feature interview

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ANDY SWAN - November 6/07


Andy Swan is the type of musician who often gets politely referred to as a "critic's favourite"—that's short hand for "really good, but tragically ignored". Unlike many critic faves, however, Swan's music doesn't require a wealth of musical knowledge or esoteric tastes to 'get'. In fact, whether as the songwriter for The Michael Parks (formerly Detective Kalita), or in his brand new solo incarnation, his music is just the opposite: direct, catchy, and immediate.

This is especially evident on his beautiful new album, Ottawa. In just over a half an hour, Swan plays thirteen songs whose choruses get comfortably nestled into your head the second you hear them; a good thing seeing as most of the tunes only last long enough to reach the chorus twice. Swan has stated a desire to make this record the kind of album that people would sing along to. It's an admirable objective—one as difficult as it is innocent—and when you listen to a tune like "Can I Pay You With Sunshine?", you gotta admit: he nailed it.

In person, Swan is as genuine and unpretentious as his fine album. He takes the art of making music just seriously enough to be good at it, but always stops far short of losing himself in self-importance. We spoke about the combination of thorough preparation and relaxed recording that brought about the record, as well as what Ottawa (the city) means to him, and his hopes for Ottawa (the album).

Soundscapes: Maybe it's just me, but I find it interesting that when members of bands decide to do a solo record, it often tends to be a country record.

Andy Swan: (laughs)

SS: What do you think is the appeal of that genre?

AS: Well, I can sort of only speak for myself, but I wanted to try something a little different for me. I kinda of liked the idea of writing songs that I could picture other people singing.

SS: Mm-hmm.

AS: That was kind of a slightly different experiment for me. I wanted to try it and I was playing with different players in a different town, so (this record) was just kind of a different type of thing, man. I don't know why. I never noticed that pattern before, but I guess you're right.

SS: Well, it's certainly not ironclad, but there just seems to be something about the country/folky stuff that people—I don't know if it's a sense of purity, which might be a bit of a naive way of looking at it—but, certainly these songs are very direct. They're very to the point. There's no fat or extra instrumentation on it.

AS: Yeah.

SS: Did you find that this framework of writing allowed a simplicity? That writing in the country style promotes a sort of directness?

AS: Well, I think basically that a lot of these songs are simple chord progressions, so that heart of the song really is about the words. And then basically, each song you try to make as pretty and suitable as possible. But also that may have had something to do with the way that we recorded it as well. We all just showed up at the studio and I'd sent (the other musicians) some demos of the songs, but we didn't have a lot of time to do anything complex. And I don't think we wanted to. The songs are simple—simple chord progressions, simple sort of sentiments most of the time—so yeah, just keep it simple. But also the fact that we were learning the songs on the spot contributed to that too.

SS: About how long did you spend on the recording?

AS: I think we did a total of six days in the studio. Three days in two different chunks. Three days one weekend and three days another weekend, and then just a few little touch-ups at home on somebody's computer.

SS: And everyone was pretty much left to their own devices? You didn't spend much time rehearsing (the songs)?

AS: No. We didn't have a single rehearsal. Some people came to the studio more prepared than others, but...

SS: Right, 'cause there's definitely a few instrumental lines on some of these tunes, as simple as it is, there are really some that show something beyond just mimicking the basic chords. Some of the guitar lines show a really great ear.

AS: Well, John Higney, who played guitar and a lot of the stringed instruments, like banjo, lap steel, pedal steel, he's just an amazing musician. So I was sort of pretty confident going in that, y'know he came a bit with some ideas for songs, but I knew that I was in good hands. He's an amazing musician and he teaches music at the University of Ottawa or something like that. He's a really serious musician.

SS: He plays with Two Minute Miracles, is that correct?

AS: Yeah, he used to play more than he does now, but he still fills in on bass once in a while now. He also plays in this instrumental band called The Flats. They're from Ottawa. The rest of the band (on Ottawa) are kind of a bit more scrappier players and he brought a real technical tightness and prettiness to it. Made it sound not like just another bunch of indie rockers doing a country album. He definitely brought a sort of style.

SS: Yeah, 'cause it doesn't (sound like indie rockers). A lot of the playing on it actually reminds me of (The Byrds') Sweetheart of the Rodeo. This very articulate, economical playing. It doesn't seem overly simple, it's just no one's going off too much.

AS: Yeah. I think we ended up cutting a song or two that had a guitar solo, so there's not much fat on the album. A lot of the songs are only two minutes. Definitely we tried to make it pretty simple.

SS: Did any of these tunes have extra verses or bridges but as the record took shape you kind of looked at things and said, "Aww, that's not really necessary."?

AS: Well, they were all pretty much as they were written and, I think a lot of old country songs are pretty short. Like a lot of Hank Williams songs aren't too much longer than two minutes or anything.

SS: Was that a big blueprint for you when you were putting this together?

AS: Not especially, but, um, I don't know. I guess personally I don't write a lot of bridges for songs for some reason. I'm a pretty simple guy maybe that's why this album worked out pretty well. We just got things pretty simple, just went in and recorded live.

SS: Yeah, but to paraphrase Spinal Tap, "there's a thin line between simple and stupid."

AS: (laughs) Yeah.

SS: Y'know, there's some really great turns of phrase on here, and I haven't had as much time to sit with it even so I'm sure there's more. Was this a record where working on the lyrics was a bit more of a task than assembling the melodies?

AS: Well, I definitely worked really hard on this album. Worked more than I ever had before, and the focus was definitely on the words and trying to get the words right. And basically, I had this room in my place where I wrote down words on all these little sheets of paper and stuck them up on the wall. And it was kind of in this public room. So basically, if there were any words up on that wall that I was embarrassed by, words that I would be worried if people came by and read them that I would be embarrassed by, then I knew that I had to keep working and keep working. So there was a lot of work that went into the preparation, so that by the time it came to recording, I was pretty well prepared and at least knew what I was going to do. Then to just show up and just the excitement of playing songs for the first time with things going on that were totally new, there was just this kind of excitement there, so yeah, it was good.

SS: So after all that preparation, the band setup kept things from feeling too laboured I suppose?

AS: Yep. But definitely I did work really hard on the words. I knew that was going to be the focus of the record, and not any fancy chords or arrangements like that.

SS: That's usually one of the hardest things, keeping things simple. I'm glad the free jazz metaphor made it! ("No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service" contains the lyric: "You may be free as/ some saxophone free jazz")

AS: (laughs) Yeah!

SS: That one's really good! In speaking with and reading about Ottawa musicians, many of them talk about the scene as being insular—not so much closed off, as much as it has its own self-contained chain of influences and major players that don't seem to make it outside the city as much.

AS: Yeah.

SS: I guess I'm speaking of people like Dave Draves, or Mike Feuerstack (Snailhouse) and so on. What's your experience with the city? What led you to do the record there and what does the town mean to you?

AS: Well, what kind of started the impetus of the record... it actually, it started because I had some family obligations to go to in Ottawa and I had a girlfriend at the time who lived there. I was supposed to go for back-to-back weekends for weddings, and I had this idea of maybe staying the whole week and trying to record an album with my friends there. that's sort of what started it. things sort of changed around, but basically I knew that I wanted to try something different and be out of my usual element. And these guys in Ottawa, I knew that if I just—y'know, they're my friends and I'd played with them before in different settings—that it would be a lot of fun and something different for me.

As for the Ottawa scene, I don't know, it's true. It seems that a lot of the bands out of Ottawa slide under the radar. But, Kelp Records (long-running Ottawa indie label) is pretty fun to be a part of, and it's getting more that, um, I think more people are finding out about Kelp Records as time passes. And clearly Jon Bartlett, who runs Kelp, is in it for the long haul. I think people know, at this point, that to be a not-too-successful indie label for as long as Kelp has been around, it sorta proves that, yep, he's in it for the long haul. His heart is in the right place.

SS: Yep.

AS: And when people talk about Ottawa and the scene there, I think, for me, that's what they're talking about is Kelp Records and Jon Bartlett, who sort of created this really family scene there, and I don't know, I just really always have a really good time in Ottawa. And sometimes people are like, "I hope your Ottawa is more exciting than my Ottawa." (both laugh)

SS: I do find that it certainly seems to be a city that doesn't give it self away as much. When you talk to band about it, they seem to have one of two opinions of Ottawa as a town to play: it's either dead and no one goes out to their shows; or it's one of their favourite places to play.

AS: Yeah.

SS: I'm sure a lot of it is the fact that it's sandwiched between Toronto and Montreal, both of which are magnets for attention. Ottawa seems like this middle-child; not the first-born, not the coddled baby. (both laugh) Do you think there's a reclusiveness about the city? It seems like the aspirations of many Ottawa musicians are a little different—they're just there to make music...

AS: Yeah.

SS: ...as opposed to going to Montreal or Toronto because that's where the spotlight is on. Do you find it's a little more homespun?

AS: I, I don't know, it's tough to tell 'cause...

SS: 'Cause I'm just kinda thinking out loud here (both laugh)

AS: I think probably people's aspirations are the same, but uh, I don't know, sometimes all it takes is the success of one band to shine the spotlight on the city, and maybe that's just never happened yet for Ottawa?

SS: Yeah.

AS: But, I first played, like started playing with Kelp Records at their fifth anniversary, which was seven or eight years ago?

SS: Right.

AS: So, I mean, since then, I've had a lot of great times in Ottawa, but when I go there, there's the old familiar faces and stuff. So, I'm sort of, kind of like, it is insular in the sense that just on a personal level... I lost my train of thought there!

SS: Do you mean that there's a loyal posse of supporters, but it's a small one and it doesn't grow?

AS: I think that might be sort of right. Definitely there is a posse, and it's a good posse, and it changes, but, I don't know, I can't really speak too much about the scene there. All I know is that I've had a lot of great times in Ottawa. I've seen a lot of great bands: Andrew Vincent and the Pirates, the Acorn.

SS: Well, your record reminds me a lot of ones by other Canadian songwriters like Andy Magoffin (of Two-Minute Miracles) or Nathan Lawr—not that it sounds identical—but it has this honest, homespun quality that seems to exist in its own world. That the musician is more interested in making the album, than touring it and quote/unquote "seeing how far it can go". How important is recognition to you?

AS: Well, it's nice to have somebody come up to you say that they think that you did a good job. So, you know, I like that. 

SS: But are your plans to do much more than a few shows around the area?

AS: Well, I think ultimately I do want to try and do a bit more touring for this record. To get more people to hear it. Umm. I don't know, that's kind of a tricky one. I want as many people to heaer it as possible. That's sort of the biggest battle of being an independent musician is trying to get people to hear it. Whether they like it or not, that's a different thing, but definitely I am trying, and Kelp Records is as well, we're trying to put a bit more of a push behind this album. Trying to get people to hear it. Basically, I'd definitely be a lot happier if I could spend more of my time doing music and pursuing that, but...

SS: Well, the interesting thing to me is that I almost feel like records like the one that you've made are more possible in a situation where there's not so much attention paid to it. Y'know, it's just that much easier to be honest and follow whims instead of worrying about other concerns.

AS: Right.

SS: Do you think this record would have been as easy to make if you had more of a spotlight on what you were doing?

AS: I don't know. I mean, I hope so. I hope that this idea of being able to call up a bunch of friends and saying, "Let's make an album."—that that will always be kind of easy. This album definitely did go incredibly smoothly in the recording and everything. It was probably as smooth a process as I've ever had while trying to make an album. But, I don't know if things would be different, but that's not really something that I need to worry about, so... (both laugh)

SS: Right, very true!