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February 8, 2019 in News

The Buzz

Maybe a year back, I was listening to an evening with Gordon Lightfoot and Gord Downie (link) recorded at Massey Hall in Toronto. The focus was on songwriting and the format had each Gord answering a few questions from an interviewer, playing  a song and then passing over to the conch to the other Gord. A questions put to both that evening was whether they saw themselves more as songwriters or as performers. Both came down on the side of performer which kind of floored me, not just because they’re probably two of the finest Canadian songwriters of the last 50 years, but because I’ve always seen  songwriting as the heart of the musical enterprise and everything else as a second order phenomenon.

But maybe I’m justifying the bargain I’ve struck with music; songwriting being both lower risk and more amenable to the life of a family man than touring. You can keep your job, pay your bills, and be present with your kids. And, with a little creativity, you can shoe-horn it into all those little nooks and crannies that life leaves you when everything else is attended to. 

In another interview, I heard Gord D say that he was in “constant communion” with his songs, carrying them with him throughout the day (apparently the lyrics to  Bobcaygeon were largely conceived on a summer’s evening outing to Baskin Robbins with his kids). JD Salinger’s son said his dad would pull over his car sometimes, jot something down in a notebook, smile to himself and then pull back onto the road. 

I can identify with that. Writing’s always there. It brings things into focus as you go about your other business. I’ve written on walks (lots of writing on walks), on planes, in airport lounges, during bath-time, nap-time, first thing in the morning, late at night and sometimes in the middle of the night. It’s nothing special, not so much a calling, more an occupation in the sense of something that keeps you busy.

The tools I use are simple. I have a FourTrack app on my phone which I use as a musical scratchpad, I have a little pocketbook I use to jot down snatches of ideas and I have a lyrics folder in my notes app that has 60 or more songs in various states of evolution. The basic idea of the song is laid out using these tools. Much of the ideas are fluff, just a melody or some interesting chord voicing or a few words that haven’t coalesced into anything specific. Some of these are those “great songs” that never seem to achieve the desired level of greatness and slowly sink down the bottom of the heap to rot and perhaps one day fertilize something else. Some songs are rockets. They usually come about when you’re feverishly working on something else; jumping the queue, pushing aside elderly pensioners and small children as they hurtle through. And some songs just take a really long time.

“The Buzz” was one of these last ones. It hung out forever, just a riff played on an acoustic guitar and a few words: beaten back on Broad Street. It felt like the modern equivalent of the Vandals repulsed at the gates of Rome. Also, I’d just had my second son and something about the act of making kids, that feeling of “you will go where I cannot” permeated my thinking at the time.

I remember playing an early acoustic demo off of my phone to my wife one sunny April morning 4-years ago as we strolled down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem. I was sure there was something there but also that something was missing. And so it languished for a while. I’d pick it up every few months and chip away, try it on piano or on electric guitar with a delay pedal (what ended up clicking). 

Céline was an early booster and probably the reason we ended up finishing it. “On this song, I’m doing the vocal”, she said. So either she liked it or she felt that I’d fuck it up. Either way, it gave the motivation to keep working on it.

The two of us got the core of it down together the last day of our retreat in Richmond after the rest of the band had left; capturing the main guitar line just at dusk in an outbuilding in the middle of a field. Those crickets you hear were picked up by an ambient mic placed way up in the ceiling of the barn. We thought of redoing it in studio to get something cleaner but them crickets make the sense of place in the song and we’re big believers in owning the imperfection if it’s right.

The guitar at the end is a remnant of this whole jazzy breakdown we worked up in the earlier demos. I don’t even know what chords those are, just something I stumbled on alone  in the jam studio one Sunday when Louis and Céline couldn’t make it in. Céline saw it as an outro and Tim made it super lo-fi, layering it over a field recording I’d made from Charles De Gaulle airport. The whole third verse was Tim and Céline wanting to crank it up a notch, take it into punk-rock territory – which is kind of funny seeing as it just got picked up by a “Folk and Friends” playlist on Spotify (link). You don’t get past your raisin’ I guess.

In many ways, this song is emblemic of these two EPs, the fulfillment of a long journey with a lot of spare parts picked up along the way and all crammed into one 3 minute song. But somehow it works for me. That’s the best part of all this, when you get to the end of the journey and have something tangible in your hands. Céline likes to remind me that the the song is never done, it just finds certain way points along its journey. Fair enough, I say, but maybe it can continue this next journey on its own two legs.

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