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Michigan-based psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema recently published a book [entitled Who Think Too Much: How To Break Free Of Overthinking and Reclaim You Life –ed] contending that the human race’s capacity to agonize over even the most trivial of events has now given way to an epidemic of morbid meditation that could prove to be the single greatest stumbling block in the human condition in general, but a possibly insurmountable obstacle for women to overcome. According to Nolen-Hoeksema, women appear to agonize over everything; from their appearance to their health to their careers to interpersonal relationships with both family and friends. It can be a crippling endeavour that many women – whether it‘s intentional or not, and whether it‘s even a conscious undertaking – indulge in on a daily basis.
Is it all true? Maybe, but if it is, Priya Thomas illustrates in conversations about her new album, is Blood Heron, that the singer is the exception that proves the rule. According to Thomas, working in and being of the moment was exactly the reasoning behind how is Blood Heron was made; for the first time in her ten-year career as a professional musician, while the songs that comprise the album were written on the road, she recorded the album at home and produced it herself in her tiny home studio on half-inch reel-to-reel tape when the bolts of inspiration struck her and only after the initial tracking was complete did she elect to invite a couple of friends [including Elliott Brood percussionist Stephen Pitkin –ed] in to assist in the design of the finished product. As she talks about the album, Thomas is the first to admit that the ten tracks that comprise is Blood Heron are not flawless, but rather are perfectly and marvelously flawed in the way that the singer felt best presented the material. Whether a personal record can be ingested and understood by a larger audience or not, it doesn’t take away from Thomas’ incredible achievement in is Blood Heron. From the opening acoustic charge of “Your Guitar, My Undoing,” Thomas lets it all hang out (slightly mumbled and garbled lyrics, dirty, unpolished guitars) and flow as naturally as it comes to her. From the very beginning of the record, it doesn’t seem like any effort has been made to edit a single note or confrontational lyric from these songs, she simply lays them out plainly for audiences to take or leave as they please, but that’s only part of what’s at work here. So understated that it almost goes unnoticed on first listen, additional fragments of sound (piano, organ, additional percussion) lurk around the edges of the song as if it was originally recorded on secondhand, half-erased tape but as if by magic actually manages to add auxiliary texture that beefs it up and fleshes it out. Those ambient sounds creep a little closer into the foreground of “Had I Known, I Would Have Declined” to add an air of delicacy to the proceedings and complimenting Thomas’ mournful whisper beautifully. “Dakota From The Hebrew” continues the building trend, but as soon as “Vigilante” kicks over the transition is spontaneously complete and the effect is nothing short of bordering on religious epiphany. Lips pulled back into a sneer, Priya Thomas delivers a harsh, dismissive rant that’ll bring even the most hard-boiled listener to his knees. The layered and loose guitars sprawl into every corner of the aural spectrum and make a believer out of anybody that wasn’t already sold on the notion that this singer doesn’t have to be sweet and nice, she’s got simply knee-buckling songwriting skills to fall in love with. It’s a unique creature to be certain, and the risk involved in its creation and release has certainly paid off according to the singer.
Bill Adams vs. Priya Thomas
PT: Hi Bill, it’s Priya Thomas calling.
BA: Hey Priya! How’re you keepin’?
PT: I’m good! And you?
BA: Oh, I’m not too bad. So where are you?
PT: I’m at home.
BA: That’s cool – where’s home?
PT: In Toronto – downtown.
BA: Okay, so I’m assuming that the shows you’ve got coming up are, for the most part, local gigs; you’re not doing a tour.
PT: No, I’m going to try and avoid the snow as much as possible. I think most of the stuff will be regional until about February or so.
BA: That’s alright, wherever you go, you’re able to pretty much drive home that night.
PT: That’s exactly it. I don’t like doing too much traveling in the snow; I have in the past, but I’ve heard so many horror stories from friends recently where things like their van getting stuck in the snow have happened, that it doesn’t seem like it would be a good idea.
BA: Yeah, this time of year, I don’t know why anyone would try.
PT: Yeah, the winters are getting more and more unpredictable too so I can’t imagine how that would be too much fun, but we’ll see. I think local stuff will be the way to go until about February, and then I was thinking about doing stuff in the UK and Europe and then go across again in April or May before I go down and tour the States in July. That’s the current plan anyway; it’s all subject to change because I’m also trying to write a new record right now and depending on how that develops, I might decide to stay home and finish it – but, if I’m lucky, then I might have it finished in a couple of weeks; you just never know how that will transpire – you know?
BA: See, that’s something I wanted to ask you about: there’s a pretty significant difference in the sounds between the last record and Blood Heron – how’d this one come about?
PT: Well, it was written on the road so that process was definitely different, and then it was recorded at home and it was recorded by me. I’m kind of peculiar with the sounds that I like and I’ve been learning through some of the people I’ve worked with before how to do it. That said, I wasn’t so sure that the sound of You And Me Against The World Baby did the songs as much justice as I would have liked. I don’t think my voice was represented quite the way I wanted; not literally my voice as in my vocals, but the voice of the songs so I kind of wanted to record it from start to finish on my own this time and see what happened. I wanted to do it all scrapbook-style too – I’m really kind of sloppy, I like having everything boosted way over where the parts should be and do really strange things – so I let myself do it just to see what would happen. I think I was happy with it in the end because I left in all the parts that felt instinctive to the recording in rather than trying to polish them out. I think that if I’d had people that are far more skilled at recording do it for me, the instinct would have been to take out a lot of the errors and to clean it up and make it sound more pristine. Part of me thinks these songs were just meant to be that way though; I like that – it’s kind of how my personality is too. I’m a little more loose and chaotic than I think the previous records have represented.
BA: Okay, and now, forgive me – as I was sitting and reviewing it, it struck me that the album has a bit of a late Paul Westerberg album recorded reel-to-reel. Was it recorded reel-to-reel?
PT: It was actually, I have a half-inch machine at home in my studio which is basically just a small room with everything piled into it. It was recorded straight to tape so I didn’t edit anything – I suppose I could have punched in and punched out but there was no point – everything was basically a one-take thing. Again, that was something that I very much wanted to do in that I wanted to be more faithful to the performance of it. The lyrics were written the same way too; there wasn’t a lot of editing that happened with any of it. It was a very immediate record.
BA: …And it has that kind of sound to it too. It sounds really very raw but I feel like that’s part of the appeal to it; it is very raw, it feels off the cuff and I think it’s to the record’s benefit.
PT: I think that’s true, but I also think it’s a little funny that it has taken ten years for me to come around to myself; like it’s okay to be me. Doing things in what might be construed as a proper way might work for some people and that’s fine, but it doesn’t work for me. For me, I think idiosyncrasy kind of governs who I am. For example, I’m not so interested in the perfect execution – I’m more interested in getting what sounds just right whether it makes sense or not.
BA: Sure – I can understand that; the gut feeling over the pristine.
PT: Yeah – see I grew up a classical musician so I had a lot of hold-overs from a lot of things. Like, learning to play well and perfectly executed and things like that, it can all stand in the way; it’s not the best stuff for a given song. Don’t get me wrong – it’s good to have some discipline, but not at the expense of everything else. I think I’m learning to shed some of it now – well, the parts of it that I wanted to shed over the years.
BA: So is it a safe assumption that Blood Heron is a progression to where you want to go? More raw and with an emphasis on feel over execution?
PT: I think everything I’ve done over the last ten years has been sort of where I wanted to be at that time. I don’t regret any of it, I wouldn’t change anything. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20 so if I’d known then what I know now, it wouldn’t have all necessarily come out the way it did but, having said that, I wouldn’t change anything because I can see where I grew and there’s no way I could have gotten to the point I’m at now without having gone through those steps that I have in the past. I do like where I am now, I wouldn’t go back and repeat something I’d done before, but the artists I’ve always liked have been the ones that have taken enormous risks and have made complete fools of themselves at different points in their careers, but those are the artists that end up being the ones that develop into something great and unique. I don’t think it’s possible to grow by leaps and bounds unless you’re willing to fail and fail poignantly or make enormous blunders.
BA: Essentially what a wise man said when he asked, “Is it a leap of faith or a jump of stupid?”
PT: [laughing] Yeah.
BA: I can relate to that, but obviously, you had a fan base prior to Blood Heron, how have these songs been received?
PT: Everybody has seemed to be quite on board and I’ve actually been quite surprised actually because my drummers from the past who played with me on some of the heavier stuff and said that stepping on stage with me was like going to war with me – like it was a complete onslaught and I’d be flailing around all over the place and I didn’t give a shit about fidelity on any level – have listened to this stuff and absolutely love it. I think it taps into some of the same regions without doing the same things so I think I have managed to hold on to those people that were listening before and managed to draw in a few more as well. So far, it has all been good.
BA: How’s it going to work out on stage? Have you got a band behind you? I know there wasn’t a tremendous amount of backing instrumentation on the album….
PT: Well, on the last tour, it was just me, my guitar, some brass bells on my feet and a kick drum….
BA: Jesus – that sounds like it would’ve been a full-contact sport.
PT: [laughing] Yeah – I can’t seem to really do anything without pushing myself a little bit, or at least I’m putting it down to that. I’ve toured with bigger bands before but I liked this because it gives a little more space for the vocals and, with those bigger bands, I was always jumping around and lyrics were at the bottom of my list of priorities in terms of a live show. This time around, I thought that if this is what I want to do, I should make sure that people connect with that first. Anyway, that was the last tour and for this one I’m thinking that I might add one or two people and we’ll see how that goes. I’m not sure yet because I also really like the spareness of it as well and just letting the songs bee as they started.
BA: I can understand that, and I could see how it would work, particularly with these songs, but what was the guiding principle when you were making the record?
PT: As I say, it was written while I was on tour and I think I really wanted to document where I was at the time and, in a lot of ways, I wanted this record to feel like a gift. To me, it’s a collection of love songs and that’s something that I hadn’t done since I released my first record. The first album was supposed to be a collection of love songs, and by the time I wrote the record, I’d changed them all and they weren’t at all the same. So that’s what I really wanted to do with this one; it was meant to be a gift for someone. I think, at the end of the day, that’s what you do with any art; at the bottom of it, there’s this sense that you want to give it to someone, but I think with this one it’s even more pronounced. That was my guiding inspiration behind making Blood Heron, I was in a bit of a state at the time because there was a lot of upheaval and I just got into the studio with no care as to what would happen. I was left to my own devices for long periods of time at that point in my life and I was just doing what I felt like I needed to do. I didn’t care what the songs sounded like; it was only afterward when I listened back to it that I thought maybe I could get Steve [Pitkin, of Elliott Brood] and a couple of other people I knew to come in and we could make something of it. That said, I guess I really just made this record for myself with the idea that I wanted to honor something that I’d gone through.
BA: What was it that you were trying to honor? Don’t get me wrong, you can tell me to fuck off and it’s none of my business, but the conversation seems to be leaning that way.
PT: [laughing] Well, let’s put it this way: I think that sometimes when you fall in love, it’s kind of like breaking a bone – it might not be the most pleasant of experiences, but it’s a special moment that connects you with every part of your life – your birth, your death and everything else in between – and it was that kind of feeling.
BA: Okay, now forgive me for sounding a little pedantic, but was it falling into love or falling out of it?
PT: [pauses] Uhm, as with all things, love is pretty complicated but I think once you’re in love, you’re always in love; I don’t think there’s any point in questioning the importance of love or the record wouldn’t have been made. At the same time, I think it’s important to honor whatever the truth of the experience was too; I didn’t hold anything back with these songs.
BA: Have you heard any sort of feedback from fans and people that have come out to the shows? I’m assuming you visit your own merch table occasionally after you get offstage….
PT: I have done that recently, and it’s been really nice. In the past, I didn’t used to do it at all; I never walked out to the merch table – historically when I get offstage, I’m usually riddled with confusion because half the time when I’m on stage, all I hear is static in between songs; I don’t hear clapping or anything. I’ve been trying to make it out to the table more recently because I have a desire now to meet people; I met this one guy out west – I think it was in Vancouver or Victoria – and he was a shaman that gave me some really interesting advice. He said, “Just remember always that it’s about us and it’s about you” and that made a lot of sense to me because if, as I was saying before, it is a gift and it’s about giving something, then I should be out at the merch table.
BA: Now, you were saying that you’re working on a new record now?
PT: Yeah – I just want to keep writing. I finally went through the reels on my machine and found a bunch of songs that might be salvageable. It’s always hard to get back on the horse after you’ve left it even for a couple of days; it starts to move alright after you get going, but it just feels daunting initially. To be honest, I’ve been wasting a lot of time over the last couple of days just coming into the studio and playing drums for hours straight – I can’t imagine what the neighbours think [laughing].
BA: So this is the home studio then.
BA: See, I wondered if the tracks on Blood Heron started out as demos that eventually wound up fleshing out and sounding good as a record in its own right and so that’s how it came to be released, or was the way it came out the plan all along and you’re going to do it the same way again?
PT: I don’t know. I think, for me, the fewer plans I have, the better off I am. When I actually think about the music in advance, it gets really terrible so I don’t want to think about it at all because it seems to work better when I’m fidgeting and pottering around; that’s when the best stuff comes. That’s kind of what I’ve learned over time; the more thinking about it and the more planning I do, the more prosaic it gets and I want to do things that are more ‘of the moment.’
BA: That makes sense – you wouldn’t be the first songwriter to say that, really, you’re more excited about the song you wrote an hour ago than the one you wrote last week.
PT: Yeah – really when you think about it, where you are in a particular moment, that’s all you have.
BA: So are any songs written then? Do you take the time to scribble out the lyrics, scribble out the progressions and so on and then sit down in another room to press record? Or is it a matter of fleshing out ideas as the tape rolls?
PT: I don’t know how other musicians work, but I think I’m pretty weird in that I do things differently each time and there is no pattern to it apart from whenever I feel inspired by something , I’ll note it down; I always have a piece of paper and a pen on me at all times; it’s kind of like a cigarette. So whenever that stuff happens, I’m available to it and the studio’s in the same hallway so whenever I feel like doing something, and I’ll pound on something and turn the tape player on and then turn it off again when it’s finished. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it as far as what comes first and then what comes next. I kind of like that there’s a mystery and a magic about it and I don’t really want it to be any more reasonable than that.
Priya Thomas' website
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