“Would you rather be more,” Patrick Watson sings on the elegantly epic song Quiet Crowd, “than the things that you say?”
Tomorrow, the gifted singer-pianist and his eponymous chamber-pop band release their imaginative fourth album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard. Speaking from his backyard in Montreal, Watson discusses music and its role in inspiring others.
Patrick Watson is your name and the name of the band. Watching you guys play live, as you did at Glenn Gould Studio last week, you get the sense that there truly is a band at work. But what when you’re making records – are you in charge then?
It depends on the song. Sometimes I bring an idea that’s almost finished, and they just add their parts. But then, on a song such Morning Sheets, Robbie [Kuster]and Mishka [Stein]brought in that tune in a very final stage and I just sang on it. I’ll still write all the words and my melodies, just like everybody writes their own parts. I think it works like any band would normally work, or should work.
Mick Jagger has said that bands need to be run like a dictatorship.
Well, there’s a certain role when you’re writing lyrics. It’s a thematic direction that influences the way they play their instruments and how the songs are arranged and coloured.
With your previous two albums, I sensed themes of dreams and flights and escapes. With this new one, you seem to be drawing us in rather than taking us on a trip.
I think this is a much more grounded record. It’s much more intimate. But it’s difficult for me to say. It’s not something I would analyze. I didn’t want it to be too far out, I guess. I wanted it to be closer to people’s lives.
How about the song Quiet Crowd, then. Who is the “Mr. Quiet” you refer to?
I think a lot of people have a lot of interesting ideas in the back of their brains. They have common fears and common interests that aren’t widely talked about. Travelling around as I do, I sense there’s a big crowd in the middle that isn’t raising their voice. I talk to these people, and it’s a bit disheartening that they aren’t speaking up. And the people who are speaking for them aren’t honouring what these people think.
Can a songwriter speak for them?
I don’t believe in literal political discussion in music. I don’t think it works. A musician’s job is to inspire the imagination of people to look at a situation in different ways.
Your music is melodic, ambient and often quite instrumental. Can you inspire without words?
Let’s look at jazz. Jazz is a place of communication and letting go. That in itself is a gesture to inspire people to think new things, and to be inspired to want to make political change.
Let’s look at Glenn Gould. I noticed at your concert, at the theatre that bears his name, that you often crossed your legs while playing. I’ve seen photographs of Gould doing the same. Does he inspire you?
Obviously I’m a huge fan of Glenn Gould. Recently I was learning a Schoenberg piece. Schoenberg music sounds awful in general, with strange harmonies. But the way Glenn Gould played it, it sounded like a melodic sound. I was so impressed the way he could turn something so out there to something so beautiful.
Do you think you’re inspiring your fans and your band-mates to think in new ways, to come up with ideas outside the box?
That’s the only job I can really do when I’m behind the piano. It’s a very big job, and a very important job – to stimulate the imagination. I think that’s my role.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Patrick Watson’s April 11 concert at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio can be heard on April 17, CBC Radio 3; April 19, Radio 2; April 20, Radio 1.