To say that Patrick Watson is a true vision of experimental musicianship would be a huge understatement for the Canadian based group. To get to the center of the eclectic cabaret pop, electric folk rock sound of the four-piece band (consisting of Watson on vocals, piano, and guitar, percussionist Robbie Kuster, and bassist Mishka Stein) one needs to climb underneath the sound and discover each layer as it displays the told tales of Patrick Watson, who spent the majority of their career touring in Europe. Once underneath those layers it’s easy to find the eclectic group has discovered with each album the shifts and changes in moods that live in each town they’ve stopped in — always on the hunt for a new sound.
This hunt started in 2003 and since then has pulled them in many different directions, including a huge collaboration in 2007 on the Cinematic Orchestra’s album Ma Fleur, landing them new legs to stand on with television exposure for songs like “To Build A Home” and “That Home”. The band kept on coming back together instrumentally to collaborate on a few multimedia projects and have found their purpose in the space of alternative sound. This sound has brought them to think outside the box from typical melodious numbers one might assume would be their staple sound especially when Watson’s vocals on occasion might be compared to the lamenting edge of Jeff Buckley or Nick Drake.
Pulling a lot of their inspirations from images in their mind, the band — with Watson in the forefront — has thought up ways to manipulate the simplicity of sound. Whether it’s using a bicycle to create a whimsical feeling on their last album with “Beijing”, using a megaphone for warped vocals, or using two spoons on an electric guitar for a wavering effect on Wooden Arm’s track “Man Like You”. While these leaps have kept the band’s imagination always churning, Patrick Watson decided to pull the reigns back for Adventures in Your Own Backyard, their latest effort, which feels more like a lush lived in dream, as opposed to being on the run from a Tim Burton-y nightmare of the albums before. If this is a real hunt then Adventures in Your Own Backyard is their final destination before the big kill.
Although it’s not completely obvious how the band’s previous efforts got them to arrive at this lush melodic, springtime sound, one should look no further than the backbone behind the quartet. Watson’s voice is still as nuanced and sweeping as ever, and the images are more permanent instead of flashes of lightening. This latest effort is a metaphorical call back to simpler times, allowing the lyrics to float seamlessly to the forefront, creating an optimistic, falling in love in the woods feel. Tracks like “Strange Crooked Road” “Quiet Crowd” and “Into Giants” pull this 12-track disc into a motion picture worth sticking around to see the credits roll.
PopMatters sat down with the Patrick Watson to discuss his inspirations and the journey that led him to exploring his own adventure in his backyard on Montreal …
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People may not know that Patrick Watson is not just comprised of you; it’s a whole band. How did that come about?
We were all studying music together. I met this photographer who was making this book of photos underwater, and then she asked me to make music for this book, so I made the soundtrack for the book. When we all got together to record for this project we really thought that we were just backing up her visuals. After we did that we decided to do a show for fun, so we did the show and it went super well. So the artist kept on doing these multimedia projects and slowly but surely we stuck, and people knew the music. We started getting known for the shows that we were doing with the artist. By the time we turned into a band it was really difficult to change the name. [laughs] It kind of just accidentally became that way.
You’ve done a lot of collaborations. My favorite collaboration was your work with the Cinematic Orchestra. Did you take away lessons from that experience?
When I got the gig they wanted this singer, and they had these three chords, and I heard them and wrote a song for them on it. They’re all super nice guys but I think I just do what I do when I wrote it, and I didn’t think much about the song after I finished it. Then they put the song as the first track of the record and I guess people just kind of took a liking to that song. I think if anything I took some stuff away. It showed me how a simple piano on a song can be so powerful to people.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before but your voice is striking similar to Jeff Buckley. As a listener and fan of the both of you, I feel like you know exactly when to pull back on the vocals, there’s a distinct nuance in your voice. Is that a conscious decision?
I’m kind of a firm believer that singing is one of the most instinctual instruments in the way that you just do things that make you feel good when you sing. I don’t think you ever make conscious decisions about it. Even the way you sing, you sing what you own in a way. You make the sound that you make. When you sing all you do is think about giving yourself goosebumps.
Your voice really soars at a pretty big range. What’s your vocal background like? Have you trained classically?
I sang in a choir as a kid. I started pretty young at seven. I kind of always sang, and then I had a break from singing, obviously, [laughs] like at 14 to 18 like most guys. When I started singing again, I wasn’t like “oh, I’m going to be a singer.” I wasn’t in that frame of mind. I was starting to be a composer for film, and then when I had the photos in front of me I found interesting ways of writing lyrics. I found a way of writing a song that really works for me and over the years I really developed that. I think that’s why as you get later in the albums in a way, they kind of get better because I started so late in the game in terms of learning how to write songs. I think for this record I feel very happy about the lyrics and feel that the songwriting itself is really strong. I think it’s going to get stronger because it’s not what I started off to do. I just became something like that.
You seem to be a musician that lives and plays in the space of a sound, how do you capture that or is that just instinctual?
I think whenever you finish a record you start to open your ears to all sorts of different things, and then you go on the hunt to find all these different types of towns that inspire you and different things you want to bring into your music. Then you go on tour for a year, and you try to own and incorporate new sounds and new ideas, and by the time you get to the next record you’re going to have a bunch of new ideas or stuff you want to try. It’s kind of a constant of keeping your ears and eyes open. I think it’s really important that you evolve, and each town evolves. You don’t last long if you have the same song that plays over and over again.
So I have to ask since the album is called Adventures in Your Own Backyard, what was your greatest adventure as a kid?
[laughs] My favorite memories are always as a kid. I used to live behind train tracks in the woods. I used to walk really late at night. I’d walk down the tracks into the woods in the night and have my headphones on. Those are my favorite adventures. Still to this day I don’t think anything beats it.
So you recorded this album in Montreal, would you say it kind of meshed with the theme of coming home as finding your place in the world or finding the sound you wanted to put out?
We spent a lot of time traveling and recording. We’ve been to Iceland. We always love to travel and record while we’re on tour. On this record we wanted to go home and take a year where we went in and out of the studio daily with a simple set up, and concentrate and make sure we got the right songs to put out next. I just wanted to put out an album with 12 beautiful songs and I just wanted to wait until we had those songs, so for me, I think just having more patience on this record, and a simple set up when you come in every day or if have an idea you can run to the studio. There’s no clock ticking with cash going down the toilet, it’s just a natural place to do that and I thought it was fun.
You were saying that you find the sound along with your experiences. I feel like this more than any of the albums have a real, melodic approach. Were there any places you went to specifically just to feel that?
I think there’s definitely one melodic aspect, especially in the second-to-last songs. We were traveling to the Grand Canyon at one point, and we stopped at this gas station. Then we see this guy who peels up in his jeep and he rolls down his window and asks, “Are you guys aliens?” and we say, “no!” And then he goes on this 20 minute monologue as if the Coen Brothers wrote it, and at the very end he said something that was very elegant, and very crazy at the same time — it was a strange combo. He said, “You have to ask your piano for a song.” We got back in the van and said, “Well that was a pretty interesting thing to say.” Then we put on some Ennio Morricone, with all the western kind of spaghetti, beautiful kind of big expansive melodies as we were going to the Grand Canyon. I think that drive had a huge influence on this record when I look back. The trumpets in “Adventures in Your Own Backyard” and “Lighthouse” in the very beginning kind of gives it that sense of humor for an adventure of people’s dailies lives. I guess that would be how I approached the big melodies on this record.
Do you see this as a particular sound you’re going to go forward with for the next album?
I’m feeling pretty melodic these days. The last album felt extremely melodic too so I don’t think I’m changing course yet. It’s difficult to say.
Is there artists that you particularly like as far as inspirations in your own work?
There are a lot of amazing artists out there. Contemporary or older?
In terms of the bands out there now, Grizzly Bear is one of them. They’re a band that blew me away in terms of newer upcoming bands. That was the one that made me go “wow”. We’re touring with Andrew Bird right now and he’s an amazing musician, he makes this beautiful music that just happens. I’ve always loved Sufjan Stevens — he’s probably the closest to what I do in a way. There’s always great stuff like Beirut. In terms of older stuff it goes anywhere to classical musical like Ravel. In terms of beautiful, melodic songs I love Simon & Garfunkel. I think they would win the award for writing the most beautiful songs.
My personal favorite song on the album is “Strange Crooked Road”. It has a really upbeat; springtime, feel, and the cadence of the drums are in there as well. Can you tell me how that song came about?
Yeah! Our bass player Mishka [Stein] has been working on that idea for a year and I kept on having this melody. I watched our Festival de Musique Émergente documentary that was shot in Quebec about his family and stuff; there are always these crazy surreal stories. This first story is about this woman who’s husband was mean to her her whole life and abusive. One night he fell drunk in the bed and she sewed him to the bed and she said, “I’ll never let you get out of this bed until you promise to be nice to me.” There was a series of incredibly, colorful and amazing stories that came from the documentary that gave me the words for that.
Your lyrics are heavily based on nostalgic images. Is there a specific lyric on this album that stands out to you most?
I think my favorite is “Quiet Crowd” in terms of a lyric — “Everybody’s got a little wrong in all the right places / It just depends on where you’re around.” I think that’s one of the best lyrics. I always wanted to say that and it was nice to do that in an elegant way that I felt comfortable with. I think the “Quiet Crowd” has a little of little jewels in it in terms of lyric ideas and things you kind of look back on. I felt really happy when the song was finished.
You have two instrumental tracks on this album. How do you figure out the placing? I felt like this whole album kind of takes you on a cinematic journey and that “Swimming Pools” was the rolling credits.
It took me about a month and a half to place the songs in order on the record. It wasn’t easy and when you didn’t place it the right way it really didn’t work. Funny enough, lots of advice from friends helped. When you’re making the pacing of the record all you want to do is make the songs shine the best that you can and make sure that the song doesn’t ruin another song after. I think it’s like a puzzle and when you get it right the album makes you feel like it rolls right by and you don’t notice. If you don’t pick it right you get stuck somewhere and it’ll feel long. It’s all a matter of trying different combinations, and feeling the album. That’s when you know it’s good.
Is there anything you want people to take away from this album as a whole?
Yeah, I just want to give people an adventure while they’re walking to the metro with their headphones on. I’m just trying to give a record that will be touching. I had a very simple ambition for this record. We weren’t going to put something out that made people say “oh this a sound we never heard.” It’s just 12 gorgeous songs that really touch people and have nice arrangements that do the songs justice. Our other record before it was pretty ambitious in terms of our arrangements. I just wanted something more natural, and simpler. I wanted the songs to shine more than the arrangements. That was the goal.
What do you look most forward to when promoting the album?
We always tour Europe so much, and they have pretty big rooms over there. We never got to tour the States properly. I’m pretty happy that there’s a place for this album in the States and I think we’re ready to tour there. When you’re discovering a country and exploring a property it’s probably the best part. Once you’re playing a big room there’s a different kind of thing that happens when people are discovering your music for the first time. I want to get a new audience; it’s my favorite part.