A staple of the Montreal music scene, singer-songwriter Joe Grass has just released his third album, Falcon’s Heart, via Simone Records. I sat with Joe to learn more about the artistry behind this record and to discuss his performance at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival.
PAN M 360: Thanks for taking the time Joe! Congratulations on the new record. Not to start on too pessimistic a note, but the album tradition seems to be more and more in decline. I’m wondering has it become somewhat underwhelming to release an album these days?
Joe: Well right now is sort of a good time. I haven’t released one of my own records in, you know, seven years, but at the same time I’ve been a part of many releases. It’s kind of the fun part for me since there’s shows coming up and we’re talking about it and everything. But, you know, it’s a different moment right now for sure, where everything is more about quantity and not necessarily quality, it seems like you always have to be releasing something, videos, EP’s, shorter singles, everything like that. But I like the tradition of records, because it is its own challenge to have to put a whole piece together. Even though they’re individual songs, they have to live and work as one, like different movements of a larger piece, and conceptually or just sonically or there has to be a thread linking them up. It’s rewarding being able to do that.
PAN M 360: Perhaps we could talk about the threads running in Falcon’s Heart then. I know you mentioned country music as a big inspiration for this record.
Joe: Hopefully it’s not misleading, because I do talk about country music a lot in the press release, because these songs were kind of born from that place, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve made country music. It would be quite courageous of me to make an actual straight on country record, you know, because I really love that music but I’m interested by a lot of different sounds at the same time. I find it interesting to try and bring textures from jazz or other more contemporary genres, synths or like electroacoustic sounds into that world and see what happens.
I can talk a bit about how the songs were written too. They were conceived sort of quickly, each one like in three hour periods of just sitting down to write. And if the song wasn’t complete in three hours, it was not going to be completed, you know. There were changes made after, but they basically lived as three or four chord songs that you could sing the melody with. Once I had this collection of tunes that stood on their own just like that, you know, which, they pretty much were country songs. Not in terms of singing about pickup trucks and whatnot but I like the directness, the simple language, and the honesty to express complex, large emotions with very simple tools.
From there, the songs were stripped of those simple accompaniments and reharmonized, found either an atmosphere, a colour, a new set of chords, a new mood, a new ostinato, and then superimposed the melodies over them. The rest was just like a balancing act to make them sort of conceptually work together. But at the root, they were very simple songs. They’re not anymore, you know? And I know that because I’ve, you know, been learning to play them live these days and they’re not necessarily easy to play!
PAN M 360: Well I wanted to ask about how you’re preparing for your show at the Montreal Jazz Festival this year.
Joe: For that show there’s going to be a lot of the band that played on the record. Robbie Kuster is going to be there, the drummer, François Lafontaine, the keyboard and synth player. My friend Morgan Moore is going to be there. Mishka Stein and Erika Angell who plays in a really great band called Thus Owls, she’s going to be singing and doing some other stuff too. So we’re going to have a nice palette at that show.
But you know for other shows it’ll have to be more stripped down. We’ve been doing trio or I’ve been doing some solo performances too, which have been probably the scariest ones to do. Especially when you’re used to being able to pull all this energy out of the songs, it takes some courage to let the songs live simply and not feel like I have to do anything to them. But fortunately, the couple of times that I’ve done them, it’s gone really well.
So it seems these songs are still evolving, the forms have even changed a little bit and like we’re always rediscovering them, seeing where we can open up the energy and where we can, you know, make them even quieter, where we can go deeper into the dynamics. It would be fun to do a record after playing the songs live for like half a year and then record.
PAN M 360: Where were you coming from when you wrote these songs?
Joe: There were certain things that were happening in my life, during a certain major world event, that made you contemplate your sense of security. That security is not necessarily as easily sustained as we might think, you know, it’s like as a species, we’re pretty vulnerable sometimes, and we’re vulnerable all together in these crazy societal systems that we’ve created, be it, you know, banking, government, all this stuff. These kinds of thoughts were definitely running through my mind at the time, but I tried to take it song by song.
After that, you see what you’ve got and you see the lines going through it and then it’s pasting the artwork, the title, and putting it all together. Hopefully the things I was feeling, or even if it isn’t exactly the things I was feeling, is a coherent trip for someone else. But who am I to dictate what that trip is?
PAN M 360: I found the album artwork really evocative. It fits the vibe of the album really well. It’s interesting to hear you say you chose it after the music had all been written.
Joe: I’ve been a part of projects where we’ve had the artwork kind of early on but this record was finished before I found that image. I was just looking through some different galleries in Canada and I was going to Winnipeg and it was in a gallery there that I discovered this work by Sean William Randall. I invited him to the show that I was playing and we met and actually it was a bit intimidating approaching an artist who has a work that already, you know, stands on its own. But he was really cool and totally down for it. I found it worked really well, the juxtaposition of like an idyllic landscape with this burning machine going to the sky. It felt like it was made the way the record was made, it kind of had a sense of humour and that balance between old forms and new forms together in a sort of funny way.
PAN M 360: And so what’s next Joe?
Joe: That’s the great thing about music, you know, it never stops. I want to make a solo pedal steel record. I think that’s one of the next things on the list to do, I’ve been talking about doing it for like seven years now. It might be about time to do it. François and I are going to do another project in the Klaus name. I’m a part of a bunch of other records coming out so there’s a lot going on. But I’m looking forward to having the time just to like, you know, get back to, focussed learning and practising because I love that. I love working on my instrument and getting better as an improviser, expanding my language as a musician. I really think that’s my favourite thing to do.