Let’s start off with a hard one: Why aren’t you hugely famous?
Well, there’s this rock that I hide under whenever I feel like I’m in danger of losing my anonymity. [Laughter] You know, I think there’s that old-school way of growing a career and turning yourself into a celebrity, which some people are bred for, and I know I’m not. But there’s this wonderful kind of musical middle class that’s grown over the last decade, where you can have people who support you playing your music, and you can still be like anyone else doing any other job, and not have all the hype all around you. I feel like I fit very comfortably in that class.
It’s funny that you reference the old-school approach, because part of that is relentless touring, and you’ve toured like a dog.
I have, yeah. I’m slowing that down now, consciously. I’m really scaling that back, and thinking about only touring Canada and a few parts of America. I spend the majority of my time working on video projects now. In fact, I’ve been so consumed by them over the last couple of months that I haven’t even been able to write songs for the new album I hope to record in the fall. I’ve maybe written two in the time that I wanted to write the bulk of the album.
So there are other things finding their way into my life, that let me be at home more and not spend my life in hotels and crappy restaurants. I like that.
You’ve mentioned that “middle class” of artists, as well as your video work, and I think a lot of people don’t realize just how many recording artists have other jobs that they use to support themselves.
Yeah, absolutely, and it’s sort of a funny thing in my case, because I wasn’t trained to do videos. I mean, I do my own, but it just sort of fell in my lap. People have asked me to do projects for them, and I enjoy it — it kind of keeps me on my toes, and I’m really thankful to have it, because I’ve released four albums now, and in between them, there’s always this period where I’m questioning what I’m doing. It’s something we all do, I think — I wonder if I’m on the right path. And it’s nice to be able to have something else that’s related, and creative and fun, that I get paid for, so I can take a break from music for a couple of months. It’s a nice little palate cleanser.
I’ve found that as a writer, it’s often helpful to go off and do something else for awhile, even if it’s something really mundane, and even if it’s only for a few minutes. It resets those channels really quickly and effectively. Has doing this other work had a similar effect on your songwriting?
Definitely. I mean, I don’t know how they do it, but some people can just sit down and write songs every day, all day. But for me, the inspiration comes from interacting with other people and having other stories, other experiences, that feed into life. Doing these different things helps with that.
And is that part of your reason for wanting to stop touring so much?
Yeah. I’ve enjoyed a lot of my time on the road — there are things I don’t like about it, which is true of any job — but when I looked at my day-to-day life recently, I realized the tradeoff wasn’t worth it. I love performing and I love meeting new people and I love traveling, but I don’t love the rigorous schedule, or being away from my friends and family so much. I’m hoping to find a balance that weighs more in favor of being home and being part of a community. I guess my needs are changing. Plus, it’s more expensive to go out on the road now — more than it was even 10 years ago.
When you started touring as a solo artist, you did it on a bicycle, and your first album, Back Porch Spirituals, was very stripped down. Over time, your music has become more layered, with much more intricate arrangements and production. Did you always hear your songs that way, or was it more of an accidental evolution?
You know…I heard them that way sometimes. I play a lot of different instruments, and I sometimes picture my stuff built up that way — that’s why I made those records. It’s funny you bring this up, because my next album is going to be a lot more stripped down. I think. [Laughs] You never know until it’s actually done, but my intention is to only tour solo from here on out. I’m actually planning a bike tour for September — a two-week run of dates through Ontario that will end at a bike music festival in Toronto with a bike-powered generator running the stage.
I’m trying to do more of that stuff, because that’s where my heart is. That’s where I started, and it was for a reason — it wasn’t just a gimmick. It was really the only way I could start my career, the only way I could afford to tour. And on top of that, I loved touring that way, so I want to bring that back into my plans a little more. For me, the best way of presenting my music is solo. That’s the way I feel most comfortable — just me and my guitar or ukulele or whatever. That’s what I’m focused on now — scaling it back.
But I still love the other side of things, too. I mean, AC/DC is probably my favorite band of all time. I have it in me to want to hear that, you know — the relentless crack of the snare drum, the big guitars. That’s all part of who I am, I’m just realizing now that I want to scale it back again.
I know a lot of artists would like to sound a certain way, but through some combination of genetics, fate, or circumstance, they just can’t. How did you find the right artistic voice? Did you go through a period where you tried to sound like, say, AC/DC?
Yeah, when I was a teenager, that’s all I wanted to do. When I started singing, I realized that wasn’t who I was as a singer…at all. And also as a teenager, I realized that you got more attention from girls if you were singing than you did if you were playing guitar, and that was probably another nudge toward the softer side, if you will. I got into making records, and doing what I’m doing now, by touring. I ran out of money on my first tour, and ended up collecting bottles and cans by the side of the road to get food, and I started borrowing guitars for busking in the bigger cities. That whole process really weeded a lot of the hard rock stuff — or even the band-driven stuff — out of my repertoire. That really helped me find the songs that resonated with me.
The arrangements on your last couple of albums are really solidly grounded in classic pop structure, but you took a really clever approach — you know, even though the listener knows A plus B is going to equal C, that resolution still feels so good. You can’t help but hum along with those chords, or smile when the handclaps come in.
Handclaps are irresistible. They really are. And I do spend a lot of time considering the arrangements and voicings of every chord after a song is written. I don’t map them out, but I do sit there and play things over and over and over again, trying to find the place that feels most natural for it to go. I love it when I get a chance to perform a song a few times before I record it, because that always influences the arrangement.
But I would say that I have a natural cadence to my songs — there’s definitely an arc that I can look back over most of my stuff and identify. I know I do a lot of the verse-chorus, verse-chorus, breakdown kind of thing. But I don’t sit there and think, “this isn’t a Jeremy Fisher song until it’s got these ingredients.” It’s just what I like. There are arrangement tricks that I think I just have gleaned from the stuff I’ve listened to the other years. It’s funny: last night, I was playing around on a friend’s keyboard, and I found the sound for Van Halen’s “Jump,” so I started playing it — and I got to the solo, and I realized it uses a type of phrasing that I tend to gravitate toward a lot, on a lot of instruments that I play. I’ve listened to that song so many times, and played it so many times, that it’s just a part of my muscle memory.
There are a lot of little things that come through that way, from all the artists I’ve loved. Like AC/DC, and to a lesser extent Rush — or singer/songwriters like John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon. It’s all part of the fabric of my inner guitar player and inner singer, so it comes out. That’s my best guess, anyway. I don’t think anything comes from nowhere. The muse might be a mystery to us, but I don’t think it’s inherently a mystery. Just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean it can’t be understood. For me, there’s a conscious desire not to understand it, because then it normalizes it. You know? When you write a great song, it’s so exciting, because you feel like you found buried treasure. It wouldn’t be exciting if you could just say, “I’m going to go to the well and get another great song.” Who could be bothered to go?
So what’s your writing process like? How do you develop these songs, and how consciously are you trying to evoke your influences?
Well, most of the time, I just start off by humming gibberish and coming up with some kind of chord pattern that makes me happy. A lot of my songs are born out of fingerpicking stuff that I do while I’m just around the house, or uptempo, strummy kinds of things. I do that, and I also try and force myself to sit down with a notepad and come up with lyrics. More and more these days, I’m pretty manic about writing — when I have a spot of time, I just sit and try. I just go with it and try to reserve judgment until I have something done, and I let it be okay if what I have isn’t any good. I can revise it, throw it out, whatever — I’m getting less precious about the process. I used to really work it to death, and be afraid to write lyrics to a piece of music I liked a lot, because I didn’t want to ruin it.
There really is no one way that I write. It happens a number of different ways. But I will say that, generally speaking, my favorite songs are the ones that just come to me. Ones that come along and I just can’t do anything else until the whole thing is written. They don’t always come fast — sometimes it feels like I’ve been at it for 15 minutes, and then I look at the clock, and four and a half hours have gone by. But those are precious moments — it’s nice to be so deeply in that zone that you don’t even notice time passing. I love when that happens, but I can’t seem to set those conditions for myself.
- The Popdose Interview: Steve Conn (popdose.com)
- The Popdose Interview: Foster & Lloyd (popdose.com)
- The Popdose Interview: Del McCoury (popdose.com)
- The Popdose Interview: Peter Bradley Adams (popdose.com)
- The Popdose VIDEO Interview: Nick Offerman (“Parks & Recreation”) (popdose.com)