In March of 2016, The True North Gallery-The Music Gallery in Waterdown, ON, opened its doors. Owned by True North Records/Linus Entertainment head Geoff Kulawick and wife Brooke, it showcases art created by a veritable Hall of Fame of stars from the music world. The list of those whose work is on the walls there includes Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Patti Smith, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Ron Wood, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix, as well as SOCAN members Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Murray McLauchlan, Marc Jordan and David Francey.

The exhibition prompted us to consider the parallels between songwriting and the visual arts, and we asked five SOCAN members skilled in both fields to contribute their thoughts and experiences.

TOM WILSON

Tom Wilson artHamilton’s JUNO Award-winning musical maverick Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond) is now also an in-demand visual artist. He produces large and colourful works reflective of his larger-than-life persona, and he discusses his art with typical gusto.

“I began painting in 1996, the second time I stopped drinking,” he recalls. “I wanted to do something constructive with my time. I started painting on our kitchen table after dinner, with kids running around. Most artists would find that distracting, but I feel art should be born out of the life that surrounds you. It shouldn’t be something created in a rented space in some loft.”

Wilson’s first public exhibition was auspicious: “I shared it with Michael Stipe and Daniel Lanois at Toronto’s Spin Gallery. The curator asked me to price my work and I suggested $500. He said ‘We can’t make money at that,’ and he priced them from $3,500 to $5,000. They all sold, so I kept on painting!”

Wilson has had other shows, but prefers to sell through his website. Last year, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) and the City of Hamilton music office commissioned The Mystic Highway, a 40 ft. x 40 ft. mural that pays tribute Hamilton’s rich musical past and present. It was displayed in the city’s downtown, coinciding with the 2015 JUNO Week and Awards.

Wilson’s earlier style featured words scratched into oil, but he says, “I’m currently working on wood, using oil on oil.” He enjoys “blurring the lines of the media in which I work. I would etch my lyrics onto the canvas, and then go to those canvases as I was writing songs. They were like giant colorful notebooks I had hanging around my house.”

Wilson enjoys the fact art can be judged on its own merits. “It doesn’t confront people the way popular music does,” he says. “You don’t have to have the right forehead or groovy pants. People can approach it without a bunch of hoopla around it.”

MARTIN TIELLI

Martin Tielli artAs a longtime member of The Rheostatics, singer-songwriter and guitarist Martin Tielli achieved Canadian indie rock stardom. His talent as a visual artist has been showcased in striking album covers for that group, his own solo projects, and those of other musicians.

A recent Rheostatics reunion concert aside, Tielli has left music behind. “I stopped music altogether, and have been painting full-time for about seven years now,” he says. “That has been a pretty seamless transition psychologically. In playing music and painting, the physical movements are different but the psychology is the same. I never thought of them very differently.

“The art was first and easiest for me,” he recalls. “I’ve always considered that number one. Music came at a later age, and it became all-consuming for some decades there.”

In his teens, Tielli trained as a scientific illustrator: “I illustrated extinct animals for the Paleontology department at the Royal Ontario Museum for two years, until the Rheos started touring.”

Designing Rheostatics-related artwork came naturally. “It made sense that somebody who’s part of the making of the music should have a clear idea of what it should look like,” he says.

To Tielli, “music and art both access a similar part of the brain, the part that is not linguistic. To me, music, both lyrically and sonically, is visual. and cinematic. I see pictures, from landscapes to monsters, in music.”

His well-documented stage fright means the solitary act of creating his meticulously crafted paintings suits Tielli well. “When I’m painting, people aren’t looking at me,” he says. “I never quite liked that part, especially the older I get [laughs]. Plus 90 percent of the time I’m working on art, I’m actually doing it. In music, that’s about three percent of the time.”

SARAH SLEAN

Sarah Slean artAcclaimed singer-songwriter Sarah Slean has long been attracted to and influenced by visual art. “I think it’s an ancient urge. We all draw as kids,” she says. “I went back to drawing and painting in my twenties, as a way of soothing my frustrations with music. Turning off the ears in favour of the eyes, and shifting the brain’s focus from time to space, is extremely helpful in freeing up that blocked creative energy.

“I love the experience of total mental quietness when painting or drawing. Even if I’m listening to loud rock music or Beethoven string quartets, the mental experience for me is one of stillness. Not so with music, the song and the sounds are in your mind, whirling around, trying to get out, to be translated into the real world.”

To Slean, the creative processes involved in music composition and art creation are “totally dissimilar, which is why visual art is a welcome shift. Art for me is often exploratory and revelatory. There is a seed (that magically appears) and I don’t willfully expand on it, I just feel around, let it grow, following instincts. It unfolds. Music for me can be torturous. The process of making art for me is still a kind of miracle. I have preserved my innocence with it.”

To date, Slean has had a small number of public shows, primarily selling work through her website. “I’m a bit shy about exhibiting art, as I mainly identify as a musician and writer,” she explains. “I plan on having more in the future. I believe the rules are bending, the boundaries and shifting and blurring, creativity is becoming more open and experimental. Disciplines collide and overlap, which is very exciting.”

JANE BUNNETT

Jane Bunnett artInternationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist, composer and bandleader, five-time JUNO Award winner and Order of Canada recipient Jane Bunnett has had a lifelong passion for visual art. “I grew up in an environment of creativity,” she says. “My parents and I would regularly go to art galleries in Toronto, and I was always drawing.”

Bunnett studied design while simultaneously studying classical piano and jamming with her musical friends. Upon finding her creative fulfillment in jazz, music took precedence. “In the end the solitude of being a lonely painter was not what I wanted,” she says. “I really enjoyed the camaraderie of being in a band.”

But she has continued to sketch and paint. The True North Gallery show, her first public exhibition, primarily features her colourful depictions of such jazz heroes and inspirations as Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson.

Bunnett fluctuates between music and art, depending on her performance and recording schedule. The return of Maqueque, her acclaimed project with young female Cuban jazz players, means those players now stay in the room Bunnett usually uses as her art studio.

“I may take my paints up to our cabin and paint there, or work in my sketchbook and plan something down the road,” she says.

Her sketchbook has long been a constant companion on her travels, and it is full of vivid depictions of scenes from as far afield as the Caribbean, Saskatchewan, and Serbia.

To Bunnett, the creative process used in composing and writing “both involve the same frame of mind. You slow down into a rather meditative thought process as you internalize things, whereas with performance there’s a certain amount of adrenaline that kicks in.”

Asked about the affinity so many musicians and singer-songwriters have for art, she reflects that “musicians use the part of our brain that is visual. If you ask a musician about a room they were just in, they can likely describe it in real detail.”

KURT SWINGHAMMER

Kurt Swinghammer with his artSinger-songwriter, screen composer, guitarist, painter and multi-media artist Kurt Swinghammer has enjoyed a long and successful career in both music and the visual arts. A prolific solo artist and composer of film and TV scores, he has designed album covers, posters, music videos and clothes (The Shuffle Demons’ famed costumes), and exhibited his paintings. One such work, “Red Canoe,” was bought at the True North Gallery opening by music industry veteran Frank Davies.

Art was Swinghammer’s prime early pursuit. “I had my first gallery show at 16,” he says. “I thought I’d keep music on a more personal level, keep it uncontaminated.” He attended Toronto’s OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) and now works concurrently in music and visual art.

He has interesting observations on their similarities and differences. “Painting is the ultimate indie act, but it affords very little opportunity to integrate ideas and energies from other people,” he says. “That’s a beautiful thing in making music. I enjoy that balance of the social and the solitary.

“I learned that, in the art world, finding a personal voice, seeking individuality, is prime. That’s not the dominant thing in music, with its trends. In the visual world, if you don’t have a signature style, forget it. My solo music was more about trying to do that, too.”

He views the two activities as possessing parallels: “The process of fishing around for an idea is similar for both, but with the type of music I do, and the art, I don’t think there’s much similarity in terms of executing the work. With my current visual work, I do think of music in terms of colour relationships, the tempo of brushstrokes, and the composition dynamics.”

Swinghammer acknowledges that “there can be pressure to just do one thing, but I think it is natural to do both. Joni Mitchell was one of my major heroes and I certainly knew she did her album covers. That affirmed that it’s totally fine to do both.”


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Plants and AnimalsJust a few weeks after the release of Waltzed in from the Rumbling, we caught up with Plants and Animals in between concerts, somewhere on the American Eastern seaboard. The trio’s new album, their first after a four-year hiatus, sees the Montréalers take a new, more subtle, pop-rock direction full of captivating grooves. Theirs is a serene and calm musical road – the antithesis of their current road trip.

Life on the road isn’t always a cakewalk. As Nicolas Basque tells us from his cellphone, lost somewhere on the highway, yesterday was quite hellish. “One of our vans has a lot of problems and we had to stop several times,” he says. “We got to the hotel at four in the morning and had to cancel our show. This morning we had to rent a new one so we could get to our next concert.” The trio, currently touring with a backing singer, a bass player and a sound man, should probably also take a car mechanic along with them. “Well, actually,” says Basque, “it’s our drummer [Matthew Woodley] who kinda is, because he’s always the one that goes to the garage. We joke around that all of us should take a course in auto mechanics.”

It’s a long and winding road, but “the reward comes every night when we go on stage”, says the singer and guitarist. Especially after four years away from said stage, but that was a well-considered choice. After the tour backing their third album, The End of That (2012), “we needed a break, and it just happened. We also all had kids during that hiatus. Today we’ve found our stride again. It sure won’t be four years until our next album.”

“The trick was to find a way to combine our desire to be more exploratory with our compositions, while creating songs that can be played live.” – Nicolas Basque of Plants and Animals

While some fans were wondering if Plants and Animals had decided to close up shop, Basque and his acolytes were actually reflecting on their careers, which began in 2003 with their eponymous debut EP. “We really thought about what we wanted to accomplish with our songs,” he says. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we want to work in the studio? How do we give ourselves the time to explore?’ The trick was to find a way to combine our desire to be more exploratory with our compositions, while creating songs that can be played live.”

Plants and Animals have found that balance on Waltzed in from the Rumbling, a gorgeous, meticulous album in which they re-discover their love for folk songs, first evident on their debut album Parc Avenue (short-listed for the 2008 Polaris Prize) – while doing away with that album’s psychedelic flourishes and replacing them with stripped-down grooves.

“All we’re trying to do is create music that expresses who we are today,” Basque explains. It’s a carefully crafted album in the sense that each song has a twist to it, but without showing off or being theatrical; a reflection of musical maturity. “Now, we try to transition emotionally rather than using tempo or structural changes, the kinds of things that impress people,” says Basque. The album includes subtle string arrangements, as well as two backing vocalists (Katie Moore and Adèle Trottier-Rivard) who bring a new feminine touch to the repertoire.

The songs – including the lyrics, written by singer and guitarist Warren Spicer – were written on the fly, in the studio, and have that classic rock je ne sais quoi reminiscent of the warm, rallying sound of 10cc or Blood, Sweat & Tears of yesteryear. But not really that of Radiohead, which several music journalists and critics have evoked.

“We don’t really know what that comparison is all about,” says Basque, a little surprised. “Honestly, it’s the first time this comparison has been made. We’ve often been told that we sound like our influences, but nobody has ever been able to name a single one! That said, we take it with a grain of salt. Radiohead is such a major band, that has influenced a whole era of rock. I guess, in the end, everybody ends up being compared to them. I can understand a certain resemblance on certain songs, but overall, not really. But at the end of the day, if you’re going to be compared to a band, might as well be that one, no?”


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Trashing the songs and recordings he’d been working on for the past five years was the best thing Samito ever did. That much is now clear: this adoptive Québécois’ hard-hitting first album is a hybrid of funk, electro, rock and traditional Mozambique music.

Initially slated for release last fall, Samito’s first album was to be called Xico-Xico, but it didn’t live up to the expectations of its creator. “I’d been working on it for too long,” says Samito. “When I listened to it at the very end of the process, I thought it was cool, but I was somewhere else completely,” says the artist, who admits it was partly due to differences between himself and a close collaborator at the time. “I decided to drop everything and start from scratch. Saying it happened quickly is quite an understatement. In about 20 days, I wrote and recorded a complete album.”

The frantic pace was encouraged by producer Benoit Bouchard, himself an accomplished musician, who ‘s worked with Chloé Lacasse and Fanny Bloom, among others. “He’s one of the first musicians I met when I got here 10 years ago,” says Samito, now 36. “As a matter of fact, he was my studio recording instructor during my studies. Last March, I played my very minimalist demos for him, and four days later we were in the studio with session players. We recorded everything over the course of one weekend.”

SamitoAlone, But Well-Accompanied

Working with drummer Jonathan Bigras (Galaxie, PONI), guitarist Funk Lion (La Bronze), bassist François-Simon Déziel (Valaire) and a few other collaborators such as top axe-man Olivier Langevin (Galaxie) allowed Samito to live a bona fide dream studio experience. “It was so much more interesting than working on my own in my basement,” he readily admits. “This album is the direct opposite of the other one. Even the writing is different… Instead of writing in the third person and being some kind of omniscient observer or narrator, I decided to accept my first person and to write about me.”

Through songs such as “LOL,” a critique of social media; a metaphor on assisted suicide entitled “Nara”; and “Tiku La Hina,” a story of identity, Samito shares his fears and inner struggles using a rhythmic mix of Portuguese and Tswa, one of the many languages spoken in his country of origin.

On “Here We Go My Old Friend,” he exposes his vulnerability and opens up about feelings of deep solitude. “Sometimes it feels like it comes with being an artist,” he says “It’s even worse for me because I’m an immigrant. I made a choice, as a teenager, to come here to love the American dream, but the road to the American dream is paved with failures and solitude. Even though I’ve totally integrated here, I’m still totally uprooted from my native land. As a matter of fact, it’s partly so I could be surrounded by people that I wanted to do a live album, something more spontaneous.”

 

Bringing the African Groove Back

The result is a spectacular meeting “between Mozambique and Lac-Saint-Jean,” the region from which producer Benoit Bouchard comes. A musician since childhood, Samito taps into all of his countless influences. “There’s gospel, rock, funk,” he explains. “There’s also a conscious attempt at bringing back a certain original African groove, a relatively edgy groove that you haven’t really heard in African pop music for nearly 20 years. The music over there now is too clean, as if Africans were attempting to copy the standard American format. The whole dark, visceral roots aspect of it has been expunged.”

Armed with this “cultural and historical melting pot,” the Révélation Radio-Canada 2015–2016 winner will go back to his hometown of Maputo this summer to shoot a video and release his album. “The recognition I’ve been getting over here for the last few months is starting to make waves over there. There seems to be growing interest,” says the artist, who left his country a decade ago to study music at McGill University. “But I’m especially anxious to play my album for my family. My loved ones know I almost gave up more than once and that the road to now was hard. I really don’t want to disappoint them.”

Feeling quite welcome ever since he arrived in Québec, Samito plans to improve his writing in French. “Words, to me, are the most important part of a song,” he says. “Even if I sometimes realize people couldn’t care less about lyrics if the music is good, I would still love to be able to write in French soon. Thing is, I don’t want to mess it up. For the past 10 years, I’ve seen countless artists from the diaspora who haphazardly attempted to sing in French. I want to take the time it takes to write and sing something good in French. I’m not sure exactly why, but I feel it’s something I owe the Québécois.”

Samito was awarded the SOCAN Prize at Bourse RIDEAU that was held in Québec City in February 2016. Among other things, the prize will allow Samito to be featured in a SOCAN showcase during the Rendez-vous Pros des Francofolies de Montréal alongside La Bronze on June 16, 2016, at 5:00 pm.


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