There’s certain emotional characteristics to different intervals, like ‘Beethoven’s Fifth’ [sings duh-duh-duh duh], it’s a major third, but it has an emotional quality and he milks it for that song because it has a natural emotional characteristic. I think subconsciously everybody’s kind of aware the difference between minor and major, the difference between a semi-tone and a tone and the emotional weight. People are quite subconsciously naturally attuned to the different emotional weights of these intervals and they use them all the time when they’re speaking, they use them constantly, and it was really interesting to see that. I didn’t quite appreciate it nearly as much until I started dissecting the melodies of people’s normal speech. It’s nice to hypothesize how music evolved to be the way it is and why it’s so powerful.
How much of your own emotions are present in your arrangements? When Vanessa talks about being deaf, for instance, I didn’t get that she was being very emotional about it. I thought she was speaking more matter-of-factly. But the whole song is emotionally charged.
It was a bit of a puzzle, like I was given parts of information. But once you’re given two notes you can put it in any context you like, so I tried to find ones that felt good to me. With ‘Vanessa’ I wanted to have that instrumental break in the beginning because she’s talking about being deaf in the past tense, and that’s interesting, so I wanted to leave a moment of meditation so you could appreciate your ears. It wasn’t a lot of melody, it was just a few notes to think about what she was saying. And then when it comes back in, a lot of the emotional context of the song is based on the way she’s saying it. [sings ‘All of a sudden I felt my body moving inside’] There’s a good five notes in there. There’s automatically some melodic quality to it, some natural emotional quality to it, and then I chose basic chords to go around it.
I also had to decide where the rhythm was because that’s the one thing that’s really different in speech and music. The repetition in music is what gives it a sense of musicality. So to decide where the downbeat is and where the end of the phrase is is partly based on the accents of the speech and also kind of arbitrary. The chord progression with it were some pretty basic chords, but fit with the notes that she was singing. I tried to keep it as close to the melody of the voice as possible, and then sort of exaggerate it in a way that suited it without ruining the meaning of what she’s saying. A couple of times I tried experimenting with different things. In Mr. Gowry’s, he says, ‘Like I come from a-ca, a-ca-poor country.’ He stumbles on his words, and it’s like perfect African rhythm. I tried adding some [African] rhythm to and it just didn’t suit the meaning of what he was saying at all, so I took it out and started again and kept it more introspective because it suited what he was saying. In short, yeah, I added some of my own emotional responses to the pieces, but at the same time, I tried to keep it like, as closely based to their lead as possible, as closely based to their melody as possible.
What instruments do you play on the album?
It’s a collaboration with a lot of people. I played a lot on it. Nothing too well, but I play piano and guitar, a little bit of everything, just to sort of get the arrangement started. But it was nice to bring in people like Julia [Segar Scott] on the harp. That was really fun. I brought a seven-foot harp into my house to try to figure out the melody.
How did you choose which instruments to use for each person?
Well there were people I wanted to work with. I knew I wanted to work with Julie Penner [from Broken Social Scene]. I’ve been playing with her for a long time on the violin. It’s kind of a high instrument and the recording of my daughter complaining about her almond butter sandwich, she really swoops and sings and you can’t do that on a guitar or a piano, so it lended itself to the violin pretty nicely. Mr. Morris sounds like a saxophone anyway. Vanessa has a staccato voice, it was easy to do that on the piano. But mostly it was a matter of pairing up the friends I wanted to work with with the interviews I had done.