Your sound is always constantly evolving. Do you approach each new project as a chance to try something new, or a chance to put things to work that you’ve taken away from past records and learning experiences?
I honestly approach each project like I approach my life, it’s a culmination of experience. I always want to be excited, I always wanna break my own boundaries, I wanna try something new – I don’t wanna keep putting out the same record, it’s just not me anymore. I’m not that person that made over-the-top cabaret pop, like when I first started, and I certainly don’t feel like that somber balladeer right now. I’m just at the point in my life where I can honestly deal with all the darker subject matter that everyone does. I feel really secure in dealing with it, so I find I’m hopeful about it.
In my 20′s [pause] even though you’re dealing with a lot of the same things, I found myself being more of a cynic. I’m not that cynic anymore. It’s not like there aren’t changes, melancholy, and grappling with some difficult issues on this latest record – because there are, it’s all over the place with “Always Will”, “I’ll Be Gone”, and even “Not Giving Up” – it’s just that I find hope now. It just kind of translated into a more up-tempo record for me, even when I was dealing with sort of a darker subject.
Also, I think I was feeling the energy of Montreal when I was writing my record. I had finally gotten off the road – I’d been on it for almost two solid years – I shut off the phone, the computer, disappeared for a month and a half, and emerged from the studio with the record written. It was just kind of a burst of what I was feeling, all in one shot, which was also new for me. I’ve always been writing when I had a moment, and this time I made the “moment” to write an entire record.
I read that you’d gone to Pierre Marchand’s studio space, which was desribed as an “inspired setting” for you. To what extent does your setting inspire your songwriting and creativity?
Well, everything is a factor, right? Everything from the conversation you had the morning before you sat down with an instrument . . . and certainly being surrounded by the french culture, where it’s far more loose and laidback, and it’s about enjoying a meal and drinking a glass of wine, taking a long time at lunch. I think all those things kind of parlayed themselves into me being a little more loose, you know? I wasn’t quite as pensive this time around. You have those little bursts of creativity, but I’ve always really busy on the road, busy with my career, and just busy in life.
This time, I had to make time or I wasn’t gonna have a record . . . I had a great deal of fun. There wasn’t a stop-watch, there wasn’t anyone who expected me to be done by X-amount of days, I just wrote and was inspired with each day. Some days are in a pretty dark place [laughs] but that’s life, and other times I was just dealing with marriage, family, politics, and the environment. You just grapple all these things, and you can either be a cynic about it or you can be hopeful. I’m hopeful, I really am.
In the past, you’ve done much of the production work yourself, but with this record you worked with your guitarist Dean Drouillard. What’d he bring to the table?
He’s a dear friend, he’s been my guitar-player since 2006, and I think he’s one of the most underrated, unknown talents in Canada, I really do. He’s so gifted at production, so gifted at what he does, but he does it in a very subtle way. We call him “Deanius” as opposed to genius, because he just kind of exists [laughs] on his own.
Working with Dean meant I had someone to throw my ideas at and bounce them back. Sometimes we’d disagree, but for the most part we’d agree though.
I love production, but I think we are limited by our own palette. We only have so many colours to choose from that if you add somebody else into the mix, you get a far different mixture. I felt like him and I together made something far more beautiful than, individually, we ever could have made.
I actually read that in a past interview – that the “do it yourself” method can close yourself off at times. It must be very important to you to have someone to bounce ideas off of, keep you grounded at times, and at others point you in directions you wouldn’t have chosen otherwise.
Well, it’s kind of like what you said before, I’m trying to expand. As artists, we have to expand, we have to be trying new mediums, subject matter, different ways of working, otherwise we’re just gonna keep repeating ourselves. Imagine if Picasso had never actually discovered Cubism. It would have been a far more boring world if he had never really evolved . . . I for one wanna change, I wanna grow, and I found the only way to do that – because I had never really worked with other people – was to just try and learn from others, because I’m only gonna end up repeating myself.
Artists study. They go to school . . . with other painters, other writers, they discuss, and that’s what you have to do, and that’s one of the things I’ve learned now – if I want to expand my knowledge, I have to let others in.
I’ve learned a ton. It doesn’t mean I’ll never produce another record by myself again, I might even do the next record by myself, but I felt like I’d kind of come to the end of what I was capable of doing all on my own – playing everything, arranging everything, producing everything, mixing everything – and I was excited by the idea of working with someone.
I don’t think I’ll ever let anyone write a song with me. I’ll never let someone into that world, that’s far too personal and cathartic, and just kind of how I deal with my life – but once a song is done, production is so exciting! The Beatles wouldn’t have been the Beatles without George Martin, it never would’ve happened. George Martin wouldn’t have been George Martin without the Beatles. It’s the sum of all these really talented people.
Yes, production’s just as important as the actual song. You can have a really good tune, but it has to sound right.
Absolutely! You can have the greatest song in the world but the production can ruin it, just like you can have the greatest producer in the world but they can’t shine a bad song. It’s a marriage of the two [laughs].
You noted that you’d come to the end of phase and aren’t the person you were in your ’20s. Do you listen back to songs you’ve written before and hear imperfections now, or the songs of someone at a different stage in their life?
I would never look back on something that I’ve done and see an imperfection, I would just see someone experiencing, right? I don’t think we could ever actually make mistakes, I think all that we do is provide ourselves with a contrast to move away from.
In writing or making records I’ve made before, at the time they were right. How could they ever be wrong? I think we are always ultimately doing what our instincts tell us, and we learn from it. It’s that contrast you just kinda keep diverting – you go right, left, straight, back up, and eventually you run out of days . . .
I’m really proud of my body of work, I think that’s the true test of an artist. It’s not just one song, one record, it’s their entire body of work. I wouldn’t change anything, but I wouldn’t wanna repeat it, that’s for sure, and I know that my next record will sound nothing like this one, I just know that about myself. Even what’s already coming to me now, in terms of songwriting and what I’m being drawn to, I know it’s gonna be potentially a . . . 180 so far.
That’s something I’ve noticed about artists I admire – how each record doesn’t come off as a sequel to the last one, but as its own entity.
I think it has to. Those are truly the artists. If you look at the catalogues of Neil Young or Leonard Cohen, the true greats of Canada, they weren’t one record, one song, and one voice, and sometimes they lost all of their fans . . . everyone just discarded what they did. Blood on the Tracks, Dylan liked that record – everyone thought that record was, “what happened to Bob Dylan??” I for one look at it and kinda go, “Dylan was Dylan! Just because you guys didn’t appreciate it or didn’t like it doesn’t mean it didn’t move him when he created it.”
I’ve never understood – and this is nothing against anyone . . . what it is to be a critic, it’s such a matter of opinion, I think the whole idea of art is to cause a discussion, that’s what I truly think it is. Some people will slag [pause] maybe Arcade Fire’s next record, people are gonna say they missed the mark, “what happened to Arcade Fire?” I guarantee those guys will be just as fired up as they were when they made their first, second or third. They might go somewhere that no one’s gonna like anymore, but they’ll be just as valid. I guess I’m on the side of the artists [laughs].
You were talking about Dylan, and I was actually reading the other day how when Dylan went electric, everyone booed him.
They not only booed, they threw things. “What happened to the pioneer of folk that was creating the waves for us all to the follow?” “Well, I don’t wanna be on that wave anymore [laughs]. I wanna go over here,” and thank god he did, he wouldn’t have had everything he’d done afterward, he would’ve been the same guy writing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on a slightly out of tune acoustic guitar. He had to, and it’s a necessity, even if you don’t like what he made.
It’s not like The Beatles, post-Beatles, made things that everyone loved . . . Lennon and McCartney didn’t continue down the route that the true Beatles fans wanted them to, but they made something uniquely special. I think anything by the Plastic Ono Band is just as good as anything Lennon did with the Beatles, it’s just different, it’s just where he had to go.
It must be a real challenge for the artist, because when you come in big and establish your sound for audiences, it must be tough to break away, try something new, and maintain your fans.
Yes, and I truly feel for the ones that have some big break on their first record, novel, or movie, you know? It’s like the Orson Welles scenario, where he creates Rosebud . . . and then he’s screwed for the rest of his life.
It’s never to be repeated . . . it’s the same talent, the same genius, and they cease to create something similar, but why should they? Artists shouldn’t make anything for the critics, and they shouldn’t make anything for the fans, I don’t think they should make anything for anyone other than themselves.
We’ll lose people along the way, that’s expected. People will not love the same thing every time, you just have to feel fulfilled. Imagine if . . . with the first person you went out with, your first relationship you experienced, if you had continued to be that person with every relationship for the rest of your life. You’ll cease to grow, cease to change, and have new interests and ideas. This is me, this is who I have to be, and I will be this person every time I meet someone else. Every conversation, dialogue, interaction – that can’t happen, we have to be changing and feel inspired.
Artists put their lives out there for people to critique, so while the general person gets to just exist, change, and enjoy it [pause] I love it, I love what I do. Sometimes there’s praise, sometimes there’s critique, but I’m certainly not gonna change for anyone other than myself.
So then, what do you hope to convey with We Were Born To Glory?
What do I hope to convey with We Were Born To Glory [pause] well, it kinda touches back to what we were discussing in the very beginning, and even in the last part, that we as human beings owe it to ourselves and humanity to reach our potential and exceed what we think is possible, and as artists we need to keep pushing ourselves, changing, evolving, making mistakes and learning from that contrast. I want society and the world to that. That’s what I was grappling with when I wrote this record.
I don’t feel like the same person anymore, I don’t wanna be, I wanna be a better person, and I want our society, our political system, our environment, and the world to be. I think we have the capability to actually look at something, decide as a society that we want it, and the go for it, like when we put ourselves on the moon and cured polio. We have the capability to evolve and grow for the better, and we are . . . Violence in the world is statistically down, but there was a time when people couldn’t walk the streets, during the dark ages, because you’d be killed for the food anything you were carrying. We are actually evolving into something better, as much as we’re making mistakes along the way, and I just wanted everyone to know that and to live that way, not be tied to some job they hate and some scenario they feel they can’t get out of, because I think we can all do great things.