By Will Yannacoulias
2021 was another great year for Saskatchewan indie music. Many local artists took advantage of the downtime to embrace their back-burner projects or to share the songs that kept them sane through the uncertainty of 2020. The persistent nature of the creative spirit was affirmed as recording artists emerged from their isolation to share projects and reconnect with listeners. Of all the brilliant independent music I had the pleasure to listen to in the last year, there were three records which I found myself returning to time and time again, coincidentally all from the singer-songwriter genre.
Singer-songwriter music can be a bit of a coin-toss. There’s an inherent romance to the stripped-down aesthetic of a solitary artist baring his soul, but it’s also a genre where convention and tradition can lead to a formulaic sameness, where minimalist song arrangements can fail to engage. Those alternative singer-songwriters who combine the introspective and unexpected to create something unique within the folk-pop framework stood out this year. John Lennon once said of Paul McCartney, “Paul’s idea of being different is to look almost straight, but have one ear secretly painted blue; something a little subtle.” With that said, I invite you to lend a blue ear to the subtle differentness of my three favourite releases of 2021.
Ritual Rabbits- Middle Of Somewhere
Clint Walper, the songwriter behind Saskatoon's Ritual Rabbits, produced two albums out of a single recording session six years ago, 2018's Somehow Never Again and this year's Middle Of Somewhere. Much more than a simple case of 'leftover songs', Middle Of Somewhere's six tracks were deliberately set aside as a narrative choice. "Somehow Never Again was steeped in big moment drama" Walper explained, "The upheaval of the end of an engagement, capturing the highs and lows of that relationship. The Middle of Somewhere charts the minutiae of the aftermath - navigating the malaise and uneasy freedom that comes in re-establishing your identity and sense of self. I’m proud of the first LP, but I wanted this one to have a little more nuance and subtlety, lyrically, and I wanted to find ways to evolve our sound to reflect the period of uncertainty I was going through.”
The essence of the songs is Walper's simple acoustic guitar, sugar-sweet voice and intuitive knack for unforgettable melodies; pretty, melancholy tunes that stay with the listener like a bittersweet memory. The musical arrangements are lush and layered, as trumpet, pedal steel, banjo, harp and a variety of synth and keyboard textures tastefully serve the music. Beautiful, delicate dreamy songs are paired with heartfelt lyrics, aching and genuine. Walper's been through a universally understood emptiness and can sincerely, honestly bring the listener to that too-familiar time and place. "I feel like The Middle of Somewhere is about finding that hard-won sweet spot of understanding and acceptance" he reflected. "That falling in love, falling apart, finding each other and finding ourselves is what truly makes life worth living. It may be a story we’ve all heard and lived before, but you always need to embrace your own, right?!"
Brian Paul DG & Friends- Deeper Far Out Love
Deeper Far Out Love, the second professional release from Brian Paul DG & Friends (following 2019’s Something New), is an absolute treat. Songs that are subconciously familiar due to deep folk roots are paired with lyrics that touch on philosophy, spirituality and community in a way that is humble, light and fun; a writing approach Brian describes as "Simply complicated. It's a paradox. I think that's how we experience and express truth, when we pair things that seem like opposites but they work together." Stories, characters and experiences coaleace on the album to illuminate an artist who values above all else the process of shared creation, who believes that happiness and healing lie in embracing and co-creating art with others. The message is delivered in a set of light, jaunty, bouncy acoustic guitar tracks free of gravitas; you can literally hear lips form into playful smiles as the words are sung.
"I find that the writing process is a powerful spiritual practice" Brian reflected, when asked about his songwriting. "It's an impermanent process that also represents something infinite, constantly expressing an ever changing possibility. Trying to capture that in a song is comedic, it's funny how nearly impossible it is, but you can do it, it can happen, and you can make a metaphoric window. When a song is happening I'm just as much a witness to it as anyone. There's no shortage of nourishment from music and art in my life because I've chosen to open myself to be a channel of that production. It's just as exciting and entertaining even though it's coming through me. I'm supposed to know myself, but that's still a mystery. It's beyond you but happening through you, and that's a beautiful experience."
Nathan John- The Ensuing Madness
Nathan John is well known as the frontman and principal songwriter of Regina punk band Maxstone. For several years John held a handful of rough but promising acoustic songs close to his chest, until the slow-down of 2020 inspired him to finally bring them to the light of day. “There was a pandemic and I found myself with all this time” John told NSMZ in August, “I thought ‘this is it, let’s see where I can take these songs’”. The resulting album, 2021's The Ensuing Madness, is an eight track offering of brilliant acoustic guitar driven alternative rock. The heavier influence of John’s other musical projects shaped songs that are high energy, with elaborate arrangements and unexpected changes, as far removed from the ‘unplugged chill jam’ formula as imaginable. Complex yet memorable vocal melodies and mature lyrics are delivered in John’s strong, honest voice, resulting in an album which is challenging and engaging yet melodic and highly listenable.
Not one for keeping trade secrets, John enthusiastically shared his songwriting philosophy when asked. “Every artist is picky; you doubt yourself, is this any good? Am I playing this part too many times? When I approach songwriting I try to structure it so you don’t expect what’s coming next. Mainstream artists will follow the same tried and true formula and write songs the way they know people will like. When you move into more independent songwriters and artists you find a different mindset, where people put a spin on those formulas. I always try to arrange without too much repeating, keep it fresh throughout a song, keep that tension there and avoid it being predictable.”