Ever since I picked up a copy of Doug Paisley's Constant Companion, it has been one of my favorite albums and one of the most played in our home. As someone who has anxiously awaited for new recordings by the artist ever since that release, I have equally enjoyed his Golden Embers EP (which features a number of guests, including Feist), anticipating the next full length. Well the wait is over, Doug Paisely has returned with Strong Feelings, his third release overall for No Quarter.
Doug Paisley actually began writing material for Strong Feelings before Constant Companion was even released, and it has taken about 4 years for this collection to come together. It should be no surprise that since the songwriter/ guitarist was joined by Garth Hudson (of The Band), Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas), and Margaret O' Hara, that this batch of songs possesses a steady warmth and glow throughout. Doug's collaborators (not merely just a crew as "supporting cast") have really helped him craft a spectacular recording with lots of well-worn feel and ghost-like familiarity.
Honest, authentic, and intriguing, Strong Feelings finds Paisley's confident finger-picked guitar work woven among the wonderful contributions of his collaborators, while allowing plenty of space for his vocals to breathe and resonate throughout. One of the most surprising and exciting turns on the album is an appearance by the remarkable and innovative saxophonist Colin Stetson on one track. It is an ambitious move and kind of a show-stopper within the set, but the gamble plays off handsomely. Strong Feelings is, simply put, an album not to be missed.
Having spoken with Doug previously regarding his work up to and including Constant Companion in 2011, it is a pleasure to share our recent conversation regarding his experiences leading up to and including the making Strong Feelings.
This is your first full length recording since Constant Companion (and the Golden Embers EP). Can you briefly describe your experiences since then up to beginning work on the new material?
Doug Paisley: I was touring as much as I could which was good for my playing and good for my understanding of all the songs I had already written. I felt that a new album was going to have to come out of being at a different point. So I mostly stopped touring and stayed near to home to wait and see what that new point would be.
I read that you began working on Strong Feelings even before Constant Companion was released. Which songs came together during that time and how did those shape the development of the rest of the album and your vision for the record you wanted to make overall?
Doug: "To and Fro" I wrote about 8 years ago for a group called Dark Hand and Lamplight. A lot of little song ideas that went into this album were buried in my minidisc collection. Most of the time I'm working on songs without really needing to finish them or have them interact. Once you're on track to make an album you start to push the process.
I don't think my songs have ever complimented each other as part of a larger vision for an album, but once they're together they're bound to interact. I think that's what people see as the overtone or the themes of an album. It is out of my control.
The last time we spoke, it was regarding Constant Companion and a lot has happened since then. Let's pick it up with Golden Embers. Can you briefly talk about writing and recording the EP?
Doug: Golden Embers was based on an EP I made called Dark Hand and Lamplight, which was the recorded product of a collaboration with visual artist Shary Boyle. I wrote songs and she chose some of them to work with on visual performances, mostly using an overhead projector. The early recordings of those songs have a nice quality but I wanted to revisit them. Golden Embers was recorded in about 4 hours and mixed in as long. For that reason, and for the way it turned out, I think it is my favorite or all the recordings I've made.
Why the EP and not an LP at that point?
Doug: Golden Embers was conceived as an immediate sort of project so it didn't have any relation to other recording plans. So the thought of EP vs. LP didn't really factor in. The question was: "Why not an LP at this point?" My record label and some others felt that was a pretty good question.
I'd like to ask you about what you see as your work's "evolution" between Constant Companion and Strong Feelings. As you were working on Strong Feelings, what did you want to dig deeper into this time around and/ or explore further than before?
Doug: From a performance perspective, there was a greater possibility to explore a dynamic range of energy and sound with this album. I hope I get a chance to do that with a band and with some opportunities to tour.
Because I spent much of my musical development learning folk and country songs, chord changes have always been important to me, especially the simple ones. I think chord changes are like pipe fittings: you've got elbows and you've got u-joints and so on. You get familiar with what they're going to do to your lyrics or your melody.
I think this album incorporates some fittings I wasn't overly familiar with, like back flow valves and s-joints with shut-offs. I found that working with them make me do new things with my lyrics and song structures, and even my singing.
Can you describe your songwriting process, both lyrically and musically for the new album?
Doug: I follow the melodies and the chords a lot. My office is just my guitar and eventually a digital recorder to track ideas. I used to document the process on mini discs and I wish I still did that because I found that they made these mounds of ideas where things could hide for a while. I really trust in the things that keep coming back, especially when you've completely neglected them. It shows me that, to my ear, they have strength as musical ideas.
You have continued to work with a number of collaborators for Strong Feelings, including Garth Hudson (of The Band) Afie Jurvanen (of Bahamas), Colin Stetson, and Mary Margaret O'Hara? What has been your biggest takeaway about collaborating with these artists?
Doug: The common experience in working with all those wonderful people is that they are not supporting musicians. They have defined, important musical characters, so everything is a duet or a creative collaboration as opposed to asking someone to "make a star shine". What is challenging and ultimately rewarding is that you can not really tell those people what to do, they're going to do what they want to do and I trust that.
Could share some specifics on the collaborative process and interplay with these artists (how some songs came together)?
Doug: Working with Garth Hudson (of The Band) on Glenn Gould's piano really stands out. We were working in an environment where the piano is practically enshrined as a national, historic monument. The piano wasn't going anywhere so we had to bring this giant tape machine and a (forgive me Garth) "musical giant" to the piano. Garth had a long winter's drive up from New York and we all met in the middle of the night in a cavernous lobby. Once everyone finds their spot at their instrument it's comforting because it is the only thing in all this that's deeply familiar.
You mentioned previously that your guitar playing often leads the way in your songwriting process.
Doug: Yes, the melodies and music usually predominate. I thinks that's because I'm holding a guitar and not a pen. I'd like to try and change that someday. With "Radio Girl", I had the first line, "I turned the radio on" and that was it, for a long time. But I really liked the way it made me feel to think those words in my head, almost like the band of light coming on or a tube warming up.
With "What's Up is Down" I had lots of chords and scattered lyrical parts, but overall it was all unusual enough to me, like that first line suggests, that I felt that as long as I stuck with it whatever came next would be interesting to me. I guess there's always some kernel, musical or lyrical. and that is what you're holding onto throughout.
You have been working on Strong Feelings for 4 years or so. Could you share some of the artists and albums you were you listening to that inspired you throughout the writing and recording processes?
Doug: I became obsessed with Percy Sledge during that time, everything on Atlantic. Also, Al Tuck, especially Food for the Moon and Under Your Shadow. I'm always revisiting Tony Rice because he keeps me playing guitar. I was collecting all the Glenn Gould records, I especially like Brahms Ten Intermezzi for Piano. I also got really into Dick Gaughan, particularly Coppers and Brass.
What have been some of your biggest non-musical sources of inspiration?
Doug: Reading, especially short stories, and mostly Alice Munro these days. I also really enjoy movies, especially 1970s and early '80s. I mostly follow the art direction and the character actors like Christopher Walken, John Cassavettes, and Dustin Hoffman. And I do a lot of walking.
How would you say Strong Feelings connects to and/ or distinguishes itself most from Constant Companion and Golden Embers?
Doug: Strong Feelings was like pulling teeth sometimes. There were points where it was a painful process. But now that it is out, I'm happy with it and I am just as proud of it as everything else I've made.
What can fans expect at your upcoming live performances? Will you be touring solo or with a band?
Doug: I don't have a single show booked and I really hope that changes. Wherever possible, I'll be touring with a band.
What have you been listening to lately?
Doug: Ann Peebles' I Can't Stand the Rain, The Pilgrim Travellers, the compilation London Is The Place for Me: Trinidadian Calypso in London 1950-1956, and Al Tuck's Stranger at the Wake.
What is next for you?
Doug: I'm working on an album.