BRY WEBB: CONSTANTINES
For the first decade of the twenty-first century, Bry Webb made his living as the frontman of the Canadian indie rock outfit the Constantines. In that ten-year span, the band released four albums, three 7" singles, and a slew of EPs on labels such as Sub Pop, Arts & Crafts, and Three Gut Records. However, from 2007 onward he also had a batch of original solo material that he would perform with bands such as The Paramedics and The Harbourcoats. It was not unusual to catch Webb playing with the Constantines at a hockey arena opening for the Tragically Hip one night, only to find him playing a coffee shop down the street with The Paramedics a week later.
Fast-forward to 2011, and these songs are now finally seeing the light of day on his first official solo album, Provider. chorusVERSEchorus recently had the opportunity to ask Webb a few questions about the album, and he graciously answered them.
Whether you’ve been performing with The Paramedics, The Harbourcoats, or in a solo capacity, it would seem that the songs that comprise the Provider LP have been in your repertoire for quite some time. What felt right about this moment in time to put this record out and share it with the general public?
Honestly, it was a bit of a fluke. When the Harbourcoats were going in Montreal, I wrote a lot of songs, but after five years of trying torecord them, and learning about recording in the process, I kind of killed the songs with over instrumentation and production. When I went to mix the eleven or twelve songs that would have been the Harbourcoats record, I realized this, and got very bummed out. I stopped making music for a while and stumbled into a construction job in Montreal for the last year I was living there. When my wife and I relocated to Guelph, Ontario, and had our son, Asa, I was still in the middle of this creative rut. Last spring, when Asa was about three months old, I just started thinking about making something for him. That was the most liberating way of thinking about music that had ever crossed my mind.
I wrote the song "Asa", the first song I had written in a year and a half, and started to think about playing music again. In Guelph, I had met Rich Burnett (lap steel), Mike Brooks (pedal steel) and Tyler Belluz (upright bass) at some local house shows, and we got together to play at a benefit concert at the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada. It was so easy to play with these guys that I started to think about recording something very simple with these arrangements. My old friend Jeff McMurrich called me up just after the Donkey Sanctuary show, and asked if I wanted to come up to his studio in Toronto and record something live-off-the-floor, no pressure, just a fun little experiment. We ended up getting together in that room for two weekends, and essentially, that's the record. Jeff runs a great independent label called Idee Fixe, with Alex Durlak, a printing maven in Toronto. They said they could put the thing out in two months, which is kind of unheard of in record label land, so that sealed it.
For the release of Provider, you’ve decided to partner with the recording label Idee Fixe, a relatively recent upstart label. How did this partnership come to be, and what about this label appeals to you as a home for your solo recordings?
Idee Fixe is everything a label should be. They're independent, but they own the means of production (recording studio, printing and design), so recording and putting together a release doesn't have to be financially stressful for the musicians. Intricate and elaborate layout design, and audiophile quality record pressing are priorities for them, over flashy marketing and signing a ton of bands. Jeff actually sourced out the best vinyl pressing plant in North America, somewhere in Kansas, I think, so their records would be top quality. Plus, they're old friends of mine.
You are currently playing a number of Canadian shows with Feist in support of her recent Metals album. Besides having been a label-mate of hers in the past via Arts & Crafts, you have also collaborated on the song “Islands in the Stream.” How did this musical partnership between the two of you originate, and how did you find the experience playing together at the Glenn Gould Studio record release show for Metals? Do you foresee more musical collaboration between the two of you in the future?
Leslie Feist was friends with Tyler Clarke Burke and Lisa Moran, who ran the label Three Gut Records, which was The Constantines' Canadian label. Three Gut was a really tight community and they used to throw incredibly fun and creative parties. I think that's where i first met Leslie. She's been incredibly supportive of music I've made with the Cons and without. When she was recording Metals, she asked if I'd be interested in driving up to Montreal to record vocals on her song, "The Bad In Each Other". I was, of course, very interested. It was a very fun, casual recording experience, and along with the arrival of my son, it pushed me out of that creative rut enough to think about writing and recording again.
The Glenn Gould thing was great. It's a beautiful space. That show was meant to showcase the songs on her new record, and because I sang on The Bad In Each Other, I was asked to perform. I was nervous as hell. But it ended up being a blast. The evening's guest vocalists (Jeff Tweedy, Joel Gibb, Ed Droste, Doug Paisley and I) sat in a line of chairs backstage, like a line of suitors waiting for a chance to charm Leslie. I hope I get a chance to collaborate with her again. Her creativity is completely inspiring, and she's a very fun-loving person.
Thematically, Provider seems to pick up where your work with the Constantines left off by focusing heavily on the relationship between work, love, family, and priorities. To borrow a phrase from Fucked Up, your music seemingly illuminates the chemistry of common life. What are the biggest sources of inspiration when it comes to crafting lyrics for your songs, and what is it about these particular themes that continues to appeal to you as a songwriter?
The biggest inspiration for me right now is my son, but for the most part I just write songs about people I love, who are surviving in interesting ways. The later Cons songs were mostly coming from that place, but because I'm the only one responsible for these new songs, they've gotten even more personal, closer to home. That said, writing is just kind of how I try and understand things. Lately I've been trying to understand the responsibilities one takes on as a thirty-four year old person. But sometimes it's just about trying to document an important moment, so I can revisit it whenever I play that song, which was the case for "Rivers of Gold" and "Viva".
The Canadian landscape has always featured prominently in your lyrics, and this album is no exception. For example, the song “Rivers of Gold” paints a pretty distinct picture of life in Canada’s north. Besides the fact that it is your home, what is it about Canada that captivates you and compels you to continue to use it as the setting for many of your songs? Do you think this geographical specificity turns off potential fans outside of Canada, or does it simply add to the mystery and intrigue of your particular brand of songwriting?
I hope it's not alienating to anyone outside of Canada. I don't find the geographical references in Amos Tutuola's writing alienating, though I've never been to Nigeria. When you're writing, you're looking for symbols and metaphors, so it's pretty natural that your physical surroundings are going to creep in there. If I'm thinking about themes like adventure and personal freedom, the wildness and openness of northern Canadian landscapes seems to fit pretty nicely. "Rivers of Gold" was written after my first trip to Dawson City, which is unlike any place I've ever been. It was almost more like travel writing than songwriting. Just trying to represent the spirit of a place as purely as possible.
Looking back at the Canadian songwriters that precede you, it must be somewhat daunting to stand on the shoulders of such prolific figures as Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson and Robbie Robertson (to name only a few). With whom in the Canadian songwriting community do you feel most close of a kinship with? Similarly, which songwriters of your generation inspire you?
I can't really compare myself to those people. It would be unrealistic and kind of paralyzing. I love the music that those people made, but I love the music of most of the people in underground Canadian music right now just as much. Motem, from Hamilton, is my favourite lyricist in Canada right now, and his approach to making music is massively inspiring. The website Weird Canada is easily the most inspiring thing I've seen in Canadian music in a long time. It's moving towards being the online equivalent of the punk/underground network of the eighties and nineties.
Do you have any regrets about choosing a career in music?
I was lucky to make music for a living for several years with the Constantines. Now, as I'm trying to make sure I'm at home with my family as much as possible, I'm reluctant to tour as much as is required to sustain oneself as a professional musician. Just over a year ago, I landed a full time job as program coordinator at the community radio station CFRU in Guelph. It's a great job, and it allows me to make music when I need to, and take care of my family without leaving for a month at a time. So, no, I have no regrets about choosing a career as a professional musician, but I'm enjoying making unprofessional music again.
What are your plans for the rest of 2011 and 2012 with regards to touring and promotion of Provider?
I'm going to sit down with my wife and figure out those plans over the holidays. I will tour, but my priority right now is not putting any undue stress on the old family dynamic, here. It's a pretty delicate balance, but it seems like it's working.