Prairie Boy Del Barber Fishes For Songs

Del Barber and I meet in the lobby of The Day’s Inn in downtown Hamilton, Ont. on an early afternoon in mid March. The 31-year-old wears a John Prine toque, jean jacket, faded jeans, and well-worn cowboy boots. That night, the Juno awards Gala took place where Barber’s latest (Prairieography) was nominated for the Best Roots Album of the Year award. He didn’t win, instead Winnipeg’s The Brother’s Landreth took the prize, but that didn’t prevent Barber from enjoying the evening. The songwriter took his mom as his date and I ran into him a couple of times. First, at the bar in the Sheraton Hotel and then at The Casbah in the wee hours where The Brothers Landreth performed to a packed house.

Over 75 minutes, Barber and I chat about songwriting, loneliness, the Prairies, hockey, craft beer, and much more. The time passes fast.

Growing up in the Canadian Prairies, hockey was part of the fabric of Barber’s childhood. These days, he still laces up the blades and gets in a game of shinny during the winter while touring. Music was the other constant that was always there during his formative years. His parents’ record collection was thick with Texas songwriting greats such as Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, along with classic country like Hoyt Axton.

“I was playing in punk and rock bands in high school, but then I gradually retreated back into my parent’s record collection,” Barber says. “My dad has the largest Hoyt Axton collection ever and he was also a big Steve Earle fan.”

Barber is a big fan of No Depression. “I tried to get a magazine subscription about nine years ago, but I couldn’t get it shipped to Canada,” he says. “That was when I was starting to get enthralled with whatever alt-country is – or was – just after high school when I started getting turned on to bands like Wilco and Son Volt.”

After graduating from high school, Barber worked a variety of labor jobs in the summers while going to university, mainly in forestry and farming. “I came home with a bunch of money and said I should record some of these songs I’ve written,” he recalls. “Since high school I always thought I would just be writing songs recreationally … I had no grandiose perspective on making a living playing music or even getting shows. We played shows in high school for friends and it felt like modest, fun stuff to do, just messing around.

“People always want to know how I started and it wasn’t by design,” Barber continues. “I didn’t go to my folks and say, ‘this sounds crazy, but I want to be a songwriter.’ It was something that basically trickled towards me and slowly gained momentum and whatever momentum I have is what I live on now for better or worse. I can definitely say this is my job as I don’t have any other income, but I never made the decision to become a musician.”

Even though it wasn’t by design to become a full-time musician and songwriter, Barber did come at it naturally, thanks to his upbringing.

“I was raised around music fans and especially songwriting fans,” he explains. “My parents are both huge fans of narrative. They demanded my attention when songs like that came on the radio. My favorite [Bob] Dylan quote is something like, ‘it’s taken me a long time to get this young.’ It sounds pompous, and a little bit ego driven, but I think what it really means is it takes a long time to realize how little you really know. When I was just starting out, I wrote a lot about myself; I tried to wax about love and relationships. It’s really hard not to write stuff that ego-driven when you are white and middle-class.”

These days, that’s the last thing Barber wants to write about. He says it will still happen once in a while since fans like those early songs, but now he’s turning back to the likes of John Prine and the records from his parents’ collection as songwriting mentors and influences.

“All those people were writing parables,” Barber explains. “Even when they were using the first person ‘I,’ you could tell it wasn’t necessarily their experience. That’s a pretty freeing place to be when you want to be considered a writer that has teeth … to tell stories and use narrative in a way that you can even make soft political statements. You can point at things in the world that are unjust through a character and still have choruses people can hold onto … that’s the goal for me these days. I don’t know how to do that well enough yet, but that’s what I want.”

A restless wanderer, Barber loves travelling alone. It’s during these solo adventures where he meets the bulk of the characters and hears stories from ordinary folk—from barflies and bartenders to waitresses and waifs— that inspire his songs.

“I’m thoroughly an introvert, but travelling alone makes me crave human contact,” he explains. “If you go out to the all-night diners and talk to the waitresses of the world, they don’t know who you are and they don’t care, so you actually have a conversation – as long as you offer to buy coffee – and give them some explanation of your loneliness. Bartenders are the same, smokers are the same, etc. I especially want to be a part of the tradition of songwriters that writes about working-class people.

“My experience is that people like talking to strangers,” he adds. “I spend a lot of time in small towns and I live in a small town and if you tell something there everyone knows. You tell a stranger, no one knows. You get to use them as a confessional.”

Barber’s latest Prairieography is all about working class confessions and a love letter to his rural roots. The disc was inspired from Ian Tyson’s Coboyography.

“That record is a jumping off point,” he says. “It’s about looking at music that can be geographical; the real governing premise behind it is that you can’t separate people from place. You don’t know who you are until you know where you came from and you don’t know which way to go until you know where you’ve been … all those axioms govern what this record is about.

“That comes from Cowboyography,” he continues. “That record sounds like it comes from somewhere. You listen to it in southern Alberta and it makes a little more sense. I think it doesn’t do you any favors to worry about whether or not records that are placed distinctly are going to work universally because I think they always do if they are good enough. When you hear Springsteen singing about factory floors outside of Jersey, people get that. It’s not like one person’s experience in a factory or someone who works in an office in Toronto, can’t get that universal struggle.”

It’s that universal struggle that Baber witnesses as a travelling musician as he walks the line all the time between classes. “That’s the coolest part of being a songwriter,” he says. “One day you are at the Sheraton or the Ritz and the next your are at the Motel 6. You play a bar one night and a theatre the next. Todd Snider has this line in one of his songs that says, ‘there is a guy at the bar hogging one tooth all to himself.’ I’ve met that guy a lot of times. Then, I’ve also met the guy with the $3,000 suit that buys your record.”

As Barber’s songwriting matures, he is getting less mysterious, vague and enigmatic in his lyrics; his focus these days is to exercise his writing muscles. His words, as witnessed on Prairieography, are still highly poetic, but his goal now is to write songs that everyone can understand.

“How can I be more accessible and write songs that are in that folk and country tradition and people can understand it right from the first listen,” he explains. “Even in a crowded bar, there is character or a story, even a few lines that you can hear over the din that is going to move you in some way.”

When Barber’s not writing songs or chatting with someone to get fodder for his muse, you’ll find him fishing. “I bring a fly rod on tour with me in the fairer months,” he says. “That’s my thing. I will always seek out people and places to fish wherever I am. Last year, I had 15 fishing licenses from various states and provinces and probably spent more than $2,000 on these licenses.”

Fishing is both therapeutic and an inspiration for his creations. “Those are the greatest places for me to interact and take stock with whom I’ve met in the last six months and what stories I need to tell and what pictures stick with me,” he says. “I always think of Tom Waits who says you are just trying to write little movies … think about songs as these little pictures where you are giving people these cut outs of a person’s life.”

Looking to the future, Barber hopes to keep telling peoples stories, but spending less time on the road as he’s starting to get a little seasick from the blur of endless white lines. Like every artists, he does wonder sometimes if one day the muse will leave and he’ll have to think of a back-up plan.

“Maybe I could buy cows?” he concludes. “I’ve got land. How hard can it be? When you are busy, you don’t think about those big picture things, you just do what’s in front of you. My career has been a constant slow trickle. If it keeps trickling it will be great.”

Meet Del Barber

Who: Del Barber
Age: 31
Hometown: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Discography: Where the City Ends (2009), Love Songs For the Last Twenty (2010),
Headwaters (2012) Prairieography (2014).
Main guitars: Late 1980s Gibson J45 and a Gretsch 6120

A Long, Twisted Road for Lori Yates

The first thing that grabs you is the voice. At times, it’s gentle as a summer breeze, at other times, its’ stronger than a hurricane blowing through town. The next detail one notices is the auburn hair. The third trait is the infectious laugh. That’s Lori Yates. On October 24, as the leaves fell throughout Southern Ontario, the Hamilton honkytonk queen — with punk and rockabilly roots and a long and storied career – picked up her Gibson guitar right where she last left off and returned with one of the years’ best roots records: Sweetheart of the Valley.

Yates and I meet on her home turf at the Mulberry Café on James Street North in downtown, one week before her sold-out CD release party at The Spice Factory. Over a latte and muffin, we share laughs and chat about the making of the record, songwriting, her love affair with Hamilton, and her ongoing musical journey.

Sweetheart of the Valley is Yates first solo recording since Book of Minerva (2011). Why so long? “I don’t know,” she says. “I have a family and it’s always a balance. People always ask, ‘Why don’t you just put out a record every year?’ It just seems to take me a long time.”

Right from the opening notes, the listener learns that it was worth the wait. Hey Stella! backs Yates. The all-star roots band is a group of old friends, who used to play a weekly gig at Ted’s Wrecking Yard, more than 13 years ago, when Yates lived in Toronto. The band features: Bazil Donovan (bass), Michelle Josef (drums), and David Gavan Baxter (electric guitar, mandolin and piano). The 12 songs were recorded at Baxter’s Hogtown studio (Knob & Tube).

The songs were all written over the past couple of years and the recording happened fast. “It felt like we were breaking bread together,” Yates comments. “It was a special time … I don’t think it will come around again.”

The storied songs speak to locales where she’s lived and the people who’ve touched her on life’s journey. Take “Corktown,” which describes the Hamilton rough and tumble tavern where Yates had a regular gig when she first moved to town.

Yates recalls the initial impetus to follow the white line from Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood to Hamilton more than a dozen years ago.

“We had a baby and lived in this two-bedroom apartment,” she says. “As a writer/artist, I always felt wouldn’t it be great to have a room of one’s own? A two-bedroom apartment with a baby, there goes a creative life, so we started to look at houses in Hamilton.

“The day we came to look for houses, it’s a cold February afternoon, I’m pushing the baby carriage and there is not a soul in sight,” she continues. “We walked down Jackson Street. I looked up and there is Frankie Venom (lead singer of Teenage Head) on his balcony having a cigarette. I turned to my husband and said, ‘Oh my god Terry there is Frankie’ because I’m a huge fan. He’s like, so what? But, for me, this was an omen … I never saw him again in the city, just that one day, and it just felt right.”

Everything about Sweetheart of the Valley also feels just right; Yates is so happy with the result. Spend an afternoon with these dozen tunes and you are sure to agree. Just listen to that voice and – like the wind – let it carry your troubles away.

www.loriyates.com

Old 97s Return With Raw Record

American Songwriter caught up with Murry Hammond, bassist for the Old 97’s, right before Thanksgiving. He was at the post office, and doing some other last minute errands getting ready to host 14 of his in-laws. The band is currently on tour promoting their stellar new album, The Grand Theatre Volume 1, recently released on New West Records. Come spring, the band is set to release a second volume. Hammond talked about how proud he is of the rawness of this record and how its songs hark back to the Old 97’s earliest recordings.

Fifteen years on, The Grand Theatre Volume 1 returns to the band’s roots and early influences in terms of its garage-rock, loose sound. Did you purposely try to rediscover that rawness?

I’ve always thought that the 97’s at our best are the 97’s at their rawest and ‘garage-iest.’ The rawness is always there, but the edges are taken off by the studio experience. Working with producer Salim [Nourallah], he allows that rawness to come through, especially on this record.

We walked into the studio this time with the philosophy that it was going to be all about the spirit over perfection on every single track. That’s how you get great records. Think of your favorite records and that’s what they did. You can’t talk about liking the Kinks, The Beatles or whoever, and then go into the studio and do something that they wouldn’t do, such as getting too precious with your music and ignore the raw, greatness of what you do. We are lucky to be one of those bands. There might be a little bit of sloppiness to it, but there is so much mojo heaped on top of it that it becomes a magical thing. I’m very proud of that, and I’ve always wanted to be in a band like that.

What’s the secret to keeping that mojo alive? Does having side projects help?

I don’t think the side projects play a major role in what keeps things fresh. The four guys have this permanent chemistry. It’s there despite anything, it doesn’t need any help. We are very fortunate that way. We just show up in the same room and it’s there. The thing the little side projects do for the guys who write a lot of songs is that they get to have more than one outlet for their music. But, for that truly magical thing, it happens in the 97’s.

I understand you are pretty proud of this record.

I’m probably as proud of this record as I’ve been since Too Far to Care. I like all of our records, but I like this one about as well or better than anything we’ve done since the early 1990s. It’s just a really good period for us and it reflects that great mood that is in the band. It’s a good indicator of how many red blood cells we’ve got left. I’m really, really proud of my band right now.

You recorded so much material that you’re putting out The Grand Theatre Volume 2 in the spring. Why not put out a double disc now?

We thought it was too much music when we went to listen to it. Maybe we got a little tired of listening to our own record. So, we turned it into a positive. We thought if we add more music to it, we could have two full albums all at once. We took a record that was already a double record length and added an additional six songs that we had not touched the first time around. Did it in the same studio, the same way, and then re-recorded a couple of songs. We had enough material for a double record with outtakes and bonus tracks. We now have this 29-song monster period; we will always look at this period fondly for how prolific it was.

Tell me about the songs you contributed to this record. What’s “You Were Born to be in Battle” about? It has a real Johnny Cash feel.

I’m very pleased with my contributions. It’s not easy to stand alongside a Rhett Miller as a songwriter because I’m not Rhett. It’s all I can do to show up a couple of times on a record and try to match him. Regarding “You Were Born to be in Battle,” I tend to write a lot of songs in that frame of mind. I wrote it talking to my son about life and what’s in store for him … the good and the bad. It became very Johnny Cash-like, because not only does it have a bit of that sound, it also has a bit of the big, old stuff that he would so often write around. That is where my compass points when it comes to songwriting. The stuff I gravitate towards subject wise is not really relationship stuff, it tends to be more about big questions — good and evil, life and death, etc. The more ‘heavy’ stuff without being too grizzly about it.

What about ‘You Smoke Too Much’?

I don’t write a ton of relationship songs, but that was one of them. It’s a song about letting go of something you need to let go of in the romantic world. It was a tough song. Like everything else I do, it’s fairly autobiographical. It’s about something you are clinging onto, like a vice. After a point of you not letting go, it becomes the little raccoon that is holding onto the little shiny disc while the hunters are coming along with a club and they are going to bash your damn head in. You know what to do, but are unable to do it and you are mad about it.

Any of Rhett’s compositions that really stand out?

There is a pair that I really get a kick out of: “Love is What You Are” going into “Please Hold On While the Train is Moving.” I just love that it is about eight psychedelic minutes between those two songs. There is just this sonic, Technicolor thing happening. It is like a lot of the records I love from the Sixties, like The Zombies and The Electric Prunes.

Any comments on working in this new age of delivering music digitally, and the decline of record stores?

Everything has to change and whether you like it or not, with the good comes the sad. For me, the sad is the record store going away. At the same time, as time goes further on, I’m just going to be some old fart that remembers the record store and nobody else is going to give a shit or wonder why I would be sad about that.

It will sound like old-timey stories when I tell them what it was like to go to a store, flip through a bunch of bins and look at the covers and wonder what a band sounds like and get to know the people who work there. Even now, it’s starting to sound old-timey, but it’s really going to be an old fart grandpa story one of these days. Bring it on I guess, I’m sad to see it go, but can’t stop it; there will be record stores in a sense, but they sure won’t look like they used to. Our challenge is to find that human interaction in the new place that it is going to happen; it will happen, but it’s our choice to make it happen.

Luke Doucet’s World Includes Joy Division and Gordon Lightfoot

When Luke Doucet held a release party for his new album Steel City Trawler there was Steamwhistle beer, whisky sour shots, oysters and the likes of Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene in the audience taking in Doucet and his band The White Falcon playing their 11 new songs.

Flash back to the fall of 2009 and I had the privilege to spend a few days in the studio with Doucet while he was putting the finishing touches on this record. The disc, which is a “tip of the hat to Steeltown,” was mostly cut at John Dinsmore’s Lincoln County Social Club in Liberty Village and was produced by Sloan’s Andrew Scott. The record was put on the shelf for a few months while Doucet and wife Melissa McLelland toured this summer as part of Sarah MacLachlan’s band for Lilith Fair.

Hamilton, Sloan, a Canadian folk icon, and a 1980s Brit-pop eccentric all found their way onto this follow up to the critically-acclaimed Blood’s Too Rich (2008). Steel City Trawler oozes rock and soul — harking back to the classics such as The Rolling Stones, Neil Young And Crazy Horse and Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers.

Here is Doucet’s dissection of a couple of the tracks on Steel City Trawler:

On cover songs:
I have a classic-rock attitude towards covers. It’s a good way to end the set and keep up the energy… more important, it’s a really good way to raise the bar on your own songwriting. You’re playing classics and you can’t help but notice your own songs wilt by comparison.

Why he chose Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” to cover:
You know how when you hear a song in your mind’s eye and then you hear the actual recording they aren’t always the same? Think about Neil Young’s “Down By The River.” In my head, it’s a huge, rock ‘n’ roll thing, but then when you listen to the actual recording it’s a fair bit humbler. “Sundown” was another one of those songs where I imagined it in my head to be a big song; it is a big song, but it’s not a big recording, it’s also fairly humble. In my head, I had it like a Crazy Horse song. Initially I thought, “Let’s play this song live. Wouldn’t that be a fun way to end the set?”

There was a tribute to Gordon Lightfoot at Nathan Philips Square [in Toronto] a few years ago and I did “Early Morning Rain.” That was my first real exposure to Lightfoot because I didn’t grow up with him. My parents were listening to The Band, Dylan, Neil Young and Tom Waits, but they weren’t listening to Lightfoot. After I was asked to do this tribute, I started to listen to a bunch of his records and immediately fell in love with his songwriting. The funny thing about that gig is that [folk veteran] Brent Titcomb was at that event and I turned around to look at him backstage while I was singing “Early Morning Rain”; Brent had this look on his face like he had seen a ghost. Afterwards I asked him, “Hey man, what’s going on? You look a little thrown off?” And he said, “Do you have any idea how much you look like Gordon Lightfoot?”

It never occurred to me, but there was this connection. I love discovering or unearthing a love affair between myself and another artist that I wasn’t aware of. I have huge black holes in my music listening and I’m just trying to fill them in once in a while.

On Joy Division and “The Ballad Of Ian Curtis”:
I saw two films: the Anton Corbijn film Control and then another bio-doc about Joy Division in the space of two days and they made an impression on me. Ian Curtis is a compelling figure… not compelling in the sense I don’t think I would have liked him or his music, but compelling in that if he had been a sculptor or a race car driver, I probably would have still written a song about him just because the films I saw cast a light on an interesting person. After I recorded the song I read the bio that his wife wrote. She doesn’t paint a very flattering picture. I was running and had seen these films and had Joy Division music running around in my head and by the time I got home I had written this song. I went to junior high in Winnipeg in the mid-’80s. I was at a preppy school where the preppy girls all had sweet smelling perfume, so when I think about music from that era I think of the preppy kids who were listening to Joy Division, The Cure, New Order, etc… all that post-industrial maudlin British pop. So, when I hear that music today, it reminds me of being in junior high. There’s a sort of nostalgia that went with it.

Ziggy Marley Never Forgets His Father’s Legacy

Ziggy Marley was just a young lad when his father Robert Nesta Marley – in most reggae circles known simply as Bob – passed on in 1981. Twenty-five years on, the songwriter is continuing to advance his own music career, while never forgetting his father’s legacy. He feels he knows his dad more now than ever and he communicates with the reggae legend through his dreams. With Bob’s good vibes confirming to him that he’s on the right spiritual path, Marley is taking the inherent message of his new disc Love is My Religion around the world. Released August 29 in Canada, Love is My Religion veers more towards the spiritual side of the human condition; yet, several songs still champion equal rights and justice, and lament the struggles of the oppressed. He talked with Chartattack recently about the power of dreams, his newfound spirituality, and the need to hang on to our freedoms.

Chartattack: On Love is My Religion you embrace spirituality in your writing and stray a bit from the emancipation anthems you wrote early in your career. Why is that?

Marley:

In my early days I did a lot of social commentary, which is where my father left off, but he was heading into where I am now with songs like “Redemption Song.” Imagine my father’s career coming from “Get Up Stand Up” and “Slave Driver,” songs like those, to the later days where he was becoming more into that spiritual side too … “Redemption Song,” mental slavery, not physical slavery anymore … it’s that evolution that I kind of went through too and evolved.

Now, especially with this record, I find myself writing more songs about spirituality more than physical or social things. For many years I’ve found myself drifting away [from writing social commentary songs] because how much time can I spend singing about the poor, suffering and injustice … I still do it, but I do it less and less. I’m singing more about the spiritual condition of mankind and the spiritual thoughts and concepts like “Love is My Religion” and “Lifetime” where I speak about reincarnation. I’m going deeper right now in my songwriting.

I could go on blaming the system everyday. I could say the system causes so many problems and I could sing about that and about what the system has done to us. But over the years I have looked more within myself and realized that we as human beings need to change something inside of us more than change something outside of us like the system. It is okay to change the system, that is a struggle and that is something we should look on, but you should never ever forget yourself and the inside of you that needs to change also because in a way the system exists inside of ourselves … it is not just governments, politicians and extremists.

Chartattack: The song “Keep on Dreamin’” on your new record talks about how you communicate with your father and connect with him through your dreams. Tell me about that?

Marley:

I know there is a connection. Many years ago after he passed I began having dreams. The dreams are strong. It’s not a joke. They have meaning. I feel camaraderie with him. That’s how we are in dreams. He supports what I’m doing and he shows me that support in the dreams and he wants me to keep on going and keep evolving. He’s into what I’m doing that’s all I can tell you.

It’s like, for me, the more I grow the more I understand him. I don’t know if it is as an artist or as a man. I think a lot of what I feel and know is what he knew, but people didn’t see. People saw the image of Bob Marley … the militancy of Bob Marley. What I feel now is that there was another side to him that I’m realizing that didn’t come out at the time … the spiritual side and the gentle way of putting things. I feel much closer to him now. I feel like I know him and I know he knows me.

Chartattack: While spirituality is now at the root of your songwriting, the struggle of the oppressed is still present in your songs. This is especially prevalent in the powerful song “Still the Storms” that shows how the wounds of slavery in North America still have not healed. Tell us about this song?

Marley:

I studied history and slavery in school and I know the triangle of trade. I’m not singing that song from any kind of pulpit. I’m personally upset … it’s a feeling of no justice. I feel like the family of Africans has not been vindicated by that injustice that was done to their humanity. I don’t know if there was even an apology. I don’t feel like the world was sorry. It’s like people want us to forget it. I can’t forget it. It affects us today. No matter how many years go by I still can’t forget and people would want us to forget that it ever happened.

Justice is a thing that until there has been some sort of redemption or coming to terms with that injustice there will always be a force in the universe that is seeking that. The universe has a way of finding justice for itself, so that is what that song is about. I used the hurricanes and storms as an analogy because of the routes that the ships took from the West Coast of Africa up through the Caribbean coming up the south of the United States, New Orleans, Florida, even Jamaica … all those areas that get hit by the hurricanes where slaves were taken. I use that as a way to express my frustration.

Chartattack: “Be Free” is another song that expresses your frustrations at the erosion of our freedoms. Tell us about the message you are trying to get across in this song?

Marley:

“Be Free” is another song that I think is important because now with the politics of fear playing such a great role in what’s happening in the world we are losing are freedoms little by little. It is happening and people are going to let it happen because of the fear and it’s sad. Just as terrorism is an oppression, that is another oppression. It’s like we are getting double oppressed: one from terrorism and one from the world of government that has taken away our freedoms and our rights. There is going to be a little group of us that are not going to want to let it go and we are going to have to be the new freedom fighters.

I just want to remind people to be free and don’t take it lightly. We don’t have to give up our freedoms. It’s bullshit. It’s just a trick to gain more control of innocent people. Our freedoms are not the freedoms that should be taken away … it’s the freedoms of the people that are killing people.

Ray LaMontagne Saved By a Woman

On the title track from his major label debut Trouble, Ray LaMontagne sings that he’s been “saved by a woman.”

Resting at home in Freeport, Maine with his wife and two sons – before heading back on the road to promote Trouble – the humble 31-year-old songwriter talks about his musical journey. There’s no doubt that a woman helped save LaMontagne from his troubled past, but initially this worried man’s soul was saved by music.

It was a day like any other six years ago when LaMontagne’s alarm clock radio went off at 4 a.m. and he had an epiphany. The sound that came from this early morning wake-up call was unlike anything he had heard before. The song was “Tree Top Flyer”, the artist was Stephen Stills, and something in the music moved LaMontagne, awakening his spirit. He didn’t go to his job that day, which at the time was a stint at a shoe factory in Lewiston, Maine. Instead, LaMontagne spent the day browsing the local record stores, finding the Stills’ album Stills Alone, and starting to dig all sorts of music.

“I just got really psyched about music all of a sudden,” he says. “I hadn’t really before. I’ve always liked music. My father was a musician … I don’t really know my father and I don’t really want to at this point … that’s a whole other story.

“There was music in the house when I was really young,” he continues. “I dabbled with instruments as I grew up: saxophone, drums, but I never stuck with anything for various reasons. Then as I got into my teen years I totally pushed music out because it was like my dad and I didn’t want to be like my dad at all, so it became totally out of the picture.”

Listening to Trouble, one gets a clear picture of the pain and suffering of his past through his emotive voice and personal lyrics. LaMontagne is candid about his life before he had this reawakening.

“In my early twenties I went through a really hard time,” he reveals. “I had bouts with serious depression and suicide. Then I discovered Stephen Stills and I got really excited about music and I just started listening to records all the time.”

These records — from Bob Dylan to the Band — became LaMontagne’s refuge and his education. “I had no friends, but I had records,” he says. “Man, I just lived in those records. I would listen to one side, flip it over, and then flip it back to side one again … I consider it like my schooling.”

LaMontagne has been busy making records independently since 1999. He made three on his own and then signed with a publisher (Chrysalis) before he had a record deal. This came about through a chance encounter with a fan that had a friend in the music business. Six months after Chrysalis signed him, he made Trouble with Ethan Johns (the Jayhawks, Ryan Adams) with the hope that maybe an independent label would pick it up. What ensued was a bidding war, which RCA Records won.

When LaMontagne initially signed the publishing deal, which he stresses was “really modest,” he hoped that other songwriters might cover his songs. “That was my first thought,” he says. “I remember coming home and being excited and talking to Sarah [his wife] and saying ‘maybe someone will sing a song or maybe we will get a song recorded by someone else and make a little money.’ That’s a pretty exciting thought from where we were. I was just working carpentry, playing gigs here or there and hawking my own records at 10 bucks a pop whenever I could.”

Making the transition from carpentry to composition, it’s no surprise that it took the songwriter a long time to discover his approach to penning words and music.

“In the beginning I tried the disciplined approach and tried to write every day, which just led to so much frustration that I wanted to blow my brains out,” he says. “I eventually have come to figure out that for me the melodies come and they come often and I just put them on tape.

“Then there comes a point … it’s like the train in the distance thing … you know that they’re coming,” he continues. “What happens is that I know that I’m having a creative spurt coming. It usually lasts about three weeks, sometimes a month. For some reason the stars are aligned, who knows, but for that month I can take things from beginning to completion.”

From working in a shoe factory to singing songs for a living, Ray LaMontagne’s musical journey is far from complete. With a voice that combines the soul of the late Ray Charles, with the grit of Otis Redding and Van Morrison, LaMontagne is poised to make a career in the music business.

“I just hope that I can earn a fan base that will stick with me for another record and another and another,” he concludes. “If that happens I’ll be a happy man.”

For Corin Raymond There Will Always Be a Small Time

Corin Raymond believes in the small time. And, as he sings in the fine-pickin’ song “Stealin’ My Heart Away,” on his latest disc There Will Always Be a Small Time, he “likes his music deep.” Despite his affinity for the small time, the Toronto-based songwriter plays big-time music. And, he writes even bigger-sounding songs.

Raymond sports his trademark felt fedora and tired eyes from a life of insomnia. Over dinner on the patio at the Rivoli in Toronto, we chat about the small time, a shared passion for music, the lack of a music industry, and his fine new record, There Will Always Be a Small Time.

The Toronto roots artist describes his concept of the small time in more detail.

“It doesn’t mean amateur,” he explains. “There is nothing unworthy about the small time. The small time is my way of describing the life we are living today in the current conditions with a lack of a music industry. I’ve said this before; I don’t know what the music business is … I’ve never seen it. I make a full-time living as a songwriter and I don’t know what the music business is.

“The small time is a rich world and it’s a world that requires digging,” he adds. “The small time is not going to be piped in over the speakers at my convenience store. You have to connect the dots. The people who love it are going to connect the dots.”

Raymond captures this with some fine wordplay in the title cut when he croons: “There will always be a good time/ when the nine-to-fivers go to bed/ there will always be a grapevine/ where everybody brings a friend/ there will always be a small time/ just come and see us now and then.”

Raymond grew up in Northern Ontario, learning to appreciate the small time from his dad, who raised him after his mother died. His father was a librarian, high-school teacher and book seller. The pair lived in northern Ontario, north of Ear Falls, near Red Lake.

“He exposed me to a lot of culture when I was growing up,” Raymond recalls. “He taught me to love books, theatre and film.”

With There Will Always Be a Small Time, Raymond offers a dozen songs that fit into what he dubs the “classic folk idiom.”

“My songs are all … maybe four chords,” he concludes. “Most of the songs are three-chord songs. Anybody who plays guitar on their porch can learn these songs and that’s what they are designed for. They are designed to be played, enjoyed, make people laugh and feel good. They are designed to make people sing. They are joyful things, these songs. I don’t think there is anything pretentious about any of them.

“I believe they are folk music in that sense. For me, the small time is about real communities. It’s about places where people get together and experience music and where music brings them and binds them together. It’s not the music that is going to change the world, but it changes our world, my world and your world. The only advantage of the big time for me is that I could reach more small-timers. If I could get enough small times happening, maybe we could all be a big-time together.”

Elliott Brood At Home in Hamilton

Elliott Brood isn’t out to conquer the world, they just want to make a living doing the thing they love: making music. Moving from Toronto to Hamilton allows them to do just that.

On a grey day in early January, I meet two-thirds of Elliott Brood — Mark Sasso and Stephen Pitkin — at their rehearsal space in downtown Hamilton. Inside, a collection of guitars, uku- leles, banjos and mandolins greet me — the tools that shape the band’s sound.

Pitkin sits on a row of seats taken from their tour van; Sasso straddles an amp. On the floor behind Pitkin
is a beer fridge, a 12-pack of empty Heineken bottles and a case of Coke.
Sasso and Casey Laforet (the third member of the group) grew up in Windsor. As teens, they bonded over Neil Young, The Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Pitkin later fell into the group after working sound at one of their concerts when the trio lived in Toronto. The band’s name derives from a bastard- ized homage to the femme fatale character in The Natural.

Elliott Brood started with a punk DIY ethos. These days, they treat the band as a business, but the punk at- titude remains. The band’s sound has matured over the past decade. 2008’s Mountain Meadows was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize and Days Into Years won a 2011 JUNO for Roots Album of the Year. Their most recent disc, Work and Love, also received a JUNO nod. The songs on their last record were shaped by the members’ move out
of the GTA — a decision sparked by a desire to live somewhere less expensive and more family-friendly.

“Hamilton feels a bit like the 1950s where kids can still run around and be kids … that is what we fell in love with,” Sasso says. “There is also opportunity here. You can use the city as a jumping off point as opposed to when I grew up in Windsor; if you were a band in Windsor you died a band in Windsor… you had to leave to ‘make it.’ In Hamilton, it’s not that way.”

“You don’t feel like there are obstacles the same way you did in Toronto where everything is expensive, there is so much to do, you have to work to live…more of a New York atmosphere,” Pitkin adds. “Here, it’s like a fresh breath.”

As 2016 begins, Elliott Brood is planning its next record. Prior to Christmas, the trio encamped to a cabin on a lake in the Kootenay Mountains near Kaslo, B.C. They hunkered down and recorded the skeletons for three tunes. “One of
the songs just jumped out while we were sitting on the porch,” Sasso says. “The songs are interesting…a little bit quieter; hopefully, they stay that way.”

Whatever way the new songs stay, Elliott Brood are just happy they can work full time in their chosen craft.

“We didn’t set out to conquer the world,” says Pitkin. “We are just a bunch of guys who love making music together.”
“It’s a great path,” Sasso adds. “Sure, we would love to make way more money, but we are doing great. We are playing music for a living. Isn’t that success? You get to raise your children and do the thing that you love.”

K’Naan: Poetic Troubadour Finds Meaning in the Madness

Look at the headlines and the portrait you get of Somalia is a poverty-stricken, backward country, home to warlords and pirates. That’s only one-side of the story; this African nation, which Forbes magazine recently named its most dangerous destination, is also a nation famous for its pastoral verse. The 19th-century British explorer Richard Burton wrote in First Footsteps in East Africa, “[Somalia] teems with poets …” And, the late president of Somalia, Abdi-rashid Ali Shermarked, spoke of the country’s pastoral verse as “one of the two national assets of inestimable value” ranking it just behind the Muslim faith.

K’Naan — the Toronto-based, Somalia-born, hip-hop artist — is one of these poets. Through his music, which mixes world beats, rap and reggae, and the oral tradition of his forefathers, he penetrates the stereotypes of his nation, trying to give people a glimpse of this other side of Somalia and explain the reasons for the piracy. Reaching the musician in Music City, we speak of his new record Troubadour and how his music documents his struggles to find meaning within the madness and hope amidst the hopelessness.

“There is a purpose art has always served whether it is a painting or any kind of art,” he says. “It’s to take tragedy and mold it into something beautiful … that’s the prescription I subscribe to.”

K’Naan certainly knows tragedy. In 1991, his family narrowly escaped death and managed to get on the last commercial flight out of war-torn Somalia. His first record, The Dusty Foot Philosopher (2006), which won a Juno for best rap recording, documented these experiences. “What’s Hardcore,” from this disc, directly spoke of the gunmen who terrorized his countrymen. After leaving Somalia, K’Naan arrived in New York and survived the ghettoes and gangs of Harlem before settling in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood.

Troubadour, released this past February, continues this journey. Troubadour means traveller and K’Naan’s birth name (Keinan) also means traveller in Somalian, so the title is apropos. Since fleeing Somalia, the 31-year-old has done his share of travelling. And, like the bards of old, K’Naan documents this journey, bringing his message to the masses. While many of the songs are political, K’Naan does not preach. Through rhymes, he tells these tales of experience and lets the listener find the meaning in his wordplay.

In the liner notes, K’Naan thanks, among many, warlords and drive-by shooters. He gives these people props for “forcing [him] to create,” “making him fight harder,” and for “giving him convictions.”

K’Naan’s grandfather, Haji Mohamed, was a famed Somalian poet and his aunt, Magool, was one of Somalia’s most famous singers; the rapper learned at a young age to rhyme and write in verse. But, instead of traditional poetry, the emcee adopted his generations’ medium — hip-hop — to tell his story.

It’s hard for wired North Americans, addicted to their Crackberrys and “Twittering” to fathom life without technology, much less, imagine a life without a stable government, where every day could be your last.

“That’s what life was made up of for me at a young age and for Somalians,” he explains. “The tradition of oral poetry was the method or informer of your day to day and your dreams and ambitions.”

K’Naan’s voice became his weapon and the means to fulfil his dreams; his songs were his shield — steering him on a righteous path of verse as opposed to the corrupt path of violence. In his three decades, the musician has seen more violence than most. At 14, the rapper and his three best friends were attacked by warlords; while K’Naan survived, his chums were gunned down. Like the woman he sings about in “Somalia” – “she got a gun/but she could have been a model or a physician” – K’Naan could easily have turned to crime; instead, he turned to rhymes.

“Somalia” is one of the songs on the new disc that best sums up K’Naan’s journey; he describes this composition as an ode. Through lyrics like these from the song’s chorus, “So what you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean?/ To never know a single day without a big commotion?,” K’Naan criticizes the media and the one-sided view they paint of Somalians as modern day pirates.

“What I’m doing in this song is trying to explain a bit of Somalia to people,” he says. “I’m still shocked by how much people don’t know about Somalia. I still find it surprising – even now that it’s on TV and print every day with pirates. It’s not contributing to knowing about Somalia, it’s just contributing to how the West knows Somalia. I always want to do things in my music to try to explain a little bit about my life, my past and my country.”

On Troubadour, the rapper wastes no time letting listeners know of these experiences. In the opener, “T.I.A. (This is Africa),” K’Naan says: “I take rappers on a field trip any day/ They never been opposite real clips anyway.”

K’Naan is referring in this song to his brushes with bullets (clips) and how you can’t compare the ghettoes and gangs of North America to what he experienced in Somalia.

Thanks to an invite from friends Stephen and Damian Marley, K’Naan recorded much of Troubadour at famed Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica and he wrote the bulk of the songs during a sojourn at Bob Marley’s house. He says the experience was surreal; he used everything from the folk guitar to the actual Hammond B3 used in Marley’s Exodus; K’Nann is still trying to put into words the meaning of these magical months.

“I’m fascinated and also inarticulate about that whole experience,” he says. “How do you sum up the feeling of being in that environment … having that privilege, just being creative in one of the greatest spirits of our time, in his world and with his friends and family and using his house and his instruments? The entire experience was a beautiful daze.”

– published in Penguin Eggs magazine

Daniel Lanois: a Sonic genius

As I exit the elevator into the fourth-floor studio/loft, I spy 10-time Grammy-Award winning producer and singer-songwriter Daniel Lanois playing the piano, singing a song from his first feature film Here is What Is, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September. Several assistants are busy answering phones and prepping for a TV interview later that afternoon; Lanois is lost, trancelike in his music. Lyric sheets and phone messages are scattered in the middle of the hardwood floor and instruments are everywhere — from a pedal steel he’s had since he was a teen to a wall featuring a dozen electric and acoustic guitars. There’s no questioning I’m in the presence of a mastermind.

The passion from this Canadian genius is genuine as we spend an hour chatting like old friends on the black leather couch in his Toronto studio. Surrounded by instruments, Lanois is like a child discovering music for the very first time, with each new sound he creates – whether it’s on pedal steel, acoustic guitar, or an antique player piano.

Sensing a fellow music lover, Lanois lets me play his Martin D-28 acoustic, crafted from the finest Brazilian rosewood. I strum a few chords and then return the guitar to the guru. Another vintage instrument — a Gibson SJ-200 (circa 1940), which he says was given to him by Emmylou Harris, is also on display; he tells me nonchalantly it’s worth about $20,000.

“I try to keep as many instruments around as possible,” he explains. “My old formula is still with me. When I was a kid, I wanted to work in a recording studio and I couldn’t get a job in one, so I started my own. I looked around at other studios where I was working as a session guitar player and noticed the Toronto engineers would let the band set up and then they would accommodate that setup by pulling the necessary microphones out of the closet and building the technology around the band, which makes sense.

“But, then I discovered a more Jamaican way of working,” Lanois continues. “The Jamaican folks had their sounds all ready in the studio before the musicians came in. They didn’t wait to be dictated to by the combo. As Chris Blackwell told me once, reggae music was not invented on the street … it’s not a thing that was happening in the parking lots, the roadsides and the hills as you might think, but it came out of the recording studio. The studio people like Lee Scratch Perry were highly inventive. They built up their own sounds with their own echo machines and with the limited equipment they had, they developed a sound. Then the singers and players would come in and they would cater to that feeling that was already set up.”

From early on, Lanois followed this Jamaican model in the studio: building his own sounds to set himself apart from his contemporaries.

“I started plugging stuff in when I was a kid and discovered sounds I liked,” he says. “Then, when people came into the studio, I would show them my sounds … people were always excited … having my own sound meant I stood out in the crowd a little bit … I wasn’t like every other record maker, which is a good piece of advice for anyone who wants to do this kind of work.”

He likens this approach to a door-to-door salesperson.

“When I show up at Sinead O’Connor’s house or U2’s studio, I don’t just turn up with a toothbrush,” Lanois says. “I’ll present The Edge with a new pedal perhaps that he doesn’t know about or I’ll present a riff that I’m excited about … I let them hear it and see if it rocks the house.”
Over the years, the über producer has been lucky to rock the house and share riffs with everyone from Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris to Aaron Neville and U2. While Lanois’ learned a lot from all these musicians, it’s fellow producer/musician Brian Eno with whom he shares a special relationship.

“We share an interest in soul music of the past and the future,” Lanois explains. “We grew up with similar influences. Eno grew up near a U.S. military base and there was a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and do-wop music at the base, so that always resonated with him. Eno is an incredible innovator and loves to challenge every situation with his sonics, which is fantastic.

“Eno and I are full of surprises,” he adds. “We are good in a workplace because we can conjure something up right on the spot. That’s what’s fun about having us in the room and I believe that’s our most valuable commodity to U2.”

Currently, Lanois and Eno are working together on the new U2 record. He says he’s keeping his mouth shut about the sessions, which have taken place in Fez, Morocco and France to date, but he does say that “we’ve got some gems already.”

Speaking of gems, when it comes to musical influences, Lanois is partial to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which is a touchstone he always returns to – artists like Jimi Hendrix are innovators he always admired.

“I liked the fact I was living at a merging point,” he explains. “I was hearing Buffalo and Detroit radio stations, which had a really good serving of rhythm and blues and soul music. Then, when the psychedelic era came, it was just an extension of this merging … people who were singing folk music were now rock singers … they were not loud sounds, but they had rock in their souls. That always stayed with me … I’m still fascinated with mixtures and think there is plenty to still invent through crossing musical styles and riffs.”

Lanois’ secret

Lanois reveals his secret to success is due to “feel.”

“Feel is a place you hope to get to when people congregate,” he says. “You hope spontaneity will be your friend and there will be some kind of combustion that relates to that moment, which funny enough usually operates outside of the confinement of preconception. Unlike architects, we of the music world can make something up on the spot and improvise … that’s the luxury of our position. It’s really an area of strength for me to look around the room and say, ‘I see what we have access to here,’ whether there is a certain kind of mood to that morning. It’s almost the responsibility of that team to accommodate that mood rather than tell it it needs to be something different.”

As I exit the elevator from the musician’s studio, I slip on my iPod. As the first notes begin to take me away, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever come close to appreciating music in the same way as the master I just left behind.