You’re Buddhist? Or your dad’s Buddhist?
I’m a Buddhist and my father’s a Buddhist.
How did that affect this project?
It’s tricky to say exactly—one thing I had noticed in Buddhism is there’s a big emphasis on personal reflection. For years I would spend a month out of the year on retreat. I would go to a meditation center or a monastery or a cabin in the woods [and] spend quite a bit of time doing meditation practice. It wasn’t so much the practice itself that drew me to the people’s voices, but coming home after long periods of silence and long periods of reflection, you notice how much people talk just to, in a way, express a certain anxiety or just to fill in the space, which is kind of uncomfortable sometimes. And when you’re on retreat you get used to the space.
So when people talk most of the time they’re not really saying anything, they’re just sort of filling the air, having pleasant chit chat. They’re not trying to accomplish anything with their words as much as smooth over the day. And when you notice that, you notice the singsong quality more because the meaning isn’t so important, so you can listen to the aesthetics of it. When I came home from retreat I would be listening with fresh ears a bit more. I would be hearing it in a bit of a bigger context.
What I noticed was that you create these worlds for each of your neighbors and you show them to us with a lot of respect and compassion for them. I know that Buddhism teaches compassion, so I was wondering if that was a conscious decision.
I think that is a Buddhist philosophy. Part of being Buddhist is about being ordinary. A big part of being Buddhist is about finding beauty and finding the wonderful things about the ordinary world. And so to do a record where I’m talking to my neighbors is first of all very ordinary and then the melody of speech is something so ordinary that you don’t even notice it. So in that sense it is kind of a Buddhist record. So, bringing some of the magic out of the ordinary world.
What did you find out about how we use sounds to convey concepts? Because when I listen back on this interview I won’t realize probably exactly what I was meaning to say or how I was feeling until I hear my voice asking the question, which really makes me kind of nervous, actually.
Yeah, it was the worst part of the interviews for me, was listening back because I hate listening to my own voice recorded. ‘Did I really say that? Did I really ask that question?’ I felt like I needed to treat my neighbors with respect and try to really find the most meaningful things that they said, because I was sort of put in your position where I’m asking them questions and I’m really self-conscious about what I’m doing and I really wanna present the whole thing properly, so yeah, I know what you mean. You don’t hear what you intend to say until you listen back later.
How does it work when you play the songs on tour?
Everybody’s sort of memorized their little bit. The players are really great, they’ve all learned their speeches on their instruments, and play along with the recording. The only thing that’s prerecorded is the voice. So I play the voices, and the band plays along to the voices. We just practiced it a lot. And it’s pretty close to the record in a lot of ways. For this tour coming up, because we’re the opening band, it’s a scaled down version. I’m not touring with the big harp and I’m not touring with all the musicians I’d normally be touring with. I’m basically using Do Make Say Think as my band.
On The Happiness Project website, you said you realized that people are wise and good.
Well, really when I started out interviewing people, I was almost using them as guinea pigs. I just wanted to see if there was melody in their voice. Ultimately I took random people. I only know them because they’re my neighbors, they’re people from all around the world, and they happen to live close to me. And I just wanted to use them to find melody in their voices—that was my experiment. But then, the more I talked to people the more wisdom I found, the more I learned that if you put people in the right context, then their wisdom really comes out. I think there’s something nice about the subject of happiness, it allows people to be philosophical without the pitfalls of religion or politics. It’s something a little more innocuous, you can talk about happiness and include your philosophies without being too stubborn about it. It was really good to see that all the people I talked to said profound things, and generally you don’t think people are quite so wise and profound. I feel now if you give people the right container, the right venue, then they can let their wisdom come out.
What are you planning to do next after this?
Oh that’s top secret, I’m afraid. No, I don’t know, I’ve got some plans, but I’ve got too many of them. I’ve got another 10 shows and then I’ve got a few shows coming up in the West Coast, maybe. And then the whole Broken Social Scene is gonna be busy next year, so it all depends [on] what offers come up. I would love to be doing [The Happiness Project] for a while. I’m really enjoying it.