Spiral Road, the impressive debut album from Canadian Suzanne Jarvie has been universally lauded since its release in April. Compared by many to Emmylou Harris Jarvie delivers sweet country rock, lilting ballads and lowering country funk over the course of the disc’s 10 songs. The heady mix of Hammond organ, pedal steel and crunchy guitars on Never Gonna Stop is just short of monumental while Tears Of Love with its keening melancholy buoyed up by a joyful country arrangement would be right at home on Emmylou’s Pieces Of The Sky album, indeed it sounds as if it were written by a metaphysical Dolly Parton.
Jarvie, whose day job is as a criminal defence attorney, began to write these songs in the aftermath of a family tragedy, her son in a coma after a head injury. His road to recovery unlocked a creativity in Jarvie. While she had always dabbled in music she found herself “in a feverish fit of writing” until her songs were heard by producer Hugh Christopher Brown who eventually helmed the album setting Jarvie’s songs in crystalline and sparkling arrangements. The result is a triumph, a testament to the human spirit, uplifting, sad yet joyous with lyrics that recall the cosmic mysticism of Mike Nesmith and Gene Clark.
Ms. Jarvie is currently in the UK preparing for her first European appearances, several dates in the Netherlands throughout May. Prior to this she’s taping a session for Barry Everett’s House Of Mercy radio show and on Thursday 7th May has a free show (with Lynne Hanson) in West Hampstead, London, laid on by Locally Sourced, details here. Just arrived in London and battling jet lag Suzanne was kind enough to answer a few questions from Blabber’n’Smoke.
Spiral Road has been unanimously praised in review after review here in the UK and the continent. Do you read the reviews and if so did you recognize yourself in them?
Yes and no. Sometimes it’s like reading about a stranger who is living the dream I wanted but could never quite reach. I do ask myself, who is the person who wrote those songs. Are they mine? Other times I recognize the artist in myself that was silent all these years, (thanks Tori Amos) which feels like a homecoming. Especially given my years working and developing as a litigator. There’s an element of poetry in advocacy, and I see now how that’s the well I was always drawing from. The realization of an artistic longing in a way that has integrity and honesty. Also, my son’s accident, which was the catalyst for these songs, was almost 4 years ago, so that experience is somewhat misted over, at least in terms of emotional immediacy. Sometimes because of that I feel detached from the reviews, which I am incredibly grateful for. They reflect so much on the amazingly collaborative aspect of the work and I am deeply honored by the response.
This is your first album, written as you say after your son’s accident. Prior to that were you playing music, singing anywhere or writing songs? It seems astonishing that an album as assured as this wasn’t in gestation for some time.
I have been playing and singing for years, but until this record, not creatively. When I was much younger I played the role of musical mimic. Even when I tried to write, which was almost never, it was either something contrived or hopelessly mawkish and 16 year old school girl diary-ish. While I had a deep longing to be more and do more creatively, I don’t think I even understood what that meant. I did not know then that creativity does not come from the mind per se. Similar to the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ problem. My son’s accident turned off my mind completely for a while and suddenly there was tremendous room. When the mind is quiet – a sudden awareness that something else is present. So I think the unformed essence of the record had been gestating for ages, but the trauma of the accident opened the door and fertilized the material. Getting a bit reproductive here.
Hugh Christopher Brown says that a friend of his told him about you, he heard you and was somewhat blown away which led to him producing the album. How much of a role did he have in the musicians who play with you, did you know some of them or did Chris open up his phonebook and call in some folk?
Chris’ role cannot be overstated. I had a couple of good friends who I wanted to play on the record, but other than that I had no one. No band and songs which had stripped down arrangements. I had general ideas about sonics but no specifics on how to achieve them. Chris has a pretty orchestral vision and a wide circle of wonderfully talented musician friends – so we built the record in layers, largely based on his various waves of inspiration regarding who to call on (like the Homes Bros., the Abrams Bros., Mickey Raphael, Tony Scherr etc).
While a couple of the songs (2458, Angel Of Light and Wait For Me in particular) can be seen to be about your children’s’ illnesses the remainder of the songs are highly allusive with you singing about stars, the universe, molecules and such. There are references to Navajo tradition and Enola Gay tackles nuclear destruction with powerful imagery without descending into an anti bomb diatribe. Having had some time to listen again to the album and study the words I’m wondering what authors or poets (or songwriters) might have been an influence here.
My influences are elusive. Some days I think Dark Side of the Moon, some days Gillian Welch, other days Joni Mitchell, or Tolkien or Jung. Some days I know it is meditating on death (I don’t mean that morbidly). It’s like trying to identify a spice in a dish made by someone else. I know it’s “my” imagination, but it doesn’t feel like that when it’s doing its thing. I had a transcendent experience because of my son’s accident. Something about that finally allowed me to draw on my influences without being a mimic, but also without being able to definitively identify them either. Maybe that’s the whole point!
I see that in the liner notes you credit Dylan Thomas, J.K. Rowling, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas for inspiration. Care to elaborate on this?
My imagination is a pretty thick soup of science fiction, Victorian literature, escapist fantasy, children’s classics and random poets whose work hit me hard, like Dylan Thomas and Phillip Larkin. I like the high brow low brow mix up too. All four of my kids have a similar penchant, and so together we have spent hundreds of hours reading and watching the Harry Potter stories, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars etc. I got pretty wrapped up in the recurring metaphors and archetypes. I wonder at the endless capacity for the human imagination to reinvent themes relating to corruption and redemption. I hate clichés, but the question of hope’s endurance and resilience is mysterious and inspiring. When everything is getting pulverized it appears and guides, like the deluminator orb! How is that? Also, passivity versus the emotionally active life. The universe really does want you to go tearing down the street after your dreams. When you do, it will give you tail wind. I think Never Gonna Stop and Enola Gay contain those themes. Spiral Road for example, is partly inspired by my experiences with the Navajo and partly by the Tales of Beadle the Bard, J.K. Rowling’s story within the story. As for Dylan Thomas, it’s something about Fern Hill. I read that poem for the first time at age 15 and found it emotionally devastating. It’s never left me. Ultimately what you know about mortality in the abstract is irrelevant. Fern Hill gave me that epiphany on mortality, through art. I think about that all the time, about the existential power and fundamental role of art and artists.
You’re playing a few dates in the UK and The Netherlands in May. Is this your first time in Europe? Will you be playing solo or with a band?
This is my first time in Europe and I am beyond thrilled. Chris Brown is touring with me, so we will perform the tunes as a duo. In addition to his awesome keyboard stylings he gets to work his falsetto on the harmonies!
So, if you’re in West Hampstead tomorrow night you know where to go. In the meantime there’s the album to enjoy, guaranteed to astonish and delight.