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Jim Bryson on new music, new collaborators, and the midlife struggle

By Alison Larabie Chase on February 17, 2016

Alison Larabie Chase is a freelance writer and editor who blogs about food at This Dessert Life when she’s not ruminating about grammar and spelling at alarabiechase.com.

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Stittsville native Jim Bryson is a fixture of the Ottawa area music scene, playing annual sold-out Christmas shows at the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield and frequently appearing on local festival stages. He’s made four albums since 2000, collaborated with Kathleen Edwards and the Weakerthans, and toured with the Tragically Hip, Howe Gelb and many others. His fifth album,Somewhere We Will Find Our Place, will be released Feb. 19. In advance of his three sold-out shows at Quitters Coffee in Stittsville, Apartment613 spoke to Jim by phone to talk about the new songs and how the record came together.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length.

Apt613: It’s been six years since your last record, which you collaborated on with the Weakerthans. Who were your collaborators on this record and how did they influence the sound?

Jim Bryson: I collaborated with Charles Spearin, who has a band called Do Make Say Think, and is also part of Broken Social Scene. I had seen Charles play in Feist’s band, and I really liked his energy. So I reached out to him about the possibility of producing a record, to which he agreed, but then he wrote back and said he didn’t have time. I was bummed out and I said well, what if we record three songs?

So I was going to record three songs with him, then go to Vancouver and Dan Mangan was going to produce three songs with me, and then Joel Plaskett was going to do three with me. I even had a title for the record: Wandering, Wandering, Hollering, Whispering.

Then Charles and I started recording together, and it went so well the first time we decided to do a second set. Then after we did the second set, and we had nine songs recorded, I said why don’t we just do one more set and then I’ve tricked you into recording a record with me.

He has such a different mind about music, and it was really exciting to be around him and the way he wanted to work on the songs. Philippe Charbonneau played bass (from Scattered Clouds) and [we had] the drummer that’s always played with me, Peter von Althen, and he just had them sort of jam on songs, and they came up with ideas from there with Charles. The first song, “Depression Dance”, we recorded a ten-minute jam of it where I’m hardly doing anything. There’d be times where I’d be like, okay, I’m gonna go make a sandwich while you guys work on the song, and I’d come back and it would be this whole different thing.

The person who mixed the record is a pal of Charles. His name is Shawn Everett, he’s a Canadian from Banff that lives in Los Angeles. Charles suggested that he mix it because he really loved the work that Shawn had done with Blake Mills, and it turned out that now he’s a Grammy-nominated mixer because he mixed the Alabama Shakes’ last record and engineered it.

One thing he did on a lot of the songs is distorted my voice and distorted the drums and the bass, crunched everything and made it sound gnarly and almost broken sounding. Some peoples’ reaction was that they said it sounds like something’s broken, like my speaker’s distorting. I was like well, yeah, that’s what it’s supposed to sound like.

Photo from Bryson's Instagram.

Photo from Bryson’s Instagram.

The sound on the record is layered with lots of moving parts. Was that Charles’s influence?

JB: Yeah, I think you can definitely hear his style of guitar playing on there. It’s a textured sound that he does without it being a thousand layers. Then there’s some keyboard things that I enjoy adding. I enjoy meddling with things myself whether people want them there or not. My contribution was sneaking things in when nobody was looking, and hoping they’d stick. Charles would catch it sometimes and he was like oh, I don’t really like those keyboards.

There’s a very strong female vocal presence on some of the songs on this record. Was that a deliberate choice or something that arose during the recording process and you just ran with?

JB: Very deliberate. I was doing demos, and I was singing high octaves on everything, and I really liked the kind of ghostly aspect of that. I have a friend named Caroline Brooks who is in a trio calledThe Good Lovelies, and she sings most of that stuff. Kathleen Edwards sings the harmonies on “Ontario”, which was nice to have her do because she’s never participated in a record of mine before.

What inspired you while writing the songs that ended up on this record?

JB: I think there are certain ruminations on life in the middle years, and the changes that happen to you through family and emotional struggle, and just living in that environment and diving into it. A friend of mine said to me, “What you are offstage is what you are onstage,” and I like that she said that. I don’t really feel like I’ve put on too many costumes, you know. And I think that the songs are a window into where my brain was at when these things were happening.  There’s feelings of struggle and emotional uncertainty and mental health considerations, and all sorts of real and present things in many people’s lives.

Did you find it challenging to face those things head on and write about them and put them down on paper?

JB: I think it is far more challenging living with it than it was to write about it.

Photo from Bryson's Instagram.

Photo from Bryson’s Instagram.

If you could describe this new record in three words, what would they be?

JB: Music of life.

It’s nice to see you back after a long hiatus.

JB: Yeah, it feels good. Part of my struggle, honestly, was that I felt I was spending too much time standing on stage with other people instead of doing my own thing. I don’t want to sound unappreciative of those opportunities, and don’t want to have those people think they can’t call me, but I think the biggest part of being onstage for me is having that kind of interaction with people, that banter. Music is an extension of myself and when I play as a side person I feel like, shit, all I want to do right now is talk. But I have to stand there and not say anything.

Maybe someday I won’t have as much to say but for now I’m going to keep talking.

Do you find it particularly meaningful to launch this record in your home town of Stittsville?

JB: Yeah, it’s weird. I haven’t played a show in Stittsville since I was fifteen. I used to play at Lions Club dances. I played the synthesizer. And you know, I wrote some songs about being from here, so now I have to face the music, as it were.

You have to go play “Somewhere Else” to people’s faces.

JB: Exactly. And sing the song “Metal Girls” to all the girls I wrote it about. Not too many of them are metal girls anymore. Most of them are moms.

Jim Bryson plays three sold-out shows at Quitters in Stittsville on Feb. 18, 19 and 20. Tickets are still available for two shows in Toronto, both on Feb. 25 at The Burdock. Somewhere We Will Find Our Place will be released Feb. 19 on CD and vinyl. Visit jimbryson.org for news and social media links.  You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.