When an artist establishes themselves as a musician by writing and recording more than one session, they often find themselves in a state to push their creativity. Some do it to a brink that explores every inch of their imagination while others try to hold on to the state of progressing. PATRICK WATSON is a songwriter that does both. Since the early mid-2000s’, the Montreal composer has formulated an experimental acoustic genre that’s all his own but slightly plays with the tones of others like Andrew Bird and Jeff Buckley. Before taking the stage at a recent private set at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, we conversed with the indie folk vet to discuss his latest collective effort, the steady growth of his songwriting and how the aspects of “live music” piece together the group’s sound.
With the album coming out this month, what’s the story behind Adventures In Your Own Backyard?
It came from two different things: one I thought it was a really fun, catchy title (laughs) – and people had said not to use it because it’s too long – but it’s also kind of exciting and makes people curious. I think the whole core of it is that it is a very intimate record. It feels like I’m just singing from a backyard and the lyrics have a very intimate feeling that does well with that concept.
Like a home-y feeling?
Yeah there is that feeling, but I don’t know… I feel like it’s something that would fit the moment where you’re going for a walk in your daily life, like bring a little adventure to your day.
Because of that, was the writing and recording process different for this album?
Just in the way that we used to run around the world and go to studios; we’d always write in the studio and have that time to work on songs and get the arrangement right and record it in that moment. This time we had time to wait for the right songs and the right times to record them to try to capture the best moments. When you look at the album, it’s kind of like the 12 best moments from a certain period and I didn’t feel pressured at all to put those out.
It seems as if there’s been a gap as before you did put out consecutive albums.
Close To Paradise was a long process whereas Wooden Arms was short process as we had a bit of momentum going and wanted to try to keep it going. It was maybe okay at the time but after that we kind of thought it was more important to have patience and get things right just the way you want them to be.
With the actual process, it doesn’t seem like the music is necessary built around the instruments but instead it’s around the songwriting. Is that the case?
Yeah, the songs come first and then the instruments kind of help tell the story. With some songs you can definitely hear what should be around them. Sometimes it’s a mystery and the band solves that mystery and other times the band brings really nice tunes in that I just put vocals on; it’s a mixed process. There’s no real winner as the songs are always different and every song has a unique way of being built.
You’re also very experimental in terms of recordings as in the past, various sounds from objects like bicycles were used. How does that come into play?
It’s happened a little less now as it wasn’t on our brains as much. When we did Wooden Arms, we were trying to find interesting ways to produce sounds live; it wasn’t to just play weird instruments but to bring an elaborate sound design to a live stage. I think that album was built to be played live so all these amazing sounds could be transported to a concert and make it a colourful show. For this record, we sought out to make 12 touching songs and that was our focus.
Did you still take that live aspect in consideration for the new album?
We always record live – it’s very rare that we track one instrument at a time, even with the vocals – and at this point, we are a live band so I don’t think we ask ourselves that question anymore. When we start touring and playing, we change the songs so they work out live and it gives us a much more dynamic way to play our music.
As a band, it seems like you guys work a lot to make the songs become more alive, an example being your performance at St. David’s Sanctuary at South By Southwest which was incredible. Do you think your live shows are one of your main strengths?
Our live show definitely gets great reviews all the time, more so than our recordings. I think it’s a good thing because it’s ultimately something you can count on because when you put on a good show, people will always remember that it was a good show.
Do you think it’s a negative aspect that a live performance can be better than recordings?
It’s not that it doesn’t live up to it, it’s just you have a different audience which is something you can’t recreate. It’s really such a different art form but I think with this last record we improved the live sound quality and captured something the other records didn’t necessarily have, like vocals as they sound a million times better.
With the lyrics being so intimate, audiences seem to form a connection with your music. Do you also seem to find a connection with those watching you perform?
All of the songs do have different meanings and will mean something different to an audience. The moment you listen to a song is the moment you get tied to it – like if your girlfriend dumped you or something like that. I think live, when you have to sing a certain song every night, you have to like dig in and live that moment every night and it reminds you of what the song really means. That helps to not repeat the same feeling and when you’re doing it every night it can be challenging.
Do you think the environment you’re in helps or hinders that?
They’re all so different and really fun to be in. The one I find the most difficult is outdoor stages at big festivals. Soundcheck is limited and then you go on stage, it’s like, “Ta-da! Here I go!”, and then you might realize you sound like shit (laughs). Then you drink a beer and tell yourself you can do it though you can’t hear your voice (laughs).
Is there a “dream venue” you’d love to perform at?
I did one my dream venues last year and it was in a room where some of my favourite classical composers wrote and performed in that same room. It was very intimidating for me but there’s many rooms across America that we still haven’t done – The Bowery Ballroom in New York is one I’ve always wanted to do and now we’re actually going there.
Looking at your music and how it’s received in interviews and reviews, “cinematic” is a term that gets used a lot to describe it. How do you feel about that?
I definitely was inspired by a lot of cinematic music but mostly because instrumentals have lasted for so long and are still going on. I don’t think it is a negative thing but I don’t think it’s absolutely a truth to the matter. I do enjoy the idea of putting on headphones to listen to music to watch the landscape of it change and that’s the great thing about music – it can transport a situation to somewhere else.
Having been involved in film as well, have you had any interest in music videos?
I like to do music videos, it’s just an expensive thing to be involved in. We just shot one last week for the new album – for the song “Into Giants” – and we did a bit of a risky maneuver (laughs). It may be a slight cheesy but it starts off like a Skype type of thing and then moves into a 1960s’ Gene Kelly tap dancing extravaganza (laughs). I learned how to tap dance in about two weeks! But when we film videos, we just try to do fun things that are different.
It should be launched in America on May 1st. You can see me tap dance and I worked hard on it so I hope you appreciate it and that I don’t make a fool of myself. I’m not a big fan of being cool. I’d rather be sincere and be known for taking risks as that’s kind of the game I play and I’m not really good at being cool. There’s a lot of cool people out there already so I don’t think we need another cool person.
Do you find your music to be a harder sell for audiences who are obsessed with the idea of what’s “cool”?
We have a varied audience with a lot of younger people and older people and even people in the middle, but it seems to reach younger listeners more than I expected. It seems like people misinterpret the youth as they’re badged with artists such as Lady Gaga and the whole pop genre – it isn’t bad, it’s fun – and it’s good for them to have a lot of different tastes. When I grew up, I was listening to bands like Nirvana – which is still kind of fun though it came off as really dark music and not candy pop. We’re not that and I still think a lot of young people will like our music. It’s not Jay-Z or super cool music you would necessarily show off to your friends, but who knows, teenagers also smoke drugs while they’re in the woods (laughs).
[Patrick Watson’s latest record Adventures In Your Own Backyard is available now]