Friday, October 23, 2009

Exchanging e-mails with... That's the Spirit



Now that I've got a little more time on my hands I think I'm going to start up this "Exchanging e-mails with..." segment again. It's been really interesting getting some insight from different bands/artists and figuring out what their life with music is like: what their goals are, their motivation, what tours are like, etc.. Hopefully it's an interesting read, but, if not, I think it makes me a slightly better (sort of) music blogger...

This time around I bounced some electronic mails back and forth with Ottawa singer-songwriter That's the Spirit (Pick of the Week #40), or, Ben Wilson.

* * *
Ben.

So, I guess the first thing I'm sort of curious about is how you respond to reviews both from blogs and from "real" print media, and how successful you think you've been in getting reviews? I think, at this point, it seems like getting someone to write about you seems like it must be a challenge. I mean, I don't run a big operation here, but I'm getting all kinds of emails from all kinds of people -- and especially PR companies.

BTW - I'm not sure if you saw the Nilsson videos that I linked to when I wrote about your album, but the Ringo narrated version is pretty brutal so I hope you weren't/aren't offended...

Rob

* * *

Not at all. But I was wondering whether you thought I might be on acid, or had a pointy head...

Staying Places was the first time I released an album into the world of blogs and internets, so yeah, at first it was daunting, and a little bit upsetting. I really thought people would like it, but the Pitchforks, the Stereogums and the Brooklynveganses, etc. weren't answering my emails and I never took into account that they're getting hundreds of similar emails a day, from trusted sources. I had no idea what I was doing; I was pretty naive and thought the 'big ones' are the ones that decide whether or not your record is good enough...that my music would speak for itself in this new democratized blog world where 'cool people my age are deciding what gets press'!

It sounds kind of stupid but it's easy to let that stuff get to you, you know? Especially when things are so new. But despite the challenges I think the record's had a good run so far in terms of press and blog reviews. And in the end, nothing's better than having someone see a show or listen to the CD and like it so much they start genuinely forcing people to listen to the songs - when you feel you've really connected somehow, which is worth a thousand articles really. So I just take things in stride.

b

* * *

Ben.

Acid, pointy head, whatever, I'm not one to judge. Although, I'm kind of curious what inspired your whole sound. Is it something that you try and work at to create some sort of affect, or is it just what music sounds like when you play it? I often wonder with albums like yours, or others like any of Beirut's albums, the Sufjan Stevens state albums, Bruce Peninsula, Timber Timbre, etc. etc. etc. how you create a sound that seems to create an entire world or something. I think that's something really unique about Staying Places that I don't see on a lot of other albums. I'm very curious to your response to this one, because the only explanation I can think of is that you watched/read the Phantom Tollbooth repeatedly as a kid.

On the second point, re: being discouraged about stuff on the internet I completely understand because that's essentially what I went through when I tried to figure out how to start a blog. I know almost literally nothing about computers and so when I decided that I wanted to do it -- the third or fourth time -- I started emailing guys that ran the blogs that I read and basically no one answered back. Finally, a couple of people Ack at the Herohill, Matthew at i(heart)music and Allan at AWmusic, Paul at the now basically defunct Wolves, Hawks and Kites (but also of Zunior) all turned out to be very helpful -- in fact, Allan actually hosts all the mp3s here and I write a weekly, sometimes more, post at his site. It's the same things that keeps this site going, getting emails, people leaving comments, that makes you feel good about what you're doing.

Now that I've made this about me... I'm wondering what the best feedback or the best comments you've got on your music are? Best show moment? Place you'd most like to play? What would be the best possible break for you right now?

And lastly, so we don't run out of stuff to talk about, since I'm in the midst of doing my write up for the hottest Canadian Bands Poll, do you have any suggestions?

Rob


* * *

Phantom Tollbooth - nice. Funny you should tie in the children's book theme(s) too. The cover art was made for me the year I was born by my uncle, a children's author named Tim Wynne-Jones. There is something child-like to the record, thematically - the travel theme is something everyone can relate to I think. The endless car trips with the family as a kid, the constant desire to be somewhere else...

My sound just comes out, i really don't try to sound like anything. except that i usually write around a theme, since i don't want to have albums that are just collections of songs. in terms of the creativity question, you can't really create in a vacuum. any music you create, whether you like it or not, has to come at least in part from the neural synapses, sounds you've heard recently. i listen to a lot of classical and orchestral stuff as well as a lot of indie rock, and whatever's lying around. but it's those two worlds, classical and indie-rock-folk-whatev, i feel most comfortable in, that's what i grew up with, and i guess as a result that often comes out as 'bedroom folk music that's maybe just slightly challenging'?!

I think there's a lot of 'hot' bands in Canada, which is great, but I'm a bit jaded and picky about what I think is truly artful. The artists I'm obsessing over at the moment would have to include tune-yards, lightning dust, timber timbre... and snailhouse and yellow jacket avenger will always be on that list. But local is where it's at. Everyone should make a point of spending at least a weekend or two going to see bands from their own town that they've never heard. I'm always surprised to hear what i hear, when i get a chance to go out just because i'm curious to hear stuff...music that's often way before the point band members decide 'it's time to monetize this'! There's the drunken bar bands and the serious metal bands and the singer-songwriters in restaurants fighting to be heard above all the talking...for me it's not as exciting to see folks that have been trying to perfect the same set, or worse, the same banter, for years. There's something real and inspiring about getting out to see a fledgling local band or artist that's just a sort of intangible inspiration because it comes from a real place.

b

* * *

Ben.

Sorry about the delay - things have been... well, I bought both NHL '09 and NCAA Football '09 and I've been watching a lot of TV. So, no real good reason for being slow.

That's really cool about the album art and your uncle... I think that might be where I'm getting that Phantom Tollbooth vibe from.

And I completely agree re: people seeing local music. It's kind of a shame for me that I just started to get into the London (On) scene right before I left, then, it was too late. But Toronto has been awesome - there are so many bands and so much going on that it is basically impossible to keep track of. One extreme to another. What's the scene like where you're at? Ottawa, right?

That said, and I do really like local, small venue sort of stuff -- but aren't there times where you really want to see someone who is really, really, really, good? Typically, I think, that doesn't happen in small venues -- at least for long. I mean, if you're really good (typically) you move on to bigger venues/audiences, more money, endorsements, your own clothing line.... thoughts?

Rob

* * *

I've been meaning to get back to my Wii Zelda myself!! Somday soon....working too hard these days.
The Ottawa music scene is kind of small - Ottawa's really just a village-like capital city. But it depends on how you look at it I guess - like every city there are a tonne of bands doing really different things - it's only small in the number of them that appeal to the indie rock/folk/experimental-type CBC-radio 3 friendly crowd. I love it here. Ottawa's small enough to be recognized easily in the music community and get gigs fairly often, but big enough to carry some weight in Toronto and Montreal where the crowds are. Some amazing artists right now - there's the Kelp Records clan (the Acorn, Hilotrons, etc), a new band called The Gallop that are fantastic, Poorfolk/Winchester Warm and the White Whale gang, anything Paul Granger is doing, and some new favourites like the Balconies...nearly every weekend there's a good local band playing. Ming Wu (local photographer)'s website and natcaprock.blogspot.com are good sources to catch up on all things local rock....the scene is really growing and folks are coming out to more shows, which is great.
But yeah, sometimes I just want to see a touring band that is just insanely tight and talented. Zaphod's is a great spot for that, since it's big enough for a lot of national touring acts but still pretty intimate, and has amazing sound. The thing about Ottawa is we're not always the most adventurous sort here. We're a lot of public servants, I guess, so lots of good restaurants around, but we're not so much the late-night music venue-goers. Which is good in that awesome bands like Said the Whale, Two Hours Traffic or Amy Millan will still play Zaphod's (just 180 capacity I think)...but bad too, in that getting people to come to the local shows is still a challenge. I tend to stay away from the bigger hall- or theatre-type shows unless there's something really amazing in town, which isn't that often.

b

* * *

Ben.

Yeah, I get that - re: the types of show goers. London is, or at least was, the same sort of crowd except replace civil servants with rich university students. From what I can gather, that may have started to turn around a little bit -- now we (they) have the London Live Arts Festival which is free, and they've got some relatively big names in the past few years: Final Fantasy, Grizzly Bear, and, actually, that's where I first came across the Acorn (who are probably one of my top-10 Canadian artists of the last 3/4 years).

I always felt like, with London at least, half the problem was getting a venue that would fit bands like -- I don't know Chad VanGaalen, Great Lake Swimmers, etc. the sort of top-level "indie" bands. The kind of venues like Toronto has in spades: Lee's Palace, the Horseshoe, El Mocambo, and on and on and on. I feel retarded for not going to more shows, but I feel like there must be like 20 of those kind of venues in Toronto. Do you think the scenes are tied to the venues i.e. a "Field of Dreams" sort of thing -- "If you built [the venues] they will come?". Does that make any sense?

If there's anything else you want to say - or plug - please feel free to do so. I think we're starting to reach the point where very few people are actually going to read this (though it's been fun) except possibly my parents (to check that I'm not doing drugs)...

Rob


* * *

Yeah, one of the cool things about Ottawa, though, is that there are lots more tiny venues (like, under 100 capacity) popping up, which is great, since it adds a sense of community where smaller or less-known artists can get together, and not be constantly under pressure to sell beer (i.e. get hundrends of bums in seats) for the clubs which is just impossible sometimes. That said I think we still need a mid- to large-size venue in Ottawa that would appeal to agents for bands like Iron & Wine or Fleet Foxes etc. who always skip over our fair city! Though bands like that do come eventually when they're on the 'sympathy tours' (those tours hitting the towns they didn't hit when their records came out 2 years ago....)
well then I just want to give a shout out to your folks. hey Rob's parents! and anyone else out there!
b


A friendly reminder that you can check out Ben's music on myspace at: http://www.myspace.com/thatsthespirit or you can purchase Staying Places for only $5.55 at Zunior.

[mp3] That's the Spirit - Head for the Hills
[mp3] That's the Spirit - It's Curtains for You

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