Jim Guthrie has it all.
Most musicians dream of being able to make music all day long for a living, without having to embark on rigorous tours or do anything to compromise their credibility.
Jim Guthrie writes ad jingles for a living, which has given him a financial stability that he never knew as an indie four-tracking solo artist, or as guitarist in the much-beloved Toronto band Royal City. At the same time, he’s free to pursue his own solo material at his own pace, without selling of his “personal” material to the ad company.
Those close to him have always known that Guthrie is a quiet genius, able to make awesome music even with the most limited means. That reputation was sealed with the release of his debut CD, A Thousand Songs, in 1999—though it was composed of material culled from a series of cassettes that he put out in his hometown of Guelph, Ontario up to four years prior. The follow-up, Morning Noon Night (my personal favourite) featured more heart-on-the-sleeve songwriting—no doubt influenced somewhat by his friend Aaron Riches, of Royal City—set to electronics that Guthrie programmed on his Playstation.
Guthrie’s most recent solo album, 2004’s Now More Than Ever, found him employing Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) to arrange string sections (work which caught the attention of Pallett’s future employer Arcade Fire) and making a breakthrough on daytime CBC radio, as well as garnering a Juno nomination (for whatever that’s worth). And as the namesake of Three Gut Records (Guthrie = gut three), he plays an integral role in laying the groundwork for Toronto’s current indie boom.
None of this has made Guthrie particularly famous. Instead, his mainstream breakthrough came when he was the anonymous author of a little ditty called “Hands in My Pocket,” which was solicited by an ad agency for a Capital One campaign. It became one of the most-discussed jingles of the last decade, spawning legions of YouTube spoofs—and even one by CBC-TV’s Rick Mercer.
Since then, Guthrie’s work has been heard in many ad campaigns—including one for quintessentially Canuck coffee chain Tim Horton’s—while he compiles material for his fourth proper album. In the meantime, he also has his four-track fuckery with old friend Stephen McCuen, The Mandrills, and is working on a duo project with Nick Thorburn of Islands (another former employer). Both that and his new album are due in 2008.
He also scored the acclaimed documentary The Bodybuilder and I, which opened theatrically last month.
Meanwhile, no one seemed to notice that Guthrie got a co-writing credit on the album by Canadian Idol winner Eva Avila last year, something he discusses in-depth below.
Samples of his commercial work can be found here.
This conversation was conducted for this AOL article about musicians who score big with commercial jingles, including Major Maker and Andrew Vincent.
September 23, 2007
How and when did the first commercial come about?
Yael Staav is a video director who did stuff with Hayden and knows Howie Beck and all those guys. She shot ads for the ALS society and had put some of my music in the temp versions. Then she contacted me and told me that everyone had donated their services and asked if I would if they used my music. They looked beautiful, more like a short film [than an ad]. One song, “Trust,” was from one of my records and the other was a half-baked song I had for the ad where the guy hugs the tree.
Not long after that, she knew the Perlorian Brothers, the guys who were doing the “Hands in My Pocket” ad. They’ve done a lot of big stuff and they have a real aesthetic. The ad was going through the agency that I do most of my work for now. I said that I’d never done this, but they got me to write demos and told me to sing what I see.
They didn’t want any subtext. They wanted it to be funny. I did three different demos. They didn’t tell me to say “hands in my pocket.” They gave me a list of things I could maybe say, from the writers who wrote the ad. One of them was “something don’t feel right.” I tried different songs like that; two songs that didn’t say “hands in my pocket.” When I did the “hands in my pocket” thing, I wrote the melody almost out of frustration, almost making fun of the process. I didn’t really care. I’ve learned since that I can’t take anything personally when I do this.
Well, it’s work for hire.
When you first start it, you spend time on something and it might work, but it’s just not what they want. That can get frustrating, but it doesn’t frustrate me now.
So the name of the campaign was not “hands in my pocket” originally?
No. The name of the ad is actually “Anthem.” And even then, people up top thought it was too campy, or something was wrong. But then they sent it to focus groups and it scored really high. People thought it was funny and catchy. That was my first job as work-for-hire, and then they asked me to write for them on staff.
Do you think that’s because they liked your work specifically—like your records before this—or because that ad in particular became such a phenomenon?
They had seen the ALS spots I’d done. With “Hands in My Pocket,” all the ingredients were there, and I could do something that was very close to what I did.
I like to think of it as experimental pop music. It’s really me—it’s not that many steps from what I would do in any musical setting, but it wouldn’t be made in any other context. I think I’ve done a good job of being myself and being able to write for someone else. If it works, it works, and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’ll get asked to do an ad, and I’ll write a demo. If they like it, it’s not like I have to redo it: it’s just not a demo anymore, it’s the song. You get paid to do a demo, and if it doesn’t get picked you still get paid for that. But I’m on salary there, so I just get a paycheque every week and they take the money I get and put it towards my salary. If I make more, then I get bonuses.
The guy who hired me actually told me that my name is used as a style of music now. Like how when people listen to music for an ad and they’ll say, ‘No, that’s too porno’—meaning, of course, this dirty sounding wah-pedal or something. Now, they say, ‘Could it be a bit more Jim Guthrie?’
But of course you don’t get any residuals from those other Jim Guthrie ads.
No, not at all! People always ask me, ‘Hey, did you do that ad? Because it sounds like you.’ And often I didn’t. I don’t think anyone’s actually trying to sound like me. I think it’s just coincidence.
How soon after that ad did they put you on salary?
Right after that. It was in January 06 that I started. The ad aired in September/October the fall before. This is now the second full year of me working there. They told me I could go on tour and do whatever; I was with Islands at the time. The first year was tough because I tried to do both.
What’s your stance on using existing material? You’ve only done that once, correct?
Yes. I wouldn’t do it now, because I can write faster and better new stuff for this. I’ve only done it twice: once for ALS ["Trust"] and once for Mobility cellphones [“Turn Musician”]. Now, unless they offered something ridiculous like a quarter of a million dollars—which, by the way, I’ve heard thrown around with other artists. And let’s not talk about how much someone like Feist probably got for the iPod ad. [Feist briefly played in Royal City with Guthrie; they also launched their debut albums on the same night at the Rivoli in 1999.] But then some people turn that down because they can afford to.
Before, I always wanted to do music for film or TV. And if you look at my first record, it’s essentially song ideas that are shorter and weird and just me experimenting. Now I’m actually learning a lot about how to structure things, and learning how to make music in the 30-second world. I have to think about arrangements and voices and fit the right number of bars into 30 seconds, what the BPM is and all this stuff. I never went to school for any of this, so a lot of it is guesswork. I never knew that all the four-tracking I did with my toe on the machine and playing two instruments at once was actually the training I needed to pull off stuff like this.
I’m up for this challenge. And I feel like I’ve made more music since, uh, well, since I stopped making music. I want to make a new record, but I’m stimulated and challenged right now. I think whether or not you’re selling out is a very personal thing that only you know what’s right or not.
I think there’s a difference when you take a song that has particular emotional resonance to you…
And then sell diapers with that.
Yeah, as opposed to something that’s been commissioned for a client.
You’re right. Because of the short film nature of the first couple I did, and because they were for a good cause, I felt they were really powerful. I got a couple of great emails from people. As my first time doing ad work, it was a great experience. Now, to have your music in a video game—18-year-old kids lose their mind and strive for that. I don’t know what kids rebel against now, because we all have iPods and drink Starbucks. Maybe I’d be saying the same thing if I was 34 15 years ago, I don’t know.
This could be a whole hour-long discussion.
Sure. But if we’re talking about coming from the indie-rock world, it is liberating. To be successful as an indie artist takes a lot of things. It’s lucky, and there’s a lot of great music that will never become popular and who knows why. Then there’s good music that does become popular because it’s so great that nothing can hold it back. Where I come from, I had a certain amount of success, but never to the point where I could plan for the future. When you get a day job doing ad work, it’s really liberating. For me, it’s been really pleasant, because I’ve been asked to be who I am and nobody else. They don’t phone me up…
To do a Bon Jovi track.
Though there was one Molson ad I did where they wanted to mock the kind of Bon Jovi beer ad. That’s the only one that makes me cringe, that I kind of wish I never did. I think it’s ridiculous, but I thought it was a good idea at the time. That was in the first half of the first year I was with them.
What kind of attention has come back to your solo material because of this? Especially when something like “Hands in My Pocket” became this big YouTube hit, with dozens of people making their own videos for it. Is your name associated with the ad? What kind of trickle-down has there been?
It’s hard for me to tell, because there is no Three Gut Records anymore, so no one is making more copies of my records.
Can you still buy them?
No, I don’t think you can. Last time I got numbers from Outside [distribution], maybe there are 200 copies left in the warehouse of Now More Than Ever and maybe 40 of A Thousand Songs. And I emailed Dave at Zunior to ask how many digital downloads have been sold, and it was 12—and that’s all three records put together. I did get a lot of emails from people who wanted the MP3 of “Hands in My Pocket.” There was a version of it up online at the Capital One website for a while. And I wanted to put it on iTunes. I did the 30-second version for the commercial, and then a full song.
The full song is what most of the YouTube parodies were of, wasn’t it?
Yeah. There’s the hook that everybody knew, and then I put in these verses because I thought it deserved a song. But what the hell would the verses be about for a song with the chorus “hands in my pocket?” I made it about a song about a guy walking around daydreaming. It was a fun exercise, starting with one piece of the puzzle.
But I didn’t get paid to write the song. I got paid to make the ad, and this was before the ad was big. It wasn’t like everyone knew it was going to be this big thing. So I couldn’t sell the song, because they owned it and they didn’t want to [sell it]. I put it up on my site, and they asked me to take it down. I mean, they’re a bank, and they’re really protective and want to control their own image.
They don’t want you to make a porn video for it.
Exactly. I was a little frustrated, but you learn. If I knew it was going to be so big, I might have tried to keep some of it in my court. But I didn’t know anything about any of this. I’m this naïve indie artist who does something for kicks, and it ends up being this big deal. I got a lot of emails about it, and if I had to guess I’d say maybe 200 people total connected me with the ad and went out and bought or downloaded my record. And then I’m sure there are people who heard “Hands in My Pocket” and then bought my record and said, “What’s this??!!”
“This isn’t funny!”
”This isn’t Weird Al,” or something. The only thing I can say for sure is that the ad guarantees me work in the ad industry for a while.
I don’t know how aggressively you’ve tried to get a new label or find someone to fund your next record, but has this work brought any of that closer to you?
Nope. I have no idea who will put out my next record. I’m going to pay for it, and it’s going to be cheap. I’ll probably spend two or three thousand dollars making it, and most of that will be paying my band. I’m doing it at the Arcade Fire studio, and they’re not charging me for time. But I do have to pay Mark Lawson, the engineer, his daily rate. So that and a van rental for a week will be a lot of money. I was going to try and get grants, but I didn’t want to be tied to the contract of the grant. When we go to the church we’re just going to record and see what works out. It may or may not be an album, maybe just a couple of songs. Earlier on I put pressure on myself, thinking that this has to be the session that is the record. But it doesn’t have to be. And when it’s done I’ll shop it around.
What’s been the best fringe benefit of all of this?
Just getting paid. Having a steady job. Getting some RRSPs. Getting a nice computer. It’s the novelty of having a regular job. That’s the biggest perk.
On a more personal level, it’s knowing that I can do this. As an indie artist, I think a lot of people have this mentality of walking around, kicking the ground—isn’t that a Kevan Byrne quote [from King Cobb Steelie’s “One’s a Heifer”]? You’re cool, but not cool enough, and there’s not a lot of confidence there. To be able to go off on my own without any peers when I started doing this, at a time when I didn’t have a band and I was going to start playing with Islands, it was this great window where I could do or be anything. I realized that I had the skills to pay the bills, which I didn’t know I had. And that was a big deal for me.
I hated going on tour for a month and coming home with only $300. And the only reason I could do that was because I lived in a tiny room and paid $150 in rent. You always find a way to live within your means.
I also wanted to ask you about co-writing a song for Canadian Idol Eva Avila [the lead-off track and second single from her album, "I Owe It All To You."]. Did that happen via your own music or through the ads or how?
That came about through Wayne Petti from the [Cuff the] Duke boys. The girl he’s dating works for Sony/BMG. She emailed me saying that they have a songwriting camp every year, a month before they crown the winner. She and Wayne were talking about it, joking around, and she said, ‘You know what? I think we should get Jim Guthrie.’ And he said it was a crazy idea, but that I’d probably do it. So she called me. When someone asks you to do something like that, my first reaction was to say no. But I thought, well, what are my reasons for saying no? It’s a crazy new experience. It turned out to be really interesting. I learned on the first day that I couldn’t participate in a way that I wanted to, in a hands-on songwriting way.
Why, because it was directed by one or two people?
You get into smaller groups, and you realize that they’re writing songs you would never write, songs that you don’t even think are great songs. You think, ‘No, I don’t want to rhyme “dove” with “love.” I don’t want to do that.’ It’s a bunch of older men—myself included—writing songs for a 19-year-old girl that we know nothing about. The camp starts the day after the winner is crowned, so you do know who you’re writing for at that point.
She came by at some point to the studio we were working at. The majority of the camp was at a studio north of the city, somewhere the Wooden Stars were mixing their record. We met in the hallway and had a big laugh.
I would get in these groups, and was kind of sarcastic and cynical. But after the first day I knew that I couldn’t stay there and bash the process. I’d either have to leave or contribute somehow. I actually met a lot of cool people, and realized that my strengths were saying things like, ‘Let’s go to the minor here.’ I didn’t contribute lyrically at all. I helped steer it in a direction where I thought it was musically strong. There were a lot of super-talented people there, and I was out of my league in many ways.
Who else was in the room?
Twenty or 30 people. You get into groups of three or four every day, and then they rotate you the next day, so you’re never with the same people. You have to write a song every day, and record and mix it. At the end of the day you hand in a demo, and the demo quality is pretty fantastic, in that slick way. I have the CD of every song; it’s like 60 or 80 songs.
The weird thing is that I worked all week from 10 in the morning to 10 or 11 at night. You don’t get paid to be there; you get lunch, and the opportunity to be on the CD. But even when it gets on the CD, you get paid mechanical royalties. I got a cheque for $1200, and that’s for a week of 10-hour days. Initially I thought I’d be getting a down payment for a house. It’s money, it’s good money, but it’s not change-your-life money.
So I was up north all week, but they were also working at the Sony studio downtown. There were people there from Sweden, Norway, Nashville, Vancouver, it was crazy. These are people who are hired by the publishing companies to write, and the companies fly them out here.
Did you recognize anybody?
Nobody. The one guy who was supposed to be there was the guy from Loverboy, Mike Reno. But he wasn’t; I was disappointed. It turns out that on the last day my friend [and Mandrills collaborator] Steve [McCuen] was coming in on the train from Montreal, and I asked to go to the downtown studio so that I could leave early and pick him up. So it just so happened that that day I was in a group of people whose song was picked.
Yeah, and I didn’t contribute to that one, either. I get one quarter of the credit because I sat in the room with them. I met this one guy from Nashville who said, ‘Yeah, I probably write 350 songs a year.’ It’s what they do, and they do it in these groups and just kick out the songs. If you’re in the room and you don’t say a word, you still get credit. Unless it’s for a huge artist, then there’s more control. This Nashville guy had done some big stuff; I think he co-wrote something for Shania Twain. The whole thing was this ridiculous opportunity that I felt I had to take. And I’m really glad I did it.