By Fateema Sayani
Photography by Jamie Kronick
In the early 2000s, when post-rock was the genre of discussion, there was a band of kids from the Ottawa burbs who were making a kind of artful noise that was balm to teenagers and music geeks. They were called Viscera’s Recital, and they turned rock on its head by using strange time signatures and lyrics that managed to show both their angst and their cleverness.
A particular track called “Ghettoblast” continues to be one of my headphone staples, well after the group disbanded. The lyrics are peculiar to a time and speak of rebellion and awakening activism. “We’ve broken out of our basements to voice an opinion in song,” sings front man Curtis Jones, continuing into the chorus about the need to “get to blast off” — a play on the word ghetto blaster.
The five members of Viscera’s Recital were intense players seemingly amazed by the capabilities of their instruments and microphones. The murky poetry and musical showmanship were a rich combination — the ultimate goal of any songwriter. After all, can a song be great if the beat rocks but the lyrics stink? Can you still expand your mind with rich lyrics and a tired old beat?
JW-Jones, 30, was one songwriter who was wanting more. The Ottawa player, called “one of this country’s top blues guitar stars” by The Globe and Mail, tours internationally. With each album, his playing became stronger; still he felt his lyrics weren’t quite up to snuff. “In the blues world, it’s common to be typical,” he says. “But the ‘my baby left me’ kind of deal can only last for so long. So many blues bands recycle old lyrics — I didn’t want to do that.”
So he called in some high-ranking help. For his 2008 release, Bluelisted, the boy born Joshua Wynne-Jones turned to his uncle, Tim Wynne-Jones, author of more than 30 titles, including the Rex Zero series. The elder Wynne-Jones has two Governor General’s Awards to his name. “JW has a lot of music in him,” Tim says. “He’s more than a flash guitarist and a solid singer. He’s got stories he wants to tell, and I’m just trying to help him with that.”
The writer advised his nephew to listen to a few boundary-pushing tunes for inspiration. Tom Waits’ raspy “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” was a starting point and gave JW some insight into sculpting those my-baby-left-me lines into something a little more original and intense. A song they co-wrote, called “Mean Streak,” showcases some of those tendencies:
There’s this riptide in your bloodstream;
This scheming in your worried mind;
Take your potion, Dr. Jekyll —
Ain’t no place that you can hide.
There’s grey-matter value in those finely crafted little couplets, according to McGill neuroscience professor Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs. “When notes are hung on words, the meaning [of the song] is easier to talk about usefully,” he writes in the latter. So if your baby left you, the sentiment would best be understood in stanzas. (Although a wordless song composed in a lamenting minor key would probably transmit the same feeling.)
Charles de Lint can appreciate the value of a guitar tone as much as he can appreciate the art of a turn of phrase. The author of 35 fantasy novels and 18 short-fiction titles has been part of the Ottawa writing scene for decades. If his baby ever left him, he’d write the experience to sound esoteric and even enjoyable. His problem was getting the songs committed to disc. He just needed a last push. Brock Zeman lit that fire. “I’d like to thank Brock for getting us into the recording studio,” de Lint writes in the liner notes of his new CD Old Blue Truck. “If not for his persistence, this album would probably still be just the vague idea of something I might do someday.”
Zeman is a country-rock tune slinger who can spin a fine yarn. He’s also a producer who set up his studio in Hopetown, Ontario, north of Lanark. Years ago he and de Lint became friends out of mutual admiration for each other’s writing style. Zeman is lean and mean, while de Lint’s words reveal an admirably out-there imagination. To prepare for his producing role, Zeman read a compendium of de Lint’s short stories. “It gave me an idea of how his mind works,” Zeman says. “It baffles me.”
While Zeman was fascinated with de Lint’s penchant for ideas writ large, he heads in another direction for his own songwriting. “I like taking something ordinary that somebody could’ve missed and putting the shine on it.”
That small spotlight on a word or a concept put to a solid bed of guitar rock is what makes a song great as it’s blasting out of your headphones.
Look for “Sound Seekers,” Fateema Sayani’s weekly dispatch on the music scene under the Culture banner at ottawamagazine.com