Category Archives: Emmett Robinson Smith

Twin sisters’ country album springs from love

Twin Kennedy

It’s a Love Thing

Twin Kennedy Entertainment


Reviewed by Emmett Robinson Smith

Twin Kennedy have a lot to say. The UVic School of Music twin sister graduates have been touring extensively throughout Canada in support of their new country album It’s a Love Thing, an album that tackles universal topics such as persistence, breakups, youthful exuberance, mortality and the power of love.

The title track can be seen as the mantra for Twin Kennedy’s work ethic. The lyrics describe a man and a woman going to work day after day, (simultaneously reinforcing controversial gender stereotypes – the man “firing up his rig” for his job, and the woman working as a nurse) because “it’s a love thing.” One gets the feeling that this refrain mirrors Twin Kennedy’s passion for music: while the song’s characters perform more colloquial jobs, Twin Kennedy’s music is their job. And, from their passionate tone of voice, it’s easy to tell that their work is indeed “a love thing” for them.

Musically, It’s a Love Thing’s arrangements are familiar and conventional. Produced by known Canadian country musician George Canyon and producer Graham Sharkey, the music fits into the conservative musical mold of most of Canyon’s repertory: echoing snare drum rim shots, “ooooh” vocal accompaniment, strummed acoustic guitar, fluttering piano touches, as well as orthodox song structure – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.

Graduating from UVic with a performance degree requires a high degree of musical ability, and it’s a shame that the twins don’t use these considerable skills more on the album. The collection’s strongest moments occur when they show off their instrumental abilities. Carli Kennedy’s guitar-driven solo cut, “Interlude,” which lasts a mere 44 seconds, is probably the best track on the album. Julie’s violin chops shine through briefly on the closing track, “I Never Will.” In order to stand out from their country peers, Carli and Julie Kennedy need to bring their instrumental skills to the forefront of their music.

Instead, the focus here is on lyrical content. “Feels Like Freedom” stands out lyrically because it’s vivid: “One hand on the window, one hand on the wheel / Seventeen is feelin’ too good to be real,” one of them sings. Though this concept has been used so much it verges on cliché, these lyrics seem to come from a real place – one that has a foundation in the Kennedys’ experiences.

Twin Kennedy are enthusiastic musicians. The inner sleeve of their album goes to lengths to express gratitude to those who helped create It’s a Love Thing. This warmth and energy provides good context for their music, as it presents them as real people who struggle with the same things that we all do. Twin Kennedy are honest and direct, with the chops to back them up – even if their skill goes underused.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Jazz vocalist and pianist explores new pop sound

House of Many Rooms

By Laila Biali and The Radiance Project


By Emmett Robinson Smith

Laila Biali took a risk. The Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter has received many accolades and awards for her work as a jazz pianist and singer. Her album Live in Concert was recorded at the renowned Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto in 2012, she has recorded with Sting, and she won SOCAN Composer of the Year and Keyboardist of the Year at Canada’s National Jazz Awards. However, her new album, House of Many Rooms, is not a jazz album at all. Thanks to her teaming up with the band The Radiance Project, it’s indie pop.

Biali’s extensive acclaim, though impressive, must be something of a burden: critics have high expectations of her work. It’s remarkable, then, that on her latest collection, she sounds so carefree. “Look ahead / With your eyes upon the breaking dawn,” she sings on the opening track “Shadowlands,” over a backdrop of triumphant horns, a peppy syncopated piano loop and up-tempo percussion. There’s even a gospel choir featured to drive home the song’s joyous nature, which can be attributed to The Radiance Project.

Biali’s strongest asset is her singing. Her knack for adding warmth and subtle colours to her voice is a skill largely missing from the current pop landscape. Her voice as she sings, “The sparks between us / They glow like fireflies at night,” on the track “Come Anything” is nuanced, welcoming and comforting. You can almost see her smiling as she delivers the lines. Indeed, light and love are prevalent motifs throughout the album.

“Come Anything” is also representative of an unfortunate, and probably inadvertent, quirk that many of the album’s eleven tracks carry: it sounds weirdly Christmasy. On this track, the choice to raise the key by a semitone in the middle of every verse contributes to the Christmas vibe, as well as the ebbing piano arpeggios and grandiose string arrangement.

This baffling holiday ambiance subsides as the album reaches its peak with the back-to-back songs “You” and “Upside Down.” Biali is at her most aggressive on “You,” delivering slights such as, “I bet you feel weak / Like a man who stopped trying,” over a heavy waltz arrangement. This is one of the album’s more abrasive tracks, and by the time the listener reaches it, it’s welcome, considering that the three songs leading up to it utilized more conventional melodies paired with pastoral depictions of birds, life and starlight.

The following “Upside Down,” the unmistakable peak of House of Many Rooms, is an epic work beginning with a complex, rhythmically ambiguous drum pattern. Biali rides this groove with ease as she sings. The song then evolves into an heroic chorus that evokes space exploration and planetary discovery. “You turn me upside down,” she sings, which cleverly mirrors the unexpected transition of grooves between the verse and the chorus. The song ends with a blistering minute-and-a-half saxophone solo.

Ultimately, Biali is a songwriter with a lot to offer as she enters the pop genre. The Radiance Project adds valuable instrumentation to create a full, energetic sound. Though a couple tracks come up short – “Shine” would have been an easy deletion from the album as it prioritizes prettiness over substance – Biali’s potential as a pop songwriter is apparent on more than half the album. Given her success in the jazz world, it would have been a lot easier for her to stay rooted in that genre. Her choice to experiment is commendable. And with the varied sonic palette Biali chose on House of Many Rooms, one gets the feeling that she’s on the path to a refined, distinct pop sound.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Pianist’s new album defies the blues

Victoria-based blues pianist David Vest has been touring Canada and parts of the U.S. in support of his acclaimed new album Roadhouse Revelation (Cordova Bay Records). The Alabama-born Vest won Canada’s Maple Blues Award for Piano/Keyboard Player of the Year, and his album reached No.1 in Canada on the Roots Music Chart. Known as a boogie-woogie piano player, Vest has jammed with legends such as Big Joe Turner and Bo Diddley, and opened for Roy Orbison before Vest was old enough to vote. Vest’s shows have been selling out across the country, and he will return to Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria on May 1. The Coastal Spectator’s Emmett Robinson Smith chatted with Vest before a recent show.

Your new album Roadhouse Revelation incorporates a lot of styles, from the guitar-driven light-rock of “Stand Your Ground” to the Latin-infused “Santa Fe Steamer” to the piano-based groove of “Ramblin’ Man.” How deliberate was this?

I’m really big into co-mingling the different arts. I don’t think blues musicians should just listen to blues. They should listen to all others. They need to get out and meet the painters and dancers. I’m thinking about doing theatre. So I have a friend in the blues, Raoul Bhaneja, who is the actor that’s on Canadian TV all the time, and he’s put together a play called Life, Death and the Blues. He’s got this soul singer, Divine Brown, co-starring in it with him, and they invited me to be a guest performer in the play in Toronto and Winnipeg and Edmonton. It’s a great show. I’ve seen it five times now. It gets better every time… It’s got a live band playing in it and it just knocks away every cliché of the blues. You know, if you’re in this field, it’s really burdensome. People have stumbling old dorks playing the blues and the boring, plodding bar-band music that young people think of it as, and it’s not that at all. So it’s nice to see the story get told right.

Do you find there’s a different attitude towards the blues in Canada than back where you’re from?  When people think “blues music,” they don’t usually associate it with Canada. It’s more of a Southern thing.

There’s definitely an openness to my style of it. My style is… I don’t sound much like the typical old blues festival blues act. First of all, I’m a piano player, and sometimes I play blues festivals without a guitar or a harmonica or any of those iconic instruments. I bring in some sax players like Fats Domino used to. And I do material all the way back from the nineteenth century. It’s not just BB King. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a lot of unheard stuff out there.

Your new album Roadhouse Revelation is super tight musically, and your piano playing top-notch.  After you released the album last year, you won the Maple Blues Award in Toronto for Piano/Keyboard Player of the Year. It’s our highest blues honour. How do you feel about winning it a second time?

Yeah, the Maple Blues Award again. The first time I won it, two or three years ago, that kind of felt like, “Welcome to Canada. Here’s your award. Glad to have you, now take a seat.” That felt real nice, but I thought it had got something to do with me being the new kid on the block. Not that I’m a kid, but you know, the newness of it all, people haven’t heart me or anything like me, really. Because I play a different style of piano from the other piano players that I know. And there are great ones up here. But this time, it just felt like they’re saying I’m here to stay, and it was a serious thing, and they’re taking me seriously. Sure surprised me.

You have a strong personal connection to Victoria. Your wife, Anne, is from here. That explains the very pretty last song on Roadhouse Revelation, titled “Pretty Things for Anne.”  Strictly solo piano. Can you talk about the origins of this song?

[Anne’s] … dad was in Canadian radio, and she’s a music lover. She likes my field of music, and listens to the local broadcast and the guy in Seattle that does the blues on the weekend. So I met her, came up here and had a cup of tea, and said, “How long has this been going on?”

When I’m on tour, we’ll Skype or FaceTime or something and I say, “What am I forgetting?” and she’ll say, “Don’t forget pretty things for Anne,’ you’re supposed to bring back pretty things for Anne. Jewelry or something. Lingerie, whatever. So one trip I hadn’t had time to pick up anything so I wrote that song.

Blues music is very much based in “realness” lyrically, and your album illustrates this. Do you think this is what makes the blues special?

The one thing that distinguishes this music from others for me is the wealth of stories in it—the characters… the people that sang it and wrote it. Like W.C. Handy grew up in north Alabama, his dad was a minister and he didn’t want him playing this “devil’s music.” You know, “Put the trumpet down, come to church and play the organ.” Handy and three of his friends, teenagers, ran away from home. And they thought, “Well, our parents don’t understand us, we’ll go up to Chicago where people will be into what we’re doing.” They didn’t get anywhere near Chicago. They got up to the Mississippi River to Cairo or someplace, ran out of money, the gigs they thought they were gonna get didn’t materialize, and actually wound up on the street, sleeping on the cobblestones down by the river where the sailors come in. And Handy said that’s where he got the first line of “St. Louis Blues,” when he laid down on the cobblestones trying to sleep in a dangerous neighbourhood. “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” If you’ve been there, you’ll understand where they came from.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Roper’s guitar skills soar on new album

Red Bird 

By Jesse Roper 


Reviewed by Emmett Robinson Smith

Jesse Roper can shred. That much was obvious to me while listening to Red Bird, the Metchosin-raised musician’s new album, which encompasses an array of music styles, from blues-rock to reggae to pop-flavoured tracks, all of which showcase Roper’s impressive guitar skills. Red Bird is Roper’s first official solo venture, after releasing two previous albums with The Roper Show, a band he fronted at festivals across the Island since 2012. Roper has been enjoying solo success. A recent show at Sugar Nightclub in Victoria sold out, and he just returned from gigs in the United States. But while his album’s 12 tracks have conviction, in the end, I felt their lack of originality hurt.

The opening track, which shares the album’s title, is a high-energy blues-rock romper that features Roper’s considerable guitar chops. It’s based off a fast chromatic riff that penetrates the majority of the song as Roper delivers rudimentary lines such as, “Yeah, this is Red Bird a-comin’ / I think I’ve been hit / I’m losin’ all control and I think that this is it.” It sets the tone for the next batch of songs, which follows a similar familiar blues-rock sound.

“The Hurricane’s Eye” is both the album’s lead single and its best song. It’s a mid-tempo barn-burner reminiscent of the White Stripes classic “Catch Hell Blues.” “Hurricane” starts off with melodically plucked guitar, and soon builds into a harmonica-tinged, head-banger riff. Roper’s lyrics lend a hand to this badass groove: “I woke this mornin’ in the hurricane’s eye,” he belts.

Reggae-influenced slow-burner “Quality Time” makes for a refreshing change of pace. But it is a prime example of what ultimately fails Red Bird: the song works, but could have been composed and performed by almost any other musician. There’s nothing to separate this song–with its predictable chord progressions and instrumentation–from the myriad others of this style. Roper performs a tasteful, skillful guitar solo between verses, but it’s not enough to save it from tepidness.

The assorted nature of the album is furthered with the peppy, poppy “Hideaway.” Roper’s Eddie Vedder-esque melody line is complemented by an infectious rhythm-guitar-and-drum pattern. It’s one of the more easy-listening songs on the album. Roper delivers pastoral imagery of watching the sun drifting away. Again, however, comes across as conventional.

The pacing of Red Bird is confounding at times. Given that the first four songs have a blues-rock style, one expects the rest of the album to follow the trend. The reggae influence of “Quality Time” seems random in the context of the album, especially given that “The Hurricane’s Eye,” the following track, returns to the soundscape introduced in the album’s opening songs. “Hideaway” marks the beginning of the final portion of the album, which more or less continues its pop-leaning sound rather than the blues style introduced at the start of the album. Red Bird would benefit from a reorganization of tracks.

Ultimately, however, I thought Red Bird lacked originality and a sense of musical exploration. The album is comfortable in its own safeness, and it’s a shame that Roper’s notable guitar skills aren’t put to more exciting use. Familiarity can be an asset, but Roper’s latest effort does not make a case for it.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Second album offers wide sonic scope

Victoria-based duo Jansz & June, a.k.a. Auto Jansz and Andrea June, has just released its second album, After We’re Here. The album’s wide sonic palette and varied lyrical content can be both soothing and striking. Janz is a former member of the Canadian roots band Barley Wik. She’s been involved in the punk music scene in Winnipeg and has released solo recordings that have earned a positive reception. Andrea is known in writing circles by her surname Routley; she graduated from the Canadian College of the Performing Arts and the University of Victoria. Her song “The Tide” was shortlisted for the Island Singer-Songwriter contest in 2010. Coastal Spectator writer Emmett Robinson Smith recently spoke with Andrea about After We’re Here and life as an artist.

You both come from expansive artistic backgrounds: Auto as a former member of Barley Wik, and you, Andrea, as a graduate of the Canadian College of Performing Arts. How have these experiences shaped your idea of what music is and can be?

The way I make music has definitely changed over the years. Like many people, as a kid I was introduced to music through piano lessons and choir, with the focus being on interpreting classical, notated music. I learned to look at music in a bit of a snobby way, with classical music being the top “real” music, and folk music, say, being at the bottom of this hierarchy, which is totally crap and also completely paralyzing when it comes to writing your own music. To make the long story short, I explored musical theatre, opera, jazz, pop, country, and finally landed on writing original songs. I think getting to know these various styles and techniques has completely eliminated any lingering insecurities about the value of any one of those types of music, and that stratified way of looking at it. For Auto, playing in Barley Wik really informed her idea of what playing music is all about. It’s about the collaborative work of playing together as a team, forming that musical connection. Coming from different music backgrounds, we had pretty different ways of talking about music or working on a song, but we found a way and I think these different backgrounds have brought a lot of energy to the songs we write.

I noted a diversity of sounds on your new album, After We’re Here. Who are your major musical influences?

We definitely have different musical influences, and it’s always interesting to hear from people what they think we “sound” like, because it is often not musicians we would name as influences. Many people comment that some of our songs remind them of Sarah McLachlan, who is fantastic, but not someone I ever listened to — although we have all heard her music! Maybe she is impossible not to be influenced by for someone of my generation? Paul Simon is another musician we’ve been compared to. For me, the influence can be on a particular song. In our first album, “The Tide” came out of “Bist Du Bei Mir,” by Bach, which I’d been playing on the piano. On this album, I wrote “Lucky” after listening to a lot of Neko Case — I wanted to write a song with that same direct, unadorned vocal quality. Auto is a lover of swing and ragtime and she tends to lean more toward this style. Doc MacLean is one of her favourite musicians and she had the chance to open for him this summer in Victoria!

There is a unique storytelling element in your lyrics on After We’re Here — “Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” is a good example. Where do you get these ideas for songs?

Auto loves to write songs about famous — or should-be-famous — Canadian women, and “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is one of those songs, a true story about a hard-working rancher’s wife, Irene Murdoch, who challenged the law in Alberta to award women a fair share (women couldn’t even own property in Alberta until the 1970s!). “Outlaw” is a song about my sister who can be pretty fiery and reached her tipping point many times in Victoria when it comes to the policing of each other that can happen and the many bylaws — all the bylaws referenced at the end of the song are real bylaws in Victoria! So be careful not to act too “contrary” in a public park.

Many moods are present on After We’re Here. I compared  the delicacy of “Paper Boats” to the brazenness of “Outlaw,” for example. How does your creative process vary from song to song?

Some songs start with a story, and it’s a matter of finding the music to match, while others might being with a melody line, or a chord progression, or just a hook. “Paper Boats” started with a chord progression and wanting to write a melody that was all one note, a delicate tapping kind of thing. The water imagery and the lyrics came out of that. “Outlaw” was definitely inspired first by my sister, and I also wanted to play a tune on piano that was a bit honky-tonk. I’m not sure if it ever totally sounded honky-tonk because it will be our own version of that…And the version of it on the album is more bad-ass than honky-tonk, which was really fun to see that evolve into something different. Auto is amazing at exploring the possibilities of a song, turning it upside down, altering the time signature, inverting the melody — she’s very playful in the way she works on a new piece, which is a wonderful quality and makes her a lot of fun to play music with!

What’s next for Jansz & June? Any upcoming shows?

Auto plays locally with lots of other musicians, but we’re mostly taking the winter off. Day-jobs are a reality of life in the arts, but we’re writing new songs and looking forward to performing together again soon.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music reviewer and UVic student. 

5 Questions with Jon Middleton of Jon and Roy

Victoria folk band Jon and Roy have been busy making music since 2005. The two musicians independently released their eighth album, By My Side, in May, available for purchase online. The band has been touring extensively throughout Canada in support of the album, ending their tour at Rifflandia festival recently. Band Member Jon Middleton recently spoke with Emmett Robinson Smith about touring and different aspects of the album.

You’ve been touring pretty heavily in support of your new album, By My Side. Has this tour been different from others?

In some ways it has been. We are at a place now where we are confident with our live show and we are comfortable, and at home, performing on stage, so pretty much every performance has been an absolute pleasure this summer. Also, we flew in to most of our shows this summer which was nice. It allowed us to spend more time at home during the weekdays.

Was there a particular show where you felt an especially strong connection with the audience?

There were two, actually: one [was] in Edmonton at a small club. Usually we play bigger venues in Edmonton but we’d booked this show last minute and so we couldn’t get anything larger. But it turned out to be one of our best shows of the summer; it was an intimate crowd and everyone was right there in our face, surrounding us and singing loud and dancing along. It’s great to play tiny clubs like that once in a while, it feels like you are right there with the audience. Another highlight was our performance at Tall Tree Festival in Port Renfrew. It was a nice sized crowd, but the vibe was the same as the Edmonton show. The people were awesome and down for a good time.

Your new album has many references to both nature and love, sometimes simultaneously. For example, “I want to have fun in the sun with my daughter” on the title track, and “Here in the desert, I need your water” on “Take Me By Surprise.” Were these motifs deliberate?

Kind of, I suppose. I love nature, I love being outdoors and going to the ocean and going hiking and watching the moon. All that and more. I feel at home in nature so it comes out my lyrical content. As for love, well, love is amazing. And not just the idea of being in love, but love for everything. I’m becoming more at peace with what love is and so perhaps I’m singing about it more.

The standout track for me on By My Side is “Every Night”. Musically it’s quite different from most of the album. Was the creative process different for this song?

Mmm, not really. The only difference to me is that there is a bit of a different feel to it and the electric guitar is more prominent. Also, Roy’s drum beat is really an integral part of the song and it takes the song from a simple folk tune to something more interesting.

You ended your tour here in Victoria. What’s the plan now?

Well, we will be hitting the road again in November to tour some places in Canada we didn’t get to in the summer. And then back in the studio! The music is flowing steadily. Then we shall see what 2015 brings.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a classical pianist at UVic and a member of the band Modest Nudist.

Puzzling over Current Swell

Current Swell

Ulysses, 2014 

Review by Emmett Robinson Smith

Current Swell is looking for something. The Victoria band’s fourth album, Ulysses, is jam-packed with ideas of desire, some attainable, some not. On the album-opening title track, Scott Stanton sings, “I want to go / where every man’s gone”. In contrast, on the following track, “Keys to the Kingdom”, we find Stanton longing for just those: the keys to the kingdom. Stanton fantasizes about bringing “the king down to his knees” to “give him a piece of my mind”. The desires described on Ulysses range from humble to fantastical, but are all sung with such conviction that it’s hard to know what Stanton truly wants.

These two tracks, “Ulysses” and “Keys to the Kingdom”, are prime examples of not only the lyrical, but musical contradictions that exist on Current Swell’s latest effort. The song “Ulysses” features a southern-style romp, complete with a stomping bass drum and folk-country vocal melodies. This sound can be seen to occupy the same musical realm as a band such as Blitzen Trapper, known for the warmth and delicacy in their songs. Current Swell has recreated these qualities with authenticity, and the band comes out on top for it. “Keys to the Kingdom” begins with spacey vocal harmonies straight out of the band Fleet Foxes’ book. However, “Kingdom” soon turns into an electric, sauntering groove more reminiscent of the White Stripes. The transition is smooth, but it leaves the listener somewhat confused as to the particular sound that Current Swell is aiming for. This confusion is stepped amplified on the third track, “Rollin’”. It’s a song fit for cruising down the highway, utilizing a swung meter, hand claps, and grimy guitar riffs. Taken individually, each of these tracks is genuine and effective. However, in the larger context of the album, this opening batch of songs renders Current Swell sounding restless and unfocussed.

Fortunately, the album becomes more consistent as it progresses. The standout track “Who’s With Us” hits its stride with rich lyrics and musical intricacy. “She said that dreams are just what you make them / High hanging fruit, the risk that you take them” Stanton profoundly cries. After the second chorus, things reach the most instrumentally intriguing point on the album: A nearly two minute agitated, stuttering guitar solo builds and builds, helped along by a stammering snare drum. The guitar tracks become layered and the soundscape gets more and more tense. The song climaxes as the second verse repeats, but this time with the gush of blazing power chords, unrelenting hi-hat, and an anxious-sounding lead guitar track.

The final consignment of tracks is varied, and, at times, unsatisfying. “Desire” lurches back and forth between normal-tempo and half-tempo. The song’s lyrics sum up Current Swell’s predicament: “Don’t know what to desire”, Stanton admits. (Apparently they don’t know which tempo to desire either, which, for better or worse, plays to that line.) The final track, “Flesh and Bone”, is a vulnerable, honest tune which functions as a satisfying closer. As with most of the songs on Ulysses, its strength lies in its lyrics: “Could a flower wake you up and tell you no one is the same as you?” David Lang asks. “Nothin’ like love, nothin’ like pain” is repeated as the song dies out. It’s a simple thought, but it’s so honestly stated that the words carry significant weight.

It’s evident throughout Ulysses that Current Swell plays with honesty and conviction, especially in their vocals. Their lyrics are ultimately what shine through here, and it’s a shame that their clashing musical choices couldn’t better complement their lyrical gifts. When Current Swell hits, it’s enormously satisfying, but when they miss, it’s puzzling.

Find more from Current Swell at

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music reviewer and student. 

5 Questions with Glenna Garramone of Tower of Song

Victoria musicians Glenna Garramone and Oliver Swain have collaborated to create the Tower of Song project. Tower of Song has just released its debut album In City and Forest, primarily a collection of reimagined Leonard Cohen songs. Garramone, a former University of Victoria writing student, has been a force in the BC music scene for several years, winning the grand prize in the 2010 Artswells Songwriting Contest and performing at venues such as the BC Festival of the Arts and the Victoria Independent Music Awards. She took the time to write thoughtful, insightful answers to reviewer Emmett Robinson Smith’s questions about the Cohen project while on tour with Swain for the album. In City and Forest recreates a selection of Cohen’s works to sound fresh and exciting again, and also includes two originals from Swain and Garramone.

How has Leonard Cohen influenced you as both a lyricist and a musician?

I first listened to Cohen’s music as a child, from the back seat of my parents’ car.  My dad is from Montreal, and both my parents are Cohen fans, so Cohen was often the music of choice on family road trips between our home in Ottawa and visiting extended family in Montreal.  Cohen’s songs have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Because of this, I’m sure there are ways in which Cohen’s work influences me subconsciously.

On a more conscious level, the honesty of Cohen’s lyrics continually inspire me to be more honest in my own writing.  Cohen has a way of being serious and insightful, and surprisingly light and and even irreverent at times.

The first time I saw Cohen perform his music live, I was suddenly struck with the realization that he was able to write from such a vast consciousness because he lives his life in such a way that he really exposes his heart to the spectrum of human experience.  I remember hearing an interview where Cohen said something to the effect of (and I paraphrase here) “Poetry isn’t what you set out to create.  It’s a byproduct of a life well lived.”  Seeing Cohen perform his own work inspired me to make changes in my life so that I could risk more, and feel more, so that I could write from a similar expansive place.

In terms of his musicality, some critics contest whether Cohen is actually a “musician” or not.  In my experience of working with Cohen’s songs, the songs are thoughtful, and well composed in terms of the chord progressions, the melodies, and how they interact with the words.  Cohen is not a particularly “showy” musician, but his compositions are durable.  The fact that so many great artists have covered his songs attests to the strength of the work, I think.  Some of Cohen’s songs are simple/straightforward in terms of the chords’ progressions, but there is often an unexpected turn or shift in the development of the song, sometimes even just one chord or one ornament that makes the song more memorable and distinct.  In this way, Cohen has inspired me to be more minimalist as a songwriter, and to allow the simplicity of a few chords to work their magic.

The musical arrangements in many of your covers are quite different from Cohen’s originals. What are you hoping to achieve by this reimagining of Cohen’s music?

When I first started the Tower of Song project, I thought that it was just going to be an evening of some of my favourite west coast artists getting together to bring their own voice to Cohen’s work.  Oliver Swain was the first artist I thought of when I was brainstorming about musicians and songwriters who have a very distinct voice and style. I’m grateful that that first night gave Oliver and [me] the opportunity to reconnect and to sing together because our harmonies became intoxicating for both of us, and that has lead to us forming this duo around the project, arranging, recording, and touring together.

As a performer, I’d participated in a few different tribute nights to various artists, and my favourite part of a tribute is to see how a song can become new again when someone else brings their voice and their interpretation to the work.  Because Cohen’s work is so dense and rich, and because he is one of my favourite songwriters, I wanted to see what would happen when I asked some of my peers to explore his work.  I also found that when I covered Cohen’s work, the songs seemed to have a life of their own.  When I begin learning one of his songs, I learn the song as he wrote it, and then keep playing it over and over and allow it to shape shift into something new.  Essentially I let the song guide me in terms of how to best express it.  Of course I bring my own biases and experience to the interpretation, but I can say that it has been a very organic process.  Some of the songs on “In City and In Forest” I’ve been singing for over 15 years, so they have just evolved with me.  There are a few lines in “Chelsea Hotel #2” where I alter the chord progression and melody, and repeat the lines “I need you…” and that particular melody came to me when I was living in the Arctic and was feeling quite isolated and lonely.  In that way the songs are like companions that have travelled with me, and they change as I change.

Another goal of the project is to keep these songs alive and in the repertoire of modern songwriting.  They’re just too valuable and insightful to stay put.  Since I first started covering Cohen’s songs (about 18 years ago), every once in awhile I would have someone approach me after a performance and say “You know, I have heard that song before, but I’d never really heard it until now.”  I think that for some people in my generation, when they think of Cohen’s music, they associate it with the synth-heavy and very produced studio sound of Cohen’s work from the ’80s and ’90s.  So in some ways, I wanted to present the songs in a different context, so that they could be heard by people who perhaps didn’t resonate with Cohen’s original version, or with Cohen’s voice.  I wanted to honour the song, and Cohen’s original vision, and also to allow the song to be fluid.  That is the nature of songs in the folk tradition.

The Cohen works you selected for the album span a good chunk of his career – 1967 to 2001 — yet you perform them in such a way on the album that they sound cohesive despite the significant time gap. Was this sense of unity and timelessness one of the goals of the project?

We (Oliver and I) definitely put a lot of thought into the songs we chose for the album.  We were also being strategic with the first album, because we had a finite budget (which means finite time in the studio), and so we decided to focus on the foundation of our collaboration, which is our vocal harmonies.  About a year ago I had applied to the Canada Council for the Arts for a grant to make a Tower of Song recording.  At that time the recording we were planning was more of a traditional studio album, with several guest artists and a full band.  But we didn’t get the grant, so we decided to focus on recording the songs where we could carry the majority of the playing and singing between the two of us. We were very fortunate to have the support and financial investment from a fan, and that allowed us to work with Joby Baker and record at Baker Studios.  Joby is extremely talented both as a producer and as a musician (he plays all the drums and percussion on the album), so he is also responsible for the cohesive sound of the album as a whole.

I think that the cohesive sound is also just a reflection of the work that Oliver and I did together to really explore every note and every harmony in the songs, in the two years leading up to the recording of the album.  Sometimes in our rehearsals, we’ll spend over an hour just working on one line, trying to get it just so.  We are both perfectionists when it comes to our music, so when we collaborate we work with the subtleties of harmonizing — blending, breathing together, timing.  This thorough vocal exploration is one of my favourite aspects of the collaboration.  Singing in harmony with people can be a very intimate experience.  I have found that practicing harmony with people cannot just be isolated to “making music” together– you actually find your way to harmony through all the other stuff too– running a business together, touring, dealing with challenges that come up in life.  I think it’s almost impossible to stay rigid when you need to harmonize with another person every night on stage.  It’s a compelling archetype/model of being in the world– I get to maintain my own voice, my own note, my own vibration and perspective, and “the other” gets to maintain their own voice and note and sense of self, and rather than needing one or the other to be “right,” we find that the blend of these two selves is more powerful than the individual.

There are two original songs on the album: Oliver’s “Baby in the Bay” and your “Unicorn.”  Why did you include these two originals in the context of the Cohen-themed album?

The concept for the Tower of Song project came to me through listening to these lines in Cohen’s song (The Tower of Song):

“I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?

Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet.

But I hear him coughing all night long

A hundred floors above me in the tower of song.”

Here Cohen acknowledges his place in the tower of song, and the lineage of inspiration that extends through time.  I resonated with the idea that all artists (in this case, songwriters) are in a dialogue with one another, even if they are not aware of each others’ presence.  When you produce a work of art and put it out into the world, you may feel that you are alone in a room where no one can hear you, but in reality the work is now part of a conversation that is timeless, and there is no way to predict the impact of that work on the world, and the impact on other creators.

I think we all have our own “Tower of Song,” where the creators who have inspired us reside, and we overhear their work as we create our own.  We create [partly] in response to what we overhear through the walls of the Tower.  It is important to me for this project to also hold space for the original work of the artists who are involved.  Both Oliver and I are songwriters and musicians with our own individual projects, so the intention is to also showcase original work by artists who name Cohen as a primary influence in their songwriting.  In terms of selecting these two songs in particular to add to the recording, that decision was informed more by the fact that neither of us had recorded these songs as individuals yet, and that we had created arrangements that featured our vocal harmonies.  It was also on some level an intuitive choice, just going with what seemed to fit with the overall aesthetic of the album.

How did the partnership between you and Oliver form? Will you be collaborating in the future?

I first met Oliver at a jam in a mutual friend’s living room in 2005.  We basically locked eyes and locked voices and then were under a spell of sorts.  Normally at a jam, you sit in a circle and take turns leading songs.  That night Oliver and I kind of hijacked the normal jam circle etiquette, and insisted on playing and singing each others’ songs, while the rest of the musicians had their patience tested, since we didn’t want to stop singing and let other people have their turn.  We continued to collaborate in different capacities — I hired Oliver to play bass on my studio album “Seasky-Starsong” (released in 2008), and a few years later, he invited me to sing harmonies with his band “Big Machine.”  So we collaborate in several different configurations.  The plan is to continue to tour as the Tower of Song duo, and we work with a rotating cast of guest artists as well.  We already have songs selected for the next Tower of Song album!

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