Meeting Musicians.

So often, we’re asked questions like “If you could have coffee with any person, real or fictional, dead or alive, who would you choose?” or, “If you could meet your favourite celebrity, what would you tell them?” And then, when you actually do meet them (like last weekend when I met my favourite author, Heather O’Neill, at Calgary’s WordFest) you say some of the stuff you want to say, but it comes off as fan-girly or fan-boy-y, and then you awkwardly sidestep away from their sight line and move on with your life – you, taking away piles of meaning, significance and change from the encounter, and them, thinking “it’s just another fan saying ‘I’m your #1 fan!'”.

When I met (sort-of) Ryan Adams, it was July 29, 2007 and I was in Vancouver alone at 20 years old, for one night only, to see this concert. I didn’t know anything about the city so I stayed at the airport which seemed like the best idea, and I took a $60 cab ride to Granville St. and loitered around the Commodore Ballroom where the show took place to kind of start lining up (it was general admission). To me then, despite having lived in a city for 3 years, Vancouver felt like Hollywood or New York. It felt big, iconic, scary. All I knew about Vancouver, or thought I knew, was: it had a large population of Asian-Canadians, and I also knew about drugs, Robert Pickton, and East Hastings. I had to reconcile these two stereotypes in my mind, but the latter few made me feel uneasy about hanging out in a downtown full of young transients with scraped-up guitars and sleeping bags and feral dogs and cats, sleeping under the marquees across the street. I didn’t know I’d end up living in Vancouver someday and looking back at all this and laughing about it.

This was my first of what would be many times seeing Ryan Adams live (then with the Cardinals touring the album “Easy Tiger”) and I was at the peak of this obsession I had/have(?) with Ryan Adams’ music. I had a technical writing student internship that summer and spent lull days in the cold basement where my cubicle was, being irresponsible and lazy and sometimes hung over, making a definitive list of my favourite Adams’ A and B-sides, listening to all his albums over and over again, thinking deeply about lyrics like “If I don’t believe in love, then I don’t believe in you, and I do.” It was romance and sadness before I had ever experienced the romance of sadness, or what it means to truly be heartbroken. I had never dated anyone, never been in love, and never truly understood the feelings of this music. But Ryan Adams made me feel like I did. I could grieve with him as I listened to his self-proclaimed “sad bastard songs”. And then, just like that, I got a ticket to see him live. And it was incredible.

After the show, I attempted to meet Ryan Adams. I did this a lot back then, as it had panned out for me a few times at smaller gigs I went to. I would wait by the back doors or the exclusive entrance, bring a sharpie and a CD jacket, and rehearse what to say. And I met a few bands this way such as: Travis, Kasabian, The Trews, Bright Eyes, Yellowcard, and JET. I waited for Ryan Adams for a long time, with people I had met while in line for the show. He did eventually come out the doors and was swarmed by silly drunk people. When my new friends and I approached him we were aloof and sat on the curb, and we then ended up going to 7 Eleven with him, making small talk, and being thanked by him for coming to the show. I wanted to say so much. I wanted to freak out. What prevented me from freaking out was wanting desperately for the fan girl inside to not be the fan girl outside. I wanted to be cooler than that. I didn’t take photos or ask for an autograph or gush about how I was “his biggest fan!” I was too afraid, and too shy, and in the end, my friends and family know of this encounter as this strange and hazy personal legend. It happened, though there’s no proof.

If this could happen again, I would do my best to find a moment to say something real to the person whose music has been the constant and almost in some ways biblical emotional force of my solitary life. Words are never really enough to convey this unless you have hours to sit down and hat and ask all the questions you’ve ever wanted to ask. I always think about why that is. Perhaps it’s because we interact with the music we love individually and compressing that experience into the phrase, “I’m your number 1 fan!” seems trite and impersonal. But telling the person in great detail how/why you love them is also a strange thing to tell someone all this who’s standing right in front of you.

Meeting your favourite celebrities does this strange thing where the lines blur between reality and fantasy, between what plays out in your head and what is an actual person and an actual moment. We all want it and then when it happens, we don’t really know what to do. Except try and savour the moment. Maybe try and sum up how significant that person has made us, despite that they’re not in our life.

 

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Review: “Prisoner” by Ryan Adams

I preface this “review” (if you can call it that – there wasn’t really anything better to call it) by saying that ever since I first heard the song New York, New York by Ryan Adams way back in the day when it appeared on an MTV 2 compilation I got from Columbia House (good times, amirite?) I have been a fan of Mr. Ryan Adams. My connection with his music and in some ways with him as a person deepened significantly in 2005 and ever since then, I have considered his music a pillar in my life. Good music can do amazing things for those who connect with it. What that looks like varies from person to person, but anyways, that’s another story for another day.

So, let’s talk about “Prisoner”.

Upon first listen, songs like “Doomsday” and “Do You Still Love Me” have this dark, gritty 1980s heartland rock feel that is a dash of punk rock, the tiniest smudge of alt-country, and a plethora of Smiths and Springsteen influence. None of which is surprising, as Adams is often cited in music magazines which get millions of times the readership this blog will ever get, as “wearing his influences on his sleeve”. Songs like these open a new door for Adams, that of abandoning the more straight-up country music stylings, Willie Nelson collaborations, and sprawling Grateful Dead summer jams, in favour of something modern and fuzzy and rough. I like this. I like it because it is Ryan showing once again he will not be confined by genre or what people ‘expect’ him to be. He makes music for himself, to express himself in ways he wants to, and gets to release that music on his labels. Ryan Adams is the master of his own domain. It’s authentic and I love that about him as an artist.

Genre-bending aside, there are other things in “Prisoner” to talk about that are more near and dear to me than analyzing music (although analyzing music too, is very near and dear to me).

“Prisoner” is a divorce album.

In creating such a deeply personal album, I am reminded of Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams songs. They’re songs written by(?) and for(?) someone who is transitioning to a new part of their life, in new places, and leaving people and versions of themselves behind in a process. As someone who has undergone so much fucking change in the last two years it’s unfathomable (living in suitcases, driving to and from different cities every weekend, changing jobs, changing friends, changing cars, changing colleagues), that sense of standing at the precipice and fully realizing “everything is different now, and now I have to face the rest of this alone” is something I’ve become familiar with in so many manifestations of my life.

On the title track, Ryan Adams points out a bird perching by the prison bars and says, “How can something born with wings/never know freedom to truly be free”. In a simple line like this, Ryan Adams has set up a dichotomy between knowing what it takes to be free and not being able to, versus a ‘free’ creature who can’t know or appreciate the ease of being free. He has also attributed this question about freedom’s true appreciation and definition to himself and the listener. He then repeats the idea of “I know loving you is wrong”. I hear this and I think about my first ‘breakup’, a moment when the pull between being ‘trapped’ in love with someone who would never love me back, and also at the same time, wanting to be in love with them, feeling thus, like a criminal and a prisoner. In this song, Ryan Adams is suddenly me, you, and all of us. But also, while being deeply, deeply personal. How does someone do this? If I knew, I’d be a more successful writer than I am right now.

Shiver and Shake is a sparse, devastating account of a loss so great, you can almost see it like sand slipping through Adams’ fingers. Again, I think of the feeling of losing someone near and dear to one’s life. That feeling of being caught between memories and loneliness, of imagining the worst, checking your phone, lying in bed alone feeling the lost presence of someone… it’s all there in just a few short minutes of pain. Like a burst of aching moments after everything feels okay again. Again, feelings I know well that are long since buried and when I listen to this song they flare up again as if those heartbreaks were still fresh and I’m still 22 years old. The first time I heard this song, I cried some tears while I drove to work and reflected on losses in my life and how they made me feel.

I can’t close this “review” off without talking about Outbound Train, which is probably one of my now-top favourite Adams songs ever. I could say all kinds of maybe eloquent, semi-smart things about this song but I am going to start with saying, OMG I FREAKING LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS SONG! Breath. First of all, imagery. Images like “Lost inside the void of the fading tail lights” and “I feel this aching in my chest, rolling ’round like a pile of bones” are vivid and true. The line that hits the deepest is when Adams laments that “Walls are all cracked, The fan stutters in the room, Where we slept, Where I woke up next to you”. The music dies down but heartbeat drums pound lowly as he says this line, as if it’s a sudden realization among a flurry of aching sadness hitting someone all at the same time. Genius. This arrangement is genuis. Secondly, train-like beats and travelling brakeman aesthetic litter this song, almost remiscent without the outlaw country nostalgia, as Adams song, “Trains”. It’s smart songwriting and arranging that allows for a song’s rhythms and crescendos to somehow match the subject, mood or images within a song.

Ryan Adams is a wicked-smart songwriter. And songs like Outbound Train showcase the best of what he has up his sleeve. He knows songwriting like few other contemporary artists do. He is able to take a subject, a line, a hook, a riff, and turn it seemingly instantly, into something amazing. If you see him live, he is able to take an audience comment or something that randomly happens and transform it into a hilarious, rhyming, mostly full-fledged song. People like him live and breathe music. He knows it, he loves it, he’s passionate about it, and he is a master of what he does.

But more than that, Ryan Adams brings back painful and joyful memories for me as a person. He reminds me of what it means to appreciate those you love. He helps me to reminisce about my youth while seeing the utmost importance of standing on my own as an adult. This record is something that came along for me when I wanted and needed it the most. So on top of its greatness, it seems to seek out parts of ourselves that we weren’t sure were there anymore.

 

Reflections on the Tragically Hip’s “Final” Show.

There are too many reflections on the Tragically Hip’s Kingston show. One third of Canadians watched it. So many people are tweeting, blogging and instagramming their thoughts. It was a powerful moment in Canadian’s history and one that we’ll remember forever: the moment that a band so indelibly ingrained into the consciousness and personal and collective histories of this big, gorgeous country said a final goodbye in their hometown, in front of a sold-out crowd of thousands, and aired on the CBC in front of millions.

So rarely does an artist come along that has a unique story to tell, and tells it in a way that no one else could even dare to try and duplicate. The world lacks originality, especially in the 21st century. And Gord Downie has remained completely original, right down to his sock scarf, spangled pants and Jaws shirt. The Hip’s live-on-air Kingston show demonstrated in full tour-de-force fashion, a career-spanning greatest hits collection that all Canadians could remember, relate to, and call their own. Could the United States, Great Britain, or other nations known for their own great musicians, pull this kind of intimacy off? Could anyone else unite a country this way? Only Gord Downie, a hero up there telling stories about at one time, playing to just 13 people in a room in Kingston, ON and then lauding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as destined for greatness, especially in improving the lives and relationships with First Nations people, could pull this off. Sometimes it takes someone like Gord Downie to, like gold medal olympic hockey games, like national tragedies, like brutal internationally broadcasted winter harshness, to bring an entire nation together under one roof to mourn and celebrate and sit on the edge of our seats all at the same time.

What’s amazing about this show is more than music: it’s someone who found out he is terminally ill and decided to do what he loves, (theoretically) one final time. It’s someone who wanted to share his life one last time with his band mates, his fans, and his country. Gord Downie’s final tour serves as a reminder to, whatever you do in life, and whatever you love, do it ‘fully and completely’.

The Tragically Hip was an institution that we could always, always count on. When the Montreal Massacre occurred, there they were. When people flock to cottage country every summer, there they are. When we need to be reminded that there are no dress rehearsals because “this is our life”, there they were. When we wanted a piece of history told in such a way that is passionate, intriguing, and never boring, there they were. The Tragically Hip is Canada, and has been since 1983. The world may not miss the Hip, but that Canada will miss them this much, means even more.

I loved watching this concert. I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself and my country. I love that we in Canada, canonize artists as opposed to gun slingers. I love that music has so much power over a nation, over millions of individuals, over a terminally ill singer to the point where he goes on the road for a whole summer playing in every major city in the country, because it was the best thing and only thing for him to do.

Thank you so much to the Tragically Hip & their crew, and of course, the great and powerful CBC for bringing this concert to all Canadians. This show, and this tour, were an amazing gift to Canada, and something I won’t ever forget.

 

Favourite Albums Ever.

In light of the difficult news about Gord Downie’s diagnosis, I started thinking about music. The artists I love, the ones that are staples not just in my life but in the musical world, the people like Gord Downie who have produced generations of solidly important songs are records which are so incredibly important to so many people for so many different reasons. I wanted to point out a few of mine from different time periods of my life that have affected me the way artists surely long to affect and make meaningful memories, words of advice, gifts and caring voices for others.

HIGH SCHOOL

The Beatles – The White Album

When I was in high school, I was bullied for listening to my parents’ music (a trend which, of course, now everyone in their late teens and early twenties has come to embrace… of course). The Beatles with this record showed me what it meant to truly be talented and have a gift of music. It was more than just that awe-striking talent though. It was this wavering emotional power, the capturing a time of change and revolution not just lyrically but melodically too; it was Paul McCartney’s voice both crooning on “Martha My Dear” one disc, and yelling out “I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!” on the next. The Beatles changed everything for me. Suddenly I realized I belonged in another generation, and nothing from my generation could ever be good enough again.

UNDERGRAD

Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

Recently re-released, Ryan Adams said in a recent interview that this record was a reflection of stress and uncertainty in his twenties where he was destitute, post-breakp depressed, and wondering what was next in life. When I came upon this record, my place in life was similarly stark and I was constantly searching for meaning. From the moment I heard “To Be Young (is to be Sad, is to be High)” I knew I had found it, at least in part. I cry with this record, laugh with some of it, but mostly just use it to help me reflect and get through the grim times. “Heartbreaker” is everything. It is my biography written by someone else. It is ‘heartbreak’.

Wilco – A Ghost is Born

I first heard Wilco back in 2004. I was in a drama class and this guy I liked introduced me to that lengthy noisy portion of the song “Less Than You Think” that he used for his final presentation for drama class. Later on, I purchased “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” to try and cultivate this undergrad college radio hipster that I badly wanted to be back then. To be honest, I didn’t like the record. It was noisy. It was vibrant. I didn’t quite get the melodies, production, or Tweedy’s voice. I had no idea what songs like “Pot Kettle Black” really meant. It wasn’t until later in life I truly understood the stunningly amazing and powerful raw experimental energy of this band that has come to be one of my all-time favourites. “Ghost” is a more piano and synth-driven collection of songs. It is softer, sadder, less kinetic and electrifying than “Yankee” and I think that’s what I needed at the time I developed an obsession with this record. Wilco often writes songs I don’t ‘get’ and can’t fully relate to. They don’t necessarily speak to where I am in life, or where I long to be. What they do so well though is write melodies that etch themselves into the paper of my life and bring me back to times when all I needed was to put on a record like this and lay on the floor, drifting away.

LOSS

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

There is something lighthearted and summertime-y about this record. And yet, the dark undertones of alcoholism, death and heartbreak retain this record’s intensity beneath the string-laden, rising-and-falling surface. “Astral Weeks” is like a pulse. When you feel it, you know you’re alive. When I coasted through years of settling for less than what I wanted out of life, this record was always there reminding me not to; that everything is more beautiful, more important, more grave, than it seemed. I just had to dig deeper.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

One time, I had a conversation with a now former friend about a recent (but not recent enough for this to actually be a justified comment) breakup and I said, “I just don’t know how I am ever going to push through this.” I was in love. Disgustingly, sickeningly, annoyingly hopelessly in love. And it was unreasonable, unrealistic and ridiculous. Suddenly, I was leaden inside. And then I became addicted to this record. I remember listening to Joni Mitchell say “All good dreamers pass this way some day/Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes” for the first time and thinking, ‘this is my life right now.’ Songs are like tattoos.

5 Embarrassing, Unlikely Songs that have Inspired Me.

Sometimes it’s the songs from artists who tell our life stories, whose lyrics are so good we’re jealous of them, that inspire change and comfort in our lives.

Sometimes it’s horrendously bad, and/or temporary, and/or fluffy silly am radio-esque songs that make us take a step back and think about or re-think about our lives, relationships, breakups and emotions. Here are a few of those in my life.

Cher – Believe.

One of the first (at least that I can recall) songs that had a heavy, obvious and purposeful pre-Kanye use of auto-tune was also one that I listened to on repeat following my first breakup with my first love. That was a dark time but every day, the sun shone a little bit brighter until I was fully recovered from the blow of rejection and the pain of thinking I would never be happy again. Cher reminds listeners that there is “life after love.” Not only that, but she leaves us with the empowering message that even if you’re sad someone is leaving, you can and must, and WILL move on. AND, not only that but she heeds the warning that “after all is said and done /You’re going to be the lonely one.” This has proven to be true. And comforting in a strange way that makes me feel slightly pink but also like a stronger version of my 20-year old heartbroken self.

Taylor Swift – Shake it Off

All those bloggers and instagrammers and tweeters who have adopted the mantra “haters gonna hate” are right. What’s ‘wrong’ about this message is how it is said in so many ways and in so many contexts, that it has somehow lost its meaning (and the poor grammar and made-up words and canned inspirational quotes and everything else that makes social media all too often less than inspiring). But, Taylor speaks some important truths in this song. If you’re constantly thinking about all the bad things and people who hate you and failures and mistakes, you’re never going to move forward in life and enjoy what is actually good. This message kind of goes without saying but when it’s said in such a way that is so peppy, accessible and irresistable, it reinvigorates a more or less ‘cliche’ kind of message.

Jojo – Too Little, Too Late

I hope I’m not the only person on the internet who remembers Jojo. She was a reality show contestant-turned-fifteen-minutes-of-famer and had a couple of hit hip hop-flavoured pop songs in the mid-2000s, including this one. The song is essentially about letting people back in who have wronged us. Jojo says, “don’t.” It’s funny because I’m someone whose exes have all come back, or tried to. And there was a time when I used to let poisonous people back in. I did it so many times I became a door mat who was stressed, anxious, annoyed, and confused by hurtful people (exes, and friends as well). And whenever I’d get a message from an ex eons later, for whatever reason Jojo’s soulful little voice and the message from this catchy pop jam would sneak into my head. And I would write off that message. If you didn’t want to be good to me the first time, why would you a second time?

Leanne Rimes – We Can

What ever happened to Le Ann Rimes? Anyway, this song made an appearance on the “Legally Blonde 2” soundtrack (which could be on a list of silly movies that are inspiring somehow) and it seeks to very obviously and purposefully rouse up inspiration and a ‘let’s do it’ attitude both in melody and in lyrics. Sometimes these attempts are inspiration are cheesy and laughable and sometimes they work. Here, they work enough that this song makes it onto my running playlist and as I’m sweating, I think “Hey, I can do this!”

Justin Bieber – One Less Lonely Girl

Childhood is a precious little thing. And when we have that first moment of sexual awakening, even if it’s just an innocent crush, then a little piece of our childhood in one way is over, but in another way that sweet innocent look we give love as we imagine it to be, the non-complicated fairytale where that cute guy takes you to the dance and kisses you under the stars and makes all your problems go away – is just beginning. This song, and its singer in his pop star hay day, perfectly and beautifully encapsulate that moment. That special, special moment when you look up and see him and everything changes. Going back to that innocence recaptures something lost and broken and it makes you smile from the inside out. I absolutely love this song for that reason. We get so caught up in problems and relationship struggles and complications of life and love. Let’s just have flowers and puppies for a day.

Aloneness.

Time is going slowly, for a weekend. The weather is balmy for March in northern Alberta. I’m sitting by myself having just taken a post-gym shower after taking my sweet time to get myself out of bed, drag myself to the gym in the first place, and rage-sweat to a workout I didn’t want to do but felt like I ‘should’. These are the kind of weekends I love once in a while. My loved ones are gone, I get to spend time alone without feeling pulled in any other direction except my own. I don’t have some big family gathering, but today I don’t want one. Today I want to walk around in the sun and listen to my favourite songs and enjoy complete solitude, with the occasional smile at a passerby.

Some of my best, most amazing memories have been times when I spent time by myself, just me, and my headphones, or a live show. I do stuff alone all time and the first few times I did this, I was driven to do so not out of the desire to be alone but out of the desire to do something else so badly, I didn’t care if I was alone or not. Since those times I sometimes seek out the enjoyment of solitary activities and I revel in that time. Concerts are fantastic alone; walks are the best when you’re by yourself sometimes. Music sounds better when you can sing it loud as all hell in the car on a lone drive. I love these moments. They’re memories, inside jokes, private laughs and contemplation that I have just with me. Nobody else knows or cares about them. There’s a collectiveness you feel with strangers even without speaking to them, and there’s inner peace and bliss.

The Right Record at the Right Time.

I hadn’t listened to Ryan Adams & the Cardinals’ album “Cardinology” in a really long time. I have mixed feelings about the album – there are some real gems but as a huge fan of Adams, I definitely think it’s one of the weaker efforts. After a day where I’ve been feeling a bit down and pensive, I really felt the need to put on something that would take me back to another place and time when I was feeling similarly. Sometimes music can give you answers and guidance and hope and faith that you didn’t know you could have until listening to something from your past.

“Cardinology” is a healing album; it’s an album that provides hope, quietly begs for mercy, and tries to advise listeners to relax, keep the faith, keep trying, and don’t give up on love. All the messages that I needed on a day like this.

The last time I immersed myself in this album, I was in the very very last stages of recovering from my very first heartbreak – one that took longer than it should have to stop hurting. The album came out about a year after the day I was so hurt I could scarcely get out of bed without that tinge of sadness that accompanies everything you do and think about as a broken person. In many ways, I kind of felt a bit… lost… this past week, this past month even. Unsure and doubtful and frustrated and ‘behind’ where I’d love to be, where I sometimes feel almost like I ‘should’ be… I returned to that safe place, this album that got me through another hard time of doubt and frustrations. And listening to Ryan Adams sing seemingly to me, “Go easy on yourself” and “Some of us are strong/But the rest of us are weak/So let us down but if you must/Let us down easy, lord” really helped me to put my worries, doubts, frustrations and life into perspective that I really really needed today.

Your favourite artists are confidantes who know what you’re going through, sympathize without judgment and when you look through their back catalogue, they can tell you exactly what you need to hear to feel better. I’m incredibly grateful for the gift an album from 2009, a year that was a transitioning and healing year for me, much like this one has been so far, has given me today. Music is wisdom.