Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Julie Doiron

Growing up Catholic, I always believed that confessions were something you did in a dark closet with a stranger that someone told you was closer to God than you'll ever be.

I don't know if Julie Doiron was raised in a church at all, but for the last 17 years her recordings and performances have often been raw nerves played out in public: raging psych punk and otherworldly dreamstate folk in Eric's Trip, followed by apologetic lullabies in her solo work--all of which had a knack for alternately making the listener both empathetic and squeamish, especially on stage, where Doiron's stop-start stage banter has been known to infuriate those not already enamoured with her.

But unlike drama queens such as Cat Power (well documented in this month's excellent Magnet cover story, which made one friend of mine want to sell off her entire Cat Power discography), Doiron is disarming, dorky and always delightful in person. The first time I ever met her she was showing off pictures of her three kids within the first five minutes. Even though much of her material is autobiographical--or so we infer, anyway--she's a far cry from a self-involved demanding diva, and has always played well with others: in Eric's Trip, with French band Herman Dune, with the solo project for The Tragically Hip's Gordon Downie, and, most recently, as bassist in Shotgun and Jaybird.

Woke Myself Up is her seventh solo album [it's out today], and far and away her best. On an entirely aesthetic level, it breaks the hush-and-shush monotony that's plagued her last three albums, making the title all the more apt. Her Eric's Trip partner Rick White is responsible for the rejuvenated sound, and the rest of that band also appear on several tracks. Melodically, she's also come up with her best set of songs since her 1999 collaboration with the Wooden Stars.

Yet Woke Myself Up is also incredibly painful to listen to. Even if you didn't know the personal details (revealed below), it's impossible to listen to without feeling like this stranger is telling you far more about her life than you ever wanted to know. Though her lyrics are earnest and direct, Doiron's prose still has a universal ring. Anyone who's been through gutwrenching heartache and confusion can relate; the lyrics here have stopped me cold in the middle of the day several times, often when the CD's not even playing.

There's a larger essay to be written here somewhere about the confessional singer/songwriter, but we'll let her speak for herself here.

Julie Doiron

December 18, 2006

locale: phoner from a friend’s house outside of Sackville, NB, where she was housepainting. The sound of barking blind dogs in the background.

How long have you been back in Sackville now?

This is the third year. I moved back here in September 2004.

I’ll admit that I’m very excited about this record. It’s my favourite of yours in a long time, particularly musically: there’s so much more going on whereas others were about very specific moods.

It’s true, I think. The other ones I wanted to convey a certain sentiment or mood. I listened to Heart and Crime the other day with a friend of mine, and we were laughing so hard at how I was singing. I haven’t sung like that in years. With that record I wanted to make something that was totally different from the Julie and the Wooden Stars record, because this was the anglophone follow-up to that [2001’s Desormais was entirely in French]. I made it really quiet and mellow.

With Goodnight, Nobody, I wanted to make a record really fast with my friends in Herman Dune. We did that in a day, except for three songs that I did later in Canada. I wanted the songs to be fresh to me, so I didn’t teach them to [Herman Dune]. With this one it was fun to teach the songs to Rick and {ET drummer] Mark [Gaudet] and get everybody involved in it, and then leaving it with Rick and giving him an opportunity to work on my stuff. It was fun for me to see what he was going to use. I didn’t take it as far as I wanted to, still. I think the next record will do that. I wanted this to be a full-on rock-out record, but there are still three songs here that are just voice and guitar. But we felt those songs needed to be like that, not to add anything to them.

One of the last times I saw you play was with Gord Downie’s band, and I remember you taking the lead on “We’re Hardcore.” I thought at that time that I hadn’t heard you sing out like that in ages, just really project and grab the microphone.

I think that was a totally impromptu thing that night. I don’t think I did that very often in the set. Maybe a couple of nights I went for it. I think it was fine for Gord, I don’t know—I never talked to him about it! It was in the moment. Now that I’m in Shotgun and Jaybird it has been fun to rock out on that level, too. The Gord Downie stuff for me was really fun at the time because I wasn’t doing that in any other manner.

Basically what’s been happening is that I was doing that with Gord, and whenever I toured in Canada it would always be solo. But in Europe I would play with Herman Dune, so I’d had a backing band for a while but no one in Canada knew about it. Playing with those guys fulfilled that [urge to rock] for me, but I wasn’t necessarily bringing it back home. For years people here believed I was only doing this quiet music, but over there I’d be doing guitar solos and was backed up by a band.

In terms of the difference between records like Desormais and Heart and Crime and the last two albums, do you write differently when you know there’s a band involved? Do you consciously write a solo album if you know you’ll be touring solo for a while?

I used to. With this record, I actually had decided that it should be a rock album. The songs that turned out that way were totally written to be that. The ones that didn’t come out that way were more about me needing to let stuff come out without hitting people in the face with it. For [the solo acoustic track] “Me and My Friend” I wrote it on the spot in front of the microphone. I wrote the lyrics while taking a bus out to Rick’s house after doing some shows in September. I’d written a whole page of lyrics, and then sat down at the mic and came up with the guitar part right there. That one I didn’t even think about it.

Most of the time when I write one that I want to be quiet or solo, I’m usually too attached to it to give it a band treatment.

I know you have family nearby, but why did you move back to Sackville?

We moved back east because we were missing our parents out here. We loved Montreal, but it was starting to feel bigger than us and we were missing the taste of smalltown life. What did it for us was we were given notice at Christmas time, and it was our third apartment in six years, and the last two were a similar disaster in that we had to find an apartment at the last minute. We felt maybe this was the time to go back east and buy a place.

Our main plan was to come here, buy a house and set it up as a summer home, and then go back to Montreal after two years. Now we’re coming up on three years, and it looks like we’ll be moving back to Montreal in September.

But I love it here. I don’t want to move, but [husband] Jon does. I don’t want to blame him, but he prefers the big city. For his paintings, he’s way more inspired by big city life. It’s really nice here, but there have been a lot of changes in my life.

Jon and I actually split up a year ago. [personal details] That’s been a big mess. The last year has been a total disaster for me! (laughs)

Frankly, I was worried about asking how many of these songs were autobiographical.

Well, the crazy thing is that I wrote the record right before the trouble started. It was all written when I was still happy and in marital bliss. Everything fell apart right after I recorded the album, basically. We were pretty discreet about it.

Right after it was decided that I would get my own place, I went on tour in Europe for five weeks and called home all the time. When I got back I got my own place, but all winter I thought we were working things out. I was only staying at my place two or three nights a week. In April, I moved all my stuff back in the house before my cross-Canada tour. I thought everything was okay, but when I got back from the tour Jon told me he didn’t want me there.

It’s sort of… yeah, you can’t really be married to a musician who tours. Jon can’t stand it anymore and doesn’t want to be married to someone who’s away a lot. He was able to put up with it for a long time. Unless I made a decision to become a teacher or something, he’s not interested.

It’s tough for me, because this is the one record where I feel it could maybe get to a different level. I feel I need to give it another really good go. Because I’ve been working extremely hard for the past 16 years, but not everyone has necessarily noticed. Even though I have more fans than ever and I seem to be some kind of legitimate name in music history (laughs), there have been a lot of ups and downs. You can tour Europe and it’s amazing, and then you tour Canada and it’s only 30 people. But the last few Canadian tours I’ve done have been amazing and people are interested again. Maybe it’s because I’m touring with a band again too.

Anyway, I don’t want to quit yet. Jon and I are both seeing new people anyway, so we’re not considering getting back together.

But you’re both moving back to Montreal.

Yeah, but not together. He has the kids during the week and I have them on weekends. In the summer it was the other way around. But because I’m touring a lot, he thought it would be better for them to be at his house, and he has a point, even though it breaks my heart. [plenty of personal details about the custody and living arrangements]

When I had kids, I didn’t plan on being a deadbeat parent, on not being around. In the past, when I’d come home from tour, I’d be with them 24 hours and be getting up in the night and everything, and now I’m missing that. So it’s been a year of dealing with all that.

I don’t know how much of this you’ll be able to use! I’m really opening up here.

But the record is going to prompt a lot of these questions, you must realise.

I guess, yeah. Our whole life together was full of ups and downs. [off the record personal revelations] We had five whole years where it was amazing and this last year was too bad. There were other good years too, and just this one year where it didn’t go so well. I truly believe that if I hadn’t been away from my family so much that [the break-up] wouldn’t have happened.

Yet these songs were written and recorded before any of that actually happened.

They’re so prophetic. It’s so weird for me.

When writing and recording a song that draws from painful personal experience, do you ever think about having to perform the song in public for years afterwards?
I do, actually. Sometimes it’s really hard. I do think about committing to that. There are some songs from the past that I can’t play anymore, even if I really like the song. For this [album] I just have to be a professional performer and not think about it. There were a few times when I was touring in Europe last year during the initial break-up, when I’d be playing “Snow Falls in November” and tears would be rolling down my face, because that song was truly written at a beautiful time in our lives. That’s the one time I really tried to write a beautiful song about my family and for John. When I was playing it on tour in the middle of breaking up with my family, it was really heartbreaking to do it live.

There’s one song on this record—the hidden, bonus track—that was a post-break-up song. I went to record with Rick in September, the record was mixed in October—the whole thing is really late in coming out, but the label kept pushing the date back and it was out of my hand—and then the bonus track I recorded after SXSW at the end of March. That song is my apology and acknowledging that I messed everything up. But I worked on that song for months. I started it in November and it took me until March to finish it.

It closes the album for more than chronological reasons, then. After going through this song cycle…

Yeah, it couldn’t have gone anywhere else on the record.

It’s really intensely personal, and extremely uncomfortable, to say the least, yet I find it speaks universally. I’ve felt all those things before, and I’m sure most people have.

I feel really lucky that I seem to be able to write songs that are really personal to me but that a lot of people relate to. I don’t know how it happens. I don’t know what approach I take. I wish I had a bit explanation for it. But I don’t.

That song in particular—I almost don’t feel I should play it live, but every once in a while I do and it’s really intense for me. I don’t know how other people feel about it. I played it once in Sackville last month, and I did it a cappella. A few people came up to me, including a guy I know pretty well, and he was mad at me because I made him cry all through it. I don’t even know him that well, I know him okay, but he knew our situation. It had that effect on a few people at the show that night. If someone dares come to see Julie Doiron they might end up crying!

That’s just a given! You pay your money and you take your chances.

Exactly. But a good cry releases a lot of endorphins! Just feel glad that you’re not Julie Doiron.

Do you ever think what the appeal for audiences is? Is there a certain amount of voyeurism involved when an artist is really personal on stage? Is part of the appeal giving an intimate glimpse into a person’s life through songs that may or may not be fictional?

When I go to see shows—I guess I don’t see that many—no, that’s not true. But I don’t go to see the same thing that I think I’m offering when people come to see my shows. I offer a lot of myself, and maybe I shouldn’t put so much of myself out there.

For me, it’s a really personal experience. If it’s a really good night, I’ll give a lot of myself to the audience. But I don’t expect it from anyone else when I go to a show. I expect to have fun or see a great show, but I don’t expect that same personal level.

I don’t really know what people expect when they come to see me, but if they come to a solo show and they’re hardcore fans, for them the more personal it is the better. I get that sense. I imagine it makes some people really uncomfortable. Sometimes I regret my shows, and sometimes I think they’re exactly how they have to be. Not regret in that ‘oh I wish I never played ever’ but sometimes I wonder if it’s too much. Maybe I’m making it seem way more than it is right now.

How do you react when you go to see someone else’s show and it’s very personal?

I’m trying to think of a show that has really set me back and made me feel like crying.

Of someone else’s?
Yeah, because I know I’ve had people come up to me and tell me they cried.

I’m always blown away by Snailhouse, because I love his songs and he’s a beautiful guitar player. Mainly I love really good rock shows. The highlight for me recently was when [Shotgun and Jaybird] opened for the Constantines for four shows in a row, which was amazing. I was so excited and danced the whole time and sang all the lyrics.

I also love seeing Chad Van Gaalen play—he’s an awesome guy and it’s wonderful to be around him and see him play [he also lives in Sackville]. He was wonderful at the Sappyfest, although I was playing in Eric’s Trip later that night and I was scatterbrained, worrying if I would be able to remember how to play everything in three different bands.

But it’s been a while since I walked out of a show feeling “Oh my god.” Well, for the Constantines I felt really moved, but that’s different. I can’t think of any solo shows like that, that would compare with what I do. (laughs) You’d have to ask someone else—I don’t know! Let’s not make me sound so egotistical! (laughs)

But this is an interview with you, about you!

(laughs) I know, but I don’t want to be an egomaniac! ‘I am the best! No one else does what I do! I make people cry—every time!’

Let me ask you about your fans, then. When you play with Gord Downie or Herman Dune, do you think their fans relate differently to their music than your fans do to yours?

I don’t know, because Gord’s fans are really into him and love him. In terms of fans relating to your music, it’s the same level. Anytime you have fans who are relating to your music and love your music, they give the same kind of attention to anything they’re into. The Herman Dune fans adore them. The Eric’s Trip fans were really loyal and loved the band to the point where when we broke up a lot of people were mad at us. Which is too bad.

It’s selfish, too.

We had to break up at that particular time. It had to be done, even though we were still friends. I don’t have that many fans, but the ones I do are really loyal and are really nice people. And if it wasn’t for them, I would have quit a long time ago. I’d still be married! (laughs) No, I’m just kidding!

(off the record anecdote about dialogue with her fans on MySpace)

I think it’s really good, though, actually. It’s helped me realise that there are way more people who know my music worldwide than I ever would have believed. It’s an amazing tool for musicians. I mean, obviously, the internet changed everything, but MySpace in particular is a wonderful tool. You don’t need a webmaster.

Has it helped you internationally, do you think? You’ve always had pockets of support here and there.

I’ve worked harder in Europe than I have here for a while now. But it’s nice to get emails from people in other countries; I get a lot from France, probably because of Herman Dune and because I’ve toured there quite a bit. But I’m also getting a lot of messages from Americans. For the longest time I gave up on the U.S. I quit touring there for years, because it was a money-losing venture, always a disaster. Now I’m feeling very supported by the response there, just from MySpace alone. I’m going to go there in the spring.

Especially considering the events of the past year, what was it like going back to Eric's Trip and recording with your old band? Was it a comfort zone of sorts?

It was really fun. Rick had been talking to me for years about making a record together, just me and him. But I was always busy on tour and never had the time, and he was living in Ontario. Finally, because I wanted to make a rock record this time, I was trying to think of people to do it with. I’d already done one with Herman Dune and their schedules weren’t matching up, so I called Rick one day with my idea to get him to record it and get Mark and Chris on it too.

Initially, I really wanted it to be rock, and we didn’t take it as far as we wanted, but I love it, so it’s okay. But Rick was hesitant, not thinking it would work with the other guys, because he plays drums and the two of us could do everything ourselves. But I thought it would be a fun way to play with the guys without turning it into Eric’s Trip, because we’d talked about doing a record together that way as well at some point. This would be an easy, non-commital way to work together and see how it sounds. I’d done shows before where Mark played with me, or Rick and Chris backed me up for a few shows a long time ago. Those always went really well. For lack of a better word, I wanted to re-connect with them, because these were the first people I ever played music with.

Was it helpful emotionally during this time?

I think so. Keep in mind that the album was recorded right before the marriage broke up! (laughs)

How would you describe your working relationship with Rick? What are his strengths as an engineer?

I’ve always had full faith in Rick’s ability to be a good engineer. In asking him to work with me, I knew he’d do a good job. He was really confident and not afraid to try things. I wanted to work with someone that I always had faith in but hadn’t worked with for years. At one point I wouldn’t have worked with him because we were both on totally different planes. He was doing psychedelic rock and I was doing quiet stuff and I didn’t see how it would work. Now I’ve come around and I’m open to anything, musically.

I trusted him to the point where I just left it with him after initial tracking and told him that I didn’t have to be around when he mixed it. There’s a bunch of stuff on there that he did after I left that was crazier than I expected, but I was happy he did it because I wouldn’t have let him do it if I had been there and had my own filter on. I know we want to make a bigger project together, and I really wanted to reach out to him. Because even though we were always good friends, there were times when we’d only talk maybe once a year. Now I think we could easily work together again. And we did those Eric’s Trip shows this year…

Where were the other ones?

Well, there were just two, and they were both at Sappyfest. One was opening night, one was closing night. We all had such fun playing together. Mark would always love to be involved with things, and Chris would too. The four of us always had a really nice chemistry. It was very natural for us to be together. I wanted to go back to what initially got me started, and I knew it would turn out differently than anyone else I could have worked with.

Why wouldn’t you have done it with Shotgun and Jaybird?

For years the people I’ve worked with have all viewed me a certain way: making quiet, beautiful music and they don’t want to make it edgier. With Rick, I told him what I wanted to do and he was confident that he could make it different, and not be afraid to veer off the path I’d been on for years. The Shotgun and Jaybird guys, we hadn’t started working together on that level yet. This was all just before I joined them.

When was that?

I’ve been trying to figure it out. I started getting together and playing in their space for fun. I think our first bonafide show out of town was at Pop Montreal last year [05]. Other than that, we did a few things in Sackville together in the summer, and messed around a bit that winter. But they didn’t say, “You should be the bass player.” We were just jamming for fun. They wanted to play Pop Montreal and I knew I could probably get them in. It just took one phone call. So we did a combined set.

How would you describe your role in that band?

They never really had a bass player before in the band. And they’ve gone through a lot of changes in the last while. The drummer quit in November, so we have our friend Jesse Baird on drums. He’s from Toronto but he’s living in Sackville right now. He also drums with Feist, but he’s ours for now. I have this tendency of becoming the bass player in bands that don’t have one, like Herman Dune. I tend to take away the quirkiness and make it more rock, taking away their opportunity to veer off. I think I made [Shotgun and Jaybird] take it more seriously by taking them on tour, because they were mostly doing local shows.

You played bass in Downie’s band, too.

Yeah. And Purple Knight too, over the years. I did a couple of shows with them this year, including Sappyfest.

Isn’t this Mark’s ancient band?

Yeah, they started when he was 10, I think. In 1974! Some of those songs are pretty tricky.

It’s metal, isn’t it?

It’s almost metal. He wouldn’t call it that. Well, maybe. It’s a really cool band. They’re awesome as a two-piece. It’s really fun for me to play bass with all these people, but I don’t really know what it does to them. Because I’m not really a bass player. I just pick a note and play it.

What else is coming up for you, then?

Rick and I have been discussing making a record together in the winter, where it would be more of a collaboration with both of us singing. He’s writing like a maniac. He’s so prolific. He told me he has a new one coming out this winter. This summer he had something like 52 new songs, and only 12 of them are on the new record.

I also heard that you were singing an Elevator song with the Constantines live.

Yeah, that was fun! I told Rick last week and he laughed. What’s funny about that song is that Eric’s Trip used to do it before we broke up.

It was one of the first Elevator songs, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it was on his solo record, like before Elevator became a band and while Eric’s Trip was still full-on. It’s on Parts 1-IV. It was being played as an Eric’s Trip song for months and months. It was funny for me to sing it, because, well… The Constantines were really sweet about it, asking if it was weird for me to sing it. I said, “Let me put it this way: Rick and I broke up in August 93, so it could be about that.” Because it’s called “Why I Hated August 93.” Rick thought it was cute that I sang it with them.

(talk turns to mutual friends, including Julie’s former backing bandmates Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire) and Mike Feuerstack (Snailhouse, Bell Orchestre, Angela Desveaux, Islands))

It seems that the way Mike and I finally made things work was to work with a bunch of different people. It’s a really good way to do it anyway. You can keep plowing away on your own, but if you can work with others on their projects, it opens you up to way more and you can contribute so much more musically. Which is why I think I’m so rejuvenated, because of all the people I get to work with.

(talk turns to the new Howe Gelb album, produced by Julie’s associate Dave Draves, and Gelb’s recent live dates with his Sno Angel project).

I think I’d like to make a live record, because my songs are so different now live than they are on any of my records. This is my seventh full-length. Finally, I’m almost getting somewhere!

Is that what the title is about?

Woke Myself Up is a reflection on Goodnight Nobody. That was that and this is the new beginning.

Well, here’s to new beginnings!

Cheers to that!



Anonymous said...

These are all really great interviews. I keep coming back expecting something mediocre or even 'good' but these are all great.


Anonymous said...

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