Penguin Eggs Q&A 2018

1. What was your musical vision going into No One Travels Alone, and how did that influence who you worked with on it? 

I’m always looking write songs that make others feel the pulse of the soul of the age.  I begin a new album with the question: what is the current central tension of our times?  I answered this twice.  1. The refugee crisis. Migrants.  The fact that we are all migrants. The fact that there are currently 65 million people living in a barbaric state of homelessness, depravity, and crisis.  Ours is the age of crisis. 2. The second central tension of the age is the environment. When will we admit that our anthropocentric worldview is out of date and out of sync with all that the poets and scientists tell us.  This album takes a decidedly ecocentric view of ourselves within the universe.  We are all connected. Hence the very excellent album cover by Christine Peters and Martin Tielli (The Rheostatics) of the whale on the field of stars.   

Musically, I wanted the album to be sonically different than my 5 previous albums.  I wanted electric guitars; I wanted to revisit the days when I was a Hammond organ player back in the early 90s; I wanted to play piano on half the songs; I also wanted a decidedly diverse sounding album.  I wanted an east meets west sound to reflect the migratory themes of the album. I wanted near eastern modal sounds and sufi inspired drone and harmonium - and yet I also wanted that to collide with some aggressive blue note electric guitar.  To achieve the former, I hired my friend and Toronto neighbour, Ed Hanley (Autorickshaw); for the latter, I was blessed to be able to enlist my long time friend and musical collaborator, Vancouver based, Neil Cruickshank (Brickhouse). Neil and I went to high school in King City, ON together and played our first gig as a duo way back in 1986.  Neil knows my phrasing and my musical instincts before I do so it was a gift to finally record with him after all these years. I also wanted electric bass and treated violin. Alec Fraser produced the album and performed bass and vocals throughout; John Showman provided lots of colour and imagination with his inimitable fiddle performances.   

All that said, I don’t move in a world wherein I’m free to work with whomever I choose.  I don’t believe in crowdfunding albums in a socialist democracy; as well, I’m always working with very low budgets.  It cannot be understated: the generosity of people like Alec Fraser, John Showman, Neil Cruickshank, Ed Hanley, and Peter J. Moore who mastered the recording.  Not only does No One Travel Alone - no one succeeds in music alone.  I am very grateful and lucky to have such massive musical souls willing to help me in my humble endeavours.  

2. How do you describe the writing process for this album? 

The form of the No One Travels Alone is called ‘corona’ form - it’s a form wherein the last lines of the first song become the first lines of the second song, etc, etc, until you reach the end, and the final line of the album is also the first line - the circle is completed, thus, the ‘corona’ or ‘crown.’  The poet, John Donne, borrowed and popularized this form from his Elizabethan contemporaries. That is to say, the writing process for this album was arduous and mathematical. It took 3 years to complete. I thought I was done and ready to record it in early 2017, however, an epileptic seizure while on tour in the American midwest in late February of that year dislocated both my shoulders and did severe nerve damage to my right leg.  I had to cancel almost a year’s worth of gigs and was relegated to the couch and percocets for about 4 months. But, as with all calamitous life experience, the down time yielded much new inspiration and I ended up rewriting about 70% of the album on the couch during winter/spring 2017.  

I chose the corona form because I wanted the form to reflect the theme: thus the interconnecting songs quietly reinforce the album’s message: our essential interconnectedness - no one travels alone - not the animals, not the stars, not the various Gods, and least of all, the beautiful and long suffering human beast. 

3. Which songs do you feel particularly stand out, or have interesting stories behind them? 

If pushed against a wall, my favourite would have to be the song that’ll probably yield the least amount of folk/roots airplay: Song of the Mournful World.  This song provides the album’s centrepiece and essential question: “To whom may we appeal for the re-establishment of the truth?”  I love the urgency, simplicity, and shock of that question.  I love how many of these songs on this album play with - and challenge - traditional formal song structures.  Part of our job in the digital age of songwriting is to constantly surprise our audiences - we’re seldom surprised by a Wiki-world that offers immediate and downloadable answers to every question.    

I started this career at 37 years back in 2005.  Because of this relative late start in solo performance, I was able to approach every song on every album with purpose and decisiveness.  Throughout 6 full albums, I’ve avoided recording anything that causes me great shame - or uncomely pride. That is to say, I’m equally devastated and satisfied with the whole of No One Travels Alone.   

I can probably fairly tell you the live attractions to this latest collection are the songs, Proxima B, Todos Caminamos Por Este Caminito, Standing at the Gates, and Gulfport, MS. 

4. How would you describe your overall artistic evolution to date? 

I began as a songwriter many years ago.  I was influenced by the same people any Gen X, white guy growing up in King City, ON would be influenced by.  It was in 2005 when I saw Springsteen solo at Massey Hall that I first found the irresponsible idea to purse the elusive Song.  That is to say, I was drawn to first person linear narrative balladry. But we are no longer living in the 20th century. Tastes migrate, cells migrate, we all migrate - as does the artistic process.  Today’s songwriter is no longer a collector of data - say, in the manner of Woody or Bob or the troubadours that led us out of the Dark Ages for that matter. Today’s songwriter has been recently liberated from the dreary collection and redistribution of informational data - that’s what the internet and the 24/7 news cycle now does best.  Like painters during the period of the camera, songwriters today are now at liberty to explore less linear and more urgently emotional stories. Unlike back in 2005, I now see myself, songs and purpose as collectors and redistributors of emotional data.  I’m not interested in writing about myself and my feelings.  I’m interested in finding the pulse of the soul of the times; and, in order to accomplish that, I have to read, read, read, and interview people whom have lived on the ‘pulse of the soul of the times…’  The Song is ever more relevant now than it ever has. The Song does something the internet can never do: arrest the emotional data of the people and the times. 

5. Who are some artists (musical or non-musical) who may have inspired this latest project, and why? 

Cave, Cohen, Cash, and The Clash - that covers the letter ‘C.’  The rest of the musical influences are listed within the song, Proxima B.   

Non-musical influences would bore the most generous readership out of renewal so I’ll limit it to a few.  Nikos Kazantzakis’ beautiful idea that perhaps we’ve entered into a ‘post religious’ - or, arguably, anti-religious - time wherein it’s no longer ‘God that will save us...’ but perhaps, it’s now up to us to save God - this is a multi-faith idea at the centre of the album.  I’m obsessed with Russian writing. Everything I sing has in some way come down to me from the words of Chekhov, Dos, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Turgenev, Grossman, and Platonov.  Such thinkers have shaped my artistic and moral purpose in Song. Such thinkers have rendered me a political gradualist - that is to say I believe change for the better happens slowly, individually, and from within.  I’m suspicious of all extreme and revolutionary ideas. W.E.B. DuBois, Simone Weil, and Czeslaw Milosz are also giants of inspiration...okay, I’m even boring myself here...