Storm in a Teacup: An Interview with Bedouin Soundclash’s Jay Malinowski

Canadian artist Jay Malinowski takes to the high seas for his lushly sprawling sophomore effort Martel.
Jay Malinowski
Bright Lights & Bruises

Most Canadians know Jay Malinowski as the frontman of Bedouin Soundclash, a band in the tradition of such punk and ska acts like the Clash, the Specials and the Untouchables. Like their forbearers, Bedouin Soundclash fuses the heavy rhythms of reggae with the restless spirit of punk — a catchy blend which awarded the band heavy rotation on Canadian radio and raised its profile considerably. The band’s debut, Root Fire (2001) caught the attention of a few curious listeners with its quietly brewing mix of Africana, pop, reggae and punk.

But it wasn’t until a few years later with the release of their sophomore album, Sounding a Mosaic (2004), that Bedouin Soundclash caught on in a big way. Leading single “When the Night Feels My Song” was received with great enthusiasm and carried to the number one spot on the Canadian singles chart. The album, produced by Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer, displayed an even stronger sense of groove, beefing up the production on the rhythm section that would help the band’s sound traverse between the city street grottos and the dance clubs. 2007’s Street Gospels continued their streak in groove-experimenting, lightly toying with the shuffles of drum ‘n bass and hip-hop whilst still keeping the pressure heavy on the punk and reggae elements in their sound.

As Bedouin Sounclash’s notoriety increased, particularly overseas, the band saw itself co-headlining and touring with such diverse acts like the Roots, Ben Harper, Damian Marley, No Doubt and Burning Spear. Tensions, however, within the band began to rise, forcing singer and guitarist Malinowski to step aside briefly for a rest stop. In the interim, Malinowski quietly recorded his debut solo record, Bright Lights and Bruises (2010), which stripped away the reggae leanings of his other band for a more ethereal brand of folk-pop. The album garnered favourable reviews, with critics noting the elements of the singer’s distinctive voice far more pronounced in the sparse settings of piano and guitar alone.

When Bedouin Soundclash returned in 2011 with Light the Horizon, their sound had now widened to encompass the appropriations of electronic music, thanks to the work of producer King Britt. Known for his sophisticated electro-jazz productions, Britt stretched the band’s rhythms beyond the pop-rock structures so that they jittered elegantly like jazz riffs against the strands of punk and reggae. While the album didn’t reach the same level of success like its predecessor, it elevated the band’s sound to a level above the usual pop of formatted radio.

At the tail-end of 2013, Martel was introduced. Malinowski’s sophomore album bares no longer any traces of his reggae-flirtations with Bedouin Soundclash or Bright Lights and Bruises’ simple and straightforward folk-pop. Rather, Martel is a composite work of Canadiana folk, Martime Waltzes, sea-shanties and jubilant orchestral pop. It is also personal history of the singer’s ancestry, a document of a bloodline tracing back centuries and a reality imagined through pop music, art and poetry. Charles Martel is the central figure of the story, Malinowski’s grandfather, who left the singer a wealth of personal letters, notes and journals when he passed on.

“I had the idea of Martel for a long time in my mind,” says Malinowski. “But I think it was more a matter of where I was at in life, [rather] than how many albums I had released. Martel is a person who is at a crossroads in life, a sailor who goes from questioning the outside world to questioning himself. At the end he becomes a stoic. I was inspired not only from my grandfather’s notes on the past in Cape Breton but from my own life touring around the world. After traveling for ten years on the road I felt I was ready personally. When I started working with the string trio the End Tree in Vancouver I felt I could properly sound out the concept.”

It sounds like a heady premise, knotty with ideas and concepts. But, in fact, all these ideas of history, real and imagined, are amalgamated in a lushly sonic package that finds Malinowski pulling from the ramshackled grooves and swelling, cinematic strings of Maritime pop. It’s quintessentially Canadian and, yet, it pushes beyond the borders of his native home for emotions lost to the open seas of the world. “When we started, I put a map of the world up on the wall and pinned the points of port for each track,” the singer explains of designing his concept. “The songs were meant to sound out each place. We wanted to start in Main-a-Dieu, Cape Breton and finish close to there. The final song ‘Low, Low, Low’ finishes on Sable Island (Shipwreck Island).”

The album is split down the middle, with half the songs detailing the sonic adventures of the Pacific, an ebullient swell of cinematic pop, before moving onto the more troubled waters of the Atlantic, where the album gives way to a moodier, pensive sway. “We wanted the Pacific side vast and open. We were listening to a lot of Toru Takemitsu,” says Malinowski. “On a song like ‘Meet Me at the Gate’, I was inspired by Taiko drumming. ‘Singapore Sling’ uses Asian scales. On the Atlantic side it was more personal so we wanted something that felt more like a sailor cabaret; we used calypso on some songs and New Orleans jazz. All these influences were put through the filter of Martel’s piano and string section. On the first side, the Pacific, we wanted it to sound expansive; Martel is a young man. On the Atlantic side it becomes darker and more personal, and the music reflects that.”

Anchoring these 18 numbers is Malinowski’s sand-in-a-cup-of-sugar voice, a sweetly cracked and reedy tenor which he’s well-known for. It’s a kind of rasp that provides a certain colour and balance, a tonal instrument that lends an air of traditional storytelling to the proceedings. And in each of these stories Malinowski perfects a balance between urgent, wistful pop and an uncompromising, difficult art. The romantic sweep of “Donzoko Blues” features a waltzing string section that swirls dizzyingly around the descending piano scales. In the song, Malinowski sings of self-imposed isolation with memories of Tokyo running through his dreams. In “Singapore Sling”, emotions brew like a storm in a teacup, the chorus of men raising the fervour to a thunderous high-pitch of spirited declaration. It’s a song of camaraderie and struggle, Malinowski’s pleas for his fellow journeymen to ‘cut his strings’ at once a detail in the chapter of Martel’s life as well as an indirect comment on his journey as a solo artist.

Other narratives like “A Fool’s Tattoo” and “The Reckoning” evince a haunted air of acquiescence and finality, the story coming to a close and a history of a life passing down the generation-line in the slow, grand sweep of tradition and lore. Regardless of theme, concept or reference, Martel remains a thoroughly accessible affair, its pop elements never completely out of reach to the listener.

An equally interesting component to the musical project is the accompanying literature and artwork. Malinowski, also a visual artist who has had a number of gallery shows in Toronto, conceived of the colonial-themed album design, a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of coastal-Canadian nostalgia and Maritime romanticism that had the singer creating an almost travels-in-fantasia map and book that merges historical fact with fiction in true artistic fashion. “I went to art school and visuals were always important to convey meaning even in music for me,” the singer says. “That’s why we created a visual map on www.whoismartel.com for people to explore visually and then take in the music. For the cover I wanted something really striking and simple, something that was quite bare too. I asked my friend Victor Penner to take the photographs, who is an amazing photographer. I really wanted to create a world that was palpable for Martel. The visuals are integral for that.”

For the literary component, Malinowski describes Martel’s world in detail that extends beyond the album’s lyrics. Designed like a travelogue, Martel’s adventures are now reflected upon with a measure of reticence, the scope of his tales turned inwards that possibly reveals more about the artist himself than it does his ancestral relative.

Entitled Skull and Bones (named after a track on Martel), the novella is slated for a release this fall on HarperCollins Books. “I started writing Skulls & Bones last summer when I was walking across Spain last summer,” he explains. “I had just finished recording the album and wanted to clear my head. While I was walking I started thinking about Martel and how to expand more on his world. I decided I would write a series of letters from Martel to his granddaughter from various ports. I loved graphic novels, so I started illustrating them. I was really honoured that HarperCollins was into releasing them online, and so now we are releasing a chapter a month until the end of October. Each letter corresponds to a song on the album. In the fall we will be doing a run of printed books.”

For all of Martel’s lofty travels around the globe, Malinowski opts to take things slowly himself. A few well-received shows in support of the album saw a far more pared-down rendering of the songs, many numbers reduced to piano and strings (his live performances on the CBC being really fine examples). Tentatively, no real plans for a full-blown tour have been drawn up. “Right now I’m really busy with writing the novella Skulls & Bones and working on some artwork so that takes up most of my time,” Malinowski says. “Hopefully in the New Year we will have some dates.”

And while the singer doesn’t come clean about the future of Bedouin Soundclash, he sums up his present state-of-mind rather succinctly: “I focus on the day ahead of me. But I love Bedouin and that will never change.”