“There were no houses behind here, and we had dirt bikes and we used to drive through the bushes, we used to snowmobile around. There were all these bike trails that went through the bush and we built forts in the woods.”
Jim Bryson is releasing his fifth album on Friday, called Somewhere We Will Find Our Place, and will play three sold out shows at Quitters this week from Thursday to Saturday. Bryson grew up in Stittsville, moved away, and then found his way back when he bought his parents’ house and settled here with his young family. When he’s not performing with other musicians (he’s toured with Kathleen Edwards and the Tragically Hip in the past), you might find him producing or recording inside a small studio that he built in his back yard. Glen Gower spoke to him earlier this week about his new album and his life in Stittsville. Here’s an edited version of that conversation. Photos by Barry Gray.
GLEN GOWER: You’re playing three shows this weekend at Quitters, they each sold out in minutes, and I read that this is the first time you’ve played a show in Stittsville since a 1985 date at the Lions Club…. why so long?
JIM BRYSON: Those were in the basement of the Lion’s Club in 1985. Actually I played a couple of house shows on the other side of Hazeldean Road. A guy named Joe Rancourt, he has a house show called the Rainmaker Brewhouse. I’ve done three of those, but this is the first public show that I’ve done.
I often play at the Blacksheep in Wakefield, and I was playing shows in Burnstown at the Neat Cafe. There’s been no suggestion or arrangement or pitch for me to play (in Stitsville), so I haven’t.
Also, I grew up out here, and I felt like when I left here when I was younger, I felt like it was “here I go”. I didn’t plan to move back here. I wrote a song years ago (“Somewhere Else”) about how it was a hometown that changes and grows, you don’t recognize who people are any more, that it’s not the kind of town that you remember. There’s a line in the song “it’s got strip malls and bus stops and people I never ever talk to.”
GG: What do you remember about growing up in Stittsville in the 70s and 80s, and how did you end up back here?
JB: It was very small. I remember when we were kids it was like 1,500 or 2,000 people. I live where I grew up, in my parents’ house. (They tricked us into buying it – a combination of Catholic guilt and a good deal!) There were no houses behind here, and we had dirt bikes and we used to drive through the bushes, we used to snowmobile around. There were all these bike trails that went through the bush and we built forts in the woods.
GG: Do you still keep in touch with any old friends?
JB: My oldest friend is somebody who I always stay in touch with. He helped me build my studio, he’s a super reliable and dependable person that you would reach out to and he’d always be there to lend a helping hand. I continue to accept those helping hands from him. We’re really different as people but we’re very old friends. I think he really digs what I do. He’s a fireman, and I’m always curious about what he’s doing. His parents live right down the road.
GG: Was this album recorded in your studio?
JB: This was recorded in Kingston, and in Toronto. Some things were done in the backyard. My studio was being built as it was being recorded. I did do some finishing stuff here. We recorded some guitars and vocals and stuff. I did some of it in my basement as well. I used to have a studio in the house, but I figured if I was going to do this more often, then shovelling toys out of the way to greet people was not the best option.
GG: It’s been six years since your last record. Is that because you’ve been so busy working with other musicians?
It’s been five years and four months to the day. It came out on October 19, 2010. I just honestly am not in that big a hurry to make a record. It’s not like I have a massive following that’s waiting with baited breath or an industry that’s pushing me to do stuff.
When you’re in your 40’s doing music that isn’t commercial – it gets played on the CBC, university radio,community radio is a big supporter – but the benefit is that your timetable is not as affected by people telling you that the time is now.
Once my last record came out I was playing with Kathleen Edwards and then I finished touring and I recorded her record. Then we went on tour and that took time. And when you have family and other things it delays how you do things.
Working on other people’s music, it compliments it. I felt really good working at the pace I worked at. I didn’t feel too rushed by external influences or anything. It all worked out really well.
The guy mixing this record is a phenomenally talented musical guy, Shawn Everett, he also worked with the Alabama Shakes. That was something my producer Charles Spearin arranged. I was skeptical of the timelines. It ended up taking five months for the record to be mixed. That’s quite a long time, generally you can mix a record in a couple of weeks. It took a certain amount of patience and understanding.
He’d be in Nashville working on the Sound & Color, then the mixes came along and I wanted to fix this and he was just going to Fiji for the month and that took a little while longer. We were originally going to put it out in November, but decided why not wait til after Christmas.
(Editor’s note: Everett won a Grammy this week for his engineering work on the Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, and the recording won Album of the Year.)
GG: In the media notes for this record it says you worked with Charles “to flesh out and rethink how songs would and could be presented”. Can you talk about that process?
JB: If you’re an independently-minded person, one of the components that comes along with that is control and shaping things. There was an absolute joy for me to let that go and let him take care of that. It made it fun and it made it rewarding. It was quite a joy to watch it all happen around me.
GG: Who else collaborated with you on this record?
JB: Charles was a big part, as well as some people that I play with from my band in Ottawa. Philippe Charbonneau from Scattered Clouds does bass, Peter Von Althen has always been my drummer. Caroline Brooks – a woman from The Good Lovelies – she does the high octave unison. That’s the voice when that stuff is happening. Kathleen sings on the Ontario song, she sings the harmony.
“That’s a universal search where we find that place where we feel ok.”
GG: Tell me about some of the themes on this record. The first track is The Depression Dance where you talk about carrying the weight of the world. Or there’s a line on Sweeping: “I never used to worry about loneliness and doubt / now it’s all that I ever think about”. There’s a certain weariness in a lot of the lyrics – where does that come from?
JB: The whole idea of the record is that sometimes there’s a lot going on, and a lot to take in, and life’s a big messy emotional thing sometimes. It’s just feelings and emotions and happiness and feeling good in your skin and trying to find a place where people feel ok. That’s a universal search where we find that place where we feel ok.
I spent a lot of time when I was younger, insecure and chasing things and wanting to be part of things, be accepted. As I grew older I feel less inclined to fit in, and want to do my own thing. I found my energy better served by having my own scene, as opposed to being part of something that may or may not want me.
That’s just the pursuit of life and you see yourself where you’re at and each year do a little bit more, a little bit better. I do try to be as happy and try to struggle as happy and “in the now” as I can be.
GG: One of my favourite tracks is “Ontario”. There’s a line in it: “don’t cut down all the trees just to build more things that we don’t need”. I wonder if this song could be as much about Stittsville as Ontario?
I think it’s about consumption. The chorus is about how Ontario gets a bad rap. When you travel you get that “oh you’re from Ottawa”. Maybe it’s subconsciously about the change in a place, but it’s not intended that way.
It’s just that we buy way too much shit! There’s a thousand Home Depots across Canada. You walk through the wood section and think about all the wood that’s used. You walk through the Walmart and see the amount of convenience we’ve grown accustomed to. There’s a cost to it. How much is enough, how much do we need? It’s not trying to be preachy, I partake in it as well.
“The idea is that everything about these shows – it’s Kathleen’s place, she’s an old friend – it’s more about that, then having a show and collecting people’s money. I’d rather play small shows where people listen.”
GG: This weekend’s shows at Quitters. The first show, the second show, the third show sold out fast. Are you surprised at how quickly they sold out?
Yes. I was exceptionally surprised. It’s hard to not feel pretty good about something like that. It’s very heartwarming… I saw the names on the tickets and there were people who I grew up with… it’s very sweet.
GG: Do you get noticed in Stittsville? I remember talking with you at an event a few years back and somebody recognized you from Kathleen’s band…
JB: People don’t know me, I’m not a celebrity. Sometimes I run into people I went to high school with at the grocery store. I was at Extreme Trampoline and a woman came up and said “hi we’ve been coming to your Wakefield shows for years. ” I enjoy it, I like doing what I do, it is an interesting way to make a living. It is the self-gratification business that I’m in. The better things go , the better I feel. If was a bank teller I wouldn’t expect people to applaud me every five minutes. But musicians live with some degree of insecurity. Social media has become that: show a picture of your dog, look what we’ve done … everybody wants a pat on the back now and then.
GG: And what’s next for you? Will you be touring?
I have a couple shows in Toronto next week. Mostly right now it’s doing press stuff where I’m doing video blogs and interviews and things like that. The plan was to put the music out there and make more plans for in the spring. I’m not going on a world tour or anything, just do shows that make sense in places that make sense. I’ll go out west and go out east, and I’m supposed to go to England next January.
I’ve enjoyed booking more shows that are like this (at Quitters), that aren’t just regular kind of shows in places that always have shows, things that feel more like events. Somebody said to me that this is silly you’re doing shows here. The idea is that everything about these shows – it’s Kathleen’s place, she’s an old friend – it’s more about that than having a show and collecting people’s money. I’d rather play small shows where people listen. I don’t want to do it at a bar where everybody’s talking.
The idea of playing music just to play music has never really been the thing that made music a connection to me. It was always emotional and I guess selfish. What I like most is being the person that sings the songs and communicates. Those are the times in the past few years that I’ve found to be the most special. That might change. Part of the reason I went and played in Kathleen’s band was I was doing my own thing and doing it in a conventional way, and I found there were more defeats than victories, there was a lot of rejection.
It was nice to disapper and play in somebody’s band and get paid and get a dressing room, play the kind of shows i wanted to play. It was nice to be around all the great things that were happening and get to share in that with such a good friend.
Now i’m a little more interested in doing my own thing , working on records or playing shows or working on my own music. I like to be involved in it all.
Jim Bryson plays sold out shows at Quitters on February 18, 19 and 20. His new album comes out on February 19. For upcoming tour dates or to buy his music, visit www.jimbryson.org