Five Questions: Bry Webb
After years of blasting it out as a member of the Constantines, singer/songwriter Bry Webb turned it all down a few notches for his new solo effort, Free Will. Written as a something of a meditation on his new role as a father to a son, the set is quieter, to be sure, but it’s not without some edge. After all, you can take the boy out of the rock, but you can’t take the rock out of the boy. The take-away, though, is that Webb takes on both music and parenthood seriously, thoughtfully, and purposefully.
Kelly McCartney: What does it mean to you to have Feist anoint you the Springsteen/Dylan of her generation?
Bry Webb: To me, it confirms that Feist is an incredibly kind and generous person. She has been massively supportive of me for many years, and I’m grateful for it. A few years ago, I had completely stopped playing music. I had no idea how or why to work toward playing again and, out of the blue, she asked me to sing on the album version of her song, “The Bad in Each Other.” That was enough of a boost to get me thinking about making a record of my own songs. We recorded the record and, before it was released, she asked me if I’d open the Canadian leg of her Metals tour. So my record came out very quickly and received a lot of attention right away because of her. I really can’t thank her enough for all of that. As for her comparing me to writers like Springsteen and Dylan, I’m kind of at a loss. I hope it means that she thinks my lyrics are pretty good.
Do a lot of the Constantines fans follow you over to your solo work or are they pretty ride or die for the band?
I think a good number of folks who have checked out what I’m doing on my own did so because I was in the Constantines and they were into that band. I’m thankful for that. It’s tough for anyone to get folks to listen these days. The Constantines made it possible for me to tour and have an audience right away with this stuff, even though its a lot mellower. I also learned how to be a musician, how to write and record, and how to play with other musicians through playing with the Cons. My solo stuff is quieter, but there’s still a lot of the Constantines in there, just because it’s the way I learned to make music. These days, I’ll be writing a song on my own, or planning some shows, or making other music-related decisions, and I’ll hear Dallas’s voice saying, “That’s BS” or Will saying, “What’s up with that bridge?” or Steve saying, “This song doesn’t need a modulation, dude.” Those guys are pretty helpful in all my writing, whether they realize it or not!
How did it feel to make a record this quiet and contemplative?
Felt real good. I don’t know. I’m kind of still balancing out 11 years of wildly loud music. It felt right for these songs to be played quietly. The people I play with (Rich Burnett – Lap Steel; Aaron Goldstein – Pedal Steel; Anna Ruddick – Upright Bass; Nathan Lawr – Drums; Tom Hammerton – Piano) are all incredibly sensitive musicians. For most of these songs, we set up in a room and played together while I sang. The easiest way was the best way. I have major hangups about recording. I’ve lost my shit a few times in the past, trying to get the perfect version of something. Recording as live as possible — especially while singing — is just healthier for me. And it’s pretty tough to record live singing in a room with a full band unless everybody is sensitive and able to leave space where it’s needed. I’m lucky to have folks who are great at that, including Jeff McMurrich, the co-producer/engineer. He’s got an incredible discography behind him, including Anthony Braxton, Bruce Cockburn, Jennifer Castle, and Eric Chenaux. He’s an expert at live room recording.
Even in the low-key shuffle of a song like “A.M. Blues,” you still manage to tuck in a few strains of feedback. What do they represent for you in that context?
When I was recording the record, my friend Will Kidman from the Constantines was visiting his folks in Ontario. I hadn’t seen him in a long time because he lives on Haida Gwaii, a beautiful island in Northern British Columbia. He was visiting, and I asked if he would do a feedback duet with me on a song because it was really the best way I felt that we could reconnect. Will is one of my favourite guitarists in the world. His solos are some of the freest things you’ll ever hear in a rock song. So we borrowed two guitars with whammy bars and went to the studio, and wailed out this 30-second free feedback duet together, and it was one of the most joyful moments I’ve had in a studio ever. It was a perfect moment between two old friends, and it’s the main reason the record is called Free Will.
How do you imagine parenthood will influence your work as you go along, both creatively and practically?
Most of what I write these days I write for my son, Asa. It’s how I justify the act of writing anymore. Songwriting is a way of preserving ideas for my son as he grows up, whether it’s about my love and devotion to him, or a warning about the horrifying shit that he’ll likely have to face and deal with in his life. It really gives me a reason to write. I’m not sure how that will change as he grows up, but I am finding myself and my songs to be getting less and less idealistic. As he gets older and is capable of asking harder and harder questions, I just hope I can cut as much bullshit out of my answers as possible.