Charles Spearin: The Happiness Project

Last year, Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene casually interviewed his neighbors in downtown Toronto about happiness. Spearin, a practicing Buddhist, was not only interested in what his neighbors had to say, but also how they said it—the melodies, the rhythms, and the sing-song quality of their voices. Listening to the interviews, he paid attention to “interesting moments of meaning and melody,” and asked his musician friends to compose songs around those moments. His friends named this “The Happiness Project,” now an album consisting of spoken interviews and complementary musical arrangements. But it is so much more than that. Spearin’s musicians mimic the melodies and cadences in his neighbors’ voices, so it sounds as if the instruments are talking too. The result is fun, uplifting, and thought provoking.

Because each neighbor has a different interpretation of happiness, the songs vary in genre, tempo, mood, and the instruments used. Spearin does an excellent job of arranging the pieces to match his neighbors’ voices and ideas. For opener “Mrs. Martin,” happiness is love, a simple concept mimicked with a simple, jazzy tenor sax part. The tenor sax matches Mrs. Martin’s voice, which is deep and fuzzy, almost comically, like the muffled adults in Peanuts cartoons. It’s a clever way to start off the album—Spearin provides a straightforward example of the album’s direction through this playful mimicry.

As the album progresses, the songs become more nuanced. “Vanessa” is at once serious, lively and uplifting, as is Vanessa’s story. She matter-of-factly tells Spearin that when you’re born deaf, you don’t think about being unable to hear. Although she tells her story with almost no emotion, and says she was happy as a deaf person, this is perhaps the most emotionally charged song on the album. Maybe it’s Spearin’s own emotional attachment to sound that prompted the deep and soulful sax part that begins after Vanessa starts speaking. When Vanessa tells us about her cochlear implant—about hearing for the first time—the piano part that follows her voice grows excited, reminiscent of the Tinkerbelle leitmotif in Peter Pan. Although Vanessa doesn’t describe it as such, to Spearin, happiness is the moment Vanessa “felt [her] body moving inside.” As soon as she says that, the song fills with soaring violin parts. It becomes evident that Spearin’s emotions are on display as well as his neighbors’.

Between his neighbors’ stories, Spearin adds songs selected from recordings of his two children, Vittoria and Ondine. One is a recording of Ondine complaining about almond butter on her toast, and like his daughter’s voice, the violin is whiney and high pitched. There’s tolerance in the cello, harp and sax parts that accompany it, though. Ondine’s not happy eating almond butter but, despite her whining, Spearin’s happy hearing his daughter ask for it.

Spearin’s album examines happiness, our voices as musical instruments, and the connection between meaning and melody, but it also examines the individual worlds we live in. Everyone has different ideas about what happiness is. With respect and compassion, Spearin skillfully captures the experiences of his neighbors, helping us understand what makes them happy, and why.

In A Word: Happy

Charles Spearin performs pieces from The Happiness Project on Nov. 28 at Music Hall Of Williamsburg and Nov. 29 at Bowery Ballroom.