More than 15 years after Gord Downie wrote the lyrics to the song Family Band, the dream has finally happened. Kaya Usher, Downie’s widow, just released the single Heart Clicks, credited to Kaya Usher and the Family Band. The new song and the forthcoming album All This Is also feature two of the couple’s four children.
“When the kids were younger, we always talked about the day there would be time to throw a drum set in a station wagon and have some fun as a family band,” Usher, 54, tells The Globe and Mail. “It’s been four years now since Gord crossed over. There’s been a lot of healing since that time, and a lot of healing actually that happened in the making of the record.”
Moreover, there’s a lot of healing in the record, according to Usher, a meditation enthusiast and self-discovery proponent. She says the album is “infused with high levels of frequency,” or sonic vibrations, aimed at inducing tranquillity and promoting emotional resetting.
“Music is one of the closest and most efficient ways to express a beautiful high frequency,” explains Usher, who some time ago changed her name from Laura to Kaya (which can mean “restful place” among other things). “With certain music, you just feel really clean after you listen to it.”
Set to drop Nov. 17, the album consists of the spry single along with shimmering mantras, ambient exhales and holistic harmonics, all written and recorded in the Tragically Hip’s Bathouse Recording Studio in Bath, Ont. It was produced by the studio manager and engineer Nyles Spencer and Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, who produced the 2016 Tragically Hip album Man Machine Poem and collaborated on Downie solo albums Secret Path and the posthumous Introduce Yerself.
Drew and Usher first met in 2013 through Downie, who would die of the brain cancer glioblastoma at age 53 in 2017. “We have a lovely friendship, and I’m grateful for it,” says Drew.
A few years ago, Usher had the idea to turn a poem of hers, Thunderclap, into a song. Last February, she and Drew finally got around to working on it at the Bathouse. “Before we knew it, we had all these songs in a few days, including Thunderclap,” Usher recalls.
There had been little in the way of preparation for the sessions. Drew’s idea was simply to set Usher up with sounds. “I had heard Kaya sing before, but never in a studio,” says Drew. “But when I heard her sing into the microphone, I thought, ‘Okay, we’re doing vocals, we’re doing songs.’”
In addition to singing, Usher played classical guitar, organ, pocket piano and harmonicas (which Downie had given her before he died). Her 21-year-old son, Lou, is featured on keyboards and drums; her 26-year-old daughter, Willo, added vocal harmonies.
“We were musical together, and our house was filled with instruments,” Usher says, speaking of her late husband. “We loved words, we loved poetry, we loved art. Every part of our life was written through the eyes of an artist.”
Married to one of the country’s most prominent rock stars, Usher maintained privacy herself. She became part of public discussion only when her husband disclosed that many of the lyrics from the 2012 Tragically Hip album Now For Plan A were written in response to her bout with breast cancer.
“I think that’s the only time he really talked about me,” Usher says, referring to Downie’s televised interview with the CBC’s Wendy Mesley. “I appreciated it. I knew why he was doing it. It wasn’t for any other reason than to be helpful.”
The two had met when a Hip tour brought Downie and the nascent Tragically Hip to London, Ont., where the Ottawa Valley native Usher was a 20-year-old student at the University of Western Ontario. They eventually married and raised two daughters and two sons in Toronto. (Before Downie’s terminal cancer diagnosis, the couple had separated but would remain close.)
“Whatever stage we were at in our life, our children were always the most important focus,” Usher says. “Gord was an incredibly protective father, and very patient and kind to his children.”
With Downie on the road as a touring musician, Usher looked after her brood. “I would tell him. ‘I’ve got this, you do that, and maybe some day we can all just go together.’”
If Downie isn’t a participant in the finally realized project, he is an inspiration, whether through the wishful song Family Band – “I′m going to get all the children involved” – or in spirit.
“I think if Gord were here, he really would be pleased that we went and did this,” Usher says. “It’s something we saw through, even without him.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a song titled Heart Clicks was called Love Clicks. This version has been corrected.
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