One thing is clear for Patrick Watson: things will never be the same. “We have to realize how much hip-hop and R&B have transformed the way song lyrics are written,” he says. “Folk’s pretty metaphors are dead. From now on, lyrics have to be direct, and straight to the point. The level of vulnerability displayed in hip-hop and R&B has pushed the limits. And once you cross that vulnerability line, you can’t go back.”
Montréal’s singer-songwriter has just launched Wave, his best album so far. It’s a luminous offering, despite having been born out of the pain of losing his mother, and a friend. It’s also a bold album because it marks a departure from the sonic dynamic that has characterized the five previous ones: instead of lengthy songs filled with orchestral flourishes, we’re now witnessing an uncharacteristic sense of self-discipline from Watson, who readily admits that he’s always draped himself in “dramatic” arrangements, as he calls them.
Two things have transformed his approach to songwriting. The first was Frank Ocean’s Blonde, but more on that later. The second one fell on his lap during the writing of Wave. “Adam Cohen gave me a call and said that there’s one of his father’s songs for which they still haven’t found the right arrangement,” he says. “So he sends me this Leonard Cohen demo and I hear him sing over this music – the classic honk honk of synths; it was quite delightful! I got rid of the music and only kept the vocal track, which was quite powerful on its own. Man, the conviction you hear in every single word he utters, it’s so rich and touching!”
That song is called “The Hills,” and it’ll be featured on the posthumous Leonard Cohen album Thanks for the Dance, to be released on Nov. 22, 2019. Watson composed new arrangements, “but to be honest, I don’t know if [Leonard Cohen] would’ve liked them,” he says. “I wanted to enhance the dark side of the lyrics, and maybe he would’ve preferred the opposite, which would have worked, too… I simply tried to be in tune with the lyrics, and the sound of his voice, with more modern, electronic orchestrations,” a sonic element also noticeable on Wave.
Watson is adamant that working with this unreleased Leonard Cohen voice track completely changed his own way of writing and singing. “Just hearing his voice, without any music, and hearing that conviction,” he says. “There’s no need to underscore it with music.” He points out the fact that the suave “Melody Noir,” on his new album, is totally a reflection of this newfound Cohen influence.
“I think the mistake a lot of musicians make is to play music in the hope of becoming someone else.”
The lyrics are self-sufficient, Watson insists. He sees Cohen as a “heavy-duty writer, just like Bob Dylan. For those guys, the text is so important, and at that point you realize that the more potent the lyrics, the simpler the music. You don’t hear them using huge arrangements or extravagant musical ideas; it’s the text that dictates what the music should do. The only genius who might be an exception to this rule is Tom Waits,” someone whose lyrics are as elaborate as the music. “Closer to us, an artist like Fred Fortin is also of that ilk.”
But back to Frank Ocean, who had a profound and transformative effect on Watson, musically as much as lyrically. “There’s no way that rap and R&B have not considerably changed the way we make music, nowadays,” regardless of the style, says Watson adamantly. “It’s not a question of form – R&B rhythms have nothing in common with what I do. It’s a question of sound, of how you mix music. If you sing playing the piano, you record in a single room, while when you use electronics, it’s right there, front and centre, but the voice needs to be front and centre too. That is how production techniques influence the lyrics: everything is more direct. That has an influence on the way I write and deliver certain rhymes.” Songs such as “Turn Out the Lights” – which is delicate and nearly minimalist compared to Watson’s earlier work – and “Wild Flower” are examples of the influence of the modern and discretely electronic production techniques of R&B.
“To be clear, the influence is not in the sound per se, but in how I understand the intention behind that type of production,” says Watson. “I believe it’s important to me, as a musician, to properly grasp and understand the intention behind those songs. It’s a lengthy process, I’ve spent months and months recording demos before grasping that idea.” Four to five times more songs than the 10 that made Wave’s final cut were recorded as demos.
Four years after Love Songs for Robots, Patrick Watson has managed to re-invent his writing and musical approach, and gives us this Wave of pure, unadulterated emotion that, wrapped in self-discipline, become paradoxically more troubling than when he draped his compositions in luxurious orchestrations. Here again, he says, the key lies in the intention. “You can’t just decide to change your sound like you would pin a picture on the wall and stare at it to imitate it,” he says. “I think the mistake a lot of musicians make is to play music in the hope of becoming someone else. One’s music is nothing but the expression of who one is. If you try to be somebody else musically, everyone will hear that. If you want to do something new, if you want to change sounds, don’t change your music, change yourself: the music will follow. Your intentions are what gives the music you create all the colours it has.”