Your songs will all be sung. You won’t arrive there young. No lie can live on your tongue when you get to the bottom of love.
Try as other subject matter may try, love will always be the number one focus of songwriters – the want of it, the end of it, the lacks and the lures of it. It’s there in all human connections, the lived experience of it and the absence of it carrying equal weight in our heads and hearts. As such, it tends to be a rich source of inspiration for tunesmiths, a puzzle that’s never really complete or clear no matter how long or diligently one tries to make all the pieces fit together. Something in us as a species compels us to keep at it even if we know down deep we’re never gonna complete the picture, a striving so powerful and universal that it forms part of the bedrock of the human condition.
However, songwriters rarely approach the subject without considerable cultural baggage and autobiographical trepidation, worried that too much truth, too much honesty, too much raw emotion, etc will alienate others and leave them far too exposed, the truths of their lives waving in the wind for anyone to snatch and study. It’s often easier to lean on clichés or point out the pleasures or shortcomings of others in the love cycle than lay bare one’s own honest experiences. But now and again, an artist steps up ready to share it all – all the warts, worries and wonderfulness – and in doing so helps the rest of us to engage honestly with our own experiences with love. Elliott Smith did it, young Jackson Browne & Joni Mitchell managed it, Tim & Jeff Buckley too, and with the release of The Long Goodbye (released July 23) (pick it up here) you can add Chris Velan to this rarified list.
The latest long-player from this already-excellent Montreal-based singer-songwriter is a painfully beautiful emotional striptease, not uneasy listening exactly but neither is it easy going for listeners who’re invited into Velan’s “coward heart” as it learns that a love that felt like a hand in a glove is nothing of the sort.
Even more bravely, Velan keeps things clear and clean in this process, the truths unvarnished, his own failings and fears on display in great melodies laid bare in perfectly pared down arrangements. One feels alone with the artist and his aching soul in an intimate conversation that stirs one to face up to the things one does to hurt themselves instead of others. One is tempted to grab a bottle of good whiskey and a couple of glasses and seek out Velan wherever he might be to just drink in silence after what’s shared on The Long Goodbye. Though no funereal affair, the album travels the rough road that ending a relationship demands one walk. The gorgeous morning after all the rain and tears can’t be predicted (or even expected) but it rises just the same near the end of this humanizing song cycle, the time to move on at hand, loose ends trailing behind as one steps out, unsure about what’s ahead but certain that staying in this place is no longer an option.
I’m a man, Lord/ I fall on my sword/ The glass has been poured/ The bottle’s broken ‘cross the floor/ I can’t stay here anymore.
Dirty Impound sat down with Chris Velan to discuss his new album, the challenges of being a working musician, and more in this lively, open conversation.
There’s an emotional arc to The Long Goodbye. I cry in the same spot every time I listen, about a minute into “Gorgeous Morning” following on the heels of “Not That Man.” I’m not entirely sure why but I think it’s good that I’m having the emotional reaction without being able to fully explain why.
Wild…I’m actually happy to hear that it makes you cry in that place [commiserating laugh]. This is the first album I’ve made that I can listen to back-to-back and not feel super annoyed or self-conscious, which is strange because it is so intensely personal. I learn new things about the songs myself re-listening to it. It’s a strange experience.
There’s a layering to these songs and the way they’re arranged that’s reminiscent of what Joni Mitchell did on Blue. In processing her emotional state at the time she almost dances with a single instrument on each tune and all the other instrumentation is given a softer tone. There’s her voice, the song, one key instrument and everything else moves with delicacy on the edges. You do something similar on The Long Goodbye.
The approach I took, or maybe the approach that came out of the intentions [behind this album], meant there couldn’t be too much going on. It had to be minimal. So, it felt right for there to be the vocal and one melodic lead. Anything else felt extraneous and didn’t fit.
As a listener, this approaches gives you nowhere to hide. Production can sometimes shroud or soften harder ideas and emotions with the plushness of the arrangement. The directness of this album is refreshing. It asks one to engage with this hard stuff. This was clearly a hard record to make but perversely the toughest times in our lives often serve as the best grist for the creative mill.
I absolutely agree with that. In my own personal creative experience there are often a lot of barriers you can put up against a thought or emotion. Between that and the actual writing of the song there’s all sorts of barriers – doubts, dishonesty, self-consciousness – that can really dilute or even kill the initial artistic and emotional impulse. When you’re in a hard place personally all those barriers just naturally fall…if you allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. What you’re getting is a direct line to the emotion.
This album feels unfiltered. It begins in the last place one wants to be: the “Bottom of Love.” Starting off in that place announces, “Okay, people, you’re in for some truth.”
With this album, I was unconcerned with peoples’ reactions to it [laughs]. That was a good lesson for me because it allowed me to get at things I wasn’t able to on other albums, and it’s a lesson I’ll carry forward on future albums.
Tell me a bit about recording at Echo Mountain in Asheville, NC.
We recorded in the A Room, which is an old chapel. It was basically just me alone with my guitar in the middle of the big room with a bunch of baffling around me [laughs]. It’s a quiet town, even for the size it is. It’s a really chill studio with that Southern taste to it. It worked out really well for what we were trying to do. It didn’t have that rush and frenetic pace of a New York studio. The location really fit.
After watching the video for “Hang On Tightly” I have to ask how are your feet? [Velan self-shot the walk in the wood clip – which you can watch at the end of this interview – entirely barefoot].
It was so painful! But I decided I wasn’t going to hold back. If I was going to be a foot model I had to make it real [laughs]! [By the end] that wasn’t acting – I was destroyed. I wanted to see if I could convey emotions through ankles, calves and feet. It was my acting exercise [laughs].
There are points you’re sprinting, strolling, kicking through water, etc so there is legitimate drama to this below-the-knee approach.
That was my hypothesis. I was so pleased to view it afterwards and see that it worked.
In the modern era, it behooves any working musician to find all the angles they can to get their work into the world, and the more DIY it can be all the better given the need to make every minute and every penny count.
If you want to be a musician you have to become a graphic designer, a video editor, a cameraman, a sound engineer, and more. I don’t where it’s all going but I’m endlessly fascinated by it all. The demand for music, the emotional need for it, will always be there but how do musicians find a way to maintain a living doing it? It’s a mystery to me.
Do you think it makes a difference that you’re Canadian? The government there is much more supportive of the arts than here in the U.S.
Aside from the financial supports, the really important thing is being valued as an artist, feeling that your efforts are valued by the society in which you live. That’s a really important thing because there are so many reasons to feel the opposite. There really is a flood of artists making music. Sometimes you feel like you’re in an echo chamber, and other times it feels like a vacuum. It’s hard to feel like what you do is of value. So, it’s really nice to get some reassurance and feel like it’s worth it and worth something to other people.
In the United States it’s sink or swim. The continual pullback of any governmental involvement with the arts means the commercial potential of a work has to be a consideration from the moment of conception, at least in some germinal way. That’s always going to stifle full creative potential if that’s always in there right from the beginning.
There’s so much amazing stuff that comes out of the United States but one wonders how much more might emerge if there were a bit more support for the arts.
What is it like to revisit the emotionally charged spaces of The Long Goodbye on a nightly basis as you tour behind the album?
I was initially hesitant to play them out but every time I play them they bring me to this place, performance-wise, that’s new ground for me. I have to just be there emotionally in the song, and you can’t fake it. I can’t hide onstage and that creates some interesting performances where things surface in me I wouldn’t have predicted.
The more I play these songs live the more I see it’s part of the process of moving on. You share it and suddenly it loses its original meaning and takes on new meanings. It continues to morph and makes the songs come alive, makes the emotions associated with the songs come alive, and I think they’re going to continue to teach me things as I play them out. It’s part of the exorcism of the ghost. It wouldn’t be a complete process if I just recorded them and never played them.
You can’t get rid of ghosts without a ghost dance. One of the first thoughts I had upon hearing The Long Goodbye was, “This is a helpful evisceration.”
I like that phrase.
Really great music hangs it out over the edge and exposes the stuff that the vast majority of us keep hidden, locked up tight and away from prying eyes. If you let some of that show it gives people permission and an incentive to let more of their own hidden stuff show. Nothing but good comes from that.
Well, if that can come from this album it makes me really happy. It’s funny but when you let these things happen and don’t get in the way of decisions then things happen the way they should. I didn’t question it and it all came out as it should be.