Black Heart Machine—Ruins of Our Greatness
Who am I kidding? I’ve spent my whole adult life as a journalist, documenting and observing the lives and events of others. Given that, it is impossible to imagine that the first album I’ve recorded in two decades wouldn’t have a deep connection to the career I’ve had since university. And I’m not going to try to hide that I’m writing my own bio—who else would I trust it with? And there’s no point in playing some third-person obfuscation. So here we go.
Like any good story, let’s start with the facts. My return to writing music wasn’t my doing. My lifelong friend, Brent Jones, asked one day if I’d bring my guitar and a bottle of wine to his studio. I acquiesced, but I didn’t have songs or a voice. But Brent has a way of coaxing it out of you; he lives an artistic life, and challenges you to connect with the music. He also offered to sing, play piano, and generally coach something out of me in a collaborative process. I’ll leave it to the listener to judge the level of success. Heap any blame on me.
Here’s the background paragraph that fills in the details some may not know.
Many of my friends have no idea I spent my formative years in dodgy, grimy clubs playing a Fender Mustang in front of sparse crowds—in bands with names like Lavender Disaster (ouch), Atmosphere (like you some Joy Division records, kids?) or Licorice Fix (the last word added only after someone threatened to sue us)—or that I was eventually kicked out of the final band I started as I tried to play guitar with a broken hand while struggling through graduate school. By then it was time to cut off my bleach-blond hair and grow up. I’d like to say the music never left me, but that would be a lie. I tried playing in a couple of groups after moving to Toronto, but I had to play with other musicians. Musicians are terribly unreliable personalities. I decided to retreat to writing, but the kind without musical notation.
There’s no roadmap for when one returns to music after decades away. You could join some cover band and rock out like your third decade never happened, or you can recognize you’re not the same person you were when you first grabbed a beer and turned up the volume on your Fender Twin. I decided to try the latter, though it also involved playing an acoustic guitar. I didn’t want to compose songs that could be sung around a campfire. I’d always thought acoustic guitars meant folk music, something I’d always been distrustful of, even after falling in love with everything Elliott Smith ever wrote. So I wrote sparse, contemplative songs that utilized Brent’s piano, an instrument that I’d never incorporated in my songs previously.
Brent—for more should know about his talent—is a songwriter, singer, producer, and community leader. He’s recorded a bunch of great albums (for he believes in that format), all of them worthy of your time. He runs a collective called Quiet Earth. He is also shares a lot of the blame for the creation of Black Heart Machine. It wouldn’t exist without him.
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s the graph that explains what the album is about.
Ruins of Our Greatness is the culmination of years of experimentation in mood, atmosphere, and structure. The goal was to integrate sound and theme, and bring those elements together in songs that explore mortality, murder, and madness. From the central figure in “Failure That’s Perceived,” whose remarkable intellect belies any persistence or patience, to the struggle of seeing the promise that isn’t fulfilled in “December to January,” or the quiet documenting of the discovery of a body of a murdered girl on “In Plain View,” the album tries to offer its own unique narrative.
For instruments we used guitars, a grand piano, mellotrons, broken synths, MacBooks, and some fine drumming by the remarkable Fil Beorchia. It isn’t bedroom symphonies, but that’s what I was trying to accomplish. And it isn’t folktronica, though there are elements of that.
If you go on the Internet and read about writing music bios, you’ll recognize the pundits all say to keep them short. I agree. So I’ll end here.
On Ruins of Our Greatness I was trying to capture sparse melodies and write lyrics on topics that captured my imagination.
I hope it captures yours as well.