Stories of a Toronto Neighborhood: Charles Spearin’s ‘The Happiness Project’

I forget sometimes, sitting in my little studio apartment, the lives that go on directly beyond my four whitewashed walls. Then, later on, leaning over the balcony the first day the sun makes its remarkable summer comeback, I meet my neighbors for a short conversation that lasts just as long as our encounters in the hallway or in the elevator. Alone, I wonder what they are really like. What they do and what they think; how they survive and make sense of everything.

I imagine that this is what Charles Spearin (founding member of Do Make Say Think and multi-instrumentalist for Broken Social Scene) must have thought many times before he started The Happiness Project. Simply put, The Happiness Project uses the inflections of ordinary human speech as a springboard to compose music. On the surface, it is music and performance art, but beneath the sounds lurks a microcosm of modern urban life.

The Happiness Project began with an idea. With his proclivity for sounds and music, Spearin began to listen for and uncover the inherent melodies that all of us contain in our natural speech. Each person has a completely unique voice and way of speaking, and if you listen carefully enough, you will find that there exists a distinctive rhythm and melody in everybody.

Spearin then went around to his neighbors in his multicultural corner of Toronto and began to ask them questions. Mainly, what is the meaning of happiness to you? This open-ended question allowed each of them to let themselves go spontaneously. Each song from The Happiness Project surrounds the voice of one of these neighbors Spearin himself interviewed. What they choose to speak about once he asks them that question is up to them. It could be the meaning of love between ordinary everyday people, the role of family in life, or the joy that art can bring to a little girl that hates school.

Each song becomes a completely separate and idiosyncratic piece as a result of this approach. As an album though, it suffers from a lack of unity in the sound from one song to the next. Sometimes a song evolves beautifully from the voice that has inspired it but some songs feel as if it has abruptly hit a dead end. Although, you get the feeling that this is not what really matters in the case of The Happiness Project. The highs definitely outweigh the lows in this collection of eight songs and despite some of the drawbacks, there are moments of true magic that are able to lift the music above a mere sonic experience.

Having watched The Happiness Project performed live, I note that Spearin prefers to provide a background story for his characters to put them into context and plays out longer passages of his interviews with them. Within the currents of each person’s speech, he finds a sentence that inspires him and discovers that therein lies a great melody. He repeats that sentence over and over again and that’s how a song begins, with one voice and then one instrument that can then follow it. The voice only provides the springboard for the band. Soon, the rest of the band kicks into gear and different instruments are added one by one, carefully constructing and orchestrating the sounds until it becomes a moving piece of music. It can sometimes be hard to believe where the songs have come from and how they’ve been transformed.

The greatness of The Happiness Project does not lie in its carefully-crafted songs, though. It lies in the stories it tells. From the meaning of the immediate happiness almond-butter has on a baby barely able to speak, to a wise old man who has had a life of vast experiences growing up in a family of fourteen children, The Happiness Project is about aging, the suppleness of life, and finding whatever happiness you can in contemporary life.

Perhaps the most touching moment comes in the story of the fourth song, “Vanessa”. Having grown up deaf until adulthood, Vanessa finally had a microchip and six electrodes implanted in her head so she could hear for the first time. And the way she expresses how it felt to hear sounds for the first time in her life still sends shivers down my spine every time I hear that one sentence: “All of a sudden I felt my body moving inside”. And that to me summed up everything about The Happiness Project and what music means to me.

Seeing The Happiness Project performed live is a different experience and I encourage everyone to take the chance if the opportunity presents itself. I was there purely by chance on the suggestion of a friend from Toronto and because I showed up earlier than I expected to the venue. After the show, I felt that I could hear these accidental melodies everywhere I went, from the chatter of a group of friends by the bar to the distorted voices of my neighbors through the thin walls of my apartment. In this way Spearin has created a completely unique and unforgettable experience; using sounds and speech to paint personal vignettes of contemporary urban sprawl.