A Conversation With... Jim Cuddy
"The one thing I’m happy with is there are no lyrical changes. I listen to it, sing it, and yes; I did it right...
By Bill King
As someone who has been interviewing musicians a good thirty years, I've learned there is a particular class of artists that make the press rounds when there’s a record release or tour on the horizon and the time in between keeping a low profile.
Jim Cuddy is a celebrated Canadian artist most everyone agrees is in a class all his own. Charitable, engaged, supremely talented and always in motion. There’s a new side, Constellation, and a tour only moments away. I thought about what I would ask a guy who fields the most predictable questions and stayed where I thought his head and heart is. The music. This is that conversation.
Is there any apprehension going out solo again?
I am pretty excited as this is also a little different, going out on my own with my sons and Barney Bentall. It’s just putting all the pieces together correctly.
Can you make peace with a recording once it is completed?
Usually, when a record is finished, there’s a pleasant glow that lasts for a couple days. After you master and listen a lot, you put it away.
I really enjoyed making this record. Now, this lag time is getting to me. Normally, I release a record in the fall and fill the fall with stuff, then go on tour to right after January 1st. And now, I have all of this month of other things to do, besides playing music. It’s getting to me a little bit. I have to keep going over the record; play and keep my voice in shape. I’m also starting to see things I wish I did differently.
The one thing I’m happy with is there are no lyrical changes. I listen to it, sing it, and yes; I did it right. Other than that, it’s the little pieces and I’m usually not like that. Rarely hyper-critical. I think it’s just nerves.
I hear that connection with The Band. It’s that period when Dylan went electric. It’s Canadiana and Americana. Has that always been there?
I think it’s always been something I’m drawn too. From the beginning of Blue Rodeo and my own solo stuff, that wide area of roots and making things on record sound like they should sound acoustically is something I’ve always been drawn to. And I never get tired of it. It’s also a question of who you work with. Tim Vesely – engineer/co-producer – and Colin Cripps. Tim’s very strict about how he wants things to sound.
I may tell him I want this or that and it comes back being not what I wanted. It’s where he wanted it and it’s better. I think that the gallery of sounds is kind of determined by Tim with my approval. I think that’s the way it’s got to be. When you are making a record, you have your hand in every aspect of it. But what you really want is contributions from everybody.
Tim plays in the Rheostatics and they are not quite as roots as this record, but somehow I think Tim does it because he thinks it’s appropriate for me.
I like the microphone you have used for your voice...
I know, I wish I could tell you. I bet it’s written down on the last Blue Rodeo liner notes. It’s a brand-new mic and it’s a composite of two and it’s a perfect mic. I’ve done two records with this, 1000 Arms with Blue Rodeo and Constellation. I’ve been through a million mics and some expensive ones and this mic is perfect. I should really write down the name.
It probably has to do with mic technique too. It sounds as if you sing very close to the mic.
About three to four inches off the mic. There’s just a little bit of compression. We add a bit of reverb in post and that’s about it. Most of it is just the way Tim has recorded it.
There’s a lot of humanity in this recording. I’m guessing there were things you wanted to address through your songs.
I think that’s right. One of the things about recording a record is you write songs because you are revisiting places as a point of reflection over the past year or so. This past year there has been a lot of loss in my life. There have been a lot of challenges in terms of people in the music industry and my personal life. There are also a few songs about the constancy of love. That’s the only balance you have of this notion, and at my age and here on out, that certain people I love and depend on will start to go. I have to write songs about what keeps me balanced and keeps joy in my life. It can’t just be people are gone and there are memories. I think the record has, I don’t know about equal parts, at least two sides represented.
One of the things I was happy with at the end of the record, was that I was able to get into the record. Into the different stories, and all of the things that have been going through my mind the past year.
Certainly, as you get older as a songwriter, I think, you really focus on not wasting words. You don’t just put something down as a rhyme because you just got to have a song. I was happy that I didn’t cut a corner. I believe everything I’m saying on the record.
Words have to wrap themselves around notes.
Once I get started, I just keep going. The songs are with me twenty-four seven. I’m tapping my foot in my sleep and waking up with ideas. I just keep going and try not to get too flipped out about it. There always comes a point where I have to isolate myself in a room and not leave until I’m done. But at that point, the idea of the song and story of the songs has been germinating for so long. I can do it.
I read biographies about how Leonard Cohen would be laboring over a phrase for a year. I’m not that obsessive and he’s better. Maybe I should be that obsessive. I just try to tell a good story. An honest story. It always has a twist and that’s usually where the truth lies. It’s satisfying when you get it. You just have to allow yourself time.
What was pre-production like? Players sitting around picking through the songs?
I’ll do that with Colin Cripps. Colin co-produced and is the guitar player in the band. He came in the studio when I was almost done writing, and I played him a bunch of songs. I think I played him six songs. That’s the first point you are getting reaction. I couldn’t do it to the whole band. It’s too much to figure out. If somebody was looking at their phone, I’d think they didn’t like the song. Just Colin and me. We’ll talk about it and he’ll play a few parts. Colin is also incredibly quick with guitar parts. If you play a song for him once, then one time through he’s already got some guitar parts that help flesh out the song for me.
I do it in a sneaky way. We have some gigs and I teach the band one new song for one gig and play it live. Then I teach them another. By the time we come to the studio, the band knows two of the songs and I have an idea of what they would do. That’s about all I need.
To do a solo record is not to do a consensus record. I really wanted to keep the shaping of it in my own hands, and Colin’s hands and working with Tim. Once it all is laid out and people are playing, then everybody contributes. It then becomes more democratic. At the beginning, I’ve just got to keep it close to my chest.
You are working with your sons.
Two sons. Devin Cuddy is the eldest and has been a musician for quite awhile and has his third record coming out. Sam Polley is my youngest son. He’s joining us on the tour as well and has only been a year in the band. They will be featured artists along with Barney Bentall.
What’s the road dynamic like between father and sons?
Way back when, when Devin was starting to go to music school, it wasn’t good. He didn’t want to play with me and he’d get pissed off and leave the room. We just couldn’t do it.
You know how it came together? We have a farm and a Labour Day party and the whole night is all about music. Everybody eats: there’s a fire and there’s a barn. There’s a lot of pros and amateurs. Devin was there with a lot of his friends and he was playing his guitar and playing great old ‘rootsy’ songs. I didn’t know he played guitar. He’s a piano player.
The next year, his brother was there playing. They had a little act they did. They could do Steve Earle. They could do old blues songs. I’m thinking, ‘where did this come from? You live in my house, and I don’t hear this.’ That’s the way we gradually got it together.
The last six or seven years we’ve done charity trips raising money for Olympic athletes. We’d go on these trips and provide the music; the boys and I, violinist Anne Lindsay, Colin Cripps sometimes; and Barney. We’d play in a bar at night. Play around a piano and put a concert on. Now, we have lots of experience playing together and playing their songs. My wife and I have been constant fans at their gigs.
That’s the way we did it, and now it’s very natural. The thing I must make sure of on this tour is that these are featured artists, not just my sons.
Violinist Anne Lindsay.? She’s been there a long time.
She’s been there near the beginning. She didn’t make the first record.
Anne and I went to school together; grade seven and eight at Deer Park in Toronto. I remember when I was thinking about doing a solo record, I met her at a hockey rink where our kids were playing hockey. We spoke, and I knew she was a professional musician and she says, “if you ever need a fiddler, don’t forget to call me.” I remember thinking to myself, why would I ever need a fiddler.
Then I got all wrapped up in Wilco and remembered Jerry Jeff Walker and did use a fiddler on my first record; All in Time. That was Melanie Doane. I then called Anne Lindsay and she’s been with me ever since, a good twenty years. She’s totally a miraculous musician. I know she has played with James Taylor, Roger Daltrey, and Led Zeppelin, and I’m so surprised someone doesn’t take her. This woman is phenomenal and I’m lucky to have her. She is a constant. We do lots of stuff – duos and trios.
I’m a big fan. Whatever you’re playing or recording, she brings something original to the music.
She does! You know, she doesn’t have a final gear. The more you push her the more abstract she gets. She’s also a great studier. She started off as a classical violinist. When I knew her in grade eight she was the concert mistress in the ‘all city’ orchestra. Then she got into folk. Then all kinds of sounds. And she brings all this knowledge and is able to translate this into a solo or background work.
The tour starts when?
February 8, in St. John’s, New Brunswick. There’s thirty-three dates that take us across the country and through the winter. We finish in April in Montreal and then we go to Newfoundland in September. During summer, it will be mostly Blue Rodeo.