Described at one time as “Canada’s best kept secret”, John Southworth has just released Niagara, an ambitious two album set which aims to bridge the two countries divided by the titular falls. Mojo and Uncut reviews have been very positive while Pitchfork described it as “familiar and comforting and vivid and strange, all at once.” Although it’s his 9th album release it’s his UK debut and in support of this he’s playing a short tour (along with Devon Sproule) starting today. Southworth has recruited Ben Reynolds and Kenny Wilson from Tin Angel label mates, Two Wings for the tour and was in Glasgow earlier this week rehearsing with them. A perfect opportunity to meet up and ask him a little bit about the album.
Niagara’s your first UK release. Prior to that you recorded an album of “failed commercial” jingles and a Kklezmer influenced musical. A pretty varied output.
I recorded all those in about a year. It was 2012 and there were a lot of Doomsday prophecies about, that the world would end in 2012. And I thought that just in case somebody’s right, I might as well do whatever I want for one year musically. So in that year I released Failed Jingles For Bank Of America And Other US Corporations which literally is what it is, rejected jingles over a period of about five years and Easterween, a very surreal cabaret operetta with an incredible arranger Andrew Downing, he’s fantastic. I also recorded an EP, West Coast Persona, an older record I had abandoned. Well, 2012 came and went and we’re still here but it was an interesting idea, an interesting exercise. It wasn’t just that however. I’m quite ambivalent about the music industry these days and rather than wait around for other people I just wanted to do what I wanted to do so I went ahead and did it. No commercial intent, just to do it.
Niagara sounds as if there’s some “commercial intent” to it.
Well, that’s a real record. From beginning to end, getting funding, recording, it’s been a four year effort, a real effort to make a real recording. During those years I’ve put versions of songs up on Band Camp, made a few copies for friends, sold them at shows but this was a real undertaking. My motivation stemmed in part from, well, If I was going to make another record, in part work with the industry, I wanted to make something special. Something that required a lot of forethought and it turned out to be a double album. There’s a lot of thought behind it, a lot of fruit within it and hopefully people can spend their time over the next few years really discovering all the gems within it. It is the kind of record where things are revealed with each listen. It’s designed like a book, take your time with it, it’s something that’s long lasting. For those who find it.
Parts of it remind me of Harry Nilsson while others recalled the Italian musician, Paulo Conte.
It could be something Nilsson would do, I’m a big Nilsson fan and on occasion you might hear something on a given song. As for Conte, way back when I put out my first record on a label called Bar None Records who released his albums also. The A&R man gave me all his records but that was a long time ago. I haven’t listened to any of his records for a while so I can’t legitimately say he’s an influence. When I was younger I was more conscious of my influences.
The Conte part, for me, is the arrangements, very rhythmic with some jazz influenced backing.
Well I definitely am coming from a pop background but the more I work with these musicians (the South Seas), I’ve worked with them for ten years now, the process is like making a jazz record. The initial recording of a song is very spontaneous and free with not a lot of constraints except the constraints of the chords and the feeling of the music.
The album is divided into a Canadian side and an American side. To my ears the American side is punchier, a little bit more powerful.
It is. In Canada we’re a little bit more introverted and withdrawn, we tend to go inside a bit more, a bit more nervous types perhaps. In America, it’s a yin yan thing, there’s more of a feverish quality to the energy.
Was there a different approach taken when recording the separate sides?
No. The musicians had no idea this was happening. We did the takes and it then later I was thinking about the feeling, what was more appropriate for each side. I wanted to make a journey on each side, something that intersected and kept balance with the other and it was a nice way to frame a double record. Niagara Falls is a landmark that literally divides the two countries so it’s a lovely metaphor, a starting place. It’s a little cheeky to do but there is some weight to it. It’s a whole lyrical journey that’s happening on the record.
Well, since colonisation started some 500 years ago Canada and the States have developed quite different identities.
Different music. To me I hear a difference. In general I hear more space in Canadian music, we have Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. I wouldn’t say they are particular influences on me but it’s the space which has seeped into my own music whereas for America my big three would be Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Webb. There’s a different quality, a different energy to the way the song is constructed and I think it’s to do with the land in essence. I think land generates music. Canada’s colder and I think in northern countries people have more of an internal life.
You’re doing some UK dates, are you solo or with a band?
I’m playing with some members of a band called Two Wings who are also on Tin Angel (Southworth’s record label). They are based in Glasgow and when I was here in the summer we did a show and it works well.
And any plans for the future?
Well right after I get back I’m going to Banff, in Alberta, doing some lectures on music and then after that let the year unwind and then back on tour in February along the west coast of America. And then after that I’m hoping to get to Germany. And if Niagara’s getting discovered, bit by bit, it’s good to see the record get a life so I’m excited by that.
Niagara is available now on Tin Angel Records. John Southworth and Devon Sproule tour dates are :
oct 29 – cheltenham, uk – the strand
oct 30 – london, uk – jazz cafe – facebook event!*
oct 31 – coventry, uk – the tin
nov 2 – gateshead – caedmon hall
nov 3 – edinburgh – douglas studio
nov 4 – york – the basement