The Making Of “Last Of The Free Men”
The making of an album is the birthright of every aspiring musician – and their grateful burden as well.
Now, lots of musicians will make an album right there in the studio. Others will write at a cafe’ or maybe home late at night or in some hotel a thousand miles from home. Maybe it’s right there on the stage. It’s a strange thing, that creative muse; infinitely tricky and infinitely variable.
You just never know when that need to create strikes.
Unless you’re us.
The story of the making of our album – Last Of The Free Men – crosses all of the above borders. It was created in a myriad of different ways, yet oddly enough presents itself as a “road” album.
There’s a reason for that. And there’s a reason our muse stormed into our lives as sudden as a wind squall on the Cobequid Pass.
This album truly began on the first day of our first national tour. We were five hours in, eating at a truckstop diner in Edmundston when we discovered that we had lost a founding member of our band. He had sadly written a resignation letter and had left it in the windshield to tell us. Within an hour of finding it, we had all read it dozens of times.
It was a serious blow to the band.
So, we drove home, slept on it, and the very next day decided to carry on in true New Brunswicker fashion. Where we’re from, quitting isn’t a very palatable option.
It was hard, but lineup changes do happen (it’s water under the bridge now and I’m happy to say he’s enjoying a solo career) although often at the very worst time. Murphy’s Law has a unique and debilitating set of rules specifically drawn up for us musical folk. And losing a member – no matter what the circumstances – tends to happen, as per our friend Murphy – at precisely the wrong time.
So there we were, just us, a note from the windshield, and our new-found muse, standing by a white Kia Mini Van, a trailer, and the whole world staring us down.
The first track of our album began the next day as I sat in the back of the van, learning songs I thought I’d never have to learn, fighting to keep my anxieties at bay, and waiting to arrive to our first show as now a three piece instead of a four.
I had written the lyrics to “Letter On The Window” as a way to grab hold of how I felt and put it in its place, to accept what had happened and to move on. Great songs often happen this way, as it did with “After The Storm”, when I had dealt with loss in a similiar fashion – as if the ground had been swept away from under my feet, as I’m sure it was with Brock and Turtle.
There’s comfort in songwriting – a way to capture that emotion and allow the rest of your life to unfold.
We did that tour as a three-piece with my brothers right there by my side – like three soldiers who had decided, once and for all, that we would leave the trench and make a run for it. It was seven weeks of hard work, great adventure, and discovery. We had learned we could survive, maybe even thrive, even when the chips were down.
Brock and Turtle’s experience working as a trio with me being the only melodic instrument meant they had to pull out all the stops, and they did. That immense challenge gelled them together in such a way that they had developed a singular sound. They had become a rhythm section in the truest sense of the word.
Also at this time we had invited (while on the road) a friend of ours to help out with shows on acoustic guitar when we got back. When we arrived home from our tour, Danny Roy – my ever-constant guitar compadre – was eager to step in, take on a challenge, and fill a void that brought us not only a greater sense of ease both on and off stage, but brought the band in general to a new, positive, and exciting level.
A few months later, Jason had returned to the band and we were able to enjoy two subsequent tours with him. Now, we were a five piece; Jason was back, sharing lead and harmony vocals with me, his trusty Gibson jumbo in tow. Danny and I were now able to come up with some serious guitar firepower. It was a heady and exciting time.
Before long, the bunch of us were creating new melodies to accompany the lyrics Jason and I had been writing – songs about being born ready, about taking me where my boots were walking, seeing the lights of town, and hopping in my old 83 to drive my cares away, amongst others.
We came home tougher and with an equally tough guitarist in the fold, and soon enough Jason was back, too. Creativity flowed. And in those months following that tour, The Divorcees had truly begun to write and create as a band. The rhythm had personality, the guitars spoke for themselves, and our lyrics had a home.
So there we were, not ones to settle down any time soon, embarking yet again for more touring – this time with new songs for the five of us to road-test and more fans and friends to be made. Slowly, we chipped away at that creative stone and refined our songs to a knife’s edge.
Before we knew it, we were at the ECMA’s, crashing the party in grand style by accepting an award for our first album “You Ain’t Getting My Country”. We were on top of the world. Nothing could stop us now.
But Murphy and his laws were just around the corner.
Things changed yet again. Murph made sure of that. Fate had intervened and an old friend and founding member was gone one last time. It’s never easy losing one from the fold (again, these things happen) but we were resigned to it. But by this time, Danny and I had really come together as twin lead guitarists. We didn’t want to let that go.
Thus entered the one and only J Byrd.
Danny, Turtle, and Brock had suggested J Byrd, a musical die-hard thru and thru,for his acoustic guitar playing and stellar singing voice. But wait. How die-hard, do you ask?
J Byrd, after rehearsing with me for an afternoon – just on the cusp of entering the band – got in an accident which broke his leg and shoulder, amongst other injuries. But being who we were and all and he being even tougher than us, we waited it out. It was a long, hard road of recovery, but in the midst of it all, he vowed that soon enough, he’d be onstage with us. And in time, he was – adding many of the harmonies you now hear on the new album, as well as his one-of-a-kind Northern Nova Scotian acoustic picking.
It was worth the wait.
So there we were – a complete band with road-tested songs and more than our share of ups and downs. Who knew what was going to happen next.
Josh Finlayson happened.
Our pal and record rep for Hay Sale Records, Serge Samson (who we lovingly call Power Serge) and our equally talented manager-drummer Brock Gallant had been busy for months dotting i’s and crossing t’s, doing everything they could to give these highway-tempered songs the best fighting chance they could get. Serge lucked out – and so did we – when we found out that Josh Finlayson, a founding member of The Skydiggers (a legendary Canadian roots-rock band) would be taking the helm as producer.
Before we knew it, we had secured nine days at the Tragically Hip’s Bathouse Studio – a renovated turn of the century inn filled with great old analog gear, antique amps, and more than a few lucky lager beers. It was truly a magical place. Despite feeling like kids in a candy store, what was most important to us was that we had been paired up with Josh, a man who understood what it meant to be tested by the miles and was happy to be working with a band that had its share of hard knocks.
He produced us by giving us room, by stepping in at exactly the right time and only the right time. He emphasized “space” in a lot in our conversations. And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s plenty of that on LOTFM. That’s in direct respect to our outlaw heroes and certainly to Josh.
Along with that, Josh believed in a “live off the floor” sound and, thanks to our relentless touring, we were able to do that. That’s why this record has a very live feel. Because, for the most part, it is. He gave us the chance to be ourselves and this record is the proof.
In his own easy, quiet, understated way, he urged us to try new things, too. Thanks to that, “After The Storm” and “When I Say” made it on this record – both featuring the mesmerizing vocals of Angela Desveaux. We’re very proud of those songs, and thrilled we were given the chance to make them happen.
It was nine days of laughter and intense effort with Josh, as well as our engineer Aaron Holmberg. And it was night and day. Aaron would mix for 12 hours or more at a time,a veritable Oscar Peterson of the ProTools rig. It was a wonder to watch this man work.
We left the Bathouse Studios with our spirits high, new friends made, and a helluva record committed to tape. The next step was to get it mixed and we knew we needed just the right guy for that.
Again, lady luck smiled our general direction and lit a path for us all the way to Nashville – to an amazing facility called Blackbird Studios…home of some of the best ears I’ve sat next to – mixing wizard Terry Sawchuck.
Terry Sawchuck was a good friend of Josh and soon enough, he became a good friend of mine. We keep in touch. Me, Terry, Josh, and Serge lived in that mixing room for days on end yet somehow, the mood was always light and a real dirty joke was always around the corner. Best of all, Terry got who we were right away. That big outlaw sound you hear -the big guitars, booming vocals, and that punchy kick/bass driving those songs from front to back – is due in large part to Mr. Sawchuck and to the immense array of fantastic analog gear lovingly maintained by the owner of Blackbird Studios, John McBride.
On that note, Blackbird Studios is a huge complex of a place where many of your favorite artists have recorded – anyone from The Kings Of Leon to Keith Urban. And now, The Divorcees could say they stepped foot in the place. I’ll admit it was a bit intimidating, but it was worth the nerves. It was, for me, a rare glimpse at the biggest of the big leagues. I was glad to even sneak a peek.
Just when you thought it was all sewn up, we had a chance to come home to the 506 area code and drop some more tracks on the record by world-reknowned fiddler and mandolin player Ray Legere. We also brought in our good, good friend Coco McGraw. All those great, tasty pedal steel licks are Coco, lovingly tracked by our bud Nathan Jones at Postman Studios right here in Moncton.
Then it was off to our mastering engineer Richard Dodd – a man who’s done work for the likes of Tom Petty and Johnny Cash. You can’t go wrong with that.
The final cherry on the top is what a lot of people have commented on – the new Divorcees logo and our album design. It was done by none other than Chr!s Sm!th, a man known on the east coast as a tireless promoter of maritime musicians, a brilliant photographer, and (as you can see in our photo) a crack graphics artist. We think that our album design is going to stand the test of time and truly matches the music contained within it.
So now, we’re finally releasing Last Of The Free Men. It’s finally — after many thousands of miles, hundreds of busted strings,broken sticks, blown amps, a couple flats, a lake of beer, and more than a few shots of Jack – here.
It’s been one helluva ride.
Enjoy the record and thanks for reading along. And in the words of our title track:
“I’m the last of the free men…maybe until then there’ll be one more time that you see me again.”
– Alex Madsen
p.s – Honorary mention to our friend Murph.