Freeing Yourself from Whatever’s Spooking You: A Conversation with Brendan Canning

Although he is one of the key architects of the Toronto sound that emerged in the beginning of this century, Brendan Canning would likely shrug off any garlands you tried to present him. It’s just not in him, it would seem, to take that kind of credit.

A founding member of Broken Social Scene, perhaps the most influential band to emerge from Canada in the early ’00s, Canning has spent much of the past 15 years dividing his time between that sprawling collaborative effort and his own, more idiosyncratic work. In 2008 he released Something for All of Us, a solo record which surprised many with its small-scale, homespun feel. This from a man most famous for his co-leadership of a band that has made a virtue out of being the least focused and most thrillingly messy group you can name.

With 2013’s You Gots 2 Chill, Canning has returned with an even more stripped down, even less assuming effort than ever. A gorgeous, dreamy record, Chill pulls from the compositional well we might associate with Pink Moon-era Nick Drake or early Elliott Smith, eschewing grand statements while revelling in the beauty of the intimate encounter. It is, at its best, a stunning achievement, a record that feels at once tossed off, casual and unpretentious, and yet elegantly constructed, like some post-rock Basement Tapes.

PopMatters chatted with Brendan Canning from his home in Toronto on a sunny morning a week before the album was due to drop. He was warm, funny, and surprisingly open about just how unpremeditated his process tends to be. Ideas just come to him, he explained, and he plays them. He creates and then walks away. As PopMatters pressed him to take clear ownership of his ideas, he demurred.

It was a fascinating conversation – here is a man brimming with talent and creative energy, yet can’t remember the names of his songs. He talks about tracks on the album he’s promoting as though they’re still unfinished, and suggests that everything you hear on his record is a happy accident. If this is his process, so be it. I guess we just gots to chill, and enjoy.

PopMatters: People are very likely going to describe this record as a departure from your previous work. How do you respond to that?

Brendan Canning: Well, I don’t even know what that means. Like, what does a departure mean? It’s just because I played in this band that can’t do this. I think it’s just… I would just frame it more like: He made this record, and that’s that.

For anyone who knows me, it’s not really a departure because a lot of these tracks sort of culminated with me on my front stoop with my guitar and my dog.

PM: It certainly has that feel.

BC:You try ideas out and see what these sort of little porch rifts can become. But was it a depart… you know what, got it. As long as people are talking about it, they can say whatever they want. Call it a departure.

PM: You open the record with a nod to John Fahey. Could you explore that influence on your work?

BC: God, seven or eight years ago I was with [Broken Social Scene member] Ohad [Benchetrit] after a soccer game. We played on the same team. And I recorded a couple of tracks with him including that one. But he had sort of said, oh, kind of reminded me of John Fahey and I had not really discovered John Fahey. And then slowly but surely, you buy a couple of records and then you’re in California and you go to Recordland and they got all these great original copies that they just got in. Sort of just discovering his career and the kind of music he made and the way he framed it. Like, he’s this very far out dude. So my music is not like John Fahey’s, but definitely I would have to give a nod to anyone who’s sort of a ground-breaking pioneer of the acoustic guitar and American music.

PM: I’m going to take your album title literally. Why must we chill?

BC: Well, obviously it’s meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. But, you know, people get stressed out over the dumbest stuff these days. Get so worked up over so much dumb shit. Then I realized, yeah, the world is falling apart before our eyes. And it’s not an invitation to be apathetic. But at the same time, what can I personally do about Syrian crisis right now? I really, I’m a bit defenseless. So I’m going to continue on with my life. Do my thing basically and try and not agitate situations that don’t need to be agitated.

PM: So is this a lesson directed at yourself? It’s like a mental health lesson kind of thing?

BC: Oh, it’s certainly a mental health lesson.

PM: Were you feeling caught up in trying to effect changes where you couldn’t get anywhere?

BC: No. I mean, I’m always kind of a mellow guy. I’m just trying to, trying to live a life.

PM: I’m going to circle a little bit back to this question of You Gots 2 Chill being a departure. It’s not so much that it feels like it comes out of left field or anything like that. It’s more that there’s a grand scope to so much of the work that you’ve done with Broken Social Scene. This seems like a more intimate record.

BC: I was definitely thinking, yeah, differently for sure. And this is definitely a no marijuana record, for one.

PM: Okay.

BC: Which, yeah, I don’t know if that’s ever happened. Whether that has anything to do with it, who knows.

PM: What does that mean?

BC:Well, generally, it was always myself and my producing partner who engineered and recorded [this record]. A guy who I’ve known since high school. So we’d never worked together, but he definitely has known me for a long time and seen me through all my different bands over the past 20 years plus. Going to hard core shows in the ’80s kind of thing.

You know, it’s just me and him (aside from the dog and the kids and the family). And if there’s a guest musician coming in on one day then it’s just one guest musician. So, the maximum number of people in the room at any point is three, and generally just two.

PM: The vocals on “Bullied Days” then [sung by Snowblink’s Daniela Gesundheit] would be the most obvious instance where there’s another person in the room. How come you’re not singing that song?

BC: Well, I wrote the melody and whatnot but I think it’s just too high in my range.I really like Daniela. I think she’s a great singer. And, yeah, for whatever reason I just like the way her voice hits that song more than the way I like to hear myself sing up that high. I just don’t think I need to be singing it high. I mean, I can.

PM: You can. But, I mean, you, couldn’t you just change the key? Does it have to be up that high?

BC: Yeah, I suppose. [laughing] Where were you? Where were you at the Monday morning producing meetings?

PM: You see. This is the thing. You need to call.

BC: [laughter] I’m good at thinking about stuff like that for other people. But when it comes time to thinking [for my own material] it’s hard to sort of step outside and say: Oh, oh shit, I could change the key. But you know what? I like the way it sounds in that key. All the tunes are slightly alternate tunings [from one another], so that makes it a little frustrating to learn the song some days. But sometimes you just like the way things are ringing in a certain key and you just kind of go with it.

PM: I think it speaks to the fact that despite the smaller, more intimate setting that you create on this record with only a couple of people in the room, you do have a very collaborative spirit. I mean, not a lot of people on a solo record would hand the vocals to another artist.

BC: Well, what can I say? I like the way she sounds. Pretty much it’s as simple as that. I tried someone else on that track. It was getting dangerously close to [Canadian New Age musician] Loreena McKennitt territory. I had to pull back.

PM: There’s a quirky element on the record which is that a couple of the songs are recorded through voice mail.

BC: Yes.

PM: “Long Live Landlines” is such a terrific riff. But what made you decide to leave it in that form? Did you just feel that you nailed it? That was it? It was done?

BC:Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe [one day] I’ll try and learn it and figure it out, maybe make a song out of it. It’s not to say that I can’t go back to it. So you know what? I really like that riff. But I think when it came time, you work on your record and you work on a bunch of songs and, like, oh, that was an idea that we didn’t really explore. We didn’t travel down that avenue. We didn’t have enough time or just didn’t see it fitting into the equation. That’s an old one too. Like, that riff is from maybe 2006. I used to just call my landline with ideas, like, “The following message was sent blah, blah, blah. Press seven to erase. Press nine to save.” So, you know, for years I just…

PM: You just kept hitting nine.

BC: Basically, it’s licks. Week after week on my answering machine. I’d put them on my outgoing message, too. I was a late-comer to the cell phone. I didn’t have a cell phone ‘til 2009. And people would call and get a different acoustic lick every time they’d call. You know, when I released my last solo record [2008’s Something for All of Us), I think a lot of people were expecting something more like this record. I do a lot of quiet piano stuff. [laughs] Light modern classical; I could put that out.

PM: I’m curious about the choices you make when writing. I mean, with Broken Social Scene on hiatus and your rock band Cookie Duster also in the ether, do you ever write material and think: “You know what? this is a Broken Social Scene song. I’m going to shelve it in case we get back together in a few years.” Or do you write specifically for these different groups?

BC: I don’t know. I mean, I have a bunch of songs kind of ready for the next whatever it is, but I feel like they’re still, you know, they’re still kind of “me” songs. In anything with Social Scene, I’ve always kind of written with the group. I never really took that role with Social Scene. Like, where I’d sit around and write a song and then bring it to the group. You know, maybe for You Forgot It In People. But aside from that, when Kevin and I were doing [BSS’s first record] Feel Good Lost we just wrote it in his basement. It’s kind of the same thing with [You Gots 2 Chill]. I didn’t come in with a lot of finished ideas. It was just: show up on the day, see what you come up with. Leave it more for spontaneity’s sake. I guess that song “Bullied Days”… Is that wha… yeah, it’s called “Bullied Days”?

PM: Yeah.

BC:That one I had written prior to going in and recording it. And then I guess “Some Lighthouse You Are”… What are the… I’m going to need to learn what the titles are. [laughing]

PM: [laughing] “The Lighthouse Returns”.

BC:Yeah, yeah! So that one has the acoustic intro [“Once a Lighthouse”] which is another answering machine lick. And then “The Lighthouse Returns” is the fleshed out version.

PM: I wanted to ask you about that very song. It’s got this line, “Another ghost gone away”. It’s a haunting line. OK, that’s a bad pun. But there’s something really beautiful and mysterious about it. Where does that song come from?

BC:Well, a lot of the lyrics come out and then… I’m just listening to make sure nothing pokes out and sounds awkward. I’ve never sat and listened to it and thought, What am I really trying to say here? Well, I think I’m just trying to capture a mood. But, if I were to answer that question, “Lighthouse Returns” is about inner freedom. It’s about freeing yourself from whatever’s spooking you.