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A chat with Doug Paisley: Boy from the north country

Doug Paisley recently released his exceptional new album, "Strong Feelings."
Doug Paisley recently released his exceptional new album, "Strong Feelings."
Wil Opstals

Ah, the elusive quest for perfection. It’s what changes us from casual observers into our own worst critics. But it’s the person that has enough insight to admit their limitations that comes nearest to perfection.

That can only mean that gifted singer-songwriter Doug Paisley is about as close to perfect as a man could be. Look no further than his emotive new album “Strong Feelings” – a record that Paisley describes as “just 10 new songs.”

The album may be a lot less simple and unadorned than his prior recordings, but it’s every bit as earnest and straightforward. And that’s all in keeping with the Toronto tunesmith’s low-key approach to his art, preferring to let his songs speak for themselves.

“Strong Feelings” is an incredibly strong follow-up to 2010’s “Constant Companion” and 2008’s self-titled debut, both of which drew their power from the minimalism of Paisley’s unique take on ‘70s American folk rock. His unobtrusive style – largely set to simple arrangements of acoustic guitar and piano serves to heighten the impact of his beguiling songs about relationships in various states of ruin and flux.

The new record expands on the same preoccupations, but this time Paisley opened up the sound, recording with a revolving band of brothers that includes The Cairo Gang’s leader/guitarist Emmett Kelly, bassist Bazil Donovan, drummer Gary Craig, keyboardist Robbie Grunwald and elusive Canadian songstress Mary Margaret O’Hara. Also aboard is the legendary Garth Hudson, who also made signature contributions to “Constant Companion.”

Paisley chatted with Examiner.com recently about the new effort and insights on his craft. Right off the bat, the master of melody described what makes a singer-songwriter tick. “Well, I think it’s a specific connection to music, which I wouldn’t say is more special than anyone else’s connection. But it’s maybe a little bit more hardwired.”

“I was always told by my dad when I was a kid that it’s a very emotional reaction. A lot of things happen in your life in the same way that music conjures emotion. If you’re wired that way, then emotions conjure music.”

“You’re drawing on experience of emotions on an attachment to a song long enough to finish it or make you want to start it in the first place. At the same time, it really is a craft. Once you get into the nuts and bolts of putting it together, you lose that self awareness and whether or not it’s an accurate description of the song in the end. It does feel like it’s more about just trying to make a good song and the emotions, however they play out, they’re kind of raw materials.”

“I've just had such an important relationship to music all of my life and it is really first and foremost. I know people who I think are very musical and very talented, but their reason for being in their career may have other priorities. I don’t really have that, so maybe that makes it easier. Certainly, you want to be able to support yourself and all that stuff but it really is just a long lifetime relationship with music that governs it.”

It’s easy to see that Paisley is musically hardwired. But that doesn’t mean that he can just “mail it in” when it comes to songwriting. “With rare exception, it’s always a long process for me. The two things I do in equal parts of importance are really documenting my ideas as they are coming – and those may be more in the personal moments of my life or certain feelings.”

“The second important part of the process is having documented them, going back to them and working over them and playing through my and so on. They all come from somewhere personal or important but they go through a long process after that.”

“But no, I don’t think I'm able to throw you a song about any emotion. I don’t have that skill. There is always a personal element to the subject matter, however changed or shifted it may become.”

What the brilliant songwriter is able to do is to see things through other people’s eyes based on what he’s experienced – an extraordinary empathy. Paisley opened up the sound on “Strong Feelings” while still maintaining the wondrous intimacy of his music.

“As much as possible, I've always recorded live with all the musicians in the room with a few overdubs. And I don’t know, but I think that gives it a kind of intimacy or an honesty to it. It’s hard to assume how that translates because obviously not everyone’s familiar with the technical aspects of overdubbing versus live. But there’s some merit to going all the way back when 78s were cut right onto the record.”

“In terms of how this one opened up, a big part of it for me was a guitar player, Emmett Kelly, just ‘cause I consider myself a guitar player probably before songwriter or singer. I've never really thought to work with a guitar player.”

“But I realize that my parts are scripted. My guitar parts, I don’t really do any lead or improvisational stuff. Bringing him on this album brought a lot to the songs. The kind of player he is brought a lot to the other musicians too. That’s actually a big part of it.”

Musically and emotionally, “Strong Feelings” is deceptively nuanced – which of course means that the casual listener may miss the strongest musical messages. Paisley shared his pragmatic view on his listeners.

“I guess you’re lucky if you pass by most people’s ears once. You’ve already gained a lot. And the really nice thing is if you can do something that will stick with people. I don’t have any sense of having any control over that.”

“I wouldn’t say I get frustrated that the details are so important to me that people get them. But it is nice to know that some people will delve into it and over time that’s how it works for me. I’ll listen to albums I've listened to for decades and something new will pop out. It’s kind of cool that not all that stuff is received in the first few listens because it enables it to continue to give.”

“CDs did that. When The Beatles came out on CD, it blew everyone’s minds again. And I can find that now with earphones. I rarely use headphones to listen to music. But when you do, you get such stereo and you get such separation and that’s when I really hear parts that I just never knew existed on songs I know really well.”

What Paisley does have control over is making each of his songs a masterwork – and sometimes recognizing that a song is perfect in its imperfection.

“I was comparing it to my previous recordings where there were really the most basic constraints, like financial or time constraints. I didn’t have a lot less of that, but I had enough less of that so-to-speak that I could work on stuff longer and I don’t think it was harder to know when to stop.”

“We did try to go through the tunes fairly methodically. It was just harder to know that there was at least the option to keep working on it. I didn’t feel like ideas kept coming and you keep wanting to apply them to different tunes.”

“We had the opportunity to work with this really interesting keyboard player and he put somebody’s Mellotron parts on the album. Just to go a little bit further with it, it wasn’t so much deliberate in terms of what I wanted, but the point of what I wanted to get to. It was more deliberate as a pro.”

“I was feeling a bit more self conscious than I had with previous recordings where I felt completely unknown with no expectations. So in some ways, part of the deliberation was setting up these sort of crazy recording situations.”

“I did this session in this music venue in Ottawa here in Canada, just to work on this one piano and to do it with Garth Hudson, the keyboard player. It was such an undertaking in itself, that there wasn’t really time to think about what I was trying to make or how it might turn out.”

While Mr. Paisley the perfectionist might disagree, the album turned out better than great. Some have astutely described “Strong Feelings” as Paisleys opus. But he would have none of it.

“I'm such a music listener and buyer. I'm really into shopping for LPs and finding people. I have this romantic notion of finding some ultimate album or some ultimate artist that’s gonna draw everything together, which is never gonna happen but it keeps me going.”

“It applies to my music too. It’s not the stuff that I do do or think I can do, it’s all these imagined possibilities that really keep you working. I certainly can't imagine what it would feel like, but I hope I never get to that point where I felt that I realized something fully, you know?”

Paisley however was quick to admit there were things he could do as an artist that would move him in that direction.

“What comes to mind for me is live touring. I've opened for acts much bigger than me and it’s just so interesting to see everybody on the whole spectrum of their careers struggling night for night – maybe not financially or with audience numbers, but good shows and bad shows and ones that feel great and ones that feel like something didn’t happen. It just shows how kind of intangible a lot of this stuff is.”

“It’s very temporal too. As much as I like to think it has a theme, it’s the ten songs I thought were the best ones that I had at this time and that’s it as to what I was best able to work with by the spring of 2013. It is such a continuum.”

“I play guitar with the hopes of getting better and I sing a lot with the hopes of getting better. But I don’t really think of it in terms of some amazing thing and in terms of how I see how people respond. It would only ever come from the outside where someone for some reason said, ‘Hey, this is the thing,’ or, ‘This is the realization’ or something like that. I don’t really approach it that way myself.”

“With live stuff especially, it is more about the detail of the music than it is about a ton of energy. So in that sense, I really appreciate when you can be in that environment where you can really be heard. But there are really big acts that are also able to do that.”

“In its very own slow pace, I feel like my career is still growing. But I have yet to say something that I really want to retreat from. It’s certainly possible to imagine the fact it happened but at the same time, it does take on another life besides just playing music and writing. It’s pretty interesting and challenging and so far it hasn’t pushed me away.”

Music fans everywhere can only sing hallelujah that music hasn’t pushed the gifted Paisley away. But there are times when he has to reluctantly push a song away. Paisley shared his thoughts on when a song is done.

“Well, I don’t know. It’s kind of an inane answer but when it’s been mastered (laughs). You know you can't go back to it and then you know it’s done. Or maybe when it’s cut on vinyl, you know. Early on, some things you do right in the moment take a lot of time. Some of them you’re still tweaking the structure of it right up until the very end.”

Just for a moment, ponder the fact that the remarkable “Strong Feelings” could have been even better if Paisley hadn’t had it mastered…