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John Carroll. Photo provided by the artist.

Talking Albums: John Carroll

By John McDonald on May 26, 2020

With a successful 25-year career, Ottawa singer, songwriter, and performer John Carroll has many fans. Among them you can definitely count other Ottawa musicians.

Pat Moore says Carroll’s “style and storytelling takes you back to some smokey Delta blues bar. It’s warm, haunting, rich, and colourful.” His friend Tariq Anwar echoes those thoughts: “John represents what it means to be a consummate professional. The care with which he practices his craft is an example to all of us. His tunes are imbued with such an understated precision and artistry that you can’t help but sit up and take notice.”

“And notice we have taken.” That’s Sonny Aiken. “He’s a pillar in Ottawa, standing tall—most of us are lucky enough to call him a friend, but he’s always been an inspiration here in town, with far-reaching roots n’ shoots.”

So how best to describe Carroll’s skilled finger-style, slide-guitar playing, tales and yarns? The Halifax Chronicle Herald summed it up well, saying that his songs are ”covered in dust and ash like they came from the back porch of a back-roads curio shop.”

On this edition of Talking Albums, we’re going down the road with John Carroll.

John Carroll:

Before the lockdown, I was performing live at least a couple times a week, doing my regular show at the Lafayette on Wednesdays and some other bar gigs, as well as getting ready for a  band show with the group of players I work with fairly regularly: Fred Guignon, Phil Charbonneau, and Olivier Fairfield. We’re called the Epic Proportions. I had been developing new song material and working it out with the band in the live shows, with the end goal being to get material and the players ready for the next studio recording. As well, I had been devoting a lot of energy to developing my songwriting, really elaborating on my method and trying to develop the technical aspects as well as finding better ways to capture and convey emotion.

Since the lockdown, I have obviously had to redirect a lot of the energy I had been putting into doing live performances, dealing with booking and promo etc. into finding new ways to stay connected to audiences and also maintain a feeling of being productive and purposeful. At first it was jarring, and I devoted most of my energy to just doing livestreaming shows and trying to be creative with some non-musical livestream performances—reading kids’ books to the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now, modifying Oprah quotes to read over music, just whatever weird performance-art stuff I could think of. Since then I have streamlined to just doing musical livestreams, twice-weekly “shows” where I accept tips, and then sporadic late-night lullaby shows, where I play songs to help people relax and unwind, and don’t really solicit tips. Aside from the obvious show aspect to the livestreams, I have found that another function they have served is sort of a virtual community point, and a lot of the audience in my streams end up interacting in the comment section, which I think is nice, as it gives at least a surrogate sense of connection.

There are two albums in particular that I’ve been enjoying a lot while I have been in lockdown.

As we all know by now, John Prine passed recently, and being a lifelong fan and as well having been greatly inspired by his songs, I find myself listening to Tree of Forgiveness from 2018. For some reason, his passing inspired a lot of grief for me, as I think it did for many, and I found that Tree of Forgiveness, which ends with a song called “When I Get to Heaven,” is a very comforting listen.

And the second. I often take long walks and listen to instrumental music on headphones. I have been indulging a lot in Daniel Lanois’ 2014 release Flesh and Machine, which has a kind of poignancy and urgency to it that seems befitting of a lockdown-era urban landscape. It’s definitely been a weird thing to see these almost-empty streets and the almost-eerie quiet of the last few months. I find the music helps balance out the emptiness.

About John Prine’s Tree of Forgiveness

This album was Prine’s first collection of original material since 2005. Allmusic wrote that the album was “a potent reminder that his remarkable skills as a songwriter and his rough-hewn excellence as a singer haven’t failed him yet.” NPR wrote that if John Prine was your favourite quirky uncle, then this album is the “sound of that beloved avuncular figure finally pulling up to your doorstep in his old jalopy and knocking on your door with several weeks’ worth of luggage” while Rolling Stone wrote that the album “has all the qualities that have defined [Prine] as one of America’s greatest songwriters.”

About Daniel Lanois’ Flesh and Machine

Pitchfork called the album “Lanois’ best and most realized solo album… an endlessly inventive collection of songs built on odd, often lurid sounds and textures, somehow rough and gentle at the same time.” NPR said that the album “defies categorization” with its “deeply otherworldly adventure.” They said that with this album, Lanois decided to “chase sounds that have never been” and recommended that you “put on your headphones and let yourself get lost in a place you’ve truly never visited.”

More from John Carroll: