After touring Cobblestone Runway for most of 2002, I was tired and ready to go home. I had demoed a whole batch of songs at, of all places, David Foster's home studio in Malibu earlier that year and so Martin had been getting acquainted with the songs and was ready to get to work. I on the other hand was ready to collapse.
As it turned out, Martin had a small 7 day opening in which to get started and so I was urged and cajoled into making a detour to London on my way home to start basic tracking for what would become one of my more successful albums, Retriever. (The original title was Golden Retriever.) I was so tired, mentally, that I asked Martin if he would pick the songs because I honestly didn't know which ones to do. (The songs he didn't pick would later make up Destination Unknown.) Unlike the Cobblestone Runway sessions, this time I was tracking live with a band that included Ed Harcourt occasionally on piano.
"Hard Bargain" was a song idea I had kicking around for awhile but had only recently completed it. Lyrically, it accurately summed up my head space going into the studio - it seemed like the appropriate song to start off with. It's about having someone who won't give up on you but at the same time, won't let you give up on yourself, if that makes any sense.
I was determined to play more electric on this album and I thought the guitar riff on "Hard Bargain" sounded pretty welcoming off the top and I really like the dueling guitar solos by Martin and myself (I play the first clean sounding one). Emmylou Harris honored me this year by making it the title track of her latest disc, which did wonders for my self esteem.
What might come as a surprise to some of you is that I wrote the music for this song when I was 16... well, not the bridge but the verse melody. It was originally called "January Mine" and was a mushy love song written for my Grade Nine Queen, Heidi Guggi who I had a huge crush on back in high school. (We didn't become friends though until after high school.)
I always seem to have a hard time sleeping on the road and, one night after a gig in Germany, I was tossing and turning and thinking about Heidi for some reason (maybe because her parents were German?). I don't know, but for the first time in decades I thought about this ancient chestnut "January Mine." I jumped out of bed and started trying to find the chords for it but I couldn't remember any of the words so I decided to try writing some new ones. The words "Imaginary Friends" came to mind mostly because it sang well and it had the right amount of syllables, so I got on a roll with that theme and it was more or less finished in time for breakfast - my favorite meal of the day.
It's a pretty good song I think. I always kinda liked the words at least, especially the line "As all the friends who are real and true, wonder who you're talking to." I thought it was a nice twist on the whole imaginary friend idea. I don't think I ever had an imaginary friend as a kid, but I've definitely had some people who I thought were friends but turned out to be a figment of my imagination.
It was Martin's idea to do that repetitive guitar riff off the top which probably never would've occurred to me to try. As I said earlier, I was mentally exhausted and so I was really counting on Martin to steer the ship and I think he did a nice job on this song and the album in general.
NOT ABOUT TO LOSE
In 2002, we spent a lot of time on the road opening for Coldplay. In fact, we did two full on tours of the USA with them. The first tour we did, they were still playing clubs and small theaters so I felt we had a good shot at winning over some people and we did. Also, it was fun because they're all great guys and we got to hang out with them a fair bit back stage and Chris and I even sang together at an open stage somewhere in Denver. (We sang "Ain't No Sunshine" over the phone to Gwyneth who was in Russia.)
The next tour we did with them, they had graduated to arenas and not only that, but we had become the second opening act and nobody ever wants to hear the second opening act. But anyway, we did our best and it was nice to see how the other half lives I guess. After our set, the band and I would watch the show most nights from side stage and the the thing that impressed me most about them was that they had these huge choruses in most of their songs. Right then, it occurred to me that I didn't have many big choruses to speak of and perhaps this was the missing ingredient in my writing or at least in my failure at writing a commercial hit.
Ever since Cobblestone Runway, I felt things were looking up and I was trying to think and write more positively, just for my own head. One afternoon, I was backstage at one of the arenas we were playing when I came up with the line "Not About To Lose" and the basic melody for it at the same time. It felt really empowering for me to sing it and so I sang it to myself like a mantra for the next few days until I found some other words for it.
I was thinking back to when I was a tree planter and how one day I was working with this fellow (whose name escapes me) and I asked him how old he was to which he replied "I'm old enough to do it, and young enough to do it again." Well, I thought that was pretty funny at the time so I put it in the song. I figured the whole point of "Not About To Lose" was that I wasn't about to let my doubts push me around anymore and that it didn't matter how old or young I was. In fact I felt, if anything, I was singing better than ever, and that I had a much better chance of breaking through at that time than I had before.
One day after I had finished it, I was playing it in my dressing room when Chris Martin stuck his head in and asked me what it was. I said, "It's a brand new song."
"Sounds like a hit!" said Chris.
And on Canadian radio at least, it was a minor hit. It made it into the Top 20 which I think is pretty good. Over all, it's a cool recording and I love the string arrangement by Mr. Davidson. It sounds real lush and stately, as if something important is about to happen.
TOMORROW IN HER EYES
I wrote this for Colleen who had just recently entered my life. I had met her over the years, a few times actually - once when she worked for Roseanne Cash and when she was dating Jim Creegan from the Barenaked Ladies, and lastly when I played a Warner Music showcase one time with her band "By Divine Right." (Feist was in the same band before her.)
I was recently single and loving it - the last thing I wanted to do was be in another relationship, especially after destroying the first one I was in. But there was something about Colleen that made me pause and reflect. I was lying in bed one night, thinking about her and wondering if this could be my last chance at love or words to that effect. The idea of growing old never appealed to me (and why should it?) but somehow the idea of growing old with her seemed kinda idyllic to me, something to look forward to.
The next morning, I went to the piano and began to write "Tomorrow In Her Eyes." I was really excited by the song, especially the title because it sounded like a classic song title to me and I didn't want to screw it up. I have a fondness for love songs and have written quite a few, but this one sort of takes the cake. I was playing it a few years ago in London and some people came back stage to say hello and told me that Brian Eno really loved the song. I was blown away because I think Eno is incredible and I just wouldn't have thought that he would know any of my stuff. I guess there's something in my DNA that is always surprised when anybody knows my music.
FROM NOW ON
I never cared much for this one even though I think I'm saying some important things in it. I just felt I was a bit out of my element writing a song like that but Martin liked it for some reason, so I gave it a try.
It has a very weird chord progression that I can never remember for some reason so it has since fallen by the wayside of my catalogue. Every now and then we get a request for it and at one time there was talk of giving it to John Kerry for his presidential campaign (I still think he would've made a good president... I mean, just look at him.) I was writing about the post 911 atmosphere in America where everyone seemed afraid to say anything critical or that might be deemed unpatriotic. It still seems that way today, speaking as an outsider and as someone who loves the USA. There's seems to be a kind of soft fascism, where fear is employed to silence any kind of peaceful dissent or if your opinion runs counter to the powers that be you're called a traitor or un-American if you don't support a particular war.
Anyway, it was with all these things on my mind that I wrote "From Now On." My intentions were good but ultimately I think it's a better recording than a song. I'll leave the political songwriting to Bruce Cockburn in the future. Ed Harcourt plays some spirited piano on it though!
FOR THE DRIVER
Here's another hymn like song. I think I have one on almost every record.
I was reading about a boy who was hit by a car while chasing a ball into the street and for some reason, whenever a tragic accident occurs like that, my sympathies seem to side with the unlucky person behind the wheel because I think that it could happen to anybody and I can't imagine living with the grief of knowing you caused something so irreversible even though it was an accident.
I knew a guy back in junior high who was sitting in his car in the parking lot of a shopping mall listening to some tunes. There were a couple of girls sitting on the back of the car too and for a joke, he pressed on the gas pedal and the car shook for a second. Well, sadly, one of the girls fell off, hit her head on the curb and died. It was an innocent joke that turned tragic and I felt just as bad for him as I did the family of the girl who died. With all these things on my mind, I wrote this song.
I wanted each verse to be about a different sort of moral dilemma or at least a situation that would ask people to try and see both sides. I personally, always try to see both sides and I have never liked to be around judgmental people, so anyway, that's what I was going for.
This one started off as a joke song while watching Survivor. I had heard about the show while on tour but had never seen it. So one night I'm back home flicking through the channels and there it was.
One of the competitions had the two teams running back and forth with their hands tied behind their backs. They had to take a bite out of a huge piece of meat that was hanging up and then run back to their station and spit it into a pail. The team who filled their pail first wins. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and I said to Colleen who was beside me on the couch, "We ain't got a hope in hell."
I took my guitar into the bedroom and wrote the song in about an hour. It was fun to write something that was as close to social commentary as I get. It reminded me of something that Kyp Harness might've written which is always a good sign for me. And it had a kind of snarky point of view or tone that I don't believe existed on any of my previous records, although it's all over LPLB. I guess I'm getting grumpier in my old age.
I also liked matching "wishing wells" with "to wish me well" which was a happy accident. Stuff like that though makes it seem like it was all meant to be.
I asked Martin if we could create a segue between "For The Driver" and "Wishing Wells" because I thought it would be too jarring without one. I think it's a cool transition from Side A into Side B and come to think about it, I believe "Wishing Wells" to be one the better songs on Retriever.
WHATEVER IT TAKES
This was me attempting to write another Bill Withers kinda song. There was a time when I wouldn't have been able to deliver a tune like this credibly but I was getting more confident in my singing and in my writing.
It came out of this flurry of love songs that I was writing for Colleen on a semi-regular basis - I guess due to the fact that our love was in bloom as they say, I was feeling rather inspired. In fact, Retriever is made up of mostly happy love songs which may explain why it was so popular (relatively speaking).
One guy in Germany though, came up to me at a concert and said that he hoped my next record wouldn't be so happy... can't win em all.
The other significant thing that happened with Retriever was that I signed with Warner Canada, a major label who considered me to be a "heritage artist" (a nice way of saying you're old) and they also believed that I had a hit record on my hands with "Whatever It Takes." After years of being mostly ignored at radio, I was pretty skeptical to say the least. But as it happened, they were right and it got to number 5 on the Canadian charts. They did a re-mix for radio that I wasn't too keen on. I thought it sounded too bombastic but like I say, radio got behind it so I shouldn't complain.
A few years later, I got a call from Michael Buble while I was having dinner and, after I figured out it was him, (he had disguised his voice) he told me that he was in the studio with David Foster and they were about to work up an arrangement for "Whatever It Takes!" After years of sending him songs to no avail, he was finally doing one and it was one I never thought he'd even consider. They even flew me down to Malibu to sing on it which was one of those surreal days that I've been fortunate enough to experience from time to time. (I've become somewhat of a specialist at duets with other guys now.)
Anyway, for a simple little love song, this one has opened doors for me that I thought were closed for good.
It may sound cliche, but I have found that writing these liner notes has been quite cathartic for me. I'm remembering things that I haven't thought of in years and airing out a few skeletons in the process.
"Dandelion Wine" was very cathartic for me too. It's one of the most naked songs I've ever written and possibly one of my best. I had a lot of unresolved guilt that I needed to get off my chest, and at the same time, I wanted to write a song for Jocelyne to let her know that the memories of our time together were fond and that I was truly sorry for all the trouble I'd caused. I've always been better at expressing myself in music than in real life and here's a perfect example. My publisher at the time, thought I should take it off the album because he felt it didn't fit with the happier songs, but I thought, why on earth would I take a song off that meant so much to me, and especially when I felt it was, in many ways, the heart of the whole record.
I was looking back on my time in Quebec when Christopher was born. Jocelyne and I spent a whole day picking dandelions to make some wine. We were living in a barn, I was chopping wood, playing the piano and writing the very first songs of my career. In the process we were falling in love. I guess that's what I wanted to convey mostly to Jocelyne and my kids... that it was a real love story and that the first 10 years were mostly happy ones.
Sarah Slean sang a lovely version of this a few years back for the Art Of time Ensemble. I always thought it was too personal to be covered but I've been wrong before.
I think there's a shuffle on pretty much every record I've made (except for Other Songs) and here's another one.
My publisher wanted me to take this one off along with "Dandelion Wine" but I respectfully declined. I'm always thinking of the record as a whole and not just a bunch of random songs and I felt "Happiness" belonged on it.
It was a song idea that had been loitering around for a few years but I had just recently finished it and thought it was a bit of comic relief. It may not sound like it, but in my mind I was trying to write a Sam Cooke song. Sam Cooke was such a great singer, I can't even imagine what it must have been like to be in the studio when he was laying something down.
One of the interesting things about Retriever - well, interesting to me at least - was that I had tracked the whole record with Christer Jansson on drums. Christer is a phenomenal drummer but Martin felt that on some songs he was almost too good! So he brought in Neil Primrose from the Scottish band TRAVIS who had a quirkier more British approach to drumming to re-do the drums on three of the songs. That's Neil playing on this one, making it a very English sounding, Kinks-like track. I've always described Retriever as my Brit-Pop album, even though most of the musicians were from Sweden.
We still play this one some time, it's not such a bad song.
HOW ON EARTH
Another song for Colleen that has always reminded me of an 80's pop song.
The chorus is real fun to sing and I think the banjo gives it some added ear candy. Lyrically, the words are so over the top romantic that it could've been in one of those old Hollywood musical. (I can just hear Fred Astaire singing it.)
If the label would've released a third single, I probably would've suggested this one. I mean, it sounds like a hit to me. Don't really know what else to say about this one except that I don't know if it's a great song or not but I think it's a pretty well crafted song at least. One of my pet peeves these days is that there seems to be a lot of lazy song-writing going on. It's hard to explain without sounding old and grumpy but I hear a lot of these sort of hyper-personal, stream of consciousness type songs out there that never seem to have a point or maybe I just don't get it. I think it's an easy thing to throw vague and elusive words around and pretend that you're deep. It's much harder I think, to write a song that is clear, truthful, poetic and has a point to it.
I think of somebody like Randy Newman for example who in a song like "Karl Marx" (from his album Bad Love) can comes at you from such a strange angle and end up making his point in a way that is so astute and humorous and it gives you the feeling there's a serious mind at work. Or like Cole Porter who wrote so many wonderful songs with clever, intelligent lyrics that worked seamlessly with the melody. I realize as I write this, that everyone has their own approach to music and that my old fashioned take on songwriting wouldn't work for everybody. I"m just a product of the music I heard growing up. To each his own I say... but sometimes I just get a little down and have to rant. I could go on all day about it but don't worry, I won't.
I KNOW IT WELL
If push comes to shove, this is probably my favorite song on Retriever.
I had started writing it near the end of my time with Jocelyne but couldn't bring myself to finish it or sing it until after I was on my own. I wanted to write a reassuring song for her and to let her know that things would be better someday but I wasn't even sure if I believed it myself.
I finished writing it when I was living at Lorne's place and I found that at the very least, it made me feel better about things and so I started seeing it as a potential closing number for Retriever. On the day we recorded it, we got a call at the studio that director Richard Curtis wanted to come by and say hello. Richard has made a whole bunch of successful movies, like "Four Weddings And A Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Love Actually" to name a few. Apparently many of his films have been edited to my music (although for some reason, none of my songs have ever appeared in any of them).
We played him "I Know It Well" and I remember thinking it sounded really good coming through the speakers. Afterwards he said something like I was practically a saint! (I certainly don't feel like one.) A few years later, I rented his latest movie Pirate Radio and during the closing credits they show a lot of classic album covers and right near the very end my debut record pops up on the screen. I almost fell off the couch!
Anyway, Richard is a very lovely man and it was great to meet him and play him this song as I think it is one of the better ones.