"The Wage Is The Stage" & "Snapshots": Part 5
At this point in the story, all other part-time jobs were no longer in the picture and music was my full-time career. That meant that we were spending more time on the road than we were in Toronto and working like maniacs. I mean, no one said that being a full-time musician is anything like any other full-time job! Instead, it’s like having two full-time jobs or working double shifts all the time!
In the summer of 1999, we did the longest tour that I’ve ever done. It was 7.5 weeks long and stretched from Ontario to Vancouver, south into the US as far as Santa Cruz, CA and then diagonally Northeast across the US and back up to Toronto. In fact, after that tour, we decided to try to always keep tours around the 6-week marker. Live and learn!
With Cheryl Reid and Lyndell Montgomery as an all-girl trio, I remember that tour well because I had my 25th birthday on the road that summer, in Santa Cruz, CA in July. That night, we slept in a tent illegally (and unknowingly) set-up in a Brussels sprout patch only to be awakened the next morning by the truck of migrant workers that had come to pick the crops! I spoke about this memory in this CBC interview from last year when I was asked about strange sleeping experiences on the road. I’d have to say that it wasn’t my fondest birthday memory, but it makes for a good story!
Throughout the fall of 1999, we continued more regional touring of upstate NY and New England states, Ontario, Quebec, East Coast Canada, etc. Y2K had everyone scared in the corporate sector, but we were just booking more and more shows for 2000 without a care in the world. We had no time to worry!
We were so busy, in fact, that we didn’t have a space in our schedule to do another studio recording despite the fact that we had many new songs that our audience members wanted recorded copies of at the shows.
That was why we decided to do a live recording. Most bands record a live album when they don’t have new material to offer. We had lots of new material (I have never suffered from writer’s block—quite the opposite, in fact; I’ve suffered from writing too many songs and regularly having to abandon songs in the studio!) and we were also becoming really sharp live. So, we combined both needs into one (touring and recording) and scheduled live recordings at three different concerts that summer throughout Canada: one in Edmonton, AB; one in Victoria, BC; and one in Toronto, ON.
All three recordings happened with different remote recording crews and it was a lot to organize, but it worked out! We steered our way back to Toronto after that summer with many boxes full of various master tapes to sort through in order to choose the songs (and the takes) we were going to showcase on the album.
Somehow we were introduced to John Switzer and approached him about mixing the project. I asked him how we met and he wrote this:
“I know the first time I saw you was one of your very early gigs, opening for someone at the Free Times Cafe [in Toronto]. Your parents were in the audience. I know that after that I followed your career and was very interested in how you grew as an artist and built your following. I don’t recall how it came to be that you asked me to mix your album; was it through Andrea Florian (I produced and mixed an album for her around that time)? Anyway I was definitely excited to work with you, because I liked the energy of your music and, basically, just thought you were really cool…”
John, with the better technical memory, also wrote this about the project:
“I remember that the material was recorded using Tascam DA-88 machines (8 tracks per machine, linkable for extra tracks, recorded on Hi-8 video cassettes). I don’t remember how many tracks there were.”
And when I asked him about whether he remembered any particular hurdles during the project, he wrote:
“I enjoyed the technical problem-solving challenge of mixing live recordings, of trying to bring in the clarity and finesse of the studio while at the same time retaining, even enhancing, the excitement of the live show.”
While I was listening to this album (my habit now when writing these blogs), I discovered that these are the things that I really like about the recording (as I’m trying to be positive rather than overly critical!):
- The recording of “Elbows” & “5$”– These were both taken from our Toronto show and feature the addition of Virginia West’s backing vocals, Cheryl partner at the time. A great vocalist, she added so much to the song with just one performance. What’s more, there’s a gentleness to my vocal delivery in this song and I think that’s because it was recorded at the end of the tour and I was tired! Still, what many of the other songs lack in relaxed vocals, this song has.
- The “Humility” track at the end makes me laugh still to this day because Cheryl, who was never one to swear, had a burst of profane energy before we did a re-start of $5. She took over the microphone in Victoria with some feisty instructions for the audience and we captured it for all the world to hear. I think she still cringes when she hears it, but I laugh every time!
- Lyndell’s violin on “Show Up Outside” is hauntingly beautiful. This was the last time that we recorded this song (three times a charm!) but I think it was truly a beautiful rendition here thanks to those swells on her strings.
- The outro to “Corporate Daddy” still makes me giggle too. This was the song about working other jobs rather than following our passions, which I really believe is one of the main paths to true happiness. A lot of people related to this song! The extended live outro talked about petty theft from corporations in the way of sticky notes and stationery and photocopying that many independent artists engage in when they have (paying) corporate jobs but still need to promote their independent (non-paying) careers. In this, I date myself terribly by mentioning “floppy discs”! If you listen carefully, you can hear that we scaled back the volume of the backing vocals of Lyndell and Cheryl singing “fuck the man wherever you can.” We figured we probably didn’t need to have that so loud in the mix!
- Cheryl’s prowess on the hand drum for “Pek” – the original recording of this song with Cheryl playing a dumbek. That original recording captures a certain freshness that the song had back then.
There’s a whole other story about “Pek” that I shared with the “11:11” Ambassadors earlier this spring. I’ll condense it to this:
Pek was written on that 7.5 week tour in the summer of 1999 expressly to bring out the Eastern sounds in Chinese music that I had researched in my last year of university study. Although this song originally sounded more Middle Eastern than East Asian, it was written while wondering how long my degree in East Asian Studies was going to lay dormant.
Later, after remaining nameless for many shows, it was named by a fan (Kathryn Blythe) who suggested “PEK” with its phonetic spelling to embody its three meanings: peak, pique, and peek. Peak: for its sonic height; Pique: for its ability to arouse interest and capture people’s attention; and Peek: which means to “look furtively.” The latter I always found the most interesting since it was a furtive look into my dream destination at the moment of its conception. A peek into me.
It wasn’t until I was already in China and noticed my dangling luggage tags that had been destined for the Beijing airport that I realized how connected everything truly is. The acronym for the airport here is PEK, a harkening to its younger days when it was named PEKING. The significance of this discovery was powerful, to say the least.
Since the fall of 1999, PEK has been on stages with me and has never successfully left the set list (despite a period of time when we tried to take it off for fear of redundancy. This decision was loudly rejected by encores chanting its title.) I’d venture to call it the most requested and celebrated song in my repertoire.
My Beijing band and I re-recorded that song on “11:11,” and now it’s been released exactly 11 years after it was released for the first time. It now also features a traditional Chinese instrument: the erhu; in other words, it has found its Eastern sound. And, it was recorded here, in old PEKING!
In retrospect, I see this song now as a road sign that helped me find my way on this journey. It never left me, just like the dream never left. It was forever a peek into my future. Not just a dream; a destination.
Now, regarding the design of the record, I once again worked with David Adshade for the layout on a points system. Everything about this record’s graphic imagery is geared around road life, from the back cover that was a view from the dash of our old van “Coco,” capturing the “happiness ball” that used to bob on our antennae (until someone who cared not about karma stole it!), to the concept of the liner notes being a letter from the road with the cover featuring a Canadian stamp, the album title appearing in an “envelope window” and then folds on the inside cover to simulate the back of an envelope or its flap.
You might find it interesting that the image of the Canadian stamp is valued at $0.46. That will forever date this album! Since then, regular stamps in Canada have gone up to $0.59!
When we were gathering up the tracks to put on the record, it became clear to us very early on that we wouldn’t have enough space on the CD to put all the songs that we wanted to showcase. We had such elaborate arrangements of some of the older songs, as well, and they had become long tracks that took up too much space. We wanted to release these long tracks, but we didn’t have the option then to just release them digitally as extra ‘bonus’ tracks like we would have today.
We decided to simultaneously release an EP that included some of the older songs so that we could use this EP as a promotional tool. We put “Mental Breakdown,” “There, In Me,” and “Fatty Fatty” on the EP and then tacked on another new song at the end that was more of a fun, folk, sing-along piece called “My Personal Anthem.” It was the only non-live song on the album and I recorded it with just guitar and voice at John Switzer’s studio in Toronto. Anyway, I had never had an EP before and I wanted to have something smaller and lighter to mail to the media.
What I didn’t take into consideration, however, was the fact that the media viewed EPs as demos and generally wanted to hear the new material anyway. An EP is what young bands usually start out with and this was our fifth recording project! We also started to see this little EP as a non-representative body of work considering it mostly featured older songs. So, we merely sent it to a handful of media outlets before abandoning that plan. They sold alright live because people wanted the whole collection, and so we eventually manufactured them a second time, but the second pressing was a bit much and I still have about 200 of these suckers in storage!
This EP is the only audio release that didn’t get uploaded to iTunes, so I figure it’s pretty special and worth collecting. You can still order it through my website, but that’s the only place it’s available anymore.
We released both “The Wage Is The Stage” and “Snapshots” simultaneously at the now defunct Ted’s Wrecking Yard in December of 2000. A US artist named “Gooselove” was the opening act. That release was bittersweet in many ways because Cheryl had left the band as a result of The Great Van Fire of 2000. That’s a topic for a whole other blog, but suffice it to say that the experience of losing our precious “Coco” (the van) in a blazing fire in upstate New York left us all scarred and scared. Cheryl’s response was to quit the band. In her defense, it was a traumatic experience!
That happened in early October and between that event and the release date in December there was a one-month tour that was booked and expecting us. We did that fall tour with the very talented Michelle Josef who we had engaged to replace Cheryl and so, at the album launch concert, while Cheryl did most of the show, Michelle was featured on a few songs as well as a way to introduce her to our home audience.
All in all, the shows had to go on and the bookings were already in place. So, with or without Cheryl, the road life continued. We missed her, but we had a good time with Michelle too. As always, new players bring new inspirations and our journey was just starting anew with Michelle Josef whose musical touch influenced a whole new round of material.
Which of course sparked another album… that I’ll talk about tomorrow…