Toronto Musician Doug Paisley Plays with Feist and others on Constant Companion
Doug Paisley is the Canadian musician to watch out for this fall, with his roots-folk album Constant Companion hitting stores October 12th.
When Paisley’s debut solo album was released last year, critics embraced his warm, wise and sometimes dark country songs. On his new record he is joined by Leslie Feist on two songs, and Garth Hudson formerly of The Band on keyboards. His songs are as haunting as ever, with an emotional depth that keeps you humming and considering the songs long after the CD has stopped playing.
Paisley began receiving attention in 2006 when he and Toronto visual-artist Shary Boyle formed Dark Hand and Lamplight. Boyle as the Dark Hand would arrange her animations using a slide projector behind Paisley, the Lamplight, in time to his musical compositions. The two did a short California tour, with Paisley performing songs he wrote specifically for their project.
Their performances led to a larger American tour in 2008, opening for Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. “It was amazing touring with him, really instructive. It was my first tour in the U.S., and it was really inspirational. It dispelled myths of what it is to be an opening act—you’re afraid they are going to stick you in some broom closet,” Paisley laughed. “They were really nice and social. My momentum since then really comes from that tour”.
After their tour with Oldham, Paisley secured a record deal with the Brooklyn-based independent label No Quarter. His new album also includes the vocal talents of Julie Faught from the Pining, Bazil Donovan of Blue Rodeo and Jennifer Castle. These female harmony singers will be especially welcome to fans of Paisley’s first album, which was enhanced by the beautiful contrast of his voice and that of Simone Schmidt (lead singer of the Toronto country band One Hundred Dollars).
A native of Toronto, Paisley has found musical connections easily in his home city: “Music is inherently collaborative,” he explains. “Even if you are solely a songwriter, you still write songs with people and play with other people. In Toronto you are likely to encounter everyone in the music scene, because of the proximity of other artists. Shary Boyle and I were going out at the time when we toured together. Feist and I are friends. I have a mutual friend with Garth Hudson, so that is how we met. Music is an extension of your social life. It is important to me to have that connection, where we are always going to create, and know it is more than the sum of its parts.”
The music scene in Toronto is mutually supportive. It doesn’t seem very divided. Even though there are a lot of different kinds of music, people will still play together and work together. It is a small scene in Toronto as far as a market within Canada though, so it is not enough to sustain a musician. Musicians who are less commercially minded, therefore can be potentially more creative. But that means that less people do it. Which is sad and unfortunate, but it also is sort of more like it used to be, where people were musicians and had another occupation as well. It’s a part of life, but rarely your whole life.”
Paisley has been drawn to music since before he was a teenager, “I had a strong initial emotional reaction to music when I was young. I am drawn to music by a lot of listening and buying albums. Being a musician is an extension of that. When I first started listening to the Beatles, nothing had hit me that hard before. I was drawn to that experience, which I don’t get as strongly from anything else.”
His music has been compared to James Taylor and of course Neil Young, and the praise is certainly deserved, as the classic feel of his songs create a sound that is both familiar and original. “My songs are about loss and love,” Paisley ruminated. “They have a theme of introspection, of personal thinking as an extension of self. They voice internal monologues of the world and the self.”
He began playing with Chuck Erlichman in an experimental duo called Russian Literature, and also played with Erlichman in a tribute to the Stanley Brothers. With two strongly contrasting acts in his repertoire, followed by playing solo on tour with Boyle, he has experienced quite the range of musical performance. “Performing solo is a lot freer, because you don’t have to keep time or arrangements with anyone else. The success or failure rests all on you, but if it goes really well, then you’ll want to do it more,” Paisley laughed. “Performing with people is an amazing form of communication. You hear people performing around you, and you are not even looking at them sometimes, yet all these instruments that you know nothing about are adding so much; it’s a great way to appreciate other musicians.”
Although Boyle and Paisley’s performances were well received, Boyle’s visual-art career is in full swing and so fans will have to stay tuned for when the two might tour again: “It takes a lot of work for her to prepare the slides for the projections; they are very intricate and high maintenance. She has these thick files of 3-D animation especially prepared for each song, so the files are around and we could put a show together using them,” Paisley said. Currently Boyle has an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, called “Flesh and Blood” which goes until December.
Constant Companion was completed relatively quickly after Paisley’s first solo release, but Paisley is no stranger to the drawn-out process of completing a song, “Sometimes I finish a song in about ten minutes, such as the opening song, “What About Us”, from my first album. Other times I use mini-discs and begin with fragments of songs. That will be between six months and three years”. Paisley elaborated, “I won’t know what to do with it at the time, but I’ll trust that when I go back to it, I’ll have a different understanding of it and be able to make it into something. Recording is a very important part of that, to document and collect all that stuff.”
Through his adventures touring as a musician so far, Paisley has particularly enjoyed exploring California, “It is my favorite place to perform. I really love the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. It was always built for music, the architecture is for music. Sonically it is amazing, and the audience can feel it. The Henry Miller Library, in Big Sur is incredible, it is an amphitheater made of Redwoods, and it is a spectacular place.”
Paisley embarks on a short American tour in October, followed by country-wide Canadian dates in November and December. He is one of the most grounded and kind people I have interviewed, so if you have a chance to catch him in concert, be sure to say hello to him–you won’t regret it.