Canadian auteur dives neck-deep into his free-ranging musical “adventures.”
BY JOHN SCHACHT
When Patrick Watson talks about his gorgeous new record, Adventures In Your Own Backyard, you get
the feeling that, were it not so reminiscent of a run-of-the-mill children’s
book, the Montreal
native might’ve been okay calling it Goose
That’s because goose bumps – those spontaneous and
unfiltered physical indicators of emotional impact – run like a common theme
through Watson’s retelling of the making of Adventures,
his band’s third and most rewarding full-length. Mind you, this isn’t some Ryan
Adams-like braggadocio he’s calling your attention to, but rather true wonder
at what makes some music have that effect on us when so much of it doesn’t.
“I just wanted to finish the record and say ‘these are 12
songs that give people goose bumps’,” says the 32-year-old father of two, who
also co-writes songs for The Cinematic Orchestra. “I felt that we needed a
record that was a touching, beautiful, elegant and graceful document that says,
‘we put our foot down here because we’re here to stay.'”
(below: Brigitte Henry-directed video for “Into Giants”)
Watson’s band – comprised of bassist Mishka Stein, guitarist
Simon Angell and drummer Robbie Kuster – has accomplished all of those things
here. Reflecting their title, the dozen songs were recorded over a year in
Watson’s backyard – his Montreal
apartment — and hewn instrumentally closer to the bone. That was unlike his
previous efforts, including the 2007 Polaris award-winning Closer to Paradise (released in
2006), which were sprawling recordings in both studio geography and
Watson and his bandmates have self-produced their records,
which in this digital landscape is an overlooked skill that implies its own
steep learning curve. And Watson admits that, prior to Adventures, the band struggled to make a record as good as their
live show. To them, their influences stuck out as much as much of the
instrumentation didn’t, buried as it often was in grandiose arrangements. But
after getting to a place where they felt more comfortable with the art of
recording – literally and figuratively in Watson’s studio – they’d now divined
what worked and what didn’t.
What was effective
was having the patience to go back and record parts without the time
constraints of professional studios. Another key thing they learned? That less
usually results in much, much more.
“That’s the secret of the record – when it gets big, it’s
because there’s a lot of room for it to get big because it starts so minimal. So
it almost feels bigger than the other records in a way, but there’s a lot less
stuff involved to make it that big,” Watson explains. “This one, it seems like
the seams are hidden, it’s well-sewn together and smooth. You don’t even notice
all these different styles of music together. I think it’s definitely the
strength of this record for us.”
Those strengths translate into some stunning musical
moments, like the opener “Lighthouse.” For three minutes, Watson’s dreamy piano
figures tumble forward under subtle synth mirages and the delicate fiber of his
falsetto – a voice midway twixt Antony
and Rufus Wainwright. Then, with 90 seconds left, the song bursts into a
horns-and-electric-guitar-and-string-section Spaghetti Western crescendo that
emerges as suddenly as a desert flash flood.
There are dynamic surprises like that throughout, each one
more evidence that the “adventure” in the title was also a mission statement.
On “Into Giants,” rich harmonies gussy up the mandolin-colored country-folk as
the song shuffles to its quiet destination – re-emerging with a horn
fanfare-coda worthy of the Beatles that garlands the full-bodied “started out
as lovers/don’t know where it’s going to end” chorus. Elsewhere, pedal steel
takes the parlor waltz “Step Out for a While” back to saloon days until the
middle-eight guitar skronk anchors it in modern times; the rich orchestration
and full choirs of “Strange Crooked Road” return to earth as the sparse
piano-and-guitar of “Noisy Sunday.” And so on and on, each dynamic switchback
creating surprise, wonder and an occasional goose bump or two.
That sonic adventurism mirrors Watson’s narratives. Adventures is all about rediscovering
the magic in your everyday surroundings when too often in this pan-everything
digital era our focus is on the “big huge topics” and not “the little tiny
amazing details that are all around us.” An easy sentiment, perhaps, but one
that Watson lives by in his songwriting. Staying curious and observant of his
surroundings is the key.
“I just have my eyes open, and there’s these little ideas I
collect and put in my pocket and then when I come home they come out and find
their way together,” Watson says. “Then when I improvise, maybe months later,
those little ideas in my pocket will naturally just find root and join together
and create songs.”
Since Watson says he almost never stops to write anything
down, that improvisational singing is the foundation of his songwriting. The
lyrics can come like “Words in the Fire,” an atmospheric rocker which first took
shape at a campfire in the middle of Northern Quebec that the band was invited
to post-gig, and which was finished six months later when he pulled those
improvised fire-side pieces back out of his pocket. Or it can show up like
“Quiet Crowd,” where an old musician friend, a bottle of gin, and some drunken
misinterpretations can wind up as a gorgeous ode to the common bonds that link
all but the extremists among us together.
It’s not always easy, though, even when the majority of
lyrics show up the first time he calls on them, as they did on “Lighthouse.”
That’s because sometimes three or four missing words can stay lost for months.
By the end of “Lighthouse,” Watson was practically asking every musician he met
what they would say there.
“I’m no Bob Dylan or someone who’s got the gift of writing,”
he says. “I definitely work hard for the words I get.”
Even after Closer to
Paradise won the Polaris (beating out Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, for one), Watson wasn’t satisfied with his lyrics. So
he turned to the other album inspiration, the one that he says goes into making
up a worthwhile backyard, too – the inspiring friends and people that we take
for granted all around us. Watson’s good friend, the smoky-voiced singer Lhasa
de Sela, who passed away from breast cancer at age 37 on New Year’s Day, 2010,
told Watson she couldn’t understand what he was saying with his lyrics. She’s
the one who suggested a primer course on Dylan.
And so during the making of Adventures, Watson would leave songs on her answering machine and
she’d be honest enough to “tell me if it sucked or not.” He wound up co-writing
the title track with her in the hopes that they’d perform it together at Montreal’s legendary
Jazzfest. They did, but the 2009 date turned out to be her final public singing
Though her chanson-influenced balladry is very different
from Watson’s music and, he confesses, not his musical cup of tea, her
appreciation for life and music had a tremendous impact upon him. Her presence,
albeit in a subtle fashion suiting her work, hovers like a spirit over Adventures and is one likely source of
the record’s beauty.
walked on stage, it was almost like watching an old ghost get on stage – there
was something very special about what she projected,” Watson says. “There was a
lot of magic in her life, in the way just letting magic be a part of life.
‘Magic’ can be a cheesy, tacky word, and I get that. But there’s a lot of
really magical things in life that you can take for granted that happen around you.
If you stop and think – singing in concert, no matter what anybody says, is a
magical thing. You get on stage and you get goose bumps from the tip of your
toes to the top of your head. She understood that.”
Judging by Adventures
in Your Own Backyard, Watson gets it, too.
[Top photo Credit: Brigitte Henry; video, below, of
“Adventures In Your Own Backyard” SXSW 2012 Session]