"Permanent Marker": Part 4

Permanent Marker, 1999

We started working on this project in the spring of 1999 and, by this time, Lyndell and I had been working with Cheryl Reid since the fall of 1998.

I remember that I was living in a basement apartment in the Toronto neighbourhood called Parkdale. I had moved into it in the fall of 1998 after having given up my previous apartment so that I could do the spring and summer tours of 1998 without having to worry about rent. Frankly, I couldn’t have done those tours if I had also had to pay housing costs. Those were the days of black and white choices: a place to live OR touring with my music. I chose the latter.

By this point, we had established ourselves as a trio that worked occasionally with various other instrumentalists included two rotating trombone players, John Jowatt and Danny Paradise. The trombone and the violin often did unison or harmony lines and the effects were really huanting and beautiful, especially live.

The other instrumentalist that we had the chance to work with in the studio was Dana Baitz, a keyboard and piano player who also had her own solo career in Toronto. Dana wasn’t a member of the band but she did perform at a few local shows with us after our release. Her additions to the tracks “Quickly” and “Voodoo” really made those tracks come alive on the record. As many of you know, I have worked with Dana on two other album projects: “Stiltwalking” (2002) and “11:11” (2011). I’m a huge fan of her playing style and overall musical touch.

We rehearsed regularly in that basement apartment, building the many intricate parts to the songs that make up this collection. As I listen to the album, I’m amazed at all of the key changes and odd tempos we programmed into the songs. It was like each song was a classical piece whose time and key signatures changed from line to line. In some cases, it really worked and created a lack of predictability that kept each song exciting. Of course, the fact that each song generally had a tempo or key change was, in fact, a form of predictability that I hadn’t noticed at the time!

Performing live, this approach was really effective. Our shows were not stale or boring in the least. We kept our audiences on the edge of their seats because no song was safe from the schizophrenic changes that had become part of my signature sound.

With my mature ears now, however, I have to admit that not all of the changes were, let’s just say, musically enjoyable. Some are jarring and disappointing. Since I’m so removed from these songs now, as I listen to this album today while I write this, I’ve already felt on a few occasions that the melody I was enjoying shouldn’t have been cut off and discarded so casually by my younger self!

One notable track is #13, or the hidden track on the album called “Rules.” It was a remake of the same song that appeared on the album “Can’t Corner Me,” although on that previous album, it was a slower, more acoustic duo piece and hadn’t yet been fully developed. This hidden track, on the contrary, was fully developed with the band and got a lot of attention from media and listeners. It probably could have been placed in the second or third position on the album as it stood out as one of the catchiest, most memorable and fun tracks in the collection.

Why did I hide it? I know exactly why:

I wrote the song to poke fun at pop songs. I knew what it took, in terms of structure, to write a formulaic pop song. It had the “right” changes, the “right” placement of melodic licks (thanks to the violin & trombone), and enough groove to make people dance. The thing is, however, that I really resented this simplicity in pop music and was firmly (and I dare say, detrimentally) opposed to showcasing what I deemed to be a simple, common denominator approach to songwriting. I was so committed to pushing unconventional song structures and/or challenging lyrics that I couldn’t stomach the idea of giving this track a ‘visible’ presence on the record.

Funny, though, that when I listen back to it, the wacky jam and spoken word clip stuffed into the middle of the song, as well as the final key changes at the end, were all ways that I purposely aimed at puncturing its pop perfection. The band even added one of their own punctures in the second verse when they switched to 3/4 time over top of two 4/4 bars after I sang the lyrics “no more than three chords and no less.” After these irreverent little touches, it was so far from a pop song that it could very well have stood up against the other songs and wouldn’t have appeared out of place in the least!!

Over the years, I’m glad to report that I’ve developed greater openness to all forms of music and an appreciation for the intricacies that can exist in simplicity. I also grew tired of being deemed an “inaccessible” songwriter. It took me until around 2006, with the release of “The Dirty Pulse,” to really, actively and consciously approach an album with the aim of accessibility and radio attention. And ever since then, as well, I’ve wanted to write songs that stay in people’s heads and take a listener where they want to go. I guess you could say that I’ve become more pop over the years, which has been a radical choice considering the source!

Once again, I worked with David Adshade and Suzy Malik on the album design. For the photo shoot, the four of us walked over central Toronto where we got great imagery of our city’s urban art and feel. The back cover photo shows a streetcar in motion behind us, a typical Toronto sight.

My Mother, especially, hated the front cover of this record. I had made a face at the camera and the photo was so fun that I jumped on it as the cover shot. I wanted the album to have a light, silly feel. My hair, at that time, rotated between many different “Tank Girl” styles and, on this day, I was sporting my “Alphalpha” look (From “The Little Rascals”) with a single spike pointing to the sky. Just like my rejection of pop music at that time, I also rejected the notion that I should appear done up and beautiful on the cover of an album. I wanted to reject “branding” in the way of my image, just as much as I resisted being branded as a specific genre artist.

Yes, this was all about resistance, it seems.

I called the album “Permanent Marker” in the spirit of graffiti artists who were making their permanent mark on the city in all kinds of radical ways. I thought of independent music as having a similar ability to impact people. My friend Adam Slayer contributed the CD and tray card graphics with the graffiti writing. (Incidentally, Adam has been my friend for years and he was the person who designed my very first website!) Also, the watermark image on the black & white side of the liner notes that contain the lyrics is a photograph of me pretending to kiss the cheek of a graffiti face on an alley wall just off of Queen Street West in Toronto. This face was there for years and may even still be there!

The album was recorded, once again, in the “live-off-the-floor” style with Karen Kane, but this time there were some overdubs with the other players that I mentioned. I recall that we had one day off in between tracking the main parts and laying the overdubs. Since those overdubs included my harmonies, I remember standing in my basement apartment with a dictaphone in one hand and the remote control for the stereo in the other while I listened and sang harmonies along to the lead lyrics. I recorded them as I practiced and then dutifully copied down all of the corresponding time codes on the dictaphone. I came to the studio the next day with my recorded reminder of what to sing tucked safely in my pocket.

In terms of payment for this record, Karen agreed to a partial points system on the gross sales because our budget wasn’t broad enough to afford her services this time. It was 3% deal but I was foggy as to the details. I asked her if she remembered any more clearly and this is what she wrote:

“In regards to the royalty you paid me, here’s what happened. The first album, I was paid for my work with no royalty. For the second album, I believe I worked for a smaller fee and we agreed to 2 payments a year (one in May and one in December) based on sales. In 2001, I came to a gig and in the envelope you gave me was a check for the royalty payment AND also a letter asking me if I felt comfortable with stopping the payments. What you didn’t know at the time, was that I came to your gig that night SPECIFICALLY to inform you that I would be letting you off the hook for anymore payments. I felt I was appropriately compensated for my work. So we were both on the same wavelength and didn’t even know it!”

So, I owe Karen a lot of gratitude for taking only what she felt she had earned and not extending us further. When I signed our contract, I hadn’t thought about setting a term and I learned the hard way that this is an important feature to all royalty agreements!

And, of course, in regards to the liner notes, I had now set myself up for having to do an interesting or weird fold with my album graphics. The fans expected it and I had trapped myself into those expectations with my own creativity in the packaging department to date.

I chose the “Mad Magazine” approach for this one and just did vertically folded strips on the inside cover.

They all created a picture and then the picture would fan outwards like an accordian when stretched, revealing other images tucked behind. The folding technique had nothing to do with the album concept, but what could I do? It was impossible to equate the appropriateness of folding in the corners for “Can’t Corner Me”!

I’ll add one more note about a song on this record that is worth mentioning: “Water Is The Cure-All.”

This was a co-write with a friend of Adam Slayer’s named Matt Hall. Matt was an avid composer of beats and grooves on the computer and, even then, I had a keen interest in electronic music that I had not yet explored (and didn’t explore until “Lentic,” 2009). He wrote this piece and asked me if I had any ideas as to what to do with it. Lyndell also came to his place and laid down some electric violin and I added some guitar parts. Together, we tailored the arrangement and I took it home and wrote the lyrics.

When I listen back to the piece, I’m a little spooked by it. Speaking of the days of black and white choices, I had finished my university education and had distinctly chosen music over China as though there was no option for both, as though the colour “grey” didn’t exist. Yet, this piece is a calling to China in so many ways as though I’m willing that part of myself to not be forgotten–by me! Seems that I was already doubting my own self-imposed dichotomies.

I start the song with an attempt at an archaic Chinese sentence (I now know that you can’t mix classical Chinese with contemporary Chinese and that this made it grammatically indecipherable, by the way!) and then go on to talk about the notion of being jaded, but through the image of jade as a stone, washed up “upon an Eastern shore.”

The first verse:

cannot be so different
be so different from you
cannot be the same
what is real is showing through
like a worn out piece of cloth
worn smooth on skin like stone
this is jaded sense of self when left alone

Seems to me like I was hiding behind poetry to lament my desire to be in China. I think I was trying to say that I wanted to be like everyone else and be happy in Canada, but I had this calling to go somewhere else (China) and, even though it was contradictory to everything I was doing, I had to admit it, especially to myself in the alone times.

How could I have known that in exactly 11 years I would be writing this blog from Beijing having just released a bilingual record on “Eastern shores” and having since chosen a name that contains the character for “jade”?  [子玉: the second character means “jade”] Not to mention the fact that when I first came to China, I was truly jaded and tired and felt beaten down by the industry. This song’s second verse is all about challenging the “powers that be” regarding their support or lack thereof for the arts industry.  So, when I came to China for the first time, I truly needed to get away from it all and recover. China offered me that. I called my first release after coming to China “Lentic,” which means “of or related to still waters.” At this time (2009), I was aware of all the healing I needed to do. “Water is the Cure-All” as a song title, therefore, seems eerily connected to what came a decade later.

Sometimes stones that wash up on the shore are all the more smooth and precious because of their having been worn down over the miles of ocean…

The final lyrics of the song are the most powerful to me. And again, there was something about these lyrics even then that made me never willingly analyze them. I wrote them, I sang them, I released them, and then we never performed this song because there was no DJ in the band! Perhaps because I could just write it and forget about it, I opened a door to some prophetic insight about my future:

jaded art, clean and divinely shiny green
washed smooth upon an Eastern shore
i will soon be like a stone, difference owned
looking for more and not the same, difference claimed

“Soon” is relative. I’d say that letting another 8 years go by before I finally got up the nerve to go to China and then taking 11 years to figure out what I was talking about in some 1999 lyrics is “soon” when you consider the breadth of a lifetime!

“Permanent Marker” was released at the Toronto Dance Theatre in September of 1999 on the Downtown East Side just off of Parliament Street. The space was a beautiful theatre and we did two nights of performances that were both well attended. Karen Kane came and graciously did our sound that night, but I also remember that Jerry Tupis, the studio owner at “Sound Around Studios” was there. He was the studio engineer/assistant on this record and also the previous one, “Can’t Corner Me.” I’m guessing that Jerry may have provided some of the equipment and may have been assisting Karen that night too. I also recall that I wore a dress—a white slip—along with big black boots sporting strips of safety tape and lumberjack socks!! My last random memory of this show is that Lyndell, Cheryl and I rotated instruments for the “anti-pop” song I spoke about above: “Rules.” I played drums, Cheryl played violin, and Lyndell played guitar. Rough but fun!

Good memories. Good times.

And tomorrow, we hit the road…

"The Wage Is The Stage" & "Snapshots": Part 5
"Can't Corner Me": Part 3

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