Do you write on guitar or piano?
There’s a song on the record called “On Your Own” that I wrote on piano originally, but have now adapted to guitar. I like how, when you create a piano inversion on guitar, it sounds somewhat unique. You wouldn’t position your fingers that way unless you were actually looking for those specific notes. It creates something a little different. You can do it the other way, too, and take stuff you’ve come up with on guitar and play it on piano. As a writer, I’m never satisfied if I’m just using G-C-D. It doesn’t inspire me.
Do you experiment with alternate tunings?
Never. I’ve dropped a D once or twice on other records but not on this one. I’ve tried them because I’m intrigued by them, but they never lead me anywhere. I get really stuck, actually. I do go for open resonance when I’m climbing up the neck, though. I try not to barre as much as possible, leaving my barre finger open to see what’s down there. When you do that, you can find some interesting dissonances and tight chord clusters that, because I’m not schooled, I probably wouldn’t otherwise come across. I’ve written charts for my band that have a b9 or #11 but I don’t think like that. It’s only because I found those chords in a hunt-and-peck fashion.
How would you describe your style?
I took a few guitar lessons as a kid but mostly I studied piano intensively and learned music theory. A lot of my guitar style definitely comes from applying piano-based theory to guitar and sort of crossing it over. It’s less about learning guitar licks or positions or scales. I don’t even know how to play scales!
Would you consider your style distinctive?
I hope it is. Nobody wants to sound like any average Joe. But at the same time, I don’t want my style to be so distinctive that it takes over the tune or anyone’s enjoyment of relaxing and falling into the music. I’m not the kind of guitar player that throws out a bunch of licks to show how bad I am. I’m just trying to make it interesting for myself. There are songwriters who play fingerstyle sort of like I do. Ron Sexsmith has a similar right-hand approach. Richard Thompson does similar stuff—not that I’m anywhere in his league because he’s incredible. Bruce Cockburn creates a percussive quality like what I go for. So it’s not like I’m coming out from Mars.
Talk about your gear.
I’m a guy with an acoustic guitar so there’s not a lot to tell. I play a Santa Cruz Tony Rice model made for me by Richard Hoover and that’s it. It’s a dreadnought, built in the style of a ’40s Martin D-28 with a beautiful sunburst. That’s my main instrument. As far as strings, I use Elixir Medium Nanowebs and I tune down to Eb. I like to play in those open E and A inversions but they’re a little too high for me to sing over. So I keep them tuned down a half-step, which gives me some growling tones on the bottom. I also play an old mahogany Martin 000-16 sometimes, for a completely different thing because it’s really trebly and funky and not as dynamic as the Santa Cruz, which is about as perfect as you can get. I use an L.R. Baggs pickup and a Baggs Para Acoustic D.I. preamp. I love the warmth I get out of that.
Any secrets to getting a great acoustic guitar sound in the studio?
The only consistent thing I’ve done in recent years has less to do with getting a great sound than keeping a great performance. I use a Countryman Isomax lavalier mic inside the guitar. I also use an outer mic, pretty much the usual AKG or whatever most studios have to record acoustic guitar. I like to have the lavalier so if I get a great take with the band but maybe there are a few vocal notes that I’d like to improve, we can switch over to the lavalier because it gets very little vocal bleed. It gives me the luxury of keeping a good-feeling take without having to redo my guitar. But keeping a live guitar take without the vocal bleed is the only thing the lavalier is good for. I certainly wouldn’t be suggesting to people to get their sound with this.
Did you have to stretch musically working with Sasha Dobson?
Yes! I had to be totally open throughout the experience because we did a lot of bossa or bossa-flavored stuff. And while I love that music, I don’t normally play like that on guitar, so I really had to buckle down and evolve a lot to do that project. On my last record, Good Life, I had a slight bossa flavor in the rhythm patterns on my right hand. It’s very subtle, but it’s there. But Sasha’s record was more strictly in that direction.
Who inspires you as a songwriter?
Probably my favorite songwriter—if you can have a favorite—is Randy Newman. He gets more into a song than anybody I can think of: great harmony, rich melodies, well-crafted lyrics, irony, politics, and a lot of heart. His songs are so rich and so dense. As far as newer writers go, I like Connor Oberst, even though some people think he’s indier-than-thou. He’s got a great touch, especially lyrically. I think [Canadian songstress] Feist is a great talent. I’m definitely an old-school writer that draws on the traditions of Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan.
I would say I’m more inspired by music I hear live in clubs than by recorded music. I just get inspired by ideas that stick with me after going to see someone live, and that’ll make me go home and try something new.
Was it a struggle in the lean times when you had to put your creativity aside to do rent-paying jobs?
Well, I’ve never put it aside. Any day job that I ever worked was a rent-paying job and not a career. I designed it that way. I’ve never had the type of job where anyone’s counting on me for anything important. I answered phones at a real estate office. I was a janitor at a Web company. When I’m mopping the floor, I’m writing tunes. When I was answering the phones, I’d be doing flyers for my shows. I’d leave the place of work, go straight downtown, and catch a show or play a show. So I never really had another “job” but I slogged it out with day work. I’ve managed for about the last four years without the day work, though, and that’s been a beautiful luxury.