness of the modern soul. This was followed by his latest Ours and The Shepherds, which is a disc of Canadian war stories inspired by heroes from history – from John McRae (the author of the famed poem “In Flanders Fields”) to Senator Romeo Dallaire and James Loney. The title of this sophomore effort was taken from a Dorothy Day quote: “Whose fault is it? Ours and the Shepherds.” Brooks describes the record as an attempt to tell the truth about Canadian soldiering in the midst of the present malaise of what is going on.

“When I sing in the first person in the voice of a war widow from 1917 Cape Breton, people have no connection to that world, but if the song works on them they are there and through the power of empathy we have connected,” he explains. “I feel disappointed that so many people I thought were card carrying folk community members in Canada were slightly miffed as why someone who introduces themselves as a folk singer would do an entire record of war songs. To me, that’s absurd.

“A folk singer has to be singing about that. They need to sing about what is broken to make people want to fix it. This is the role of the artist in general. If people don’t have an opinion, the state throughout history has been more than willing to make an opinion on their behalf and that is what is happening today.”
Brooks says that as a songwriter though it’s not his role either to make up someone else’s mind. “I want to tell them and let them decide,” he says. “You have the power as a songwriter to make people not only think rationally, but to feel emotionally about a subject that they otherwise wouldn’t be privy to.

“A great quote I love, that I’ve been using on stage recently, is by the Scottish Renaissance philosopher David Hume who said: If you want to know about a culture or society or a people don’t ask who writes the laws, ask who writes the songs.”

Brooks hopes to release the final instalment in his folk trilogy, titled Moth Nor Rust, sometime in 2008.

“I feel a real urgency to get this CD out because the rest of Canada doesn’t know I had a first album since it’s out of print and it was Toronto-centric,” he says. “I fear that some people think I’m just some dude who goes around writing about war stories, but no that’s just the middle section of the three CDs.”

As our candid conversation comes to a close and the last sips of our pint are drunk, Brooks leaves me with his final thesis on folk and how it differs from pop music.

“Folk music deals with the we and the us while pop deals with the I and the me,” he says. “The last thing the world needs right now is another pop song. What the world needs more than anything is somebody to come along and give us a true folk song.”

Change of locale cathartic for Gypsy Girl Kat Goldman

All it took was a midlife crisis, a therapist, some pills, and a dose of higher learning for Kat Goldman to pen the best songs of her career.

I meet Goldman, 41, at a Starbucks in north Toronto. Dressed in faded blue jeans and a loose tank top, the songwriter has just driven 13-hours from Cambridge, Mass. – where she calls home these days – accompanied by her Cockapoo Max.

Over the whir of grinding coffee beans, Goldman and I share some apricots (which she recently read help prevent lung cancer) and some candid conversation. We chat about her third CD Gypsy Girl and the journey documented in the disc’s 11 strong songs.

Gypsy Girl opens with the pensive “Just a Walk Tonight.” Goldman’s arresting voice grabs the listener from the first soulful notes. Backed by some rhythmic acoustic picking, the songwriter sings of a nighttime stroll through downtown Boston and the observations this outing with a friend conjures up. The rest of the songs showcase Goldman’s gift for turning phrases with ease; take this poignant one from the second cut, “Moving Pictures”: “If only I could stop the moving pictures/I would find my way home.”

Trying to find her way home — both figuratively and literally — is Gypsy Girl’s recurring theme. Flash back to 2009. That’s when this journey began. The songwriter was at a turning point. Tired of life in the Big Smoke, Goldman had lost her focus and her joie de vivre. Where to turn next she wasn’t sure; all she knew was that she needed to escape her hometown for a while.

“I had a life crisis,” Goldman recalls. “I was very unhappy with Toronto and the music scene here. I knew I needed a change. All I could feel was that I wanted to go somewhere else. Where I was going to run I wasn’t sure … that was the big question.”

Goldman felt a change of place would be good for her soul. She considered New York City, but quickly realized Manhattan’s madness would be too much to handle. So, the songwriter settled on the Greater Boston area since it was a familiar locale. (Goldman attended school and lived in Massachusetts in her early 20s.)

With the destination determined, the songwriter grabbed her Guild acoustic guitar, a bagful of clothes, and, along with her dog, she headed south. For the first summer, Goldman rented a place she found on craigslist, which turned out to be a cockroach-infested flat. After this summer-sublet to forget, she found a great place in Cambridge, Mass. where she now lives happily.

“I’m loving Boston,” Goldman comments. “It’s a slower pace than Toronto. Cambridge is very mellow. It’s been a great place for me to focus.”

With this newfound focus Goldman decided to give university a try again. “I was really taking a chance,” she admits. “I was 38 when I left home and had my roots planted in Toronto, so I really was starting my life all over again.”

The move to the U.S. was therapeutic in more ways than one. Goldman reveals that she started seeing a therapist once she was settled south of the border. During the course of these sessions her doctor diagnosed that the singer had a learning disability.

“It explained so many things,” Goldman says. “Why I had trouble reading for so many years and why I didn’t finish college the first time.”

The doctor prescribed a pill to help her focus. It’s obviously working. She’s getting straight As in school for the first time and it also fueled her muse.

“I used to have trouble completing songs … where to go next with an idea,” Goldman comments. “After the diagnosis, and taking my medication, suddenly it was like my brain was completing songs for me. It’s been very satisfying.”

While this wonder drug is not like those pills folk singers of yesteryear popped to get high and tap into a new creative dimension, Goldman’s daily dose has certainly helped take her songwriting to new heights.

Gypsy Girl was born in Toronto; here, the title cut, along with “Summersong,” were penned while she was mulling over where to run. The remainder of the creations came to fruition once she was settled in Beantown.

“World Away,” – one of the records best cuts – came to Goldman while she was walking in a snowstorm across the Charles River; it was inspired by a classic of American literature.

“We were reading The Scarlet Letter and I said to my professor, who was also a songwriter funny enough, ‘I have thrown this book against the wall seven times … I’m having so much trouble with the density of it,’ and my professor said, ‘why don’t you write a song about it.’”

Goldman says the common theme that runs throughout this song cycle was not planned. “It just evolved. Every song came to be about running, finding a home, coming to peace with where I was living … I don’t know if it was the change in scenery, or going back to school, but my confidence in songwriting just peaked. I had always been a little bit insecure about my songwriting not being at a high enough level, but with these songs I felt like I finally crystallized the process I was chasing after.”

As our candid coffee-shop conversation ends and Goldman heads off to visit her sister and niece around the corner, I wonder when we will next hear from this gypsy girl since Goldman admits she’s at a career crossroads.

“I’m a very reluctant musician at this point,” she concludes. “I hate performing … the joy has completely gone out of it for me. I feel like when I get on stage I’ve entered some kind of contest or I have to pass an examination. I’m extremely uncomfortable and don’t feel like I belong.

“Where I want to put my energy right now is in academia. Bob Dylan says ‘you’ve got to hoard your energy.’ I’m 41 and I want to protect my energy and make sure I’m channeling it in the right direction.”


First name Kalle. Last name Mattson. Notice the two L’s. Don’t confuse the musician with the trendy vegetable. He’s named after J.J. Cale, the late great songwriter, who penned such classics as “After Midnight” and “Call Me the Breeze.” Some tough musical shoes to fill. Then again, maybe that bar isn’t so hard to live up to when you’re already an old soul at 22. You’ve toured Europe, won a pair of Northern Ontario Music awards, and most importantly – thanks to your muse – you’ve learned to grieve.

This past February, Mattson released Someday the Moon Will be Gold. The singer-songwriter’s third album, it’s also his most personal. It’s a record he was unsure he could ever release. Grief got a grip on his muse and demanded he write these songs.

Mattson spoke to Words + Music prior to a showcase for the album at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. One month since the album’s official release, he’s feeling comfortable with this song cycle about death. The response, from fans and critics alike, has been incredible.

“I felt like it was a risky move to put my life on display.”

“This record is a part of my soul,” Mattson explains. “It took me a really long time to want to make it. I felt like it was a risky move to put my life on display, so I sat on this record for a long time. I’ve learned that allowing that vulnerability is good. It’s cathartic in a weird way and people have responded to that.”

Five years ago, Mattson, then 16, lost his mom. Still too young to fully grasp this life-changing event, he turned to music for answers. Walking home from school, he listened to Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. Hearing Jeff Tweedy sing about death comforted him; it made him feel he wasn’t alone. That seminal disc, along with Evening Hymns’ Spectral Dusk, inspired the songwriter to write and record the emotive songs that make up Someday the Moon Will be Gold.

In May 2011, Mattson’s grandmother passed away. He moved from Ottawa back to his childhood home in Sault Ste. Marie for the first time since his mother had died. The songs – such as “A Love Song to The City,” one of many poignant compositions, which he wrote in his living room in an afternoon – came fast.

“Looking back on it now, I grieved through this record and came out the other side,” he writes in a blog entry on his website. “I escaped into these songs, and in a lot of ways they seem like all I have left, but at least I have them.”


His video for “Water Falls” has earned more than 250,000 YouTube views, and for “Thick as Thieves,” more than a million.
Anchors (2011) received a pair of Northern Ontario Music Award wins, for Album of the Year (Group) & SOCAN Songwriter of the Year.
Mattson loves to bowl while on tour: “It’s a cheap way to have fun.”

Publisher: N/A
Discography: Whisper Bee (2009), Anchors (2011) Lives In Between (EP, 2012), Someday, The Moon Will be Gold (2014)
Member since 2009

For Gary Louris, it’s time to be a “Vagabond”

It only took 20 years, but Gary Louris finally meandered down that road that most songwriters seek and put out a solo record.

“I’ve been in a band for quite awhile, and it took up most of my time, and I felt like I had enough of my personal stuff expressed through The Jayhawks that I didn’t need to put out a solo record,” he says. “Now that that band isn’t together anymore, it was just time.”

As a founding member of The Jayhawks and their lead singer and guitarist on three of their critically acclaimed recordings “Sound of Lies,” “Smile” and “Rainy Day Music,” a member of the alt.-country super group Golden Smog, and a producer and mentor for other roots rockers such as Canadian psychedelic-country group The Sadies, Louris needs no introduction to those in the music industry.

“Vagabond,” released in mid-February on Rykodisc, is an introspective affair featuring 10 well-crafted and emotive songs. The low-fi acoustic recording allows the listener to focus on the lyrics and Louris’ most powerful instrument – his voice.

“I certainly was at a crossroads trying to figure out what I wanted to do with this record,” he explains. “I can be all over the board musically. I can be poppy, and I can play around with synthesizers and stuff like that, and I can make stuff that sounds more modern, or I can do the more organic, rootsy and traditional thing, which is what I felt like doing right now…that’s what felt most comfortable to me.”

“My voice being what it is, which is somewhat of a quiet instrument, I thought it would be best served by a quieter backdrop,” he continues. “That’s what lent itself to the more acoustic feel. I’ve always had a battle with that on stage with the guitar to get my voice heard. So. I thought let’s make something that is really about my voice, the guitar and the song, and I was a little more diligent on my lyrics this time, and I worked a little harder, kept coming up with more verses and more choruses.”

For the recording, 40-plus songs were whittled down to the 10 that make the disc.

“I’m never short on ideas,” Louris laughs. “They are not always good ideas, but I have a lot of ideas…some songs rose to the occasion and peeked their head out and became real winners and other songs I thought were going to be the heart and soul of the record, didn’t even make the record…it’s funny how that works.”

On the opening “True Blue”- one of these heart and soul songs that made the record – Louris sings softly in the chorus, “strip it down to what you can believe in.”

This search for meaning in life’s madness continues in the second track, “Omaha Nights” where the songwriter simply asks: “Will we find what we want/along this finite journey.”

This questioning sums up the spiritual path the songwriter trod for this solo introspective journey where Louris and the listener learn together that the questions is what matters, not the answer since the reason for our existence often can’t be found.

“You finally figure out that you are not going to find the answer…well maybe if you are a Tibetan monk, but I don’t know…most people don’t figure it out, and there are books and books to prove it,” he says. “There are people who have been here way before us and with greater minds than my own who have never really solved life’s questions. I figure it’s the old proverbial ‘it’s the journey, not the destination,’ but you still can’t help but be frustrated that you’ve been here so long and still you don’t have a clue as to why you are here and exactly what you are doing. Some of that frustration and mystery came out in the lyrics.”

Despite this spiritual searching, when it comes to the reasons for making music, Louris has realistic expectations for his art. He doesn’t have aspirations that any of his songs will be a top-40 hit, and he’s fine with that.

“That’s the beauty of not being a failure, but not being a huge success either,” he says. “I’m not chasing radio play or anything, so in certain ways I’m free. I don’t want to say I envy myself, but there is a certain freedom to not trying to do something that is going to fit in with some format.”

“Vagabonds” was recorded at Sage and Sound Studies in Los Angeles and engineered and co-produced by Thom Monahan, who has worked with J. Mascis and the Pernice Brothers.

Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes – an old amigo of Louris’ – produced the record.

“Chris brought a comfort level to the studio,” says Louris. “He’s somebody I trust who gives you his full attention…you know he is embracing it 110 per cent where some people you are just one project of many. For Chris, this was a sacred thing. He’s a big fan, he’s been my friend for a long time, and he’s not a yes man. He’s got a strong personality.”

“I knew he would handle it with care, and he did.”

“Vagabonds” was recorded live and has an organic vibe to it.

“I was trying to figure out the best way to make this record,” Louris explains. “I could have played with my studio wizardry and worked with my ProTools in my basement, which I know how to do, but I like the synergy and the weird cosmic energy that happens when people are in a room together and are playing together at the same time.”

“I’ve done it many ways, and some of my favorite records have been looped and sampled and done in crazy ways, but I still think the best thing for me and my kind of music is when you have people capturing a moment in time, live, in that room…it’s magical because it’s kind of that frozen moment from the past. Instead of ‘well the bass was done on Tuesday, and then someone came in and sat in the control room and played along, which is not very emotional, you look across the room, and you see somebody else bobbing their head getting into you, and then you feed off of that. That’s the greatest music.”