When I arrived at the 2nd floor walk-up in Little Italy above what I remember as an empty clothing store, I was admittedly not all mentally there. My beloved Green Bay Packers had just kicked off to the San Francisco 49ers to start what would end up being a lost NFC Wild Card game. Although I was honored to be given the privilege to sit and listen to Alyson McNamara and her band’s scratch tracks off their upcoming release, I waited outside the door of the apartment for a number of minutes before entering to hear the first few calls of the game streaming on my phone. Knowing I had work to do, I entered to be greeted by the apartment’s newest resident, Lola, a mid-sized Dachshund mix who having come directly from the country is surprisingly quiet and well-mannered. I said my hellos and set up in the winter-garden. The light was low, bicycles were hanging from the ceiling, donuts were out for communal consumption, roommates and pets were wondering around from room to room, while Alyson sat focused at the Rhodes set up in the living room and crooned her composition ‘Is There Something’. The wild card game no longer had any real estate of my focus. The organized chaos of this room centered on this beautiful and whimsical performance, which unfortunately will probably be lost to the cutting room floor. However, this private performance shared between me and the plastic figurines on the mantel beside me stand as promise for an awesome record yet to come.
Alyson McNamara and her band have been playing for as long as I can certainly remember. Apparently they came into existence in 2009, but I’ve always regarded this band as one of the hardest working in the city. With residency after residency (the most noteworthy one being the 16 month marathon at The Sister) Alyson has been treating bar patrons and indie concert goers in Toronto to her own personal brand of heart-wrenching ballads and folk inspired rock for what seems like a lifetime.
Having just recently brought her brother Daniel McNamara in on bass to replace the departed Aurora Cowie (not dead, just no longer part of the band), the act is now truly a family affair, even if they are not all actually related. One thing that was absolutely obvious when you sit and talk with this group is that you are welcomed and you are family. There is no pretention placed on anybody who walks through the doors of this cramped yet cozy apartment. This sentiment is reflected in any performance (live or recorded). Nothing about this band is faked.
As Alyson found the performance she wanted to keep, and Kevin emerged from his make-shift control room down the hall, Dan, Kevin, and eventually Alyson joined me to talk about the old record, their long and numerous residencies, and the complications of releasing records.
[Alyson walks in and sits down]
Alyson: Holy shit! We did it!
Kevin: Phase 1 COMPLETE!
A: …that was an intense four days
K: We’re back into it for reals.
Playback: How long have you been waiting to do these songs for?
A: The oldest one is ‘Life Of Vice’ and it’s probably like…. 4 years?
K: Yeah, we haven’t really recorded anything in like 3 years.
A: The oldest one is like 4 years old, and the newest one (the keyboard song I just finished tracking) is only a few months old.
P: I can’t remember who was talking about it, but you play that song at the Cameron House a lot – that keyboard song?
A: Yeah, we did it a bunch at the Cameron
K: We did it a bunch when Aurora was in the band.
A: … but we haven’t really played it through in a…really long time.
P: You used to have a regular gig lined up right?
A: It was The Sister for a long time. We had that 16-month residency…?
P: I remember that. That seems like forever ago.
A: It got really difficult to bring people out.
P: Residencies at the Sister get difficult – especially after the 14th month in a row.
A: It’s not in an area that people can really just stop in, plus we were charging cover.
P: Even if only 20 people show up, at least you’re still on stage?
A: Yeah, and I mean, we got a couple beers and some food; good food. It was kinda nice. Like a monthly rehearsal kinda thing.
K: We should get back in at the Cameron House. That was fun.
P: What are you gunna call the album?
A: It’s really still up in the air because since there are 15 songs – I am kinda wanting to do 5 – 5 – 5. Like 3 short things. We were kinda toying with the idea of putting it on vinyl – releasing them as separate things instead of putting them out all together.
K: 7” or something.
P: That’s what ‘The Intentions’ are doing, well, especially since they’re going directly to tape, they’re pressing an A-side/B-side and the rest of it is just going to be available on a download card. So, just a small little 7”, you get the record and you get this fucking thing with it. So the buyers like, “Oh, a download card for the rest of the album”, and the WHOLE album, too.
K: That’s a good idea!
P: Yeah. I read this piece the other day which basically sounded the ‘death-knell’ of the ‘album’ so to speak. The industry is now getting ridiculous with pushing albums: for instance, name another song off of Lorde’s record that isn’t ‘Royals’. You know what I mean?
She has this 15 track album and its okay music, but it’s never going to live up to the popularity of that one song. So, where her marketing team (whomever they are) are spending so much time pushing this record, why not push the single as much as you can and then just release another single.
So, moving forward the industry is now trending towards more of a ‘digital A-Side/B-Side’, so to speak. Where if you want to sell something at shows and you don’t have merch – well, nobody is going to listen to a CD really unless you own a car with a CD player in it; and even to that point most all new cars come standard with an iPod jack.
A: Do you mean ‘A-side/B-side’, like literally one record, but two sides of it?
K: A 45”.
A: Like 2 songs?
D: Yeah, like they used to do to sell music to Jukebox companies, where they’d put on one side a song that was popular and the other would be something else.
P: Like with Justin Timberlake’s record – ‘Suit & Tie’ would be the A-side and ‘Mirrors’ would be the B-side. The rest of the album nobody really knows or cares about.
D: I like the idea as vinyl as well mostly because it covers two bases – people I find are more likely to buy vinyl and it more accurately encapsulates our work.
A: …and they’re still going to get the download card with it.
D: Further to that point, some people don’t even have CD drives in their computers anymore. I mean, Ethan just got a new Macbook and it doesn’t have a CD drive.
A: Whoa… crazy!
The one thing that I know people do is listen to CD’s in their cars a lot, but now I guess it’s just the iPod.
P: People have even got voice activated Pandora goin’ on.
“Play me: Rock and Roll” …. “Playing: Rock and Roll”
P: Well, I hope you’re able to find a cost effective way of releasing the new record.
So it was scratch today?
A & K: …and yesterday.
P: …and then ‘real’ this week?
K: Yeah, we’ve got a bunch of gear that we haven’t picked up yet so we’ve got to go get a snake, a bunch of mics, some power conditioners, some pre-amps, so we’ve got to go rent the expensive bits of the studio. I’ve got a bunch of mics, but like, there’s a couple holes where it’s obviously a home studio so we’re gunna get a few things. Nice pre-amps, some of the good boutique mics, just to flesh out the collection. Treat the room …. Yeah, cause there’s no isolation in here so we’re going to do everything separate.
The recording order will probably be me (drums), bass,…
A: Then probably me?
K: Yeah, guitar, and then Steve (keyboards). Who’ll just go and do the Steve thing.
[I start making a plasticine mini-comedia del arte head]
K: That plasticine was a good buy. We were out Christmas shopping and saw it and it was like, $2.50 for all those colours, so Eleanor was right there and she’s a bit of a space-cadet so I managed to buy it and put it into her backpack without her noticing – so when we got home she was like, “Oh! Look at that! Plastiscine, oh wow!”
But yeah, this album is going to be waay more “pop-slick”
K: The big parts will be bigger and the small parts smaller.
P: Is that the vision in general?
K: Well, I … um … I started doing drum edits for Sam Ibbet for the Cosmic Eye record
P: Which sounds great, by the way, Mark showed it to me on Friday.
K: Oh great, thanks! So that’s me playing so it was weird to see how much I mess up. If it’s drum edits, I mean, nobody plays it perfect, but it’s weird to go in and adjust this thing that you already did. But listening to the finished project you have this realization, like “Oh! That’s the thing!” Now it doesn’t sound like a band playing – now it’s a product.
P: It sounds like a song.
K: Yeah. This is what you hear on the radio. This is what you hear on major label releases – it’s always this. None of those bands actually sound like that, but it’s a matter of it being clean, and now it’s a thing.
P: It’s like, when you see a billboard, that’s not what those girls in that underwear look like. She has been clearly photoshopped and airbrushed because if you put the non-photoshopped version up against everything else on those long lines of billboards it’s going to stand out but in a really bad way. People are going to look at it and go, “Ugh!”
K: Oh yeah. I mean, this girl is gorgeous and the picture is great, but if ya don’t do the airbrush thing, it’s not going to look like an ad.
P: It’s not going to look like a billboard; it’s going to look like a picture of somebody.
K: Maybe because I like electronic music so much, but I’m really starting to appreciate that. If you can listen to a recording and have everything be shiny.
A: I think I was just a stress case during the first recording because we had so little time to do it. And when we started the new record I kind of attributed those feelings to this process. However, as soon as I came here and started working through arrangements and stuff I realized that there is literally no pressure at all.
P: Just play your parts.
A: …and you have time to take breaks. I mean, in a studio time is money, but here as long as we get it done. I mean, we had so many dog-petting breaks.
K: Which is awesome!
A: Oh yeah. I just want the new record to be a treat to the ears. I just want someone to put on headphones and just be like … “yeah….” On a streercar or something, looking out the window, and having the music feel good.
K: We’re also a lot better overall.
A: Yeah, we we’re so new then. We did it in 2010 and we started being a band 2009 and now we have some time under our feet.
P: That on top of all the experience you’ve had playing together – I mean, you can learn bebop scales until your fingers fall off, but until you actually get on stage and play for 16 months straight as a band you have, literally, no musicality.
K: Individually, too. Just given that time to individually work out things that are relevant to the songs – as opposed to just, “Okay, these are Alyson’s tunes, how should we do this?” Whereas now it’s, “Okay, these are Alyson’s tunes, how do I do my thing?”
P: “How does my thing work into these tunes?”
K: How do I make my thing work into these tunes?
A: I feel on the first one, especially after we had recorded them – I didn’t really know how to play with a band then. I never played guitar with a band, it was only solo up until the year before. In my mind I wanted them to be this thing, but all of a sudden they were already recorded and I had to ask Sam, “Can you mix them this way and make them really trippy?”, and he came back with like, “Well, the instrumentation isn’t there so, sorry.”
P: “That’s something that would’ve had to happen, you know, while you were recording it.”
A: Exactly, and I just didn’t understand it, so I was already over the record before we already even fucking pressed it.
P: That happens. It just fucking happens sometimes. But like you said, it comes with experience and just knowing what you’re doing and now that you know what you’re doing you’re going to make that much better of a record.
A: Yeah! I’m excited about it!
P: A treat for the ears…
A: A treat for the ears!