"Stiltwalking": Part 6

Stiltwalking, 2002

So, you may have noticed that I was releasing an album per year from 1996 until the year 2000. In fact, when you count the two simultaneous releases in 2000, I released exactly 6 different products (with barcodes) in four and a half years.

What, was I on speed or something? Or, was I just cursed with this surname?

Between late 2000 (the release of the live albums “The Wage Is The Stage” & “Snapshots”) and late 2001, we spent most of our time on the road. We had a new van (the third van in the lineage of tour vans whose name was “Saint Eddie” after the guy who’d helped us retrieve our gear from the burning wreck) and we were trucking all over the US and Canada. It was tour after tour and we had perfected a pretty good system with a functioning Few’ll Ignite Sound office staff working regular hours back in Canada and a steady rhythm of advance bookings and tour organization that had me balancing my laptop on my knees while Lyndel did most of the driving to the next gigs.

The other big thing that happened for us in 2001 was our first journey to Australia. It was the redeeming feature of our tough time in late 2000 with the van fire and Cheryl’s departure from the band. Lyndell and I were also having our personal problems in our relationship at this point in the story and we weren’t sure if any of it was really worth it anymore. The journey to Australia was a career and perspective shifter in so many ways. It brought us back from the brink of throwing in the towel.

We had been invited to play at Sydney’s Mardi Gras celebration, the largest GLBTQ festival  in the world. After we got that invitation, we starting contacting other festivals and bands and started to line-up gigs that would buffer the enormous costs of the flights. We were planning to go as a duo, as well, something we hadn’t done in years, because that was all we could afford. Eventually, we had a few worthwhile other gigs and more on the way when the Mardi Gras committee emailed to say that they had had to cut their budget and wouldn’t be able to afford to host us after all. For the first time in my life, I wrote an events committee and told them they were crazy not to have us, that we would be there anyway, and that we weren’t expecting our travel costs to be covered in the first place. I appealed their decision! To my delight, they changed their mind and re-invited us!!

We travelled to the East Coast of Australia and stayed for seven weeks from late February until early April (just shy of our on-the-road time limit), but had a more reasonable pace of shows than usual. By this I mean that we didn’t do six shows a week like we were used to doing back in North America; there were a few beach days and some well-needed sightseeing. Thankfully, we encountered an enormous amount of generosity and were offered places to stay nearly everywhere we went. We also spent six of the seven weeks using public transportation exclusively, something that sparked the song “Tram #86.”

This particular tour strategy was also really effective: we spent three weeks in the Melbourne area, three weeks in Sydney area and then had a week of coastal journeying towards Brisbane before flying home. In that time, we did several small (mostly unpaid) shows that were either showcases, featured acts at events, or opening slots with other bands. These eventually culminated into one of our own shows in those two main centers at the end of each three-week period. We had made up flyers to advertise the “main” show and we constantly gave them out to people who expressed interest. While these final, “main” shows were in small venues, I’m thrilled to say that they were fully attended by the end of each three-week block and the ticket sales were ours to collect. Our hard work paid off and people actually came to see the Canadians!

What made that trip so important was its bolstering effect. We had become a bit dragged down with the constant touring of North America. We didn’t feel “new” there anymore and our hope was sagging. But when we went to this international destination, it was like new wind in our career sails. We came home feeling marvelous, with a small profit of something around $800 (to split between us!) and a lot of smiles. (Lyndell, unlike pasty me, also had a really nice tan.)

We continued our North American travels and our regular rehearsals with Michelle Josef throughout 2001 and by late that year, we had enough material to start thinking of recording again. We really wanted to capture both what Michelle had brought to the band and what Australia had brought to our spirits.

Michelle introduced us to Rogue Studios and its talented owner James Paul. Michelle, skilled with her hands on more than just drums, had helped James design and construct some of the studio in its previous location in Toronto and she had wonderful things to say about James’ abilities as an engineer.

When we met, I liked him immediately. I asked James in an email recently what his first impression was of the music. He wrote this:

“My first experience with your music were from a demo you had done of Tram, The Underwear Song, Lik Yer Lips and Include Yer Food (as they were titled on the disc). I had already heard your music compared to that of Ani DiFranco but I felt that comparison was overly dismissive and mainly based on gender and political content and largely missed the point of what you were striving for. I liked that you displayed both a technical virtuosity and deep understanding of traditional musical forms and a willingness, and sense of play, to throw those to the winds and adapt new techniques and structure to your needs.”

Gotta love an engineer who appreciates the quirkiness!

Because the Rogue’s calendar was packed–a good sign!–we scheduled an early spring session.

We then returned to Australia in early 2002. We couldn’t stay away! This time, we brought Cheryl Reid with us as she had been filling in on occasion as a sub drummer–I guess she missed us! Cheryl was willing to travel to Australia (her dream destination) for almost no wages and absentee hotel accommodations. What’s more, she was also available for the whole tour’s duration. Michelle would have been our first choice, but her schedule and her fees weren’t compatible with our plans or budget. I remember the awkwardness of having to make this decision, and it’s still a touchy subject between us. (And, Michelle, if you’re reading this: we really did miss you on stage in Australia! Not that Cheryl wasn’t talented, but we missed your powerful presence!!)

Incidentally, I happen to find this article that was printed on an Australian website around this exact time. The interview features quotes from all three of us: me, Lyndell & Michelle. Sadly, the picture is of the trio when Cheryl was with us–a picture from the 1999 release “Permanent Marker”! Still, it’s interesting to read this blast from the past.

In Australia, we did several amazing festivals and were introduced to a colourful and enticing circus culture. We came home to Canada with juggling balls tucked in our luggage and promptly bought a unicycle. I walked on stilts for the first time in Australia (Lyndell was already quite good at it!) and I found myself totally inspired by the playfulness, so much so that we did the whole photo shot for the album on stilts!

The album title (and essence) of the record, “Stiltwalking,” is about recovering the fun that we had so carelessly set aside for the strong work ethic of touring endlessly and pushing our independent careers. I wrote the title track on a back staircase at a friend’s house in Brisbane having recycled some over-the-neck, hammer-on licks from the song “Glue” that appeared on the album “InsectInside.” Michelle’s and Lyndell’s playing really brought the piece to life, too, even though it was short-lived on our set list. It was the newest track on the album and one that really begins my lament for a slower-paced, healthier life–a lament that lasted for another five + years!

Some of the song’s lyrics that speak to this idea:

“how? why? what makes you do it?
we are asked, we are cast as those who get through it
has to be more fun than fatigue, more of a joy than a chore, from the soul, from a need
cuz after all, what are we breathing for?”

Back at home in Toronto after the second Australian tour, the sessions began.

James and I each remember doing roughly five days of tracking followed by five days of mixing. Michelle was in the studio with us for the first three days to lay the bed tracks, but the three of us (Lyndell, me, and James) continued with the tracking and overdubbing after that.

We also had the privilege of working with several additional players who truly added to the recording in ways that I couldn’t have imagined were possible:

Dana Baitz came in and played on “Include My Food” and “Ten Feet Tall.” To me, her parts really bring these songs to life and every time I hear them, I love them! It was for this reason that those two songs made it to the #1 and #2 position in the track order. As usual, we didn’t rehearse with Dana at all before she came to the studio and she wowed us with her creativity and intuition. She was a joy to work with.

Also featured on the album is Bob Egan of Blue Rodeo (and his own solo and production career) who added pedal steel to “Lick Your Lips.” I love the spooky sound and he was such a gentleman. A true pro in all ways.

Finally, and the most special of the studio guests, were my Mother and Grandmother. At the time, my Grandmother (Nana) was 82 years old and doing great. (She’ll be 93 at the end of this month, November 2011!) I covered a song on that record, “When A Gypsy Makes Her Violin Cry,” and it was a song that I had learned from one of my Nana’s old organ books and had always really loved. She, of course, knew the song and so I asked both of them to add their harmonies to the track, my Mother doing the high harmonies and my Nana taking over the low ones. They’re both such great singers and this was how we used to sing while doing the dishes, so I figured those parts would be no problem for them. And I was right!

My Grandmother was so cute in the studio. She couldn’t figure out where the sound of the talk back mic was coming from and got a bit confused about the headphones and how to wear them, but we laughed a lot and I stood beside her listening along and directing her when she got lost during her session. My Mom was a champion and pulled off her parts in record time. (Haha, pun not intended, but I’m leaving it in!)

It’s the only recording we have of all three generations singing together and, since they’ve both been such big influences on my music, I’m so glad that they were able to come and lend their voices and energy to the project. It was truly a joy. (I’ve posted the song here for your listening pleasure!)

Technically, the album was recorded first on second hand two-inch tape and then transferred to digital and overdubbed digitally. James preferred to do the initial capture in analog and I think the overall warmth of this record is testimony to that choice having been a good one!

When I asked him if there were any challenges he remembered about the recording process, he wrote this:

“I think the biggest challenge was learning how to balance the weight of each instrument in a trio where all instruments had to be equal and a trio where instruments also switched functions and reversed their roles. I have always and still find it difficult to balance the midrange instruments and melody with percussion when there is no clear or traditional bass section. I know that some tunes had bass and most had something filling the bass role but the approach could rarely be named traditional.”

James added these words about the album:

“I was, and still am, proud of the work we did. I like that the music challenges and draws in the listener and I think you make rewarding music to listen to. It presents an engaging blend of protest, politics, humour and the personal with a sound at times angular and abrasive, without relying on volume and onslaught, at times gentle and melodic and at times both.

One of my favourite stories from the sessions revolves around the decision that we should all strip to our skivvies for the bedtracking of The Underwear Song. During one of the takes, Jenn, who was managing the studio at the time, came into the control room to find me sitting at the console with my pants around my ankles. She completely forgot the question she had to ask me and quickly retreated back to the office when informed that she would also have to strip if she wanted to sit in on the recording.”

The truth is that I completely forgot about that. I remember now that he’s mentioned it, though, and who would have thought that modest me would have stripped down in the studio! I guess a person forgets the things that make us shy!!

Speaking of shy, the song “Boinked (the Bride)” was truly a memorable track on this record and one that I still get comments and emails about almost a decade later. It’s the story of attended an ex-lover’s wedding and watching a woman that I had been with (albeit, just briefly) getting married to a man.

Now, years later, here I am having fallen in love with a man and, lo and behold, I married him! A few of my listeners have pointed out the irony of this song against my life’s path. I’d like to state for the record, however, that no ex-lovers at all (and certainly none that were sworn to secrecy!) attended my wedding and, as you all know, my identity is out in the open for all to see (and read about in my blogs!) and so the context was a little different!

Still, I hadn’t listened to this song in eons. As I was listening to the record (as I do whenever I write these), when it came on I stopped writing and I found myself laughing out loud. It’s really funny!! I’m serious! I know I wrote it, but I had forgotten how funny it is and how many jokes sit couched in the lyrics. I also forgot to mention that we had a “Boinked The Bride” choir come into the studio. A handful of supporters in the Toronto area showed up one night and sang their hearts out. The laughter caught on tape during that session makes me smile. I’ve posted that song as well, so for those of you who have never heard it: click here.

Of course, I can’t write this blog without commenting on the album design. Once again, I worked with David Adshade, but for the first time in five album projects, I was able to pay him outright for his graphic design services. Hurrah!  Also, this design was the simplest of all to-date and only featured a little flap on the inside cover that folded inwards to simulate the open flap on a circus tent. To be honest, most people didn’t get it. It wasn’t the most brilliant of unique design schemes, but geez, I was running out of ideas! What I will say for it is this: it was not a big assembly project and that made it WAY easier on everyone!

The disc image features our juggling balls on one of David’s clocks. I love the effect. The inside tray card picture is by Gerry Mantha and is a live shot that I particularly like from The Ottawa Folk Festival in the summer of 2001. (Both of these are pictured above.) And, as I mentioned, the photos (taken by Suzy Malik) are of Lyndell and I walking on stilts. They were photographed both outdoors at the University of Toronto campus and indoors in the same venue (Buddies) where I released my very first record six years earlier! Finally, the back cover features a picture of me on the beach at the Apollo Bay Music Festival in Victoria in Australia. I was in the midst of doing a cartwheel. In my opinion, the album design is light and fun, full of sunshine and humour, and definitely fits the vibe of the music.

My only regret about the design is the cowboy hat. Do you know how many people ask me still if this is my country record? I really liked that hat and here I thought it was just stylish! I had no idea that one random fashion choice would result in my having to explain hundreds of times that, no, it wasn’t full of country songs!!

The album was released in July of 2002 at the then fairly new venue in Toronto called Hugh’s Room. I have since released several records there including “11:11” just this year. It’s a beautiful space. I remember the night well because my Nana and Mother came up for the last song and sang it with me just like they had in the studio. The audience melted. It was a beautiful and pristine moment that I’ll never forget.

So, it took me a year and a half to get a new record out and so I think my pace was slowing down a little. I was glad of that, personally, because the road work was growing more and more intense. I resolved then to wait at least another two full years before another album project.

And those two years truly flew by…

"Disarming": Part 7
"The Wage Is The Stage" & "Snapshots": Part 5

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