A Concert, an Anniversary, an Interview
Hey. I’m playing a concert in Halifax on April 11.
It's been a year since Juma was released. Shortly after, a fellow named Khaled Ali showed up in my DMs. He asked some good questions, and I’ve included a transcript of our conversation below, which I’ve edited for clarity and length.
You can listen to Juma on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, or watch the film.
KA: I noticed you’re playing shows in NS, and the post’s description mentions fixing up an old house. I’m really curious about the following: how is it that you’ve moved from anywhere with a “scene” per se relative to Montréal? What did that mean to you? How does an artist find community far from the city? I’ve been listening to your more recent records and was surprised to see the strong lyrical roots in Montréal you’ve left.
IV: It’s definitely been a shift. We went from living in the Mile End to a very small and remote town. Halifax is 1h45 away.
To answer your question, I think an artist finds community the same way anyone does: through working to build one. Surprisingly, I’m more collaboratively busy within a year here than after three in Montréal. There are far fewer people, but those who share similar interests, once found, are much more committed and motivated than most of the people I know in cities. There’s also no pretension or direct competition, which in my opinion, is a great place for genuine creativity to happen.
That said, I wouldn’t have been as ready for this step at an earlier point in time. I spent a decade in different cities, working and living very closely with lots of other artists, which was crucial to helping me figure out my own practice. Now that I have a better relationship to approach and execution, as well as an understanding of purpose, less external supports are needed.
So, I didn’t actually leave any artistic roots in Montréal. Whatever skills and understanding I attained there, I’ve brought with me. And now I’m learning new skills: how to create community and art in a more economically destitute and remote place. It’s challenging, but it’s the challenge I felt I needed to face, so it’s been rewarding.
KA: I resonate with the centred-ness and the self-knowing energy behind that calling. I wonder if it’s a coming of age theme to go inwards with all of one’s spiritual practice from art to solitude and talking less, explaining less, arguing less—not chasing a “music career” or doing things you hate to “make it” before you get more mindful with your relationship to art. Reaching a working understanding with the world around you.
This weekend I’ve been around some very industry LA people who really play that game, and am finding beauty in everyone’s different modes of making, sharing, and experiencing art in community, and it’s significance in their life—financially with the clout game, to the complete recluse hoarding self-made records with victorious satisfaction.
It was funny to play them my songs and hear a couple of them begin to “give feedback” on how to make them “less personal and more commercial”—it was a reflective moment of “yeah, how much of this do I want to compromise on? And for what? For whom? Why am I compromising?”
IV: What this makes me think of is finding the division between art and commerce. In our culture they're typically spoken of in the same breath: art's value is synonymous with its commercial value; art's potential is measured by its commercial potential. I struggled with this for a long time, because I always felt like my work was artistically strong, but whenever I was in situations with folks like your LA friends, my work (and by extension, my identity) was seen as having little value.
Additionally, working as an art director for major labels, I came to see how much image plays into the perception of music, and I understood that the industry was actually interested in image first and music second (or third, or fourth). I've been able to find peace by separating music, image, and marketing in my mind. Music is where I feel my efforts are best spent, so I focus on making the most artistically fulfilling music that I can, and put a tiny bit of effort into packaging and promoting it.
But, there's no right approach. The one I've found just caters to my strengths and interests, and because of that, I'm able to accept the outcomes. I know plenty of artists who gravitate more towards image and celebrity, and they find satisfaction in that approach. They also make more money and find more opportunities than the shy ones like myself, and that's their hard-earned reward. If there's a reward to my approach, I'd say its respect from esteemed peers, interactions like this, the humility of not being (or trying to be) famous, and the reward of being honest with yourself.
KA: I found that what some people would consider rewarding in music (including my younger self), “the fast life” and fame, seem to be more of a price to pay for access to resources to realize certain artistic visions in the sense of equipment, venues or collaborators.
The more I listen to Juma the more I connect the themes of aging, money, and love to the primal safety a child could feel.
Do you feel like applying marketing efforts or dedicating more emotional energy to commercial strategy threatens the balance and sanctity you’re finding in your relationship to music now? Do you feel any sense of responsibility to have your music find the people it speaks to in a significant way?
IV: Popularity and financial success yield certain rewards at a certain cost. Working in obscurity has other rewards, also at a cost. I'm definitely not dedicated to working in obscurity out of any principal. I'd love for my work to be appreciated by lots of people. I just haven't found a way of reaching them that feels honest yet.
Everyone's balance of how much time and effort they can give to marketing their work is going to be different all the time, and my relationship to it has been too. I hustled way harder when I was starting out, and definitely wanted fame and success. Now I think I have more reasonable expectations, and can scale my efforts accordingly.
That said, I still do put a lot of thought into trying to make my work visible. It's the least fun part of the process for me, but I do feel a responsibility to give it an honest effort. I spent a year approaching labels and even had an offer, but it didn't make sense to accept it. I filmed videos for every song, which was a ton of work. I've sent hundreds of emails to industry people and press. I did all that not expecting any results, but knowing that I had to do it in order to feel like I gave the best effort within my capabilities and the resources available.
KA: I see the power of obscurity. I picture protecting a candle or fire as it comes into its own. Not thinking about releases or collaboration or commercial potential or people’s opinions from far away wavelengths are a protection of the sacred space, and the rituals that invite communing with the spirit of music herself.
I also find it’s more of a solitary pursuit for me and many others.
I read on your website the story behind Juma, and it means a lot more to me now connecting it with Friday. Salat al-Jum'ah was Friday’s prayer and I grew up going to the mosque for the mandatory mass with my dad.
Your story on the website, told with the range of minute detail juxtaposed with vague imagery, captures the process of looking back. I find that the vulnerability, almost psychedelic variance in levels of detail from stanza to stanza, and stream of consciousness tone is a theme in your songwriting as well.
What are your “more reasonable” expectations now? What’s your relationship with live performance?
IV: The idea of Friday's prayer resonated with me throughout. This was the first album I've made where I had the title before the songs. Writing the songs, I tried to think of them as prayers—of hope, love, admiration, desperation, etc.
Trying to condense four very turbulent years into something essay-length requires a bit of creative licence. I tried to focus on the details that I thought were important to understanding the context of the album. It took me around a year to figure out the right approach; I kept on getting stuck on sub-plots and things that were great stories, but ultimately weren't relevant.
My expectation is to keep on making art and building community. Almost all of my energy these days is focused on helping other people with their projects. I help with a music festival out here called Tatafest, I'm starting a publishing imprint called Folly House with some other writers, and this year my new band The Flower Painters will likely record an album. I probably won't have much of an appetite to work on my own songs for at least a year, though I'm still writing them down whenever they come.
As far as live performance goes, it's complicated. I've played a lot of shows in noisy bars, and I don't really have interest in that anymore. Festivals that I respect don't program many white male singer-songwriters these days, and I can't blame them. The cost of fuel is pretty nuts right now, so that limits my ability to ground tour without losing money. So, this year, I'm going to play a few shows in the maritimes, but that's pretty much it. I was supposed to tour in Japan before the pandemic, and I'm hoping that the label I work with over there will help set it up again. Otherwise, it seems like so many people are desperate to get on stage, and I'm happy to make space until it seems reasonable for me to start performing more frequently again. All that said, I miss it a lot. I miss the camaraderie of bands and the adventure of going to new places and meeting new people. I'm lucky to have had a lot of that earlier in my life.
KA: It almost sounds like you’ve written more free form before condensing it into song—is such lyrical premeditation usual for you? Or was it just a calling with this record?
IV: The process is different for every song, but the general approach is that I try to collect as much as possible when the moment comes, then over days, weeks, months, or years, figure out how it wants to live as a song. During that process melody arrives, as does form.
KA: Fascinating. Songwriting is so intimate. What does “collecting” look like? Notes, drawings, and words? Also, do you invest in outsourced post-production?
IV: Collecting looks like phone notes, voice memos, and notebooks. Regarding post-production, I try to spend as little money as possible. My first two records, Hedera and Amateur, were recorded with a single $200 mic and mixed on a torrented copy of Ableton. For "..." and Juma I booked studio time, but they were still very DIY projects. I can't really justify the cost of outsourcing, and I see things like recording, mixing, and mastering as integral parts of the process that I like to get my hands on.
KA: Bringing this chapter to a close, I have re-read your website essay, and your choice of books is wide but generally has a mystical aura in common, things of a more spiritual nature. How do certain books find you? What’s the relationship between reading and art? Do you read a book through every time? Many at once?
IV: For books, the ones I included in that list were selected to illustrate the extremes of what I was into. I also read a lot of literature, criticism, biography, poetry, history, any kind of stuff, really. But you're right, I have a pretty consistent interest in humanity's different spiritual traditions. The last book I read was Crooked Cucumber, about the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki's life. He wrote a book called Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind which I re-read all the time.
Finding books is a lot like finding music. One thing leads you to another. Some books have bibliographies at the back, which are a gold mine. Other things like critical essays tend to refer to lots of different works and artists, so they're good places to get an idea of a particular cultural landscape.
Reading is probably the only thing I do where I can actually rest, other than sleep. As far as its relationship to art goes, I think “you are what you eat” sort of applies. Whatever you're filling your awareness with is going to come out in your work, in one way or another. That also applies to thought patterns, actual food, environment, everything.
Thank you for your time and interest, Khaled. I hope we can meet in person one day.
To everyone else, I hope you have a good spring.