Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Native North America

Native North America Vol. 1: 1966-1985 – Various Artists (Light in the Attic)

It says something about the arrogance of youth that the current wave of Aboriginal activism, however noble and inspiring it is, calls itself #IdleNoMore. There’s a built-in assumption there: that previous generations were sitting on their hands. A cursory study of history will reveal dozens of strong Aboriginal leaders, writers, filmmakers. But music? You can almost forgive the oversight. When pressed, even the biggest fan of Canadian music before 2010 might be able to identify only Buffy Sainte-Marie, Kashtin and Robbie Robertson as Aboriginal artists (and the latter only rediscovered his Aboriginal roots rather late in life).  

The fact that Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red are now crossing over to larger audiences both here in Canada and abroad is incredible and long overdue. But they didn’t come out of nowhere. There’s been an explosion of Native rap in the last 10 years, and, not surprisingly, the blues has always been a genre of choice for many Aboriginal musicians. 

But there’s a secret history of Aboriginal music in this country, one that existed only on rare recordings, some commissioned by the CBC and that never left local radio libraries. There, we find powerful singer-songwriters with scathing political lyrics, raucous Inuit garage bands who sound like a missing link between CCR and ’90s indie rock, psychedelic folkies, and the sound of an entire generation emerging from the residential school system and reconnecting with their stolen culture through the rock, country and folk sounds of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s powerful and haunting, and it’s been hidden too long.

It’s here now, on this meticulously researched two-disc compilation, which introduces us to Natives from every corner of Canada (and one from Alaska). Native North America was compiled by Kevin Howes, a.k.a. DJ Sipreano, whose previous claim to fame was assembling the equally revelatory and incredible Jamaica to Toronto album and associated recordings, also released by Light in the Attic; he was also a researcher on the Rodriguez reissues, which sparked the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Native North America exposes us to musicians caught in the revolutionary tide of the late ’60s, not just musically and socially but politically: this was also the time of the federal government’s White Paper and the Aboriginal response, the Red Paper, both of which wanted to reform the antiquated Indian Act; it was a time post-1967 when Canada was alive with conversations about what it was, what it is and what it could be; it was a time when Red Power and Wounded Knee sparked a new wave of Native resistance in the U.S. Many of the stories here are intrinsically linked with the Aboriginal Canadian experience—but they are also universally resonant. Willie Dunn’s “I Pity the Country” could have been sung by anyone living in the margins of a dominant white culture: “Small are the lives of cheats and of liars / Of bigoted newspapers, fascist town criers … Government is bumbling / revolution is rumbling / to be ruled in impunity is tradition continuity.”

Some of these musicians sang in their own languages while adapting traditional music into contemporary styles; some were as serious as songwriters as Neil Young or Townes Van Zant; some just wanted to rock out at the local community hall. In the case of Inuit bands like Sugluk or Sikumiuit, they’d have to charter a plane to play a gig in neighbouring towns. All of them made the most out of the few opportunities they had, in communities more remote than most people buying this album can possibly imagine. If you wanted to make this kind of music in the middle of nowhere, it required more than a modicum of dedication. This was for true believers only.

You’re unlikely to recognize any of these names: maybe Lloyd Cheechoo, maybe the late Willie Dunn (who was also a filmmaker and a federal NDP candidate). But Bruce Cockburn produced a track here by Shingoose and Duke Redbird. Florent Vallant of Kashtin shows up here backing up Innu folk pioneer Phillippe McKenzie in the Groupe Folklorique Montagnais. Moose Factory’s Lawrence Martin continued to have a moderately successful career into the ’90s, winning a Juno along the way. The Chieftones, a.k.a. Canada’s All-Indian Band, were stereotyped as a novelty band, but they managed to record and tour in the U.S., and once opened for the Beach Boys at Madison Square Gardens. Willie Thrasher, who grew up in the most northwesternly area of the Northwest Territories, toured all across Canada, recorded an album in Ottawa in 1980 on the CBC’s dime, and is now a professionally licensed busker in Nanaimo.

Music gave many of these men—and they are all men, there’s nary a Buffy Sainte-Marie acolyte in sight, sadly—a therapeutic outlet. Many continue to perform and record as hobbyists. Some others weren’t so lucky: one member of Sikumiuit is currently living on the streets in Montreal, struggling with addiction and estranged from his former bandmates. These are not ancient tales; this is living history. And there aren’t always happy endings.

The booklet is almost half the reason this collection is indispensible, but you don’t even need to know any of the stories behind the music to recognize the beauty of the music here. These aren’t amateurish, anthropological field recordings. These are seriously great musicians who are more than ready for those fleeting moments of studio time they can afford, time that manages to captures the talent and soul and spirit of everyone involved. Some artists stand taller than others, of course: the authority and depth conveyed in the voices of Willie Dunn or David Campbell or Morley Loon is undeniably rich. Others, like Gordon Dick or John Angaiak or Willy Mitchell, sound like simple men with real stories to tell, and they’re pouring out everything they have into these miniature moments.

Native North America is an album that every serious music lover—and any Canadian history buff—needs to hear. Most music geeks fetishize music from obscure corners of the world, but this is our music, our history, our people—whether we knew it then or we knew it yesterday, now there’s no excuse. Best of all, it’s not just an important album that’s easy to embrace with well-intentioned earnesty: the music is even stronger than the story. It’s music that should be part of our national fabric.

Download: Willie Dunn – "I Pity the Country," Lloyd Cheechoo – "James Bay," Sikumiuit – "Utirumavunga"

Monday, November 24, 2014

November 2014 reviews

Highly recommended: Amelia Curran, Lynne Hanson
Well worth your while: Jennifer Castle, Sagot, Neil Young

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record this month.

Jennifer Castle – Pink City (Idée Fixe)

We’ve all had those artists we don’t “get” for years, until one minor epiphany suddenly reveals to us what we’ve been missing all these years. Some of the biggest musical loves of my life have been revealed to me slowly in this fashion, finally overcoming some strange subjective grudge. For years, my friends in Toronto’s music community have sung the praises of Jennifer Castle, known for her solo performances, her guest spots on Fucked Up albums, and her band with the Constantines Dallas Wehrle, Deloro. I’ve seen her play a couple of times; I’ve heard her recordings. I was always left cold, even the first dozen times I heard this album, which features some of Toronto’s finest musicians and string arrangements by Owen Pallett.

This month, she played Toronto with Denmark’s chamber-pop songwriter Agnes Obel, who has taken Castle on tour. In an acoustically pristine soft-seat theatre, Castle’s solo performance was jarring, captivating and curious. Everything about her stage demeanour appeared out of place, yet her voice was in full focus: every quiver, every time she slid between notes, the full body of her lower register.

Castle’s music sounds like it was made in isolation, crafted in a remote Appalachian (or Algonquin) cabin (“I don’t need a home / don’t need a lover / I’ll be out on my own / come hell or high water”). Though rooted in folk forms, she doesn’t always follow familiar refrains, chord patterns or consistent tempos; many of her instrumental voicings and melodies owe more of a debt to jazz. Then there’s her voice itself: part Mary Margaret O’Hara, part Vashti Bunyan, a folkie flower child sounding alternately lost and innocent or wise and weary. In her left-field approach to folk, she also recalls Nick Drake, who used jazz players and stood far apart from his contemporaries. (She does not, however, sound like Nick Drake.) Though it was her solo performance I found so striking, Pink City is very delicately decorated with subtle touches from players careful not to tread on her unique talent.

Of course, at the same concert where I had my conversion, my companion had the complete opposite reaction. To each their own. It takes time to enter this magical Castle’s world. (Nov. 13)

Download: “Truth is the Freshest Fruit,” “Nature,” “Broken Vase”

Amelia Curran – They Promised You Mercy (Six Shooter)

If you’re a folkie singer/songwriter looking to expand your sound, you’d be hard pressed to find a better producer than ex-Rheostatic Michael Phillip Wojewoda, a man who’s worked in almost every genre of music and knows how to capture dynamics. Your song that sounds perfect with just your own stunning voice and minimal guitar accompaniment sounds even better with what Wojewoda decides to add and how he does it.

The East Coast’s Amelia Curran has been stopping listeners dead in their tracks ever since her 2008 album War Brides brought her to national attention. Until now, her approach has been relatively bare bones; this, on the other hand, is a full-blown rock record by comparison, full of ringing electric guitars, powerful drums, strings (by Drew Jurecka, of Jill Barber’s band), horns (by Bryden Baird, of Feist’s band), lap steel, accordion, and some stunning jazz piano and organ work by Aaron Davis (Holly Cole Trio).

A great band and great producer don’t make a great record, of course, and it’s Curran’s voice and songs that are always centre stage. She is a master of empathy, the kind of voice you need to hear in your darkest moments, the kind of voice that has lived through mood disorders and anxiety (the topic of a current public awareness campaign she’s spearheaded) and reaches out in song.

Here, with the help of many friends, a variety of tempos and textures ensure that it’s not a dour affair. It’s much more than that: it’s a powerful record by a major artist. (Nov. 13)

Download: “I Am the Night,” “Coming For You,” “Somebody Somewhere”

Lynne Hanson – River of Sand (independent)

She’s chasing whiskey with what’s left of her tears. She says, “There are days I only feel the pain / Even god don’t wanna know my name.” She’s “living life like a country song.” She writes painfully honest songs about divorce, addiction and sexual predators. She is Ottawa songwriter Lynne Hanson, and she’s made the only roots rock record of 2014 to hold a candle to Rosanne Cash’s The River and the Thread.

This is Hanson’s third album, but her first in four years. Produced by veteran songwriter Lynn Miles and featuring a host of ace Ottawa session players, Hanson’s album boasts 11 songs that project a confidence and boldness that her characters are searching for. Her honey-sweet voice and lovely arrangements offset the subject matter; unless you’re listening closely, you might merely think this was a gorgeous, Sunday autumn afternoon album. There’s a lot more inside, however, and Hanson is the new(ish) Canadian songwriter you should be getting to know better right now. (Nov. 7)

Download: “River of Sand,” “Whiskey and Tears,” “Foolish Things”

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 OST – Various Artists

Every Hunger Games soundtrack so far—this is the third—has promised more than it delivered. Yet it’s that promise that excites every time, even if the albums have borne diminishing returns since the T Bone Burnett-produced original featured Taylor Swift in a surprisingly subdued, folkie mode, as well as solid contributions from Arcade Fire, Neko Case, Miranda Lambert and others. The Catching Fire soundtrack was handled by a traditional Hollywood music supervisor, whose best move was getting Lorde to cover Tears For Fears’ "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," one of the most memorable covers of recent years.

Lorde returns to assemble this soundtrack. In many ways, she’s an ideal curator: she is, after all, 18, the same age as Katniss Everdeen at this stage of the story. She offers two new songs (and a Kanye West reworking of one of them); sadly, neither stand out. She does, however, appear on a track with Stromae, Pusha T and Haim, surely the strangest collaboration of the year—and also the best. Charlie XCX, 22, gets Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon to guest on her track, another highlight here. Some of the high-profile collabs don’t pan out as well: Ariana Grande tries her best over a weak Major Lazer track, and Miguel is smothered underneath a sonic onslaught from the Chemical Brothers.

Tinashe, 21, stands out with the slow-burning "The Leap." At the other side of the age divide, roping in Grace Jones, 66, is another coup (much like getting Patti Smith for Catching Fire), even if her new song, the largely percussive "Original Beast," is a mere throwaway.

Even if at least half of this soundtrack doesn’t work, it still marks one of the rare occasions today when a Hollywood studio actually prioritizes an original soundtrack, one with modern, high-profile, relevant artists writing new songs in thematic accordance with the actual script. It’s that attention to detail—and carefully catering to its targeted fan base—that has made the franchise so wildly successful. (Nov. 20)

Download: “Meltdown” – Stromae feat. Lorde, Pusha T, Q-Ti and Haim; “Dead Air” – CHVRCHES; “Kingdom” – Charlie XCX feat. Simon LeBon

Jenny Hval and Susanna – Meshes of Voice (SusannaSonata)

This summer, Kate Bush returned to the stage for the first time in 35 years. That prompted plenty of long-dormant fans to book plane tickets to London for 22 shows that sold out in 15 minutes, and others to pen essays about how there has never been another pop performer like her. There has, of course: people like Bjork and Owen Pallett and St. Vincent—and more recently, EMA— all blend avant-garde sensibilities with pop music, making brainy music that also provides visceral release.

These two Norwegian performers, each with moderately successful solo careers, easily tap into Bush’s template of melodramatic, narrative piano ballads subverted by bursts of noise and abstraction and atonality that challenge your expectations around every corner. Hval is also a novelist and performance artist; in much of her work, the sounds she uses—as well as the way her voice slides between notes—are as much a part of the narrative as her lyrics. (Her 2013 album Innocence is Kinky was one of that year’s best.) Susanna’s music is usually much prettier than this; together, they’re fascinating and daring. (Nov. 7)

Download: “I Have Walked This Body,” “Black Lake,” “Running Bones”

Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes – Various Artists (Universal)

If this project sounded too good to be true, that’s because it is. Take some long-lost lyrics by Bob Dylan, written after his 1966 motorcycle crash, and hand them over to producer T Bone Burnett, who in turn invites Elvis Costello, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Marcus Mumford (Mumford and Sons), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) to write accompanying music to be performed by all involved—except Dylan, of course.

It doesn’t work, and there are plenty of reasons why. For starters, maybe these lyrics were long-lost for a reason; there’s nothing particularly Dylanesque about them. Maybe there are too many cooks in this kitchen. Maybe it’s because this was written and recorded in two weeks. Maybe everyone was trying too hard to sound like Bob Dylan. Maybe everyone was trying too hard not to sound like Bob Dylan. Who knows? What we have here isn’t even these artists sounding like the best versions of themselves—and that’s the bigger crime than whether or not this serves the legacy of Bob Dylan or not.

It’s not entirely terrible, of course; there’s enough talent here to make it at least listenable. Giddens delivers a beautiful “Lost on the River #20,” and her fiddle is a welcome presence throughout. Mumford offers the biggest surprise, with the sparse, somewhat funky and haunting “When I Get My Hands On You.” Taylor Goldsmith, probably the least known of these performers, acquits himself well.

Lost on the River comes on the heels of a six-disc “complete” version of The Basement Tapes, the original songs and cover versions recorded by Dylan and The Band in 1966; surely Dylan freaks will find much more there to pore over than the detritus heard here. The record company isn’t lying when it says, somewhat carefully, that this is “a music event 47 years in the making.” Whether it was worth waiting for is a whole other issue. (Nov. 20)

Download: “Diamond Ring,” “Lost on the River #20,” “When I Get My Hands On You”

Nickelback – No Fixed Address (Universal)

Nickelback is the biggest rock band in the world. (They’re also the loudest, based on the ear-splitting mastering job here.) Now they’re ready to—get funky? Check out the disco, up-stroke strut of “She Keeps Me Up,” where the constantly constipated Chad Kroeger sings, “Funky little monkey / she’s a twisted trickster / everybody wants to the sister’s mister / Coca-cola rollercoaster!” Even that doesn’t prepare you for the appearance of rapper Flo Rida (he of Low fame) on the somewhat Latin-tinged “Got Me Runnin’ Round,” which also comes with a horn section on top of the grungy chords and dash of wah-wah guitar, while Kroeger sings, “She tastes like the sunshine kissing me.” What fresh hell is this?

It’s actually a welcome change for Nickelback, who already flirted with ska on their last album—anything to break up the monotony of a litany of soundalike singles from this bludgeoning band should be encouraged. No, what’s weirder is that the man who only ever seems to sing about beer, boobs and babes is heard here railing against Wall Street thieves, rhyming mass delusion and mass confusion and chanting: “Hey hey, just obey / your secret’s safe with the NSA / in God we trust or the CIA / standing on the edge of a revolution.” Somewhere in Russia, Ed Snowden is snickering. (Nov. 20)

Download: “Edge of a Revolution,” “She Keeps Me Up,” “Got Me Runnin’ Round”

Pink Floyd – The Endless River (Sony)

As someone who hasn’t liked a Pink Floyd album in 39 years—that would be Wish You Were Here—I find it absolutely shocking that this, their final album, assembled from jam sessions recorded 20 years ago, is as lovely and reaffirming as it is.

All credit is due to the late keyboardist Richard Wright, who died in 2008; he’s the star of this instrumental show, which harkens back to the band’s pre-Dark Side of the Moon, considerably more experimental phase. Guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason found 20 hours of improvised material from sessions for The Division Bell and shaped it into what is now The Endless River, with plenty of new overdubs and help from Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera.

The reviews write themselves: cold leftovers from Pink Floyd’s worst album? No thanks. But listen again: It’s a helpful reminder of what Pink Floyd always did best, before the portentous weight of Roger Waters and Gilmour got the better of the both of them. It’s no surprise, then, that the sole track to feature vocals, the closing “Louder Than Words,” is the weakest one here.

Shine on, Richard Wright. (Nov. 13)

Download: “It’s What We Do,” “Sum,” “Things Left Unsaid”

Sagot – Valse 333 (Simone)

Something evil is afoot here. Julien Sagot sounds like he’s lurking around the shadier sides of Montreal, hanging out with eerie drone-pop savant Dirty Beaches and getting into trouble. At times he’s devilish, at times he’s fragile; at all times he sounds either frightening or frightened half to death at the voices in his head. Sagot borrows from Tom Waits, but only The Black Rider. Sagot borrows from Serge Gainsbourg, but only Histoire de Melody Nelson. Sagot favours twangy guitars, metallic percussion, cabaret piano, squalls of noise, and singing in a voice that we probably shouldn’t trust.

Sagot’s day job used to be in Polaris prize-winning band Karkwa, but neither this nor his 2012 debut, Piano Mal sound anything like that. Sagot doesn’t sound like anyone else in Quebec, anyone else in North America—maybe Italian weirdo Vincent Capossela. But seeing how that guy is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, it’s up to us to seek out Sagot. We’ll probably find him in the last non-gentrified warehouse in Montreal’s Parc X, his studio set up like a madman’s lair. The lights are dim. The smell is unusual. The sounds, however, are completely intoxicating. (Nov. 7)

Download: “Avion,” “Transsiberien,” “Les Squellettes”

Neil Young – Storytone (Warner)

This is Neil Young’s 37th album in 46 years. Since his ’70s heyday, he’s managed only about three albums per decade that every fan should own. Each new release is greeted with the same reaction: do we really need this one? When it’s Neil recording cover songs inside a phone booth at Jack White’s studio, as he did earlier this year, maybe not so much. This time, however, the answer is yes.

Storytone finds Young in acoustic and orchestral mode—not unlike much of his 1972 classic Harvest. Unlike when Young employs, say, Daniel Lanois or Crazy Horse to inject life into songs that he may or may not have written hours before going into the studio, he must know that he can’t mess around when he’s hiring a symphony orchestra. Consequently, this batch of songs is his most melodically strong in a long while, even if some of the string arrangements have Disney moments and the attempts at introducing some Chicago blues into the equation (“I Want to Drive My Car,” “Say Hello” to Chicago) are a tad awkward. If strings ain’t your thing, these nine songs also appear in stripped-down solo format, with just piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. (Though that still doesn’t save “Say Hello to Chicago.”)

Storytone also comes at a time in Young’s life when he’s more inspired than usual. As befitting the sonic backdrop, Young sounds fragile. He and his wife of 36 years, Pegi Young, filed for divorce in September (“Like I Used To”); lately he’s been dating actress and environmentalist Darryl Hannah (“I’m Glad I Found You”). And that cross-Canada tour to protest the oil sands manifests itself in “Who’s Going to Stand Up?”—one of the most potent protest songs he’s ever written.

Neil Young: a sustainable resource if there ever was one. (Nov. 7)

Download: “Who’s Going to Stand Up?” “Plastic Flowers,” “Tumbleweed”

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sean Michaels - Us Conductors

Most music writers aim for poetry in their prose; most, if not all, fail. Sean Michaels, on the other hand, is perhaps the only music writer from whom I would expect an exquisitely poetic novel. He and his comrades at the now-ancient MP3 blog Said the Gramophone use original short fiction, fanciful prose, poetry and sometimes just illustrations to accompany the music they’re excited to share with us. Not surprising, then, that Michaels has written a novel about music. But it’s not a thinly veiled autobiography about getting your heart broken by some girl who didn’t like your mixtape. Far, far from it.

Instead, Us Conductors takes as a template the very real, very strange life of Leon Theremin, inventor of the world’s first electronic instrument, and uses it to explore how a work of creation—a song, a novel, an invention—can be subject to the whims of history and circumstance, searching for an audience. Most important, it examines how all acts of creation are, in essence, unrequited love, and how the lies we tell ourselves can be what saves us in the end. If that weren’t enough, Michaels’s tale takes place amidst the shifting sands of the early 20th century—political, technological, philosophical—that comprise a period of momentous, turbulent change.

I first tried to read the book when it came out in April. I failed. I had seen the excellent 1994 documentary Theremin; I felt I already knew the strange-but-true story of Leon Theremin. I have a problem with historical fiction based on real people; I had a similar struggle with Ann-Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crow Flies, about the Steven Truscott case (is this part true? is this part made up?). I recognized that Michaels was a great writer successfully transitioning into novels, but I didn't feel I could dive into this particular book. 

But whatever—my loss. Because when I decided to get over my hangups and came back to it this fall, I was completely enchanted. Yes, the story is fascinating, but the real appeal of the book is Michaels's poetic economy, his beautiful language and his effortless evocation of larger philosophical questions into his narrative. It's a thoroughly satisfying novel, and I'm happy that the Giller nod means that it will find an audience outside of music fans (because it's about so much more than that) and first-fiction followers (because it's much more accomplished than that).

I wrote an extremely brief piece for Maclean’s about it, as part of their lead-up to the Giller prize gala (tonight, broadcast on CBC-TV at 9 p.m. EST); Michaels also wrote my favourite of the essays where we asked each nominee to talk about their writing life.

You set yourself a modest goal: choosing, as the protagonist of your first novel, a man whose story spans the history of the first half of the 20th century: revolution, freedom, slavery, innovation, the Cold War, racial relations, Soviet gulags, jazz, television, the dawn of electronic music.

It was a strange book to write, because the source material was almost too crammed with meat. It became a pressure: it was strange to leave stuff out because there was already too much meat. But it’s true. There was a bit of discomfort. I remember reading Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, several years before writing this, and that was the counterpoint: I loved that book, which took this period of time and showed the disparate forces intersecting. Because they were: the ’20s and ’30s were one of those exciting times when the arts and political and economic forces were really all at the same parties, in places in Europe and North America and Asia. So why not visit that spot?

Did you go on tangents you later stripped away?

Yes. There were even more montage party scenes. And in the historical reality of Theremin’s life, there was an American ambassador to Russia, Averell Harriman, on whom, late in the book, Theremin is eavesdropping in the American embassy in Moscow. In real life, Harriman was on Theremin’s boat during his first trip to America 20 years before. I learned that detail, and thought: arrrrgh. I could have a scene early in the book with a line like, “Perhaps we’ll meet again, Mr. Harriman.” But it would be too much. I wanted to write a short book that said less rather than more, as often as possible. That becomes a hard obstacle when there are so many faces, so many rooms.

It’s often said, of incredulous events, that “if they wrote it as fiction no one would believe it.” And yet you chose to recast the strange, tumultuous life of Leon Theremin as fiction. Why?

Before I started to write the book, I was thinking about the experience of a lying, true love. It’s the weird sense of when people have relationships [with] a soulmate: they feel this connection and so on. Some of us have experienced this and then seen it not work out. I was thinking of how it intersects with ideas of destiny and identity and love and beauty. Reading about Theremin and seeing the documentary about him, I was struck by the fact that all these true stories of his life gestured toward this unconsummated true love with Clara Rockmore. I fundamentally did not believe that story, that it was unconsummated true love. They were both married to other people. But could I explore that idea of a lying, true love in a number of ways through the lens of this story? Not just the universe telling you you’re meant to be with this person, but what happens if you’re in a place of great darkness, and the only thing getting you through is a kind of lie?

That happens to a lot of us: we have these delusions, these fictions, that tug us through life. Theremin’s story became an interesting way to present this. However, I don’t know what Lev felt for Clara or vice-versa. I knew what I wanted to explore was an idea of this kind of relationship, that I could never know the interior of these people’s lives. I wanted to throw out the window the idea that I was trying to tell the truth of their relationship. Rather, I was trying to use the skeleton of their relationship to explore a larger set of notions.

Even in a much shallower way—it’s funny to describe it as shallow—but the way we ascribe meaning to life. It’s stories we’re telling ourselves. They may be made up or they may be true, but the best fictions often feel true.

Jesus loves me.

Yeah! Or, “I’m here for a reason.” Or, “My kids mean something.” Okay, that’s pretty dark. Some people who have read Us Conductors see it as this weird portrait of a beautiful relationship that was meant to be. Yet toward the end of the book, he finally tells the reader a conversation he had with Clara before he left America, that makes it even clearer that their relationship was not ongoing.

I love the word “conductor”: of electricity, of creativity, of an orchestra of people interpreting the work of others. Why did you use it in the title?

The working title was “In which I seek the heart of Clara Rockmore, my one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know.” That was the voice that was carrying through much of the writing. Then when I decided to go with something shorter, I wanted to have a title that nodded to the way the book is addressed to someone. “You” and “we” are used throughout the book, and I wanted the title to nod to that tone, that era, kind of formal and regal. There’s something interesting to me that, in English, the word “conduct” means both to lead—and in this case, the conductor has his hands in the air evocative of the hands of a thereminist—and to be led, to have something flow through you. They seem to be opposites, but the same word carries it, and I found that interesting.

Also: is a thereminist someone who is making music, or channelling it? And we, as feeling human beings, are we making—well, not making—are we summoning love, are we creating or initiating love or is it something passing through us, out in the universe.

You’re nominated for a major Canadian literary prize. What, if anything, is Canadian about your book?

I was very surprised and very pleased, flattered, proud [to be nominated for the Giller]. Writing this book I was conscious of how little of Canada was in the book. I love Montreal very much. Part of me wonders why would I ever write a book that doesn’t take place in Montreal; it’s full of things that I love and that I find mysterious and beautiful and hilarious. The book has really very few winks to Canada. Canadian literature has a reputation for being centred around events in Canadian cities, but it’s always had this real international breadth: Michael Ondaatje, Robertson Davies, Rohinton Mistry. There’s always been a large variety of works coming out of this country. I’m glad to be a tick in the register that communicates the wide diversity of art that’s come out of this country.

How hard has it been to find thereminists in every city on your book tour?

That’s been a crazy adventure in itself. Some cities were unexpectedly difficult. Toronto has far fewer thereminists than I’d guessed. I had to bring one in from Guelph [Jeff Bird]. In Portland, Oregon, I thought there would be one on every street corner, but they were very hard to find. Even Asheville, N.C., which is where [Robert] Moog built theremins, we had to bring one up from Atlanta. The Moog corporation said, “No, we don’t know any talented, gifted theremin players.” Then New York, as you would expect, has this nice community of great players.

There are a few different types of people who are attracted to the theremin. One of the types are these incredible interpreters who just stumbled across this instrument, for whom this is the way they can best communicate their secret hearts. They are the kind of musician I love the most, with a certain virtuosity that is surpassed by the spirit with which they play.

Some of them are real engineers. They really understand the electrical element of it: how the amplitude and voltage interact. There’s a much more engineers’ approach to the instrument that I don’t see with other musicians. A lot of really gifted ones are like carpenters or violinists, where their instrument is just a tool to communicate sound. There’s something refreshing about musicians who play with such elaborate contraptions that can still just see it as, “Oh, this is just a thing that I manipulate in order to make music.”