/// Artwork by Adam Waito ///
Although not a believer in this Friday’s Mayan apocalypse, local songwriter James Irwin is looking forward to the day nonetheless. Coinciding with his performance at the Passovah Holiday Special 2012, it’s also the somewhat arbitrary date he’s given himself to end one musical calendar and begin another. So it’s no wonder that when I called him at his at Mile End apartment, he was practising a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Irwin will be leaving behind Western Transport, his self-released, year-and-a-half-old solo debut that once existed asBlue Dust, by finally putting out a limited run of physical copies. He’s also got a backlog of tunes dating to his time with his old band, My People Sleeping, which he’ll make available as an EP at the Holiday Special.
So what does Year 1 A.P. (after Passovah) have in store for Irwin? The 31-year-old Orangeville, Ont. native is working on two albums: an energetic and cooperative one with his new band, the Moment, and another solo record, which he considers more of a headphone listen. “I picture people listening to it alone, and me conceiving of it alone,” he says. “It’s more of a personal interaction than an activity.”
I spoke to Irwin about the introspective Western Transport, double-dipping with the Moment and letting people in.
Erik Leijon: How do you feel about Western Transport these days, now that it’s been out for some time?
James Irwin: I feel like I’ve changed a lot since I made it. I’m working on other stuff now, and I’m trying to distance myself from the headspace that it came from, but I’m really proud of it. By the time I finished, I had spent three years working on it.
EL: What was that headspace?
JI: Very introspective. A lot of the themes were based on conflict that was going on in my life at the time, and there’s a lot of anger and dwelling. It has a haunted atmosphere to it, of isolation and guilt, and that headspace was good fodder for songs, but since then I’ve tried to immerse myself in more active things. I spend a lot of time writing and reflecting in my own head, and so I’ve made a conscious effort in the past year to spend more time in action, and in groups, playing my music more intuitively than in a calculated, individual way, which was how Western Transportwas made.
EL: How did you attain that haunted atmosphere in the music?
JI: The reason why it took so long to finish and was specific in the way it sounded is I always thought about making the formal elements disappear as much as possible. I wanted to use sounds that swell and move in waves, that are indistinguishable from one thing to the next, so you don’t quite know what’s making the sound. It’s what I like on an aesthetic level, but it also suited the emotions. I had a strong sense of what the emotion was in each song because that was what they were created from, so I waited until the sounds felt right. There’s very few distinguishable melodies or riffs in the music; it’s ambient and meant to make you not too aware of the form. They’re folk songs, essentially, but I didn’t want to call attention to the genre. You can use recognizable forms and musical themes to give people a way in with a familiar element.
EL: Did you not want to give people a way in?
JI: One of the things I’m realizing now is I wasn’t making it easy for people, and I don’t know if that was really the case, but I am interested in communicating in a musical language that gives people a root in. I didn’t intend to not let people in, but I didn’t want the songs to be immediately identifiable or comparable. I wanted the emotions to be believable. Now I’m trying to compose all the elements at the same time, because for Western Transport I wrote all the songs solo, mostly on guitar, and in a lot of cases recorded them like that and then did a lot of overdubs.
EL: Who’s in the Moment?
JI: Myself, Nick Scribner, Adam Waito [of Adam & the Amethysts] on bass, Jeffrey Malecki on drums and Julia Lewandoski on keyboards.
EL: Are you working on an album?
JI: We’ve recorded all the bed tracks for an album, but there’s no telling how long it’s going to take. Hope to have it done by the spring; we recorded very quickly together as a group, but Nick and I have been working on overdubs. I don’t think anyone wants it to be something we’re sitting on too long. We want it to be good, but we don’t want it to be overworked, so I hope we have a few more intensive sessions and then have something ready for the spring.
EL: How does it compare to what you’re doing as James Irwin?
JI: The main thing is my stuff is conceived more for you to listen to by yourself, recorded music you have more of a personal relationship to, while the Moment is more about collective energy, about being fun to play in front of people, and for people to get into it. That’s something I didn’t get before, but there’s quite a big difference. We’re working on things as a group, so it’s about coming up with active parts for everyone to play. ■
The third annual Passovah Holiday Special, with UN, Alexander Chow, James Irwin, David McLeod and more, happens at Casa del Popolo, (4873 St-Laurent) on Friday, Dec. 21, 9 p.m., free
“Western Transport, de James Irwin, est peut-être le plus beau disque de l’année 2012.”
“Aucun disque, selon moi, n’avait jamais aussi superbement exprimé la mélancolie moderne. James Irwin est, osons la comparaison, le Baudelaire de la pop.”
This is a reissue of my songs from My People Sleeping as an EP for the solstice apocalypse 12/21/12.
I’m so much happier than Bodie with the cone on his head. My album is the album of the year at Bandcamp Hunter, an Australian site posting about Bandcamp discoveries. Thank you James Baker. Here is the article -
“My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel-it is, before all, to make you see.”
Rock and roll can save, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Those who scoff at the power of music simply haven’t been listening to the correct things. When an album comes along that gently places a key in your heart, turns it slowly, opens a reservoir of understanding and feelings that you thought had long gone, colours your world in the prettiest of colours, then you know you are listening to music of real power. Music produced by someone creating something magical, created by someone that deserves to be classed as something higher than an artist. James Irwin is magical.
I’ll admit it, it’s a rare thing these days for me to listen to a full album from beginning to end and truly appreciate every nuance, every subtlety. To appreciate the structuring and sequencing of songs that contribute to said album becoming a cohesive whole. An entire work, ten songs that fit together beautifully and offer something you can sit and listen to and become completely engaged with. A collection of songs that offer something new and fascinating with each listen. I probably don’t appreciate lyrics quite so much anymore either, I don’t obsessively analyse metaphors and messages in songs like I used to. Where these confessions are leading, of course, is to Western Transport. An album that reignited my love of well crafted lyrics and the album as an art from.
Thrown out on the burning road,
where the wind was moving stones,
blood pools around my throat,
like river mud between my toes.
Let it sink it in. Give it space.
You are on my mind. Are you in my body too?
When the need goes away will the wanting stay?
Will you sit seven days hanging on guilty dreams?
Are you halfway here? Are you halfway to Mexico?
There’s no way for me to do the quality of these songs justice outside of quoting the lyric. You can listen yourself and read, as these are lyrics that can be read and appreciated on a poetic level. What I can do is expand a little on how they make me feel and what are some of the ideas that lurk within their gently crushing haze.
The reflective quality of these songs from Iriwn are not navel gazing, are not overtly introspective, they are the concise capturing of a vague existential ache that lurks in us all. Music that captures the sad and beautiful feeling of gazing at a glorious sunset, of walking an empty street in the middle of a foggy night and considering it all and nothing at all. Of feeling brutal heartache and wishing it would be gone but understanding this is what we all endure, that this is being alive. “Hearts Like Old Cars” is one of the finest songs I’ve heard in a long, long time. It’s a seemingly simple metaphor that Iriwn uses yet-like the entire album-it is filled with a brilliant swirling depth. The hardening of the heart comes not from cholesterol or double down burgers, but is generated gradually from disappointment, from unrequited love, from too much of life.
Without you I’d be out on a prairie, under a plain blue sky
with my steady eyes, steady mind, steady rolling, steady engine. I’d drive all night.
Hearts like old cars, breaking down, breaking down.
Everybody is haunted, and you cry and cry, never satisfied. Never satisfied.
The longing here is bittersweet and real but there is more to these songs than heartache borne of love gone wrong. These are songs that of an artist that is looking at people, looking at how we live, considering how we all think and feel. It is songwriting that posses a power that I rarely find in music, a power usually found only in the greatest literature.
Tie my friends down to their beds
Tie my loves down to their beds
Let these crazy birds fly from their heads
Put me back in old orange town where we drink alone and go home
Cause we are up in the middle of the night
Ringing bells, shining searchlights
The master asked for a word to pass,
We don’t have it anymore
They are words that stop me, that slow time and gently shift gears in my head to different places. To better places. There’s humour in these songs too, quite often I find myself smirking at some of the wonderful, strange imagery within the lyrics. The meandering, otherworldly ”Anyone To Serve” is a softly flowing spring of enchanting words, backed by peculiar sounds that sound something like a passing of miniature steam ships.
Now you’re lying on a lion fur, telling me what you deserve. You wrap your lips around a blur of words, strangest thing I ever heard.
How can anyone, listen to anyone, who’s got their luggage lying all around the room. Love somebody like a child would do.
As if anybody’s blind with faith. As if there’s anyone to serve.
Irwin alludes to big questions of faith here but the disarming humour of “How can anyone, listen to anyone, who’s got their luggage lying all around the room” is the work of an artist at play, of a supreme lyricist. Then there’s the (non) appearance of Alice…
Everyone this is Alice, Alice this is everyone. She came all the way from Baltimore with me, and the only one who can see her is me.
Though they tell me she was never even there, I will carry clothes for Alice to wear, as if anybody’s blind with faith, as if there’s anyone to serve.
I find these lines so funny and fascinating. They are some of the final words of the album and they leave you confused, exuberant and utterly delighted. In these songs Irwin has created a work of art that can be returned to time and time again. An album that you can pick up like that old paper back you love so much and be transported, be given faith in life, be gently reassured that everything is ok and find affirmation that the world is-despite it all-a terribly beautiful place.
Don’t waste your mind. We die all the time.
See and hear the whole best songs of 2012 list here
thanks again to saidthegramophone.com
Video for Hearts Like Old Cars by Duff Smith
Duff Smith just made this video for my band My People Sleeping’s old song The Pope. (From the album Feye, released in 2009). My People Sleeping was Ruby Kato Attwood, James Irwin, John Ancheta, Patrick Bastedo, Katherine Peacock. Joe Grass also plays pedal steel on this song.
A video for the song Boys and Girls Together by Duff Smith. Duff is a friend and film editor in Toronto. The footage was found in a dresser at an apartment his friend moved into.
A video I made in my studio for the song Needleye. Actually I made it just because the light was so awesome. Halfway through though I realized it felt very much the same as the song Needleye which I had just finished, and it turned out to be the same length.