David Myles – Review/Interview Unfiltered Smoke

April 26, 2010
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Myles’ sound is a seamless mixture of jazz, folk and blues with heartfelt and honest lyrics that pinpoint the hard-to-articulate pressure points of the human condition. Seriously he’s that good …

–  Unfiltered Smoke – Review & Interview

article and interview by Isaac Thompson

If you haven’t heard of David Myles, fear not; now you have heard of him and you no longer have to worry about missing out on one of the most gifted songwriters Canada has to offer.

Myles’ list of musical accomplishments is incredible and well earned. Here’s a small sample of what David Myles has been up to:

– His albums “Things Have Changed” (2006) and “On The Line” (2008) have brought him to national attention including a radio hit with “When It Comes My Turn”, a song about growing old with a little grace and a smile on your face.

– Yesterday (April 20th 2010) saw the release of Myles’ fourth album “Turn Time Off”. The album was produced by Joel Plaskett (!) of Thrush Hermit and Joel Plaskett Emergency fame.

– He won the 2009 International songwriting competition. The judges for this competition included Tom Waits (!!) and Brian Wilson (!!!), both of whom know a thing or two about quality songwriting (Take that, Simon Cowell!).

– He was selected to represent New Brunswick (he’s originally from Fredericton) in CBC Radio’s Great Canadian Song Quest, where he was asked to write and record a song about the popular tourist destination the Hopewell Rocks.

– He was nominated for Male Entertainer of the Year and won Folk Recording of the Year at the 2009 East Coast Music Awards for “On The Line”. He also won the Folk/Roots Recording of the Year for Music Nova Scotia in 2007.

– He joined Nova Scotia Rapper Classified onstage at the Much Music Video Awards last year, playing trumpets on Class’ hit track “Anybody Listening” (He told me that he met the Jonas Brother’s, who were hosting the show, and was surprised how nice they were. “They didn’t come off like cheese heads at all” he told me).

– On April 16th , 2010 he had the honour of playing a gig with Symphony Nova Scotia.

His accomplishments sound like those of someone twice his age who’s carreer might be wrapping up, but Myles is just getting started.

Myles’ sound is a seamless mixture of jazz, folk and blues with heartfelt and honest lyrics that pinpoint the hard-to-articulate pressure points of the human condition. Seriously he’s that good, but the thing that impressed me the most about David Myles (who was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with me last November while in the middle of recording “Turn Time Off”) is that he is without a stitch of pretence. He’s soft spoken, kind, funny and thoughtful, and his ego seems to be non existent. It was a pleasure to be able to pick his brain about his craft, his success and his views on music.

If you haven’t heard of David Myles before you are in for a treat. He’s a great interview, full of interesting anecdotes and practical advice for all you artists out there. He’s a man who’s found success on his own terms without letting it get to his head, and that’s all any artist should be after.

Unfiltered Smoke: You’re living the dream a lot of artists are striving for. You’re a professional musician with no day job. I think a lot of our readers would like to know how you’ve accomplished that.

David Myles: I was lucky. Basically when I decided I was going to go for it I had about 5000 bucks saved up. I made a record and then moved out west. I started to play all the time and once my savings dwindled I moved to Halifax and worked a few temp jobs, then I made another record and then started touring again. I took some time off work, and eventually things started to happen. In the last three and a half years I haven’t worked [a day job] at all

US: That’s an amazing feat.

DM: It’s great because as it develops you get further away from it making sense to get a job. I’m starting to realize I have a couple of years where music is going to be my career.

US: That’s what every musician wants to do

DM: That’s it, and that’s what you have to keep perspective on. For me the big thing is to always realize that this is what I want, that my goal in life is to make music. It’s seemed ambitious enough and it seemed kind of crazy enough that I figured if I could make a living at it then I’m like the luckiest dude ever. But each year that goes by I feel like ‘when is this going to run out?’

US: It seems to me that you’re on the cusp of getting a lot more exposure. I’ve been hearing more and more about you from places like CBC radio.

DM: It’s definitely getting busier. That’s the other thing though, it takes time. I mean it depends on the type of music you play, but I suspect that the type of music I play, or at least how I kind of built my career, I’m hoping it is going to be a long career that slowly builds. Like a 40 year thing hopefully

US: Well your music doesn’t ride any fads or trends.

DM: That’s right, and it’s not going to become really popular over night.

US: People who like it are going to like it because it’s really good not because of some sort of flavour of the month type deal.

DM: Yeah, hopefully. I mean I think there’s a lot of really good music that was only popular for like a couple years. I think music I was into when I was 17 wasn’t the same stuff I was into when I was 25. When I was 17 I cared so much about certain bands that might not be popular right now, but they had some big years. That kind of career you have to capitalize on and it’s like how do you take advantage of that little time? I’m sure there’s a little bit of that in every career but my whole thing has always been not to spend very much money so I can always float by. So I’m never finding myself making big compromises or doing something just to make money.

US: You don’t strike me as that kind of musician.

DM: I keep hoping that the records I have made will grow and people will go back and listen to them and maybe they’ll become really popular in ten years, you don’t know. But that’s how I’ve tried to focus on it and stay positive about everything. I focus on the record and make sure it’s really good and people will eventually come around if they want to come around.

The weird thing is that it kind of happens that way. Because I’ve never had huge commercial success, so it basically means that each of my records slowly builds, like I’ll get an email from somebody who’s just picked up a record that I made five years ago. It’s slowly getting around and I end up selling more copies of that first record that I did four or five years ago, and that’s pretty cool, you know what I mean? Because it means your back catalogue still works for you. It’s not like it’s over as soon as you put it out, like one shot at banging a number one hit and if it doesn’t happen it’s over. I think there’s a little bit of that protection too for people who might not be in the music industry. When I first got in I was like ‘Ok, I’m gonna make a record and it’s either going to be something really popular or I’m not going to have a career’ and it’s just not really like that. You just slowly build. Sometimes early records are better. Everybody has a band they love the old stuff. The early stuff wasn’t as popular but you come to it later.

US: I know, personally, when I discover a band it’s only a matter of time before I go back and comb through their back catalogue.

DM: That’s how I hope it goes but it seems that each record gets a little bigger. I mean I’m lucky, man. I have a cool life, I get to do a lot of cool things. I don’t tour all the time, but I do fun tours that I want to do. I feel lucky because I don’t have too many pressures in terms of what I do. I really don’t have that

US: So there’s no one breathing down your back saying “Put more hooks in this song and gives us more singles”?

DM: Yeah, I don’t think so. I’m making the new record right now with Joel Plaskett and I basically paid Joel to be that guy who says ‘lets put this hook in here’ but it’s great because I totally trust him. This is the first time I’ve paid a producer to produce the record and be part of the process. I’ve only worked with Chuck (Hoffman) before and that’s been amazing, but it was way more chill. He’s like, lets just try everything out and see how it goes. And I take a pretty strong production role in that kind of relationship.

With the new record it’s been like ‘ok, Joel I want you to produce this record, I’m gonna play you my songs and you tell me what you think.’ It’s cool. I’ve definitely learned to step back and say ‘go with it, what do you think?’ and he’ll say ‘why don’t you do this, this or this’ and we really end up with some cool stuff. But the reason I think he’s such a great person for this kind of thing is that he’s a pretty good model of exactly what we’re talking about. Just kind of doing your own thing over a long period of time and have it pay off. It’s pretty friggin’ amazing to see his career develop and it’s pretty friggin’ well deserved. Working with him I realized just how hard he works. It’s pretty impressive. I’ve known him for a few years but now working with him closely it’s like he operates on a pretty high level. He can stay focused for so long, and listens so carefully and has great ideas. It’s pretty inspiring.

Joel and I have the same management and that’s kind of how we met. I knew him a little before but we started spending more time together because of our manager, and we’re both lucky because our manager isn’t the type of manager who says you should do this or that. She’s really supportive, she’s a really, really good manager

I feel lucky too because I don’t have a label. My albums are released on my own label.

US: How did you get started with that?

DM: I just decided I wanted to put a logo on my first record. That was before I had distribution but I figured why not have a little novelty logo? I come up with a logo, came up with a name of my company and eventually the record got distribution. Just like any independent record it took a long time. I’d been selling it off the stage while touring. Once I’d done enough touring and sold enough copies of my record off stage and over the internet I made a pitch to a couple distribution companies. I said ‘listen, I’ve sold this many records, I’ve toured across the country and I want my record in stores.’ They really couldn’t ignore what I had done. It’s pretty ideal. I mean the only advantage that a label provides is that everything is in the same place; publishing and distribution. I don’t want to borrow money from a label, it’s not my style, I don’t like going into debt. I’m not a debt kind of dude [laughs] and basically it’s something they can hold over your head and I don’t want that. I’d rather spend less money or save money for along time or put it all on my visa cards. At lest it’s on my own terms and I’m not making hundred-thousand dollar records. If I needed that kind of dough I’d need a label but that’s not the kind of records I’m making

US: Your records still sound great regardless of the money behind them.

DM: Yeah, thanks, well you can make a good sounding record for cheap these days if you focus on what you’re doing. They do get more expensive as you go but they’re doable. As for a publicist you can basically hire a publicist yourself without having a label publish it and again, I like that because I get to choose instead of having it published by the label.

US: So you started as a one man show.

DM: It’s pretty cool. The management helps. It keeps everything together, and that’s the biggest step. I had a distributer and a publicist. Publicists are more a matter of if you wanna send them money you can get them. Distribution is harder to access. Once you start touring it becomes a lot easier to access though. Management is a big step. They can put me in touch with agents, someone who would work out well with what I was after.

Everything is in place and everyone is working on stuff but my business isn’t floating their boat. How I like to work is invest in the long term. Build your team and get people close to you. So my records might not be making them a lot of money right now but the thinking is if it grows, eventually everything will pay off. As an artist you have to grow.

US: Doing an album with someone as famous as Joel Plaskett must come with certain expectations, do you feel like there are higher expectations out there for the new album?

DM: There was quite a bit of expectation in the last record because the record before was a big jump, it’s what helped me build a team and get some attention. This time there is more expectation because all the team behind it were in place before I started recording. This record will be done recording by about Christmas and we’re releasing it in April. So it gets done and there’s 4 months to release it, which is awesome, but I’ve never been this organized before [laughs]. It’s always been like the day before release and I’m going through the boxes to make sure the right records are inside.

This time I feel if there’s more expectation it’s because everything is in place to make it work. Joel is a great guy to work with because he focuses on the important stuff.

US: If there is added pressure it doesn’t seem to be getting under your skin.

DM: I guess I’ve just been more chill in general. I wrote a lot before this record. I had a really chill winter last year so I just wrote and wrote and wrote and got a whole bunch of stuff. I’ve been playing with the band more, developing the songs, so I feel good about it. To be totally honest I always hope for the best and expect the worst

I focus on making a great record and that’s all I focus on. It’s the other factors you can’t worry too much about. Like there’s so many records you hear and you think ‘this is going to be a huge record’ and it’s not and there’s another record you don’t think anything of and it becomes huge. There are x factors in the business that I’ve come to realize I have no control over. All I can do is put out the best record I can and I think this is going to be a really good record. I’m really excited about it. I’ve had more time to focus on the important things.

A huge part of my career is playing live. I put a lot of pressure on my records but I realize if I’m going to have a career, a 40 year career, I have to be a great live entertainer.

I love playing live too. I write songs to be played live. I love the fact that when you play a song live it exist in only that moment. I love records but there’s something unique about playing live.

That’s the other thing, I know it’s not the records that build my career. Ideally they will help and this new one is the best so far, but the live show is what reaches the most people. I mean what are the chances I’m going to be played on commercial radio? There’s like ten artists that get commercial radio time. Either it becomes super hip for young people, which doesn’t seem likely, or I have one song that sticks. That did happen to me a little bit with “When It Comes My Turn”. That song has done well. It’s been a huge part of building my career and I’ll always have that. I don’t mind the idea of playing that song night after night, year after year. That sounds great to me.

US: “When it Comes My Turn” is a great song and I’ve noticed when you play it now it has evolved a lot from the recorded version, it almost has a different feel now.

DM: Yeah I went back and listened to it and I didn’t even realize how much it had changed, but that’s what happens with records. After time you play with it and change it until certain phrases are totally different.

US: Your lyrics are astounding to me. They are so simple and direct and evoke the desired emotion so well that it floors me. One of my favourites is a line from “Cape Breton” that goes “We’ll kiss like we kissed when we kissed the first time, with our minds on our hearts and our hearts on the line”.

DM: It’s funny you mention that because I’ll get little lines in my head and… not a lot of people have told me they like that one but I really like that one, that’s where the title of that record “On the Line” came from.

US: You have a gift for being sincere and emotionally profound while keeping it simple.

DM: Yeah, well I’ve always loved guys like John Prine, people who are easy to understand…Don’t get me wrong, I love Bob Dylan, but a lot of his songs require multiple listens and some of them I don’t think even he knows what they’re about [laughs], I love his music but I knew from the get go that I wasn’t going to be that kind of lyricist. In high school you couldn’t pay me money to write a poem or write fiction because I was so embarrassed. As a writer I didn’t think I was good enough. I wasn’t poetic in a traditional sense, I wasn’t confident that I had that ability, so when I decided to write lyrics I knew I would write exactly how I talk or how I think.

It’s funny because I got into music by way of instrumental music, I never listened to lyrics. I don’t think I knew the lyrics to any songs until I was about grade twelve. Even all my favourite songs, like when I was super into Metallica and Guns n’ Roses, I could sing every guitar solo and every drum fill on every record, but I couldn’t tell you the lyrics. I just wasn’t a lyric guy. And even when I started playing music I decided I like to sing and if I’m going to sing I have to write lyrics so I slowly got into it. Now I’m so into it. I realize how important it is. I used to think if the melody is good enough you can say anything and a lot of people get away with saying a lot of foolish things but they often sound ok. It’s a really weird thing, sometimes the meaning of something is hard to understand but the sound is great. I think there’s a lot of choosing sounds. There’s nothing worse than hearing a singer use some word that sounds so stupid. Like no one ever uses it in speech. That’s one thing about Dylan he has so many awesome sounding words that’s just him riffing. It hardly makes sense but the words he’s chosen sound great. I like being more direct.

US: Another song of yours with great lyrics is “When it Comes My Turn”.

With lines like: “I worry about my money. I got bills that I can’t pay. I swear I’m more like my father everyday”

and the chorus: “I’m getting old, but I’m not old yet. I’m already worried that I might forget, how to laugh, how to love. How to live, how to learn. I wanna die with a smile when it comes my turn”.

It speaks about something a lot of people can relate to. When you came up with those lines did you realize that you really had something profound that people would understand from their gut? Did you set out to write a song about growing old and coming to terms with it, or was it happenstance?

DM: It comes from weird places, you play and hum a melody and from humming syllables comes words. I didn’t say to myself ‘I’m going to write a song about getting old’, I had the melody and was humming it to myself on the bus one day and all of a sudden it came, “I’m getting old but I’m not old yet.”

US: Like you work hard to facilitate that kind of thinking and then one day your muse just shits on your head with a formed idea?

DM: Exactly [laughs] the muse shits on your head. Those moments are a magical thing when it just comes to you. I wrote the entire chorus to that song on a bus trip. Once I have the chorus I can build the rest. It might take awhile but the song is kind of happening.

I feel lucky, It’s good to have a song that will be remembered even if I die now. I’m glad that’s the song people really like because it’s a totally positive song with a positive message. It’s something I thought about all the time. Everyone thinks about that, I always think about aging. I totally wrote that song thinking it would be a song that my generation would relate to, that quarter life crisis where you’re about to get a real job, you’re out of university and now you’re becoming an adult, trying to become the adult you want to be. But it’s totally had a different impact and the people who are drawn to that song are the people who have retired, people my parents age, 65 or older. That’s the funny thing, everybody can relate to it. Because the older you get the more your idea changes of what old is. When you’re a teenager people in their thirties seem ancient. I’m glad that’s taken place and most of the notes and feedback I’ve gotten regarding that song are from people in their 60’s. Like “I’m just going into retirement and trying to figure out how to retire in style and not get too bored with no job and stay feeling young.” People get used to going to a job every day and it’s a shock when they don’t have that. The Kids are gone, the house is empty and they don’t know how to fill their day. The song has totally become a song for senior fitness groups.

A cool thing happened the last time I was playing in P.E.I., a woman about my parent’s age came up to me after the show and said “I want to thank you for sending me the song and lyrics (for “When it Comes My Turn) because my whole family now performs it together at our reunions.”

I said “oh I remember that email you sent me. That’s very nice.”

She said “Yeah, we all get together in Saskatchewan and play it. My niece, Feist, plays guitar on it.”

I said “Oh cool, your niece is named Feist, that’s a cool name.”

She says “Yeah, Leslie Feist.”

I’m like “You’re kidding, Leslie Feist plays “When it Comes My Turn” on guitar at family reunions?!”

That was the coolest thing, such a fun coincidence. The song has become a bit of a folk song and a lot of people are playing their own versions, which I love.

US: Not a lot of music is that universal

DM: Yeah, I kind of feel, if anything, that young people don’t listen to my music, but a lot of older people come around. You can’t choose your audience, it just kind of happens. I’ve been at shows where people come up to me and the audience is mostly over 50, you don’t choose, but I like playing for anyone, I’m glad to. They are a wicked audience because there aren’t a lot of bands playing music that people that age, so they really get into it and I love that. That’s not my only audience but specifically because of that song there was a certain point where my main audience was older. It kind of spreads slowly and you have to have faith that it will.

US: There’s a lot going on in your records, but the songs themselves remain fairly simple standard structures, which I’m a big fan of, It’s hard to get much better than 3 or 4 chords and a lot of heart.

DM: I get such a kick out of that. One of the reasons I like writing songs so much is I love hearing other people play them or play on them. It’s so exciting when another guitar player comes up with a solo to one of my songs. I like writing songs that are easy to play, especially lately. I really dig an idea of 3 or 4 chord songs. It is hard to get better than that as long as the other elements are in place, the rhythm section is so important for that.

I picked up a guitar in my 3rd year university so I’m still pretty new to it. I used to play trumpet but once I moved to guitar and I learned my first two chords I wrote a song. I don’t do fancy finger work up the neck, I leave that to my lead guitar players. I mean John Prine consistently blows my mind with 3 chords over and over. Neil young is a great example too, because he does play solos but they are so ramshackle. Seeing him last year, I realized how amazing he is at guitar. He is such a visceral player.

Ultimately it’s all about finding your own voice. You can’t just ape someone else’s sound. It takes time to find out what kind of writer you are, what you want to write about and how you want to go about writing it. At this point, now that I’ve worked at it so long, I don’t think I could sound any different. I sound like me and that’s what I want.

When I start to write a song I sit down and I get obsessed with different types of music so I tend to jump around a lot with styles, which is probably a weakness. I have to learn to reel that in a bit. Most of my influences aren’t modern. I base my music on older forms. I’ll write a blues song or a jazz song or a three chord folk song because that’s the world I exist in. From song to song sometimes it’s hard for me to pull it together with different styles and make the songs sound consistent, but that’s where finding the right band comes in

US: Have you always played with the same group of guys?

DM: I’ve always had the same bass player and drummer and then gotten different players to fill out each song. This time there is five of us and Joel.

US: Do you like having a fixed group as your band?

DM: I like it for this record. If I had gotten a different rhythm section the songs would be too different. The rhythm parts on the last record are insane. I’m lucky to play with good players and Halifax is filled with great players.

US: There’s some great Youtube videos you’ve put out where it’s you and one or two people playing in your living room or back yard. That’s about as real as any performance gets.

DM: I love Youtube videos because everyone knows how awesome it feels to jam in your living room, but how can you translate that? You can record from your living room but there’s a certain aspect to the performance that is missing and Youtube is a cool way to watch music because there’s no distance. you see it as it is, if someone makes a mistake it stays there and that adds an intimacy. I love it. I want to do that for all my songs on the new record.

US: I wanted to get your opinion on spontaneity. Do you feel as an artist that it’s important to take your time and labour over the fine details or is it better to keep the freshness and emotion of the song intact by recording it when it’s still fresh?

DM: As the creator of the music you can get really bogged down by what you’re hearing as opposed to what the world is hearing. I listen to so much music from the 50s where they laid it down, they got one take. These guys were so good, they played every night and when they recorded it was exactly what they sound like and they were good enough to pull that off. There’s less mystery to that kind of recording. I mean there’s mystery like how are they so good and how are they doing whatever the hell they’re doing but the recordings are so real, there’s no mystery as to what they actually sound like, it’s all right there. I wanted the band to get there.

We practiced a lot before we went into the studio and that was different. There isn’t as much questioning, there is a lot of stuff that changes but I don’t go over the mixes for months and months. Right now, there are two tracks on the album that we recorded live which was amazing. Joel’s studio is cool, it’s like a suped-up garage. It’s not all that big but the sound is great. And we were nailing it on the first take, it was a great feeling. The rehearsing helps. We’ve been able to move quickly. We haven’t had much choice because Joel is a busy dude but when he’s there he’s entirely there, no distractions.

This record is all on tape. Joel doesn’t use computers to record. Besides the advantage of how it sounds, the real advantage is the working method. You can’t fret about it too much, you cant drop it in or fix mistakes. if your in the middle of the phrase you cant do it, you can only over dub in certain sections or physically record over the tape. I like that element of it. It’s almost is starting to sound like Fleetwood Mac to me [laughs]. It sounds like the 70s. I thought it would sound more like the 50s but it sounds like the 70s. I think the fidelity of recording on tape has something to do with that. I’m having a really good time with it.

US: What happens after recording is done?

DM: We fly to Arizona to mix it and then back to Halifax to master it with Jay Lapoint.

US: Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to me, most of our readers are artists and I’m sure they will find your story as inspiring as it is fascinating.

DM: I love conversations like this. I think it’s cool that your site is so free form and inclusive. It helps too that you know the music and know what you’re talking about. You’ve actually listened to my records. I’m used to sitting down for an interview and the guy goes “Okay, so tell me, what do you sound like?” [Laughs] That’s the worst.