Jim Bryson – Blowin’ Your Mind
For insight into Jim Bryson’s character, insert his new CD, The North Side Benches, into your computer. A hidden website is revealed with downloadable demos and outtakes — including a peculiar reading of the leadoff track, “Sleeping In Toronto”.
While the web-only demo is musically comparable to the album version’s euphonious ode to homesickness, what’s missing is Bryson’s husky, emotive voice. In its stead, Bryson delivers the song in a bullfrog croak, the consequence of a bout of chronic laryngitis. It’s the type of performance that even the least vain artist would permanently deep-six — so why would Bryson post it on the web?
“I just thought it was funny,” Bryson shrugs. “What’s great about us as Canadians, we share with the British that we can have a laugh at our own expense. We are our own perfect target.”
Bryson has for some time been the target of lavish praise from fellow musicians who, despite his self-deprecating nature, declare both awe for his talent and frustration that he remains one of Canadian music’s best-kept secrets.
Bryson began his recording career as a member of the Ottawa speed-pop combo Punchbuggy, but his dour demeanor and introverted sensibility never jibed with that group’s exuberance. After two albums, he split in 1996 and dropped out of music for a time. But in the summer of ’98, an invitation to sing and play banjo at a pal’s open stage was a revelation.
“It was the first time I had played in my life where it was dead quiet,” he recalls. “That was my feeling of transition. It made me feel like, maybe it’s going to be OK.”
Among those in the audience at one of Bryson’s early gigs was Kathleen Edwards, who later invited Bryson to perform on her debut album. “It was like a bomb went off,” she says of that initial exposure to Bryson’s music. “It just blew my mind, and then I got to know him and he still blew my mind. I remember just sort of changing a lot about how I wanted to make songs and play them.”
Bryson acknowledges his musical friends have done much to boost his reputation, if not his celebrity. “Lots of people have heard my name, but never heard my music. They don’t know why they know my name. I get the feeling that sometimes people are kind of rooting for me,” he says, then wonders aloud, “Is that egocentric?”
The North Side Benches, like its 2000 predecessor The Occasionals, is a cogent showcase for Bryson’s music, which could inadequately be summarized as the Replacements recording at Big Pink. A bruised emotional core of songwriting blends with gruff humor, set in uncluttered, inventive musical settings.
His songs shun linear form but invoke specific emotional states. “I am always jealous of storytelling songwriters,” Bryson admits, “but my favorite thing is the way words sound against each other — how they form images in your mind, and how they can make you feel a certain way.”
He has a knack, too, for plucking phrases from nonmusical contexts. On “Somewhere Else”, Bryson snags the line “I’ve lost this city’s confidence” from the mouth of a mayor and repositions it as an expression of self-doubt.
“Obviously, politicians are very quotable, and I read the business section for inspiration,” he acknowledges. “I don’t mean the takeover of Air Canada is interesting for me, but the language of business and politics is hook-laden language.”
Since the album’s release in Canada, Bryson has been touring, looking for a U.S. label, collaborating with Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb, and maintaining modest hopes for his future. Success, he says, would constitute taking time off from his day job at an Ottawa music store. And he hasn’t reported for work since August. “The thing is, whether you get paid for it or not, music becomes a full-time preoccupation.”