“Admittedly, the timing of this release isn’t optimal, because I’ve always considered this music to be best suited to cold weather,” says cellist and composer Justin Wright. This seasonal mishap can easily be forgiven, because with warm weather being fashionably late, his Music for Staying Warm doesn’t seem all that off-season.
Following experiments in amalgamating analogue synths and strings – both with the band Sweet Mother Logic and his solo EP Pattern Seeker – the Montréal artist is now exploring new avenues on his first album recorded as a quartet. The music falls somewhere between contemporary music and post-rock – fans of Godspeed You! Black Emperor should totally dig it. Falling, also, between the strictest codes of composition, and improv, Wright’s sound is part of an instrumental music movement that’s gathering more and more momentum.
“Early on, I knew I’d most likely never be the best cellist or the best composer in the world, so I knew I had to find a new angle, a very personal way of being creative with my instrument,” he says. “That’s why I like to give myself limits and challenges. For this album, I wanted every sound to come from a stringed instrument. People would be amazed at the strange sounds we can extract from these instruments.”
“With this project, I’m really putting myself out there, and it’s making me nervous!”
Inspired in part by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Wright also chose a utilitarian title that refers to the project’s initial spark. At the invitation of an art gallery that wanted a soundscape for the 2016 edition of Nuit Blanche, he composed a few melodies that would act as a sonic tapestry for people who would literally walk in to warm up during the event, which takes place in the middle of winter. Lo and behold, passers-by stayed longer, and paid attention to his work.
Those initial compositions later evolved into a dense and complex body of work that’s simultaneously cerebral and sensitive. The album comprises four “drones,” minimalist pieces built around sustained, trance-inducing notes. “I listened to a lot of tizita music from Ethiopia,” says Wright, “which usually only uses two chords, and I was fascinated by these pieces that seem to have no beginning or end… As an instrumentalist, there’s something fascinating and hypnotic about playing minimalist music. The number of variations you can apply to a single note is amazing.”
The album was recorded at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where Wright went for a third stay. If you close tour eyes while you listen, you can easily imagine being at the heart of this idyllic environment. “It’s hard to not be impressed and inspired when you work there,” he says. “The studio has windows on all sides, and no matter where you look, you see those majestic Rocky Mountains. Sometimes, it’s mind-blowing, but creatively, it’s good to be reminded how small we are in comparison to the universe.”
Maybe the fact that he studied molecular biology in university taught him to pay close attention to nature, but one supposes that this modesty also comes from being a serial accompanist. If you follow the Québecois underground scene, you’ve probably seen him play alongside artists such as Common Holly, Krief, Raveen, and many more. His talent as an instrumentalist and arranger can also be heard on recent albums by Jeremy Dutcher, winner of the Polaris Prize, and Mich Kota, two unique artists that are redefining contemporary First Nations culture.
“I honestly think I don’t have a grand message to champion through my music,” says Wright. “I try to touch upon universal themes, because I don’t believe that the story of this white dude who grew up in a posh environment is that interesting,” he says with a chuckle. “For First Nations artists, however, it’s different: their voices were repressed for so long that it’s crucial that they be heard today, and I’m happy to lend my talent to artists who have so much to say.”
And no matter what its creator thinks, Music for Staying Warm has a lot to say, even without words. One can definitely hear the personality of an artist we hope to follow throughout his whole career. “I admit that being an accompanist is somewhat comfortable,” he says. “You don’t need to make big decisions, you just put yourself at the service of someone. With this project, I’m really putting myself out there, and, honestly, it’s making me nervous! I didn’t expect all this to be so big, but as the project moved forward, I learned to appreciate my own work.”