Interview: Doug Paisley on adapting to middle age and revisiting older songs

Credit: Dave Gillespie.

Songs selected and produced by Bahamas with a touch of the real world.

What do you do as you approach middle age and it is fifteen years since you released your debut album? If you are Doug Paisley you will let your friend Afie Jurvanen aka Bahamas look through your cache of songs and then produce you when you record them just before the pandemic shutdown happened, and after living with the recordings for a while you will release them as your new album, ‘Say What You Like’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson asked Doug Paisley about ‘Say What You Like’ and how middle age is changing his outlook on life, and why he became a singer-songwriter in the first place. While it is clear that Paisley’s purist approach is still very much intact, there is a recognition that he maybe needs to bring a little of the real world to his recordings, which he did with the help of his long-time friend Bahamas. Paisley also explains that it was the Beatles, particularly John Lennon, who first registered on his songwriting antenna and how his dad pointed him in the direction of Bob Dylan. He also shares his admiration for The Band’s Garth Hudson and how much their various collaborations over the years have meant to him.

How are you and where are you?

I’m home in Toronto under about a foot of snow. I’ve been doing a lot of ice skating lately. I like the winter but lately, I’ve been spending a lot of the grocery money on potted tulips and daffodils which is usually a sign that you’ve had enough.

It is 15 years since your debut, what is the difference between that and your new record ‘Say What You Like’?

I was already making songs and working on them 15 years ago. I never had an intended audience or specific career goals, I’ve just always enjoyed the process.  My first opportunity to make a recording was in 2006 for a show called Dark Hand and Lamplight with Canadian artist Shary Boyle. We had a tour opening for Bonnie Prince Billy and I made a recording to sell on the tour. That led to the opportunity to make my first album and that led to 5 more recordings. Outside of songwriting and playing, pretty much every other decision I’ve made with respect to my career has been a bad one. It’s kept me obscure and humble but I’ve never lost the compulsion to make new songs.

How did get to work with Afie Jurvanen better known as Bahamas?

We are old friends and were once roommates. When it comes to being a professional musician he’s a lot more in the real world than me and I think he sensed that I was stalling, and wanted to help me along – he’s a true friend.

How did you record the ‘Say What You Like’, was it post-pandemic?

Most of the album was recorded in the last week that you would have considered being in a room with other people, early March 2020. Then it was a perfectly normal thing to do but about a week later you wouldn’t have considered it. For one reason or another, all my recordings have ended up sitting around for fairly long stretches of time before being released and I believe in that ageing process. It means something to me to sit with them privately for a while although I’ve never seen that it has any practical value.

Was the song selection purely down to Afie Jurvanen?

I fought for a few choices on this album such as ‘I Wanted It Too Much’, but for most of the songs that Afie showed an interest in I was happy to oblige. I value all of my songs just about equally so it really helps to have someone else’s input. The song ‘If I Wanted To’ is one that several peers including Afie have suggested is a strong and unique composition for me but I’ve never felt natural about presenting it so I may have resisted that one a bit, but I’m glad it’s out there if only not to have to ruminate about it anymore. Also, I remember our recording process was based on having a good live band and seeing how the songs turned out so listening back kind of determined which songs to keep or just abandon. I don’t think we really toiled with any number that was giving us trouble.

What was it like revisiting some of the older songs?

As a fairly new parent, I’m more inclined towards parent/child analogies. Some of the older songs were like teenagers, you still love them but you’re not really taking them to the playground anymore and you’re kind of relieved when they go out and do something on their own. Some older songs were structurally unfinished or just hadn’t made sense through the years but with time I didn’t worry as much about the details and I could see them impassively for the first time. There’s a Stanley Brothers song ‘Love Letters’, “Today I burned your old love letters”, and I guess releasing a song can be a bit like burning an old love letter, you don’t feel the need to hold onto something irreconcilable anymore.

Which song brought the biggest surprise when you finally cut it?

The song ‘Say What You Like’ tuned out very well in one or two takes, everyone playing live. It was a surprise because I’ve only played it with just a guitar and it really went somewhere new with a band. Also, I’d had it around for years and liked it but always felt it was missing a second verse and as time went by I assumed I was getting further away from being able to finish it. There’s a John Lennon quote about stopping everything else in order to finish a song. I have felt that it’s like a detective getting to the crime scene as quickly as possible, if you wait too long the clues are disappearing, but in this case, I really forced myself to think about the situation and I found a second verse that made sense to me. That was a good experience and a good reminder about hard work.

How is approaching middle age influencing your music?

When I was 20 some friends would laugh at me and call me an old man. I wore old clothes, played acoustic guitars, went for walks – boring stuff. A songwriter like me is like a pensioner: you recognize that your resources are limited but you’ve got lots of time and you’re kind of ponderous and reflective. I was precocious in some aspects of aging. I not really boasting or too self-important, I hope, but I do believe that I have a calling with my interest in music and songwriting. It’s interesting to see how something strong and consistent like that fits into changing stages in your life. I work more in the morning now, less late at night, and I’m more patient with songs and ideas that reveal themselves in slow and subtle ways. Not surprisingly, I’ve become very interested in the later career albums of some of my heroes, how the voice changes and the subject matter evolves. Some good examples would be Ron Hynes’s self-titled album or Gordon Lightfoot’s album ‘Waiting For You’.

Who made you want to become a singer-songwriter?

Through a record store around the corner from my school I got really into the Beatles when I was about age 10 or 11. I had the compilation Love Songs and my tape player had degraded the tape so the whole long cassette popped but I listened to it over and over. I especially focussed on John Lennon who I loved before I had any adult sensibilities or filters. Then my dad impressed upon me that Bob Dylan had more sophisticated songs and I should tune into him, I guess he wanted to see me challenge myself. I really absorbed Bob Dylan’s earlier music and learned to play a lot of songs like ‘Hard Rain’s A- Gonna Fall’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’. I had a beautiful, formative experience in the world of those early songs which nowadays is the era of Dylan that I listen to the least. All of that was building a fantasy world around music but with guitar playing and experimenting with musical ideas I was always doing, not really wanting. Even as I got more into it there never was some projected goal of something I wanted to achieve or someone I wanted to become, just the daily work and pleasure of music.

What is your songwriting regime, are you structured or do you simply wait for the muse, and what comes first the words or the melody?

The two things I do reliably are to play lots of guitar and record and track the development of my ideas. All that documenting creates a huge body of unfinished work, the organizing and reassessing of which is good for when you feel like working but aren’t necessarily inspired. It’s a process that helps you see what you’re working with and where it might be going.

How easy is it to maintain a career as a Canadian artist?

I think anyone who took a look at the trajectory of my musical life would say that I haven’t really maintained a career. I’m mostly supported by a sense of independence and stubbornness and a compulsion to remain interested in my own musical and lyrical ideas. I love the musical relationships with my peers and the power of performance and I respect and appreciate the dedication and shrewdness of some of the people working on the business side of things. I came to music out of emotion and fantasy and I’ve remained ill-equipped to do a lot of the things a musician with a career should do and it has caused some misery for me and others around me. It’s so personal for me that I would never question my belonging in the world of music though, even if that place may just be alone in a room with my songs.

What was it like working with Garth Hudson on 2014’s ‘Strong Feeling’?

For that session, we were in the lobby of an empty music hall from midnight to sunrise recording around Garth who was playing on Glenn Gould’s Steinway. It was a memorable night just to be in his presence and hear him on that special piano. I worked with Garth in 2009 on my second album ‘Constant Companion’ and over the years we recorded ‘Out on the Weekend’ for a Neil Young compilation, and ‘Us and Them’ for a Pink Floyd compilation and ‘Whispering Pines’ for a Band compilation. I also visited him in upstate New York several times. He’s such a kind, funny, fascinating person and I’ve taken every opportunity to be around him or work on something together.

How helpful was the support you got from Mojo at the start of your career?

Recognition from MOJO and Andrew Male meant a great deal to me. It made me feel very good about myself and it was a rare opportunity to just enjoy the outcome or reception of something I’d made. I’m sure the people trying to sell the music were pleased about it and it can transform you from one of so many unknowns and transport you to somewhere a little farther out of the weeds. I’m so overly susceptible or allergic to most critical reception, it’s completely unreasonable but I try not to look at anything whether it’s good or bad. But that particular recognition at that time will always be a special part of how I saw my life unfolding.

What are your plans for the remainder of 2023?

I’m hoping to play more shows this year and I’m working on a group of songs that I’d like to record with just vocals and acoustic guitar.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I think anyone would benefit from hearing ‘Mirabeau Bridge’ by the late Sam Larkin. He was a musician from Toronto and I like a lot of his recordings but that one song is so special and important, to me, it’s the kind of thing you’d press on a golden record and send into space.

I’ve been listening a lot to Daniel Lanois’ ‘Omni Series’, a box set from 2008. I just let the 30 tracks go around and around. It’s beautifully recorded as you’d expect and the playing is so skilful and relaxed. I especially like the track Flametop Piano (reprise).

I’ve been reading a lot about David Lindley since he passed away, and in an interview Ben Harper did with him for Fretboard Journal Ben Harper is praising his performance with Jackson Browne on The Old Grey Whistle Test on the song ‘Something Fine’. Lindley is playing violin and his accompaniment is just so beautiful and remarkable for the way it supports Jackson Browne’s solo guitar performance. Worth a watch just to focus on him and his playing.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

Hello, thank you for getting this far and forgive me for speaking so much about myself. More than anything else I’m a listener and collector and lover of music just like you, nice to meet you.

Doug Paisley’s ‘Say What You Like’ is out now on Outside Music.

About Martin Johnson 309 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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