As has been noted, part of my mission this summer is to educate myself about music a little more – new music, old music, everything in-between. Being an arts journalist has afforded me a ton of opportunities to go exploring, even if time constraints mean I frequently feel a bit of a musical dilettante, skipping from one artist/band/era/genre to the next. But one thing caught my attention, and it’s stayed glued there for months now. It even resulted in my writing a formal feature.
July 16th saw the release of Strange Passion, a compilation of sounds from the Irish post punk era. The first tune I heard from it (back in June) was SM Corporation’s “Fire From Above”, which has since become my unofficial summer anthem. With its bouncy beat and bleepy-bloopy electronic sound, along with a vaguely keening-esque vocal line, it’s really the best sort of earworm to have through the heat waves and hot storms dominating the last couple weeks. In deciding to do a feature length story on Strange Passion and post punk in Ireland, I knew I’d be falling, delightedly head-first, into a cultural landscape I find deeply fascinating, even now.
The Dublin of the late 1970s and early ’80s was anything but glamorous, but, based on research and interviews (and frankly, the music), it was an inspiring time for artists. As Gavin Friday told me, sometimes the best art can come from the smaller, less glamorous cities; I turned this over in my mind after he said it, considering the home cities of some of my favorite artists (Prince is from Minneapolis; R.E.M., from Athens, Georgia; even The Beatles are from Liverpool, which was hardly a hotbed of hip cultural life in the late 1950s). There’s something to be said for geography being destiny for artists: why, how, if (or when) they leave, they always carry a piece of their locale with them in song and sketch and spirit.
Bands like Major Thinkers, Chant Chant Chant, and The Threat may not have lasted in any literal sense, but I’d like to think that listening to them affords me a peek into a creatively compelling place and time, one that’s bled over into our own multi-faceted era of mixed sounds and places and experiences.
Gavin Friday’s last album was Shag Tobacco, from 1995. It was sexy and scintillating, but it was equally thought-provoking and deeply soul-searching. Gavin Friday has always been a favorite artist of mine for his ability to balance these elements, and to merrily juggle the clever, the absurd, the arch and the painfully personal. His latest is catholic, available through his website and iTunes.
Being the sensualist I am, I want to go and get a physical copy. There’s something about the direct, tangible nature of the experience -finding a music store (no mean feat in this digital age), coming upon the album, paying, opening the packaging, leafing through the booklet as the CD plays. It’s all so old-fashioned, from another era, but outside of concert-going, it’s how I enjoy the artistry of music-making most.
And it feels right for an artist like Gavin Friday. The Irish-born singer/songwriter/painter/actor excels at integrating sounds of the past and present into something both classic and futuristic, with a heavy nod toward exploring the sensual aspects of life:
The first single from catholic is called “Able.” With its thought-provoking lyrics and stirring electronic swirl driven by heavy beats and Gavin’s beautifully low voice rumbling throughout like a sort of world-weary anchor, it’s the the sort of grown-up pop that keeps me awake at night, writing and drawing and thinking and returning to volumes of poetry I haven’t read in ages. What with the attempts lately to balance practicality, sensuality, desire, want and progress in my life, “Able”is the right song (and video, directed by Kevin Godley), at the right time.
I wanna be able to hold my own to breathe without drowning to find a home. I want you to love me don’t want you to lie.
Excelsior, Gavin. It’s been too long. Next stop, Manhattan, please.
Luminato has announced its music line-up, and wow, what a gaggle of goodies to behold.
For those of you wondering what the heck Luminato is, voila: it’s a ten-day, kick-ass culture fest that’s happened in Toronto every June since 2007. When it began, some people sniped that the money being poured into it would be better invested with various Toronto-based arts companies, but frankly, David Pecaut & Co. had something far more larger -and more worldly -than the local yokels envisioned. Partnering with cosmetics giant L’Oreal, the arts leader helped to bring a myriad of accessible, fun, internationally-minded cultural happenings and figures to the city. For ten days every June, Torontonians of all stripes get excited about all things artistic -which is quite a feat, considering how hockey-obsessed a town this usually is.
That doesn’t mean Luminato forgets about their home and native land, however. The Canadian Songbook has been a staple of the fest, and this year will feature a tribute to the work of Bruce Cockburn. He’ll be sharing the stage with friends and musicians, including fellow Canucks Hawksley Workman, Margo Timmins (of the Cowboy Junkies) and Michael Occhipinti, with more to come. At today’s announcement, Cockburn called his inclusion in the festival a testament to his “longevity, persistence, and refusal to disappear” and added, smiling, that he’s “looking forward to the peculiar things they’re gonna do with my stuff.” He seemed genuinely chuffed at the tribute, observing that his usual creative method in the past would be to “record the songs, forget about them, and make room in my head for new ones.”
Cockburn’s inclusion is interesting in light of his previous anti-corporate past; Luminato has always been upfront about its close partnership with L’Oreal. The cosmetic giant’s Canadian section President and CEO, Javier San Juan, noted in his opening remarks that there had been, at the beginning of the fest, concerns in the combination between arts and business. San Juan emphasized the equal partnerships that exist between all facets of Luminato; concepts of working together closely and demonstrating a larger vision of the arts and its relationship to everyday life, were always priorities, and in case you have doubts, look at the programming. Even Cockburn, with his anti-logging, pro-environment, fantasy-rocket-launcher tunes, is getting on the train for the sake of his art. It’s just one event I’m deeply looking forward to. June is going to be full of celebration.
It was with great sadness, and more than a little shock, that I learned ofLhasa de Sela‘s recent passing. The gypsy-esque, European-influenced singer has become a favourite of mine, with her hauntingly sensual low voice, poetic, surreal lyrics, and open embrace of various cultural sounds, from Latin-influenced to Eastern European, and all genres – folk, rock, electronica, klezmer -in-between
Lhasa’s music defiantly (fabulously) rejects any easy categorization or definition, in the same manner that many of my favourite artists do, including, notably, Gavin Friday. In these days where pop, rock, dance, rap, hip-hop and country are both more loosely defined and yet more rigorously defined (and defining) than ever, Lhasa’s music was (and remains) a breath of fresh air. Curiosity, passion, and an indefatigable spirit to explore new-meets-old sonic territory in unusual, challenging ways is a hallmark of good artistry, and a demonstration of commitment to one’s craft (or muse, if you will). Lhasa was committed. Her music doesn’t always make you comfortable; it makes you think. It takes you to places where you’d rather not venture, but can’t say “no” to. Her voice was a call to stumble, trance-like, up a hill, in the dark, knees bleeding, hands scraping at dirt, and then stand at the edge of a windy cliff, not merely admiring the view but wondering at horrors you left lurking below, and distorting them into shapes you could at least live with -until the next siren song, anyway.
Losing her is upsetting for so many reasons: she was so young; she hadn’t found the kind of acclaim at home that she’d found overseas; there’s still so much she had to give the world. Lhasa had an uncanny ability to pull her own experiences through the intricate, beautiful webs of tone, timbre, syllables and symbols, rendering the intimate epic, and shrinking the absolute to lacy uncertainty. As she told me in the spring,
That’s one of the wonderful things about music: you can say very intimate things, and they become universal – other people can relate to them. If it was just me singing about me, then I would feel embarrassed. I feel like I’m searching for the grain of something other people can understand.