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Oh Susanna
 by Matt Dornan / pictures by Ben Graville

Oh Susanna by Ben GravilleShall we talk about the Rolling Stones? You've covered Dead Flowers and Let It Bleed in past performances...
Sure, I'll talk about them [laughs]...I stopped buying their records after Tattoo You. The first one I got was Hot Rocks and I didn't know anything about them. I knew it was classic...I was about eleven and my sister and I would be lip-syncing in front of the living-room mirror...[laughs]

Would that be the same mirror you'd have lip-synced to David Bowie in front of?
Oh yeah, yeah...how do you know all this? Have you been reading a lot?

Well what struck me was the paradox between those early British loves and the music you perform now which is so steeped in America...
Well that's the history, that Britain took American stuff...

And sold it back to you
Yeah, it's just market economy. 'We'll take all your raw materials, and manufacture it differently and sell it back to you.' But they did it in a very beautiful, theatrical, exploding way. Y'know that music wasn't known to everybody in America, just a select few. It was the British people and Jews in America who compiled all this blues and folk music and really made it known. And it became this political...folk music was very political. So it was very exciting and raw and...dark - just perfect for a teenager.

Which was the more daunting for you - a ten-minute epic like Ride On or covering Otis Redding?
[laughs] The more daunting task is covering Otis Redding, the ten-minute epic I felt more sheepish about. And I didn't really intend to make it that long. I write stuff and I sometimes start at the end of a story and I have to fill in the beginning, or something has to happen 'here' okay. So I just kept writing and I thought 'Man, this is becoming really long,' and I thought it was six minutes long. And when we were rehearsing in the studio, the bass player Bazil said 'let's make it even longer, let's add another chorus.' I felt like 'are people going to be able to deal with it?' but then we thought 'if Dylan can do it then why can't we?'

Why did you choose that Otis Redding song?
Because I was heartbroken and I played it again and again and again [laughing]! That was it, month of January, number ten, number ten... Colin just heard me singing it. I wanted to sing it but there was that feeling of it being way too daunting. But he said 'this is really important to you and it's obvious.'

I read a review that said you'd done something which Otis Redding didn't do and that was to get inside the song. Did the song summarise what you were feeling without you having to write one?
Yeah, you know there are songs that you want to put on your answering machine? Or you want to grab the person and make them hear it! [Laughs]

Without wishing to pry into your personal life, was a lot of the record inspired by the same person and events or did that one encapsulate that time?
Some songs...a lot of the songs were written over a long period of time. Sometimes I start a song and I don't finish it for a year or two, so some of the songs are not really inspired by heartbreak. Some of them are just about relationships that my friends are in or my relationship to life. I think with Ride On, that's talking a lot about movement and freedom and is travelling liberating or is it a trap? Where does loneliness lie and does it do any good running away from it and how do you deal with it? And what are you looking for, are you escaping, what's reality? I don't know when I'm writing those things that it's me but then I look at it and I go 'oh yeah,' it's me working things out.

Kings Road stood out because of its location but it seems, on the surface, to be about pining for a lost love from your youth. Is it literal or are you talking about some-thing rather than some-one?
It's kinda both. When I write it can be about many people or a time or a feeling. I think a lot of it is about lost friendships but also, maybe, a yearning for early, youthful vitality. An ode to youth. Because I did grow up on a street called Kings Road but there was that parallel of the myth of punk rock and that glorified thing of being miles away.

Were you a punk or did you miss that?
I guess I was but I was too young to be there right at that time. My sister was a couple years older and was at the tail end of it, and after that it became fashionable so we decided we had to change...but in Vancouver it was a very political thing. Bands like DOA borrowed more from The Clash who were more political than say The Sex Pistols...or the Dead Kennedys. It was more a political statement than nihilistic rebelliousness. And I think that's because the politics of where I grew up were very much extreme right wing and the left wing in opposition trying to encourage dissent and solidarity. It was the eighties of Thatcher and Reagan and there was a little miniature version of that going on in provincial politics so it was perfect for protest.

Which draws another parallel to the folk music we discussed earlier.
Yeah, but it always had to have a melody or certain catchiness...if it was just a rant I would have been less excited about it. There were certain things that were musical but had a strong message. It's like how the words to I Got Dreams to Remember...they're so simple but expressive. And the way he sings it is so expressive that it heightens it to something beyond just words on a page. There's something about music and singing that will talk to your soul.

By delving into traditional forms of music at college, were you aware of a lack of spirit and soul in contemporary artists?
I think, for me, I almost was unaware of what was happening in contemporary music...and I was in Montreal which is a weird place because it doesn't get all the pop culture that the rest of Canada gets, or America. It's an isolated, strange place and not many bands come to play there, so it's usually into alternative or fringe things. And so it didn't seem unusual to be listening to old folk ballads, and my friends were interested in all kinds of music. We'd maybe go see The Pixies or Jane's Addiction but then we'd go home and listen to Hank Williams. But I think there was always this idea that mainstream music sucks and so we've gotta go find real music somewhere else. That's the paradox, I think, that you try to go for something that's breaking out of convention and then you end up thinking very conventionally about categories.

For a country without a history in such music, the alt.country scene has been embraced here. Despite an ever-widening range of styles falling under that particular category how do you, personally, feel about being associated with it?
At first I was happy that there was some kind of label for it because I wasn't aware there were all these other people making this music - I just did it. And then people would say 'oh, do you know Gillian Welch?' and I read this article about her without hearing her music and I thought 'this is really eerie, this is like reading about me!' And that was comforting. And then it becomes a vague statement and you wonder if it's just a bunch of bad musicians with cowboy hats! [Laughs] It just becomes saturated...who knows, maybe that's just me with my snobby-ness, like as soon as something becomes known or trendy then I just want to go and subvert it...

You were born in Massachusetts and relocated to Vancouver at what age?
Eight months old

Any identity crisis resulting from your biological and geographical heritage?
It was kinda funny, because when I was a kid I thought being a Canadian was really boring, I was six years old [laughs]! I was like 'I'm not Canadian, I hate the Queen, I want to be American' because that was way more glamorous and exciting. And, furthermore, all my cousins and everybody were living in the United States. And my parents had this very 'American myth' upbringing - y'know all these stories about my father living in New York and California and then Florida, which is where he met my mother...and they had this American Graffiti, Happy Days vibe going on...and they were high-school sweethearts and they eloped... [laughs]. So there was this whole idea of forging ahead and finding yourself...big American cars and flash and glitz and the West and all those things that were really exciting. Now I don't identify with those things so much. I've absorbed that but I've also recognised how Canadian I am. When I cross the border or I'm with my family I can just feel it. A lot of Canadians are indignant about Americans and that's always funny to me because I'm both. I always have this tendency to have a double identification thing. That the value of things is not absolute, it's totally circumstantial or how you look at it or your relationship to it.

And the move from Vancouver to Toronto, that was via Montreal?
Yeah, I went to Montreal for school, 87-93 and then 93-96 I was in Vancouver again, and 97 to now I've been in Toronto.

What inspired the move?
I played there and people were really excited. And there was much more of a music scene in Toronto. Vancouver's a place where it seemed more about DJs - all the venues closed. And I wasn't necessarily doing music in an overt way in Vancouver. When I moved to Toronto I was doing it more overtly and so I got to meet people through that. It's also a more metropolitan place; it's more loud and aggressive with different kinds of ethnic groups. Where Vancouver has a large Asian population, in Toronto it's more Caribbean, or Latin, Italian, Portuguese...it's just got a different feeling and I liked that. Now I'm feeling, maybe, Toronto's too big - I get itchy feet. But I can't ever read whether it's my dissatisfaction with something...neurotic!

The way the demo tape thing worked out, with your friends intervening - do you think you'd have pursued it yourself if things hadn't taken that fortuitous turn?
I don't know, that's a hard question. When I made the recording I had this fantasy of people hearing it and becoming, quote-unquote, a rock star or something. To not admit that would be misrepresenting. Originally when I began playing with my friend Scott, I felt like we were gonna have this band and it was going to be successful because it was going to be a really good band. But I didn't think 'what are the steps to do that?' because we didn't even play any shows, we got in too many fights and couldn't deal with it! Then, the challenge for me was, 'how do I do this by myself?' Because I had never done it. How do I write songs? How do I sing and play guitar at the same time? How do I get up and say to people 'this is what I want to do.' And that's the stage I was at when I made [the debut]. And that was really good for me because it made people go 'this is what you do' and instead of me having to say it to them they just knew it, or they said it, so I didn't have to assert myself. And when they opened this door and said 'here's the stage' it was easy for me to walk up there. I felt that's where I belonged. So, I don't know what would have happened...maybe it would have been slower, maybe some other thing would have happened. It's hard to say what I would have done.

Would it be fair to say that up to that point you'd been fairly directionless?
Yeah, I think so. I think I was directionless because I didn't know how to declare my direction. It was fear that made me directionless. But also, it seems weird, I love to think about things, I love to be creative...what kind of work am I able to do that's like that because I always assumed that I should be doing something that I really loved.

So with music as a career and, presumably, the added stability that it brings, have you noticed a change in yourself?
I think it's given me confidence. There are still challenges and there's still tension underlying what I do because I question things a lot. I feel like I have a certain expertise or a certain skill or a certain knowledge that I can apply...that sounds like job-speak or something. Another way to put it is that people say to me 'you have this direct line to something' and I don't know if I do but I try to. To feel like I'm doing that or honing that is really rewarding. But that can't always be the focus because you start to think of this thing that you loved - and still love - has become a job. It's a good thing and a bad thing. I think it's really important for me to figure out how to balance my approach to music so that it doesn't become something that is work in that way. It should be work in that 'soulful-work' kind of way, but then there are other parts where it's routine or it's easy to have a mentality that examines things in a jaded way. So that's the challenge now, but that's a much better challenge than before which was 'life is meaningless because I don't have any focus. I can't see meaning because I'm preventing myself from really going into something.' And that was a much bigger crisis. The crises or the questions that I have now are more splitting hairs...I'm at a higher level, I guess, of problems. This lack of satisfaction is a fraction of that one, because that one leads to depression and suicide and feeling like there's no point. With music and with creating you know you're trying to say something and that's a positive value instead of having this nothingness.

CWAS #8 - Summer 2001

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