Richard Reed ParryRichard Reed Parry is lying on the floor a few inches from me, and we spy a discreet smile on his face. While his music is slowly filling the air of the Plateau Mont-Royal location where we’re gathered, we notice how his current, nearly meditative state is in contrast with the raw energy he usually displays onstage when playing with his band, Arcade Fire. That said, it’s true that we’re not here to talk about one of the world’s most famous rock bands; no, we’re here to talk about his recent solo album, at the invitation of Julien Boumard Coallier, the host of Montréal’s Die Pod Die evenings. The musician has agreed to listen to his own album – on vinyl, naturally – with a small group of fans before answering our questions.

Right from the start, we tell Parry how appropriate this collective, almost religious, listening session seems. Even if the intimate and hypnotic music on Quiet River of Dust Vol. 1 is tailor-made for headphone listening, it’s also, paradoxically, too expansive for a single pair of ears.

“It’s true that it’s an introspective album that aspires to stretch out in wide spaces,” says Parry. “Not only was it inspired by nature, it touches on the theme of transcendence, of going beyond oneself. When I was writing those songs, the one image that kept coming back to me was that of a funeral at sea. I love the idea of scattering someone’s ashes over water, then that water evaporates to become clouds, and comes back to earth to feed a tree, and when that tree dies, it goes back to the water. I’m fascinated by this immense circle of life, the eternal return to nature.”

In fact, it was in the midst of nature that this project was born about a decade ago. After an Arcade Fire tour, Parry wanted to flee from the daily chaos of the rock-musician life, and exiled himself to a Japanese monastery. Far from the world, his days were punctuated by Buddhist chants, and the infinite silence of a snow-covered setting, where he found a ghostly inspiration. One day, deep in the forest on one of his long walks, he thought he heard a melody from his dad’s repertoire – his father being a folk musician who played with Friends of Fiddler’s Green.

“The music was there, even though no one was there to play it,” he says. “It was as if nature’s silence had awakened something and brought me back to myself: the music was there, everywhere… The image of the river in the album title also symbolizes this musical continuum that’s at the heart of the folk music I grew up with: the transmission of ancestral songs from one generation to the next. That’s something the I feel very strongly about.”

Although some songs are clearly situated within the folk tradition – notably the epic “I Was In The World (Was the World in Me?)” – others fall more into the realms of ambient music, and even psychedelia. The natural sounds of insects, birds, wind, and rivers are scattered throughout this spiritual musical journey. In other words, it’s as if Parry has connected the two poles of his artistic personality: the traditional side of his familial legacy, and the experimental side he explored during his electro-acoustic music studies at McGill University in Montréal. Everything is tied together by a highly complex conceptual approach, where Japanese spirituality occupies a central role.

“Granted it’s a concept album, but it’s not The Wall, either,” he says. “There’s a beginning and an end, and Volume 2 [to be released in Spring 2019] is going to explore the other side of the river, but I’m not trying to tell some kind of linear story. To me, it’s like painting with words, evoking rather than saying. And I believe that if you let yourself go, the sound itself will tell a story.”

That’s most likely the only key one needs to understand this bewitching album. Lay back, close your eyes, and allow yourself be carried away by the sound: the journey is much more fascinating than the destination.

Saturday night and Sunday morning.

That’s how Matt Mays describes the difference between his albums Once Upon A Hell Of A Time and the just-released Twice Upon a Hell of a Time: the former, an energetic, electric offering and the latter, its mellower acoustic twin.

“I thought these songs should have been a bit more torn-down,” says Mays of his motive behind making Twice. “The songs sounded a little happier on Once than what they really are, so Twice is truer to form, in terms of conveying its lyrics. Plus, it was fun.”

When Once was released a year ago, the 13-song effort – co-written and produced by Wintersleep’s Loel Campbell – was characterized by Mays as “a party-rock record for the broken-hearted.”

He and producer Eric Ratz (Danko Jones, Monster Magnet) strove to re-interpret Once with a much different vibe. For example, on Twice, “Perfectly Wasted” is re-cast as a piano-driven waltz. “Faint of Heart” is transformed from a pounding rocker to a wailing pedal steel ballad, and “Ola Volo” trades in its electric guitars for ukulele-driven momentum.

“It’s amazing what a tempo, or key, or vibe change will do to a song.”

“Songs are strange that way,” says the Hamilton-born, Toronto-based architect of seven albums, and a couple more with his old band The Guthries. “A lot can change if you arrange them a different way.

“Going through the acoustic versions was enjoyable because every song and lyric was already written, so it was just a matter of ensuring that each interpretation was very unexpected and different than the original album version. What I couldn’t get out on Once, I managed to shake out on Twice. Maybe that’s why I was keen to do it. I got it out of my system with both of them, that’s for sure.”

The intriguing factor regarding both albums is that many of the tunes were written acoustically, arranged as rockers for Once and then converted back to the basics for Twice.

“Half of them I had written on acoustic and some of them were not quite done, so I finished them while I was underway on Once,” says Mays. “‘Station Out Of Range,’ was written on a ukulele and then we really amped it up. Then, it was fun to take the electric riff back to the acoustic.”

Mays finds that creating dual versions of songs can yield two emotional apexes. “On ’Ola Volo,’ the guy in the first verse is in a state of distress, really needing to find somebody to help him. In the acoustic ‘happy ukulele’ version, it’s the same person, but they’re not nearly in as much trouble. They’re sort of hanging out at the beach in Hawaii, singing post-faith. That’s one of the most drastic changes. The other song is ‘Never Say Never,’ where it’s more fun, and almost too loud and fast on Once. On Twice, it ends in a state of mind that I was in when I actually wrote it: quite a bit more sad, and real, and raw.”

Whenever he writes, Mays says his instruments of choice are acoustic guitar, piano, and ukulele. “I write until the songs are what I hear in my head and I make sure they can hold up on their own,” he says.

In possession of a key to Lee Harvey Osmond member and pedal steel whiz Aaron Goldstein’s studio, Mays rises early, “before my filters start turning on, when my brain is still too tired to exhibit anything good, and before I start worrying about everything else the day has to offer” in order to work on songs.

Mays’ Faves: Three From His Own Work
“They’re the ones that I feel I didn’t write, but channelled: ‘A Spoonful of Sugar,’ ‘Chase the Light’ and ‘Terminal Romance’ – ones that came so fast that I don’t even feel like they’re mine. ‘Station Out of Range’ was one of them, too.”

He likes to experiment. “It’s amazing what a tempo, or key, or vibe change will do to a song,” he says. “It’s not a complete 180, but it definitely takes my mind down different roads. It paints different pictures.”

If inspiration hits when he’s not in the studio, Mays records them on his phone and strives to finish them. “If that window comes, it’s very important to stop what you’re doing, cancel any plans, and try to finish it,” he says. “Don’t put the guitar down until you’ve completely done [with] at least a version of the entire song. Sometimes I’ll get super-excited about something else, and then forget about it or leave it. But if you force yourself to finish, you’re scot-free once you get it into your voice memos.”

Mays says the Once/Twice Upon a Time albums have changed his approach to songwriting. “The older I get, I’ve learned not to write more songs, but to spend more time channeling them,” he says. “It seems the more I sit down to try to write, the fewer keepers I get. The ones that seem to resonate the most come without any real effort or planning, so I’m trying let those through more often.”

Music streaming giant Spotify hasn’t always been well-regarded by musicians and songwriters, but fast-rising folk-rockers Wild Rivers credit the service with providing a crucial career boost via the 30-million-plus streams their music has received.

Reached during a recent tour stop in Los Angeles, singer and co-songwriter Devan Glover explains, “We have Spotify to thank for a lot of the word-of-mouth our music has been getting. We were pretty lucky that, in the early days of Spotify playlisting, some of the songs from our first album [2016’s Wild Rivers ] got picked up by those lists.

“We’ve primarily toured in the U.S.,” she continues, “and we started by looking at the back end of Spotify and seeing where the listeners were. Our strategy was to go where the people are, so we started by touring the major U.S. cities that were listening, and it’s grown from there.”

“It’s nice not to limit ourselves to a specific genre, because it takes the pressure off when you’re writing.” – Devan Glover of Wild Rivers

Wild Rivers are currently on the road supporting their recently-released EP Eighty-Eight, mixing Stateside gigs in with nine Canadian shows in November. The EP’s five songs showcase a band with a refreshingly eclectic, roots-based sound (one self-descriptor is “folk ‘n’ roll and country soul”). Describing their musical influences, Glover says, “We all converge on folk and Americana, from classic folk-rock singer-songwriters like Paul Simon and James Taylor, to modern artists like The Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men.

“We mostly listen to Canadian artists, like Donovan Woods, Andy Shauf, and Neil Young. We toured with Donovan earlier this year, a very cool experience.

“Individually, we’re all into very different styles of music, and I think you can hear on the EP how our different influences play into it. When we were writing and recording, we brought in elements we’d never brought in before, with different production notes, too. It’s nice not to limit ourselves to a specific genre, because it takes the pressure off when you’re writing. You have the freedom to be creative without thinking, ‘How is this going to fit into an album?’”

A producer for every flavour
Adding to the musical variety on Eighty-Eight was the use of three different producers – Skylar Wilson, Dan Horth, and Jack Emblem – with sessions taking place in Nashville, California, and Hamilton. “We wanted to try out some different producers based on how the songs sounded,” says Glover. “Because they fell on the cusp of different genres, we thought it’d be cool to find producers who specialize in those areas to complement those styles specifically. For instance, Skylar works out of Nashville, so he was able to give that sound for songs with a live country and rock feel.”

Working alongside Glover in the Toronto-based Wild Rivers are singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Khalid Yassein, bassist Andrew Oliver, and drummer Ben Labenski. The group evolved from what was originally a duo project, Devan and Khalid.

“Khalid and I met we met at Queens University in Kingston,” Glover recalls. “We started playing together in our second year there, as a fun hobby thing, going to open mics and coffee houses, and we had a residency at a bar. We played mostly covers, plus one or two originals, never thinking it’d become a full-time pursuit.

“When we graduated, we both said, ‘Let’s just record an album and see where it goes from there. That’s when the rest of the band came together. Having the drums, bass, and the electric guitar elements just seemed to elevate the songs so much, and that was very exciting.”

Initially, Yassein was the primary songwriter, but that process is now much more democratic, says Glover. “For the first album, Khalid wrote most of the songs and brought them to me. We would take them to the finish line together, arrangements-wise, then bring them to the rest of the band and build them out that way.

“On this new EP, it’s been nice for all four of us to collaborate more. Khalid likes to start on guitar, playing around with chord structures and guitar chords and riffs. He’ll then work on the melody, then fill that in with the lyrics.

“I’m different,” she continues, “in the sense that I’m mostly a vocalist, so I tend to gravitate toward the lyrics first. I’ll write notes on my phone, or poems, and I may bring that to Khalid, who’ll have some input in editing those lyrics and finding chords to match. It happens differently with each song.”

A core feature of the Wild Rivers sound is the imaginative and empathetic vocal harmonies of Glover and Yassein. “That came naturally from the start,” says Glover. “The first time we met, I went to Khalid’s house and he said, ‘What do you want to sing?’  We chose a Coldplay song, ‘Strawberry Swing,’ and  the moment he first came in on harmony just felt very special, natural and very comfortable.”