"InsectInside": Part 2

Welcome to the 11-part Blog Series serving as a “literary drumroll” to the official release of 11:11, my newest musical creation. Each day from Nov 1st-Nov 11th, I will be chronicling the previous albums, the journey of their arrival, and the stories behind the recording experiences and release parties. In most cases, I was also able to reach the original engineers or producers for the projects and so these blogs contain their impressions as well. Each album embodies a period in my career that has come and gone and includes audio snapshots of what was happening in my life at the time. Now, I have also included some literary snapshots to accompany them! I really hope you’ll enjoy this retrospective and continue to tune in to each day’s episode!

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InsectInside, 1997

It was mid autumn when I got back in touch with Chris Leonard and asked him if he’d be interested in working on album #2. He was. We began again, in the same style as before with weekly evening sessions, but this time there were occasional guests in the studio.

Besides, Lyndell Montgomery, I had been playing with a few other players throughout the previous six months including Kieron Daly on percussion (who also worked with Kevin Watson with whom he later formed the band “Brazen Angelz“) and Felix Deak (who went on to play with an internationally successful baroque ensemble called “I Furiosi“).

The studio was too small for a full band, but with overdubs we were able to get everyone’s additional parts recorded. I also played piano (well, keyboards) on the second album and, even though piano is my first instrument, I hadn’t been performing on it and so recording my piano songs felt new and exciting. The piano songs featured on this record include “Little Girl” (a song that isn’t about my relationship with my parents, but was meant as a general call to parents to accept and love their children no matter what!) and “Awkward Lover.”

I had a lot of fun recording this record. I remember a lot of laughter in Chris’s little basement studio. When we recorded “Swooshi, Swooshi” —the song that became the “hit” off that record because it was a humorous, catchy song about female shaving habits—Chris turned on the hose in his laundry tub in the adjoining basement laundry room and we recorded an ambient track of running water to simulate a bathtub. Lyndell was there for that recording too, which made it possible to feel a sense of camaraderie while singing live. You can hear the fun we had–the giggling and laughter–reflected in the vocal tone. The “Chips” track at the end of that record truly proves that we were goofing around!

Lyndell and I were becoming fast friends. (Even though we eventually were partners, we were good friends for a couple of years first!) She was the additional musician who was most featured on that record and we even had a co-written song called “Fly” on which she is featured singing harmonies and playing violin. It was a joy to travel uptown so regularly with someone else to talk to and I started to feel the early pangs of wanting musical companionship in a more permanent way. She even came with me several times when she wasn’t playing, just to keep me company.

Lyndell was the first musician I ever worked with who asked me the magic question: “When’s the next show?” I’ll never forget the first time she asked it, too. Finally, I felt I had found someone to share in this journey who was as eager to work with me as I was to work with her! It was a true gift.

Chris, once again, was flexible with studio fees. When the album was released, I kept half of the sales income for him and put half aside for what I knew would be future band costs (and eventually became the costs of album #3). I paid him in small installments once again and eventually he told me that if I had more to pay him, that I should simply make a donation to a local charity instead. His generosity and kindness and support during this period on my professional journey truly enabled me to build the early foundations of my career. Without these two albums to sell, I would have had no way to earn capital for the third project, “Can’t Corner Me,” which was accompanied by a lot of touring as well. I truly owe my start to Mr.Chris Leonard!

“InsectInside” was to become my first CD. To be honest, I didn’t imagine that there would be another CD. When I was making it, I thought of it as just “making a CD” the way that I had “made a cassette” a year earlier. For this reason, I approached the project as an archive of everything that I had written since the release of my “Self-Titled” cassette and had no sense of building a theme or a style into the body of work.  It was simply a musical collection not unlike a personal diary.

I’ll admit that it lacked focus!

But yes, it was a CD. In just one year, the attitude towards independent artists making CDs had changed and it was now possible to manufacture one through the same company that had printed my cassette tapes. The cost, however, was about $2300—more expensive than it is today! The printing process wasn’t digital either and all the liner notes needed to be exported to film first with its many colour layers through a separate company. It was quite a process!

“InsectInside” was so named because I felt (and feel) a kinship with bugs; I wondered regularly if I might not have a bug spirit trapped inside my human body. I have always hated to kill them and especially hate the use of insecticide to do it. I was living in a small bachelor apartment that had been preemptively sprayed for roaches without my knowledge one day by the landlord and, forever afterwards, I felt sickened by the fumes as though I, too, had been poisoned.

Of course, this title had nothing to do with a single song on the record (and “Fly” is a stretch!). It made little sense to anyone. The notion of bugs was only reflected in the design of the liner notes that feature a winged bug drawn by Tali Bourdeau on one side and an enhanced picture of me looking like a winged bug fanned out on the other, all held together with the type of pin that clips pages together but still allows them to spin.

And yes, I’ll admit it, this design was even more of a pain in the butt to assemble as “Self-Titled”!! The design was implemented, patiently, by David Adshade of Toronto, photos by Suzy Malik. David I worked together for many years and Suzy and I continue to work together, having just completed the design of “11:11”!

When the album was completed, I had to manually cut the liner notes into three squares, punch a hole in the top corner, insert the pin and then affix a sparkly sticker on the pin head. This was because I wanted to match the pin head with the spines. The CD’s spines on both front and back featured two sparkly stickers framing the album’s title. To me, it was an effect to both mimic insect wings and make the CDs jump off the shelf at people when they were looking for it because it would catch the light differently than all the others. It was my marketing mastermind.

These stickers came from pinstripe for cars and I bought a huge roll of it in bulk and felt proud of my innovation. Of course, because each CD tray card featured two spines, one on each side, each required two one-inch strips to be placed carefully on the paper tray card on either side of the album title. Then, once the four stickers were affixed, the tray card needed to be put back into the case, the case reassembled, and the liner notes also inserted after they had been cut and clipped together with the sparkly pin…

Needless to say, after the first 1000 of these units, I decided that all re-prints should just have yellow strips on the spine. Yellow and black, I figured, was insect-like enough! Innovative or not, it was exhausting! So, if you have one of these CDs with sparkly stickers on the spines, you have one of the first manufacturing run copies! (I still have a few back in Canada, but unfortunately I couldn’t photograph them all the way over here in Beijing! Here’s a picture of the yellow-spine version.)

That was the beginning of my “assembly parties,” which were gatherings of my friends for pizza and beer and big vats of veggie chili in exchange for the collective “worker bee” assembly model. My friends were amazing about this, and after taking part in my crazy projects, I’m shocked that many of them are still my friends! For years,  many of them would follow up any of my party invitations with the clarifying question: “Is it a party party, or is it a CD assembly party?” Ha! After this CD, I can’t blame them!

A couple of additional notes about the design:

Tucked in the bottom right-hand corner of the tray card, is a picture of me posed in front of one of my many LPs by Joni Mitchell that I used to display on my wall as art. At that time, I was fairly sure I could have been her “Little Green,” as I’d heard she’d given up a child for adoption and I was thinking that maybe, just maybe, my parents hadn’t been fully honest with me about my origins! Since that time, of course, Joni was reunited with her daughter and it turns out that she isn’t me. Alas!

Also in the liner notes, tucked in the top corners where the pin sits–in the white space that was necessary to create the spinning images–is both a picture of my neck tattoo, the only one I had at that time that features some stylized Chinese characters at the bottom, and the Chinese characters for my previous Chinese name. This was the name that my university professor gave me in first-year university. I’ve since changed it because it was such a boring foreigner’s name (in meaning) and I wanted something more poetic and ‘Chinese.’

In any case, I find it interesting that I hid these in those hard-to-see places on my CD, as though I was saying subconsciously (or graphically!) that this Chinese part of my personality was still present, just hidden, much like that bug inside of me. And, to pummel the analogy even more, I definitely had ‘the bug’ to go to China back then. I was studying Chinese when I was recording this album and the dream to use my studies and travel to China one day was definitely palpable.

The CD was released at The Music Gallery (old location on Front Street) in the summer of 1997. I decided to make the show a full-scale event that featured dance, skits, film, a full-band (my first ever attempt at playing with a drummer), an MC, a stage manager and a lighting technician. It was a beautiful theatre space and so all of this was possible there. I enlisted the help of my community and, I’m amazed to say, they all came together and volunteered to help me make it happen. It was a huge production that even needed a dress rehearsal, but it came off beautifully.

After all, I figured it was the only CD I’d ever make and I might as well make a big production out of it.

Little did I know!

"Can't Corner Me": Part 3
"Self-Titled": Part 1

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