To mark the 5th anniversary of the release of the first Paper Beat Scissors album, I wrote some words and dug out some pictures of the recording process which you can read and peruse below. PBS & Forward Music are offering pay what you want download until the end of April – go have a listen while you read!
Paper Beat Scissors at 5
It came to my attention looking through some old photos last week that the eponymous debut album just hit 5 last month. The album was a really big turning point for me, marking a new approach to the music I was making, and a serious step into the Canadian, and later, international music scene. It completely changed my path, and I wanted to take a bit of time this week to reflect on where it came from, the music, the recording process, and on all the people who gave their time, skills and love to make it a reality.
Foreword to Forward
Paper Beat Scissors got started when I wanted to find an outlet for the introspective songs I’d been writing since first moving to East Coast Canada from the UK. I started performing shows around Halifax, Nova Scotia under the name Paper Beat Scissors in late, late 2007 (get ready for another milestone at the end of the year!), and self-recorded and self-released the debut EP Flicker in 2009. Around about this time I was approached by East Coast label Forward Music about possibly releasing the next PBS work through them, and things really started picking up momentum from that point.
Producing Michael Feuerstack
I felt like this was a project I really needed some outside help to work through and started looking for a producer, someone who’d been through the process a few times and could help me navigate it effectively, as well as provide an outside ear, sitting in that key space between listener and artist. I was a fan of Michael Feuerstack’s project Snailhouse and it turned out he and I had some friends in common. I didn’t think much would come of it, but I shot a message to him to see if he might consider producing the record. I sent over some demos, and after a few phone calls I was over the moon when he decided to get onboard.
My home recordings up until this point had been built up, layer by layer, with me largely playing everything. I wanted to maintain a certain degree of this in the new recordings, but to add more of a band dynamic to this project, too. In discussions with Mikey we decided to workshop the songs with a core band, staying away from click tracks and allowing the unit to dictate the flow. I’d been really into the drumming of Mike Belyea, and had played a few shows with Kyle Cunjak on bass and this became the core band for the record, along with Mike F on electric guitar and lapsteel.
In June 2011 we got together at my old Halifax house on the corner of Charles and Windsor. Taking breaks to play handball against the wall of the Forum bingo hall we worked out the central arrangements for Season’s Rest, Rest Your Bones, Be Patient, Once, Keening and Watch Me Go.
When Mike and I initially met in his hometown of Montreal he’d given me a tour of the city and we checked out some potential studios to record the bed tracks, but it soon became apparent that the perfect spot was much closer to home…
The Old Confidence Lodge
Around 2011 Chilean sound wizard Diego Medina had been making some noise on the Halifax music scene after moving to Nova Scotia from Calgary and recording some great sounding albums. In between scuba diving in the depths of winter and re-engineering cars to run on vegetable oil he’d gutted, rebuilt, sound-treated, and wired up a 19th Century Odd Fellows lodge and theatre [I’m not totally sure what the “Odd Fellows” are, but I believe it’s some kind of membership society thing? Like the Freemasons? Feel free to send me a message if you can clear this up for me] in a little lobster fishing town on the South Shore of Nova Scotia as a recording studio, which he’d christened the “Old Confidence Lodge”.
While Kyle and Mike set up in the main hall, to minimize bleed on the acoustic guitar and vocal tracks I was set up in a separate room. I’m a very easily distracted human, and never feel more comfortable writing and performing than late at night in a dark space. So, in spite of the fact that we were recording during some beautiful July days (something of a rarity in Nova Scotia) I got everyone to chip in helping me block out the light in my little space.
Those days on the shore held a lot of stress and anxiety for me, trying to realize these musical ideas as best as I could, but there were some really special moments: watching Mike B play the wheelbarrow during the second half of Watch Me Go, comes to mind, as does a particularly magic moment that happened late on the last night. We’d finished tracking the band parts, but we decided to have a go at recording the acoustic guitar and vocals live for Folds. We had the guitar and voice close mic’ed, but Diego took advantage of the resonance of the huge hall, setting up mics all around the room and up in the balcony to provide reverb that would kick in during the intense, loud parts, and I think we really hit on some magic.
The food wasn’t so bad, either. My good friend Ben Gallagher had come along, and in between working on his poetry by the river he was resident chef, readying gourmet meals at set hours (possibly Mike F’s most genius production suggestion – cleverly avoiding any kind of low blood sugar/”just one more take”-that-turn-into-17-more kind of situations).
After our time on the shore I finished tracking with Mike in between home in Halifax, where I recorded Rose Cousins’ and Tanya Davis’ backing vocals, a basement by Jean Talon market in Montreal, and at Mikey’s home studio.
Over the whole recording process a key focal point was trying to stay true to the demos. I’ve learned through bitter experience that so much of what holds the magic in early, scrappy recordings of songs goes beyond the words and the notes – it’s a particular tone of voice, a certain unintentional noisiness to a guitar sound, an accidental early entry on the drums. Sometimes in trying to “refine” songs in making the structure more orderly, or in the process of recording them at a higher fidelity some of that initial magic is lost.
I was trying to stay with this logic with Tendrils and Let Me In. Tendrils was a late arrival on the scene – it just came out in one go when I was messing around on the guitar after we’d tracked all the beds. The song had a strange kind of flow to it that I wanted to stay true to, so I mapped out the rambling, never repeating chord sequence and vocal melody from the cassette recording and what you hear on the record is almost exactly the same as that original demo, even keeping as many of the stream of consciousness original words as possible. In a similar vein, the choir on Let Me In was just adlibbed, singing whatever notes I felt like within the key and then repeating the process 6 times, but I wanted to stay true to that initial vision and meticulously listened back to all 6 parts, and mapped them out to re-sing once the final melody and lyrics were in place. On this track I also hadn’t liked the sound of the higher end microphones on the vocals, and felt I needed the freedom that working at home gave me, so it was all sung into a run of the mill SM58.
Another central aspect was holding onto the “mistakes” – not deleting a take because something had happened that the musician hadn’t intended, but being present enough to notice if that mistake might be the best moment in the song. This is something having a producer along can really help to identify. The “mistakes” on the album are definitely some of my favourite moments – the weird electronic break up on the effected vocal towards the end of Watch Me Go, Mike B’s offset fill in the climax of Be Patient, disarming the tracks on the summing mixer at the end of Keening, Mike F’s joke guitar solo on Keening that he just recorded while warming up, the noise of depressing the piano pedal and background chatter that kicks off the album on Ends in Themselves. Perhaps more than anything, I think it plays out on this record in the embracing of the fragility and vulnerability in the voice.
Overdubs in Montreal
A really special element of this record was finding people I could work with who I could just really allow to run with it. People I could trust to understand what I was trying to do, but to work with it in a different way and add their own character to the songs and take them somewhere new.
Metal and Wood
Seb Chow got his violin sounding like nothing of the sort on Watch Me Go, and Jessie Tesolin made her cello sound evil over the end of Keening. The brass arrangement on Rest Your Bones had been written ahead of time by a fella named Greg Burton. We’d met at his old loftspace in the industrial St Henri neighbourhood of the city. The place was part of Montreal indie music folklore, hosting shows for the likes of Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre, the Unicorns and Tuneyards over the years – with a few members of those bands living in the space over the years. I’d played a few shows there and before one of them I was shooting a live performance video by the train tracks. I wanted to try out Rest Your Bones, and had remembered seeing a euphonium (for the uninitiated:basically a mini tuba) lying around the Breadfactory, and recalling that Greg played it. I asked him if he wanted to play on the video, and, on the fly he came up with this really beautiful line. If you watch the Here on Out video, it’s literally about 30 minutes after we played the song for the first time.
Obviously after this success I had to ask Greg to map out the whole song and on a sweaty summer day in Montreal we recorded the part as a sectional with Mona Varichon on the French horn and Felix Del Tredici on the trombone. We still had some time after Mona and Felix left, so we decided to have a go at some other stuff, and completely off the cuff Greg came up with the rhythmic horn section over the climax of Season’s Rest, somehow even wrangling a sound out of a mangled trumpet held together with tape that was hanging on Mikey’s wall.
My time working with Pietro Amato was equally inspiring – his otherworldy French horn sounds on Ends in Themselves (the horn was making the piano resonate, and when we realized this we embraced it and set up a mic inside the piano and held the sustain pedal down to pick up the sympathetic reverberations). His pointilistic hemiola bursts (sorry, I just really don’t know another way to express what he was doing) over the chorus of Once completely changed the song.
A great suggestion early on from Mikey was that we should get a different engineer to mix than had recorded it. That way they’d get a fresh perspective on it, and the engineer wouldn’t be shaded by how they thought all the elements should sound, based on the ways they were recorded. I’d been really impressed with the work Jeremy Gara had done on Mikey’s records, and the two of them had a great working relationship, so I was really happy when the timing worked out to have him mix the record.
Jeremy had been touring like a madman leading up to mixtime, but he really went in deep, working on draft mixes while he was on holiday out in the countryside. Jeremy, Mikey and I got together in his kitchen during August of 2011 to go through the final steps and I think his care, attention and hard work (he always outlasted Mikey and I on mix days) to the project really helped to fully realize the sound of the record. Jeremy’s been striking out on his own of late with an awesome dark and heavy electronic project and recently released his first album “Limn“.
Sydney Smith – was a good friend in Halifax and was a maker of beautiful things. Primarily an illustrator, I knew he loved to work outside of that medium, too, so I just provided him with the music, the lyrics to the songs and let him take his inspiration for the artwork from there.
He had the idea that he wanted to run with this theme of creating collages from natural objects – something akin to what was seen in Roman columns, or floral wallpaper where plants and flowers were used, but presented in somewhat unnatural, ordered, symmetrical forms. He was constructing it during the winter, but wanted to use plants and natural elements that were readily available at the time. What he came up with (see below) is, I think a really special piece of work, and it’s worth noting that it’s just a straight up photograph – the only photoshopping that was done was hiding the wires that were suspending the construction in the air.
Sydney’s gone on to get the recognition he fully deserves illustrating some of the most beautiful kids books I’ve seen (his depiction of light in “Town is by the Sea” is really something to behold and “Sidewalk Flowers” has received plaudits from the Guardian and the New York Times and won the Governor General award in 2015). He also made the PBS artwork for the two subsequent releases Live at St. Matthew’s Church and Go On.
After getting some wonderful press and a spate of touring across Canada I’d thought things were winding down with the album, but then all of a sudden Europe caught on. ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris came across the record and started playing it on his BBC radio show, and Hamburg label Ferryhouse/Warners came in to release the album across Europe. Following the release there in 2013 we took a 7-piece over the Atlantic to tour Europe as a band for the first time, bringing in Gina Burgess (violin) and Devin Wesley (bassoon), to add to the core band from the album of Mike F, Mike B, Kyle and, just for good measure, Gregory Burton.
We’re keeping very busy at PBS Inc. at the moment – keep your eyes peeled for an announcement on a new release and tourdates very, very, very soon!
Thanks for reading this far