Patrick Watson Comes Down To Earth And Gets Grounded

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

There is something perfectly seductive about a stolen moment. The occurrences of unforeseeable events – like when a ballerina wavers on toe during a performance of Swan Lake or a guitarist breaks a string live onstage right before a big solo and has to get creative in order to cover, for example – have the potential to be perfectly disastrous. Moments like that could grind the whole show to a halt and see it spontaneously liquify into a formless mess, but they may also resolve into a transcendent moment depending upon how the performer attempts to compensate for and resolve them. Such occasions are fantastic because they are examples of the “humanity” of a performance and a portrait of intimacy which can be affecting because those who recognize that they are not the norm can also appreciate that they don't happen every day and they have witnessed something truly special and unique. Those moments feel pretty remarkable, but they feel even better when the act's perpetrator tells you he did it on purpose and wanted you to see.

A perfect example of a fantastic stolen moment happened not so very long ago, during Ground Control's scheduled phone interview with singer Patrick Watson. While on a promo day in Toronto to do press, Watson excused himself from the throng of journalists to pick up the phone and discuss the making of his new album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard. His label's publicist in charge of the press day led him to a quieter, more removed location and handed him the phone (with me already on the other end), then politely left the room.

Patrick Watson was left alone in a little room for his interview with Ground Control but, as we exchanged pleasantries, the singer quietly stole away toward the room's exit and locked the door. Now, no one could hope to interrupt, except perhaps if someone were to begin banging frantically on the door and convince Watson to open up and rejoin the world – but even that would still be at the singer's discretion.

With everything locked down and in place, the singer was ready. What follows is an account of Patrick Watson's stolen moment with Ground Control Magazine.

Bill Adams vs. Patrick Watson on April 10, 2011

PW: Hi Bill.

BA: Hey man – nice to make your acquaintance! How are things? You just got into town – is that correct?

PW: It is!

BA: The excitement must be building then.

PW: It is! So far, it has been the biggest build before launching. It was a long wait, but it's been getting lots of good reviews and good feedback, so it's making me get pretty excited about getting it out there.

BA: I can totally understand that. I was listening to it yesterday, and I was really shocked and taken with how different this album is from everything else you've done. I started listening with Wooden Arms before going back to get caught up, and this album really seems like a different angle completely. What was the plan walking in to make this record?

PW: Well that's good news, that you found it to be really different I mean. I think the plan was really just to make twelve songs which would give you goosebumps, to be honest. We wanted to make something that was a little more grounded and less floaty; these are really strong songs and we wanted to make sure listeners could see that, so we stripped all the arrangements down and I think what we arrived at was a really stark and touching and beautiful record.

BA: I think you succeeded in that. The frills which were so prevalent on Wooden Arms are pretty much absent from Adventures In Your Own Backyard, but the songwriting has come into better focus and the songs still stand up.

PW: Yeah – I can see that. We've always been really ambitious about the sorts of music that we try to mix together as we're writing and arranging songs, and I think the proof that we've gotten a lot better at mixing the influences we were sort of drawing from is really evident this record. There are still lots of influences to be found on this album, but they're better sewn together; you can't see the seams. I feel like we did what we wanted to o in a more graceful way with this record; you don't even necessarily notice when something a little different crops up because everything is woven together really well.

BA: I can agree with you there, so how long was it in the making from top to bottom?

PW: I'd say that it probably took about a year to write and record the songs, then the mixing and mastering took another three or four months, on and off. The thing about recording at home is, getting the music out of the computer is actually a pretty complicated task. The biggest difference between working at home and working in a larger recording studio is that you don't have those big analogue mixing boards is that it's a lot more difficult to keep the width an height of the mix balanced and the same as you intended on different systems – when it's not on your computer anymore. Because of that, we ended up doing a lot of tests of mixes to get this record out of the computer, and that proved to be as time-consuming as you might imagine.

BA: I can totally understand that. Working from home, you pretty much have to set a deadline for how much time you're going to allow yourself to continually re-think things, otherwise you're just going to have a pile of inchoate, unusable goo on your hands in the end – or you'll have worked yourself in a complete circle and ended up right back when you started, but pissed a bunch of people off because it took so long to get back there.

PW: [laughing] Yeah. I always feel like I learned a lot during the process of recording all of the albums we've done, but with this one I actually was careful to try and apply what I learned. For example, when we did Wooden Arms, I felt like the mixes we'd done were really good and really big but, when I finally heard it after it had been mastered down to two channels – the final two-track print – I felt like it really lost a lot. With this one, I wanted to make sure I didn't lose as much and wanted to find the best way to get the music out of the computer as possible so I rented lots of different equipment to make that happen. I'm a real tech-head and I like records that sound good so I took a lot of time and put a lot of effort into making sure I got precisely what I wanted. I didn't want to just settle for something that was “pretty close” – you know?

BA: I know exactly what you mean.

PW: I didn't feel rushed in terms of needing to meet a deadline or anything. I feel like there is enough music out there, and I wanted to take my time with this album to make it exactly as I want and solid all the way through.

BA: I can understand that, and I think you nailed it, truly. I think I forgot to say it off the top of the interview, but I did want to say congratulations on it….

PW: Oh thank you! We're not fired yet! That's a good sign!

BA: [laughing]

PW: It's funny, but I was listening to all the records the other day for a vinyl press test and the one thing that I really noticed was that, on this new album, the vocals are a million times better.

BA: See? Now I was curious about the timbres of your vocals and whether they're intentional or not. Like, on Wooden Arms, your vocals really sound breathless.

PW: And on Close To Paradise, there was no energy in them; in that case, I think I was still learning how to sing over what we'd done. In the cases of those two records especially, I definitely think that what we did this time is the best we've ever done.

BA: I'd certainly say there's a firmer presence to them. On both Just An Ordinary Day and Wooden Arms, there was a sort of breathless quality and tentative wonderment in them, but I just assumed that was what you were aiming for because you and I had never spoken before so I'd never known otherwise.

PW: I don't know. Vocals are a strange thing and something I don't really think about too much. It might have had something to do with the melodies on this album might be a little easier to sing – they felt that way as I was recording them – but I do think the vocals on this album are a million times better. The arrangements may have allowed the the vocals to shine a little better. I remember when we first did Wooden Arms live and thinking, 'Man! This is a tough album to sing.' It just didn't sit easily in your bones,  you know, and part of my resolution when we started arrnging this album was that I wanted something that was easy to sing and felt good to sing and suited the music well.

BA: I can hear that in it! I can say too that Backyard is the closest I've ever heard you make to a conventional rock record.

PW: Yeah – I definitely think that's true. I mean, there are still the details sewn in there, but there not as distracting as they have been before and listeners aren't just made to feel like they're being bombarded with information. I think we really did a good job on the arrangements this time in that regard.

BA: I agree. So how many dates are on this tour, and how long are you out?

PW: I didn't count the number of dates because I think the number might freak me out a little [chuckling], but we're starting in Quebec and then going to Europe to do all the major cities in Europe, then we come back and do a series of dates opening for Andrew Bird in the East U.S., then we have a couple of weeks off before we do a couple of festivals and then the west U.S., and then things get really crazy in the Fall and we do the whole thing over again in more detail. Somewhere in there too, we may go to Brazil or Asia.

BA: Oh really? Wow – so when you start, there's no end in sight.

PW: Yeah, our live show is definitely our strength, so we've always toured heavily.

BA: I can understand that. So, with that in mind, is the writing machine shut down so you can focus more on the performance and presentation, or is it very much ongoing?

PW: Well, usually right after I finish a record, I have this moment where I almost start writing to respond to what I've just done and I've started to do that again now; I'm trying to sit on it as much as I'm able, but we're always writing a little – coming up with ideas that we'll store away and put in our pockets. Some of them are good and some are bad, but we hold onto them until the time is right.

BA: So how do you qualify what's a good idea and what's not?

PW: Oh, you know [both laughing]. I think the important thing is that you finish an idea and see it through so you learn what you need to learn from them. If you do that, you may have learned something new and important that you'll be able to apply to a good song at some point and make it even better.

BA: See, and that prospect just sounds exciting in and of itself!

PW: Absolutely – usually some things come along and they're great by themselves, but they turn out to be even better when those things run alongside a couple of others which seem to be complimentary – like this one idea that Mishka [Patrick Watson bassist Mishka Stein –ed] had which ends up working great with this piece that I had done for a film score which happened to feature the same chords, but they worked fantastically together. Those are the really excellent moment, and they happen more often than you might think.

BA: I believe it! So did that happen often when you were making this record and, when you were done, were you able to walk away saying you got exactly what you wanted?

PW: I walked away feeling like when I recorded those songs and then I heard those recordings the first time, they gave me goosebumps and that was a good sign to me. I mean, eventually during the process you're going to have heard what you've done dozens of times over and eventually you may start to second guess them, but I managed to hold onto that sensation of the goosebumps from the very beginning all the way through and that excitement never faded which I think is pretty important and tells me that we got it right.

BA: That's cool, but how does that work live? Is it a matter of playing to try and achieve the goosebump-y feeling again, or are you aiming for something else completely?

PW: Oh, live is very different. It's really easy; I think we just close our eyes and play some music.We don't try to capture anything other than try to capture the room we're playing into each night. Each room has a different energy and that's really what we trying to harness and play with; some nights and in some rooms, the vibes are quiet and there's some intimacy in that, so that's what we play to, and sometimes it's energetic so we end up cranking up some rock and playing loud as hell, and it'll be the same set of songs! It's the energy of the room that commands how we play them though.

BA: Well thank you for getting on the phone with me man, I'm sure Charlotte's already looking at you like you've got to move to your next interview….

PW: Nope not at all! [laughing] They left me alone in the room and I locked the door so they couldn't bug me!

BA: Aw, nice! Let's see how long it takes them to start pounding on the door, panicked!

PW: They haven't started yet, that happens more on the road. On the road, things can get a little more hectic, but this is a promotional run – it's done for things like this.

BA: Sure. Since I have the time though, as we were saying – this is more a rock record, so is it getting presented as such on stage?

PW: People always like what we do live better than our albums – every time. Like, people have appreciated our records, but they much prefer how we perform the music live. It's actually kind of funny, because our albums are performed live for the most part when we record them; a lot of the time, they're recorded live for the most part with the vocals included. That said, we don't often think about that aspect of the show or what we're trying to capture live – I think about creating a really beautiful show and a nice arc through an hour and a half set more than trying to recreate anything specific. I can say that I know our sets on stage are a little more dynamic than the albums are, the loud parts are louder and crazier, and the quieter parts are more intimate, beautiful and sweet.

BA: Absolutely, and I can totally see this album being really easy to present onstage because the arrangements are–

PW: Oh Wooden Arms was built for the stage.

BA: Really?!

PW: Almost that whole CD was cut live – even more than Close To Paradise was. Close To Paradise was really grueling to play on stage every night, so we made an album with the idea of it being fun for everyone on stage to perform every night in mind. That album really appealed to what everyone has always said about us: that our live shows are better than our albums. There have been more than a few people who have openly admitted to not liking our albums who have also admitted to absolutely loving our live show. I think it would be difficult to capture what we do live on an album, but it's really fun and I'm really confident about it. There's a certain sense of humor which is really obvious in a live setting which gets lost on an album; Wooden Arms was like that, there was a sense of humor in the music which was really lost on the album but, when you see it live, you can't miss it.

BA: See, I've often wondered about that because Wooden Arms was the album which introduced me to the band, and I remember your vocals seeming really breathless and hearing these saws in the background and it seemed like such an abstract image and I was really fascinated by it. Then Just An Ordinary Day got reissued and–

PW: Have you heard Close To Paradise?

BA: Nope, not yet. I've been working in the press ten years, but somehow I missed it.

PW: You know I don't even count Just An Ordinary Day as an album? It was just our first recordings; just demos. In fact, I never would have released them if the label hadn't have made me do it [laughing].

BA: Really?

PW: I don't really picture it as an album; in my own mind, we have three records – Close To Paradise, Wooden Arms and Adventures In Your Own Backyard – and then some demos that we recorded before that which I don't think about much.

BA: I thought it was a cool record, but sure.

PW: Well, Close To Paradise has been the most popular record so far, but we'll see what Adventures In Your Own Backyard does.

BA: I can say that I liked Adventures right away, as soon as I heard it, but I also think it was a very different record from Wooden Arms.

PW: Oh absolutely – but I do think that Adventures In Your Own Backyard is the perfect album to release after Wooden Arms.

BA: I agree, Wooden Arms did seem so out of left field and Backyard seems so incredibly centered and grounded – if that makes any sense.

PW: I think 'grounded' is the right word. We really wanted to make a grounded, solid record that sat down; bold and beautiful – that was the goal.

BA: …And you get that right from the top down. I mean, Adventures In Your Own Backyard as a title? I don't know if you get more grounded than that.

PW: [laughing] Fair enough.

BA: …Because everyone has memories of playing games absolutely by their own rules in their own back yard as a kid.

PW: It's funny you know? Lots of people have said things like that; where there's immediately a nostalgia for the back yard people had in their childhood and not from where they are now. I find that interesting.

BA: Well, that's because nine times out of ten my office has never been in my back yard, it has been in my basement.

PW: Well, yeah, but I mean that everyone's first image of a backyard is almost never in the present day, it's in the past somewhere – In childhood. For me, my idea of a backyard is a big world full of really interesting people. I never intended it to be about childhood; there's nothing in the lyrics on the album which would imply that. I think it's really cool when people take the record the way they like to, but it was never intended to be about my childhood when I wrote any of the songs on the record. I thought about the fact that I travel a lot – that's where the idea started; I travel a lot and I mean all these different people and see these different places and, when you come home, that's when you realize how much you take where you come from for granted – most of the things you get while you're out traveling, you can get around the corner from your house at most too – if you have the same sort of curiosity for where you live. Not only that, but most of the memories and the stories that people tell are about the people they meet rather than the places they go, and the people right in your own neighborhood are able to give you stories sort of like that too; where they came from, how they came to be where they are now and all the moments of interest in between. Those are amazing adventures and those stories are fantastic to hear and they're right there all around you. Those were the sort of things that this record was about for me, not so much my childhood back yard.

BA: Oh – okay. The other thing that reminded me of adventures in your own back yard being a little innocent and childlike was Dorothy's last speech in Wizard Of Oz – where she says something to the effect of the adventures in her own backyard being all she wants and nothing more.

PW: That's funny! I can't even tell you how often I've watched that movie, but I've never watched it with the sound on; I can only ever remember watching it with Dark Side Of The Moon playing.

BA: [laughing] Does that actually work? At the moment, the only format I have Dark Side Of The Moon on is vinyl so I can't really find out easily.

PW: Oh, it works. If you hit play after the lion roars the third time at the beginning, it gets pretty interesting as it goes too. You're gonna laugh – definitely try it! As far as what I meant though, meeting and talking to different people is one of the benefits of my job, but the one common thread I've found about the older people I've met who have aged really well is that they've never lost their curiosity and they've kept their imagination as an important tool which keeps them vibrant and young. Of course, I have a job which calls for that, but I hope I'll be able to inspire it in other people too. And now she is pounding on the door [laughing]!

BA: Oh dear – well, I shouldn't keep you, but I do thank you for the time you took for us!

PW: Thank you Bill!

BA: The pleasure was mine, have a good day!

PW: Thanks, hopefully we'll see you soon.



Patrick Watson's ongoing North American/European tour begins on April 28, 2012. Click here for a list of upcoming shows.


Adventures In Your Own Backyard
is currently available as a Canadian import, and will be available domestically on May 1, 2012. Click here to buy the import, or here to pre-order the domestic release on Amazon.

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