In 2004, I was back in NYC again rehearsing for and performing in Hal Wilner's tribute concert to Neil Young. Before I arrived, my manager had told me that there was a famous actress who was hoping to meet me... but he wouldn't say who it was.
I spent a few days speculating on this great mystery and had imagined it was everyone from Cameron Diaz to Kate Winslet. When the night of our meeting finally came though, I took the elevator down to the lobby and was very pleased to meet the lovely, talented (not to mention legendary ) Debra Winger. Apparently Debra had been to a funeral recently where somebody had sung my song "Gold In Them Hills" and so later on she had searched the internet to find out who it belonged to and found yours truly.
She and her husband, actor Arlis Howard, were making a TV movie for the Lifetime network telling the story of a brave woman who had to overcome a traumatic health issue only to lose her daughter years later in the Columbine shootings. The film was called Dawn Anna and so Debra had come to ask me if I would consider writing music for the project.
Aside from "The Art Of Woo," I'd never really taken on anything like that but I was flattered to be asked and said I'd give it a go. After reading the script on the flight home, I started to get acquainted with the story and proceeded to find my way into it.
One of my favorite movies of all time was the Wes Anderson film Rushmore and I especially loved all those miniature instrumentals composed by Mark Mothersbaugh. I figured since the script had this childhood home movie vibe, that I would attempt to write a few miniature instrumentals myself (I ended up writing about five in total).
The original title for this particular song was "Memorial Grove" as it was intended to appear during a cemetery scene, but to my dismay the producer of the movie had a falling out with Arliss and Debra for some reason, and in the end all of my music was replaced by a much slicker LA composer.
I don't know if the music I'd written was all that good anyway, but I worked hard on it and was pretty disappointed that all my efforts were in vain. The only good thing to come out of that experience (besides the music) was the friendship I struck up with Debra. For a few years after the whole movie fiasco, Colleen and I would spend New Year's Eve up at their place in the Catskills and I always looked forward to that.
When I started developing songs for Exit Strategy Of The Soul, I thought right away that it might be interesting to bookend the album with a couple of these cast off instrumentals and felt that this one might make a nice opening number. I came up with a few different titles for it, such as "Morning Spiritual" and even "Exit Strategy Of The Soul" which in the end seemed to be a better album title. I eventually landed on "Spiritude" which is a word I made up (or at least I think I did) that combines Spiritual with Solitude and as well, it reminded me of the word Etude (it isn't really an Etude though, because Etudes are normally quite difficult to play... unlike this one).
But anyway, with high hopes and heaps of ambition, I set out to make this insane record that would take me from London to Cuba, up to NYC and then back to London again.
I'm still tired just thinking about it.
THIS IS HOW I KNOW
After the relative failure of Time Being which I chalked up to the death inspired nature of the songs and the struggling music industry, I wanted to make an uplifting, spiritual record that wasn't religious in any way but yet had faith and soul. I had hoped to make a serious album for what I saw as increasingly frivolous times I guess.
Back then, I had been listening a great deal to the music of Judee Sill and was becoming incredibly inspired by her lyrics, which reminded me oddly enough of the poet William Blake. Her moving songs made me want to try and dig deeper lyrically and on "This Is How I Know," I felt I was off to a pretty good start.
It's basically about all the things that give me hope and provide reassurance (and perhaps evidence) in a higher power and ultimately in the existence of the soul.
Like Time Being, I was writing exclusively on the piano now and felt I was getting better on it, or at least I was hitting fewer bum notes. The idea occurred to me then, that one way to approach the recording might be to try and play piano on everything so that at the foundation of the record, there would be this rough and slightly questionable element driving it. It was a little nerve racking for me during the basic tracking because I felt a little like the weakest link trying to get through a take on piano with all the other musicians playing... but I did it, for better or for worse.
For awhile there, I used to wake up each morning, sit at the piano and sing this song, the same way that I used to play "Heart With No Companion." It became somewhat of a ritual for me, not to mention a nice vocal warm up too.
ONE LAST ROUND
My good friend Kevin Hearn (from the Barenaked Ladies) and I were drinking one night at our mutual friend Robin Billington's house when something horrible happened... we ran out of wine. It was already past 1:30 AM and in Toronto, the bars close at 2:00, so I made an executive decision to try and catch last call somewhere nearby.
If I'm not mistaken we ended up at the Paddock Tavern just in time to have one last round of Guinness. Success!
On the way home I started singing drunkenly to myself the following line: "Going into town for one last round" and felt like I had something there. What originally started off as a song about trying to make "last call" began to morph into a song about our responsibility to the planet and the generations yet to come. It seemed to me, that within a relatively few decades, we humans had done a pretty good job of messing things up, mostly due to greed and or ignorance.
It's never been my forte' to write these kind of songs, but I'm fairly happy with the lyrics and felt that I was finally able to say something urgent in a subtle way that was clear, reasonably poetic and thankfully not at all like the song "From Now On" where I felt my best intentions weren't quite enough to pull it off.
It was while we were recording this one in London that Martin Terefe first approached me with his crazy idea of heading down to Cuba. He said that he could hear horns on a lot of these songs actually and felt that the best horn players in the world all lived in Havana. Martin had done an album there for my friend Alex Puentes (Alex Cuba Band) and I had even written the English translation to one of his songs and sang a duet with him. (I'm a master of the man to man duets you may recall.)
Being kind of a nervous traveler, I was a bit apprehensive about going down there at first but when I got off the plane, who do I see but my friend Alexis Puentes looking like a million dollars in his white suit and incredible afro. I relaxed instantly and after Martin arrived about a half an hour later, we all headed into town and checked into the Americana Hotel, which although it was a bit run down, I'm sure it was quite something in its day.
We were recording at the legendary Egrem studio, where Ry Cooder made the Buena Vista Social Club record. It's where most of the photos in the booklet were taken as well and it was an honor to be there.
Initially I was a bit skeptical about the whole Cuban horns idea to be honest. It seemed like an unnatural Frankenstein experiment to me, but after I heard the arrangement for "One Last Round," I knew that we had come to the right place. It sounded pretty darn exciting coming through the speakers... I could hardly sit down.
I was reminded a little, of the first Dexy Midnight Runners album (Searching For The Young Soul Rebels) that I love and so I just sat back, took it all in and enjoyed myself. I mean, who knows when I'll make it back that way again.
The only other thing I'd like to add is how pleased I was to find a usage for the old "I've Been Working On The Railroad" line "all the live long day" in a modern pop song. Not very exciting I know, but I'm easily amused.
GHOST OF A CHANCE
Back when Jocelyne and I were still happening, I was awoken one morning to the sound of a garbage truck, followed by the lovely sound of birds. I picked up my note book and wrote down the words "With the graceful and grotesque the morning rings, I hear the garbage truck go by, I hear the birds begin to sing" and for years and years it just languished in a notebook. I couldn't seem to get anywhere with it and ultimately forgot about it.
Around the time I was assembling songs for this record I was attempting to clean my upstairs office which was hard to do, because I kept getting distracted by old demo cassettes and notebooks filled with lyrics and it was then I stumbled upon these two lines from long ago. Thinking there might be a reason for rediscovering them, I took the lyrics down stairs, set them on my piano and was determined to pick up the thread and finish it.
Some other words I had scribbled down in the same book but on a different page, were the words "Love's a ballet, Love's burlesque" which I don't know for sure but I must've been trying to find a rhyme for grotesque or something. Musically there was something in the chord progression that reminded me slightly of a Leonard Cohen song or perhaps "Blind Willie McTell" by Bob Dylan.
It seemed rather cinematic to me and so I took the opportunity to try and paint a landscape of a bleak world with people just struggling to hold on while others are positively thriving. It all just seems like the luck of the draw sometimes and everyone is trying to play the hand they've been dealt or go with what they've got.
The lead vocal you hear on this was taken entirely from our first take when we were tracking live. I tried to re-do it in NYC months later but I although I could sing it technically better, the original had a certain something that I couldn't beat so thankfully we had the good sense to leave it alone. There are quite a few live vocals on this album now that I think about it.
THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS
This song was inspired by something Colleen had said to me one time. I was going away for a few weeks, I can't remember where, but she had said "Don't forget me out there" or words to that effect and it gave me the opening lines "I will keep you in my thoughts my darling, thoughts and prayers."
As a boy I was an avid Sunday school attendee. I used to get on the bus every Sunday morning and head up to the Brockview Bible Chapel because I found the whole thing fascinating but mainly I loved the singing. (I still have the bible I won for perfect attendance.) With "Thoughts And Prayers," it seemed to me like I was writing one of those old Sunday school songs, and my piano playing is almost as bad as the woman who used to play at the Brockview Bible Chapel too.
Writing on the piano had really opened things up for me melodically. I found myself stumbling onto things that I probably would have avoided on guitar. This one has a pretty expansive melody that keeps tumbling down until it resolves like a leaf falling from a tree.
I'm quite proud of it even though we don't perform it very often - mostly because it's so difficult to sing live I suppose. I had always hoped that some choir might take up this one; it's custom made for it.
I played a Canada Day concert in Ottawa one time and afterwards there was a party in a hotel somewhere and I ran into none other than Leslie Feist.
I was into drinking Brandy Alexanders back then because I had heard it was Harry Nilsson's favorite drink. I've since laid off of them for the sake of my girlish figure. She came up to me and asked what it was, and so I relayed to her the infamous tale of Nilsson and Lennon being thrown out of the Hollwood Troubador one night after getting hammered on Brandy Alexanders.
I think it was maybe a day or two later when I received an email from Leslie in which the subject intriguingly said "Dare I?" I opened up the email and lo and behold were the lyrics to "Brandy Alexander".
As a songwriter, the easiest thing for me to do is write music to an existing lyric so I had the whole song done in about an hour. It wasn't until about a year later though when I was in LA recording Time Being, that I heard Leslie was performing at the El Ray Theatre opening up for Broken Social Scene, so I made haste, took a cab cross town and sang it for Leslie in her dressing room. (In the documentary "Love Shines" she plays a bit of the dressing room recording.)
It was a pretty star studded night come to think of it... I ran into Lucinda Williams and kd lang there as well. Good times.
About six months after that I got an email from Feist saying that she had recorded the song for her upcoming album, and that her label felt it was potentially the first single. I already loved her version of "Secret Heart" but this was even more exciting. It wasn't until I was in London recording Exit Strategy that I heard her version on an advance copy. It was so different from how I envisioned it going. Her version was quite soft and elegant where as I'd always imagined it to be a sort of drunken sing along. It was then I decided to have a go at it myself.
It's the first time since "The Laughing Crowd" on Grand Opera Lane that I shared a song writing credit on any of my records. But I do love the song.
When it came time to do the vocals, I wrote a counter melody on the chorus that was intended for Leslie to sing. I had asked her about it in an email but I never heard back from her and wondered if she was mad at me or something.
Around that time I got an email on Myspace from NYC artist "A Girl Called Eddy" just basically saying that she liked my stuff etc., so I checked out the music on her page and thought her voice was just what I was looking for. Later when I was back in NYC recording vocals (we had tried in Cuba but the equipment kept breaking down!) I asked her if she'd be up for coming in and singing on it and there she was.
If you know Leslie's version and mine you'll notice that the lyrics are quite different on each one. We both had to change and adapt the words to suit our own gender and vibe I guess. It's almost as if we wrote two different songs with the same title. Anyway, I'm proud of the collaboration and it's become a bit of a crowd pleaser. Leslie told me that it's Paul Simon's favorite one on her record as well which makes me smile (when nobody's looking).
Here's an existential song I guess you could say.
I got the idea while riding on the bullet train in Japan. I thought of how there were two separate journeys going on at the same time, the physical one where we're on a train heading somewhere and the internal journey of experience that our individual spirit is on. Like a train of thought I guess.
I was looking around at all the people on the train and wondering about their lives and their struggles and started to think back over my life and how I must have sent this dream out into the universe so many times as a boy and now I was living it.
It's also about how even though we are connected to so many people in our lives and have responsibilities to our families and mankind in general that ultimately we're all on our own trip and we can't live our lives for anybody else.
I struggled a bit with the chord progression on this one but I think it turned out pretty well. It's funny because, on one hand I would say it's probably my favorite song from Exit Strategy yet I've only performed it live maybe once or twice.
My wife Colleen was hanging out knitting when I recorded it in London. She had been asking me for some time "When do I get to sing on one of your records?" Well I thought that here was a golden opportunity to put her to work and she nailed it in just a couple of takes. It's my favorite part of the recording whenever I hear it now.
POOR HELPLESS DREAMS
Some of you may remember this song as a B side to one of my early singles from '96. It actually goes back to the late eighties and like "This Song" and "Don't Ask Why" from Blue Boy, I used to perform this back with the Uncool.
When we recorded it originally for the Nashville demos, for some reason we approached it more like an Al Green number or something - it might have been Al Kooper's idea to do it that way, but that's how it appeared in the nineties. This version however, was more how it was intended it to go... a sort of cross between a country song and a polka.
Back in my former life with Jocelyne and the kids, I had seen a commercial for a Jamaican Holiday that had Toots (from Toots And The Maytals ) singing the Otis Redding song "I've Got Dreams To Remember." I really liked the simplicity of that idea and so when I was back on the job the next day, I came up with what I saw as my own take on that theme. Like the song "Not About To Lose" I felt empowered just by singing it and I believe that the polka groove grew out of just singing it while hustling around the downtown core. (Anybody who knows me will tell you I'm a fast walker.) I was never really happy with how we did it back in Nashville anyway, and I guess I had sort of re-discovered it around the time we were putting this album together. I was playing it around the house a fair bit too so I thought it deserved another try.
The tracking sessions for Exit Strategy were free and loose to say the least. Martin Terefe had moved his studio across the street to this big compound that had a bunch of different studios in it - even Cat Stevens was renting one in the basement. There were always loads of musicians floating around and sitting in on whatever session was in progress, I never knew from one day to the next who would be playing what on which song. I could tell early on that it was going to be a kind of "warts and all" production and I went along with that. Unlike Cobblestone and Retriever, I didn't feel like I had Martin's full attention and it was frustrating at times. At any rate, I think we got a relatively good take of this one.....finally.
Just as "Foolproof" was written for Diana Krall, this one was written with Michael BublĂ© in mind. Someone at my label had mentioned to me that Michael was looking for some songs to record and asked if I had anything up his alley. I didn't, but I thought I'd make an attempt at writing a "torch song" for him... like something Sinatra might've recorded. I had sent him a few songs in the past but had gotten nowhere, so I was determined this time to really deliver the goods.
Even though it was not at all a personal song, I'm quite pleased with the lyric and the chord progression that I managed to come up with. For some reason though, when it came time to record it, I thought I'd let Claes Bjorklund take over the piano, so I just stood there and sang it, kinda like how Buble might've done it. The take you hear is my one and only, but I think I it's a pretty good performance over all or at least it has the right vibe.
I remember recording it one night with all the lights dimmed and trying desperately to summon the ghost of Charlie Rich.....it almost seemed like I was covering somebody else's song! Well, as per usual, BublĂ© didn't end up doing this one either, but it's here if he should ever need it.
THE IMPOSSIBLE WORLD
I started writing this just a few days before I headed down to LA to record Time Being with Mitchell Froom. I had completed the music but I didn't have a single vowel or consonant to speak of. I didn't even have any ideas of what it might be about, but I liked the melody enough and was trying to finish it in time to make the disc.
Every night, I'd go back to my room at the Brentwood motel and try to get a little further with it but to no avail. I've found that you can't rush a song anymore then you can rush a tree. I just had to let it grow in its own time.
Once, after I was out touring Time Being in Europe (an absolutely disastrous tour), I finally got on a roll with the words and in hindsight, it didn't really fit on Time Being anyway. Lyrically it sends out some universal questions in a similar way that Bob Dylan's "Blowin In The Wind" did ("How many lives, how many tears must fall" etc) I'm not comparing my song to Bob's civil rights anthem, just trying to follow in its enormous footsteps I guess.
It seemed like the world had become a bad place and its problems were too many and too difficult to solve. This whole "war on terror" line felt unrealistic too. I mean, how do you fight an idea? How do you combat something you can't see coming? How do you make peace when people are so divided?
I tried to approach it like a dialogue between God and Mankind.
Two other things I'd like to mention about it are that I found another use for that weird chord from "Words We Never Use." Nobody seemed to have a problem with it this time. And lastly I was seeing a lot of Cat Stevens (or Yusef Islam) when I was working on the record in London. He had invited me in to his studio a few times to listen to some new music he was working on. Anyway I was starting to feel quite chummy with him and at one point I had planned to ask him if he would mind singing a verse on this song but I sort of chickened out. On the day I left the studio for home, I was walking past his studio carrying a banana, I don't know what possessed me but I stuck my head in, held out the banana to him and said "Phone call for Yusef Islam."
He laughed... thankfully.
CHASED BY LOVE
Back in grade eight, I was walking out of Ferndale public school with my chum Daren Tucker (who I mentioned in my notes for Time Being). We had been buddies since grade six and all the girls just loved him. On this day for example, a couple of girls from our class started chasing us across the soccer field, so we took off running. When I finally looked behind I realized to my embarrassment that they were only chasing Daren! I felt kind of silly running away from nobody but that's how it was for me.
For whatever reason, I've always had low self esteem and a general lack of confidence, especially when it involves my appearance. Years later as I toured around hopping from bed to bed, it occurred to me that much of this sort of behavior seemed to stem from my childhood insecurities and of just wanting to be loved as clichĂ© as it sounds. (I'm sure Freud would agree.)
Like "Poor Helpless Dreams," this song is also quite old which may come as a surprise. I wrote it back when I was still with Jocelyne and was trying to reconcile my home life with my "rock n roll" life - which was getting more and more out of hand. I don't remember what put the song back into my mind but I always liked it and felt that I could still get behind it lyrically. Anyway, it's always nice to find an orphan song a good home.
This was the newest song on Exit Strategy. I had sent an MP3 of the first draft to Martin about a week before we were to meet up in Cuba. As with "All In Good Time" on Time Being, I felt it was the one song that (to my ears at least) sounded like a potential single which was something the album was sorely missing. Martin liked it and thought we should try to record it while in Havana which was appealing to me, because for the most part all I would be doing down there was listening to horns and percussion and possibly doing some vocals.
My one regret though is I didn't have a third verse for it and so I tried to write one on the flight down and I was still trying right up to the last day when we were set to record it. What you hear was the best I could come up with and in hindsight I think perhaps I should've just repeated the first verse.
The horns as well, were made up right on the spot and on the inside booklet you'll find a picture of us tracking it live with Alexis Puentes sitting in on upright bass. Later on Martin would take it back to London to add drums, backing vocals and some extra guitars but for the most part what you hear is how it sounded that day in Havana.
Aside from my problem with the third verse (and possibly the bridge), I really do like the song a lot. I was trying to write something along the lines of "Ooh Child" by the Five Stairsteps, a song that is in my opinion is one of the greatest recordings... ever. (Nina Simone did a lovely job of it too.)
It was also inspired by the great Bill Withers and all those uplifting songs he wrote such as "Lean On Me" and "Lovely Day." Anyway, it may not be perfect but I'm glad it's exists. It was the best I could do under the circumstances.
MUSIC TO MY EARS
One of my daily rituals is to go on what I call my coffee walk. As ridiculous as it is to stroll around with a hot coffee I tend to do it every day when I'm home. And I have the coffee stained shirts to prove it.
One day in early September I was walking past a school yard on the day that all the kids were returning from their summer vacation. It was a sort of grey, drizzling day which I guess is to be expected when it's the first day back at school, and so all the kids were running around in their yellow raincoats getting reacquainted with each other.
Just watching them play sent a flood of memories to my mind as I thought about that feeling when summer's gone and it's time to concentrate on math and history. I thought about the different seasons in a year and as well the seasons in a life. I guess you'd say for example, that I am now in the late summer or early autumn of my years?
At any rate, this melancholy song started to form in my mind. It's just about all the things we hold dear and how the little things become more precious with time. It probably would've fit nicely on Destination Unknown as well. Anyway, it's pretty much my favorite track on the record. It doesn't get requested very often but I think it's worth a second look.
Well, as I mentioned earlier, this one was intended for the film Dawn Anna starring Debra Winger but it got axed along with all the other instrumentals I wrote.
I just loved the name "Dawn Anna" - it reminded me of a classic Stephen Foster song title or even a little bit like Beethoven's "Fur Elise" for some reason. I had never written a score for a movie before and I imagined that this would be the central theme of the movie and that it would reappear at different times in various permutations. (There was a jazzy swing version of it for example.)
When I flew out to Winnipeg, where the film was being shot, I got to meet the real Dawn Anna and her husband Bink. I don't think I've ever met two nicer people in my life. And as well, I thought Debra and Arliss did an amazing job of capturing her and her story on film.
Because of the faux classical style of the song, it turned out to be the hardest one to record. I tried it several times in London and a few more times in Cuba before I finally got one that we could use. As with Cobblestone and Retriever, we enlisted the help of Nashville's David Davidson once again to write a string arrangement for our final number and as expected, he did an absolutely beautiful job. In fact, the first time I heard it in my headphones it made me cry. Like most of my records actually, I always feel that they sound much better in the headphones than on stereo, but perhaps it's because I don't have a decent stereo! Anyway, I put a lot into this record and felt from start to finish that it has a strong sequence and it was nice to include a couple of instrumentals for the first time.
The title Exit Strategy Of The Soul may have seemed odd or even pretentious to some but it was basically about this sensation I get when I'm standing on a bridge or waiting for the subway and I get an urge to jump. It feels almost like my soul's in a big hurry to get to the other side. It's not even a suicidal feeling but it makes me believe in the human spirit even more.