Writing great music is, in many ways, an act of magic and fortune. The lyrics, the melody, the varied parts weave together in different ways so that each song is ultimately a singular creation. Montreal filmmaker and musician Daniel Isaiah just released his new album Come Into Gone on March 31. While he gathered together a talented band consisting of Chris Flower, Matthew Woodley (Plants and Animals), and contributing vocals by Sea Oleena, the album’s song craft is its high point. I asked him about how this autobiographical album came together.
Rachel Levine (RL): Do you want to tell me a bit about the album to start?
Daniel Isaiah (DI): Well, it’s called Come Into Gone and I recorded it with close friends over the course of several sessions in 2013. It’s a collection of ten songs.
RL: I’d like to know more about the songs themselves. Can you tell me about the songs and how they came into being, or one in particular?
DI: Sure. The album starts off with a song called Heart Attack about a tarot card reading. It’s based on a friend of a friend, an interesting girl, who’s a tarot card reader. I’d never done that before and she did a reading for me, and it really hit home. It was kind of crazy.
RL: Did it change your mind about the occult or your life direction?
DI: (laughs) I’m open to that kind of thing, but I’m definitely not an occult guy. I think those cards are can be really powerful. I would have thought it was a nerdy thing a few years before. There’s a Dungeon and Dragons or a Game of Thrones sort of aesthetic to them. But they’re powerful symbols. She really knew how to give a good reading[…] I like to think about life in an abstract way like that, to look at symbols and project my own life into them.
RL: How did that experience turn into the song?
DI: I’m always writing songs, and the experiences filter in. That experience [of the tarot reading] happened around the time I was writing the songs for this record. I don’t know how it happens, though. I sit at the guitar or piano and bang away until I have a melody that’s interesting. Then I’ll write the lyrics. The lyrics are about things that are happening at that time. They creep in.
There are themes on the record and a sequence to the songs. I thought it would be cool to start off with a tarot card reading. The lyrics are “I said that I don’t mind / if you want to look inside / she laid her cards out / she read tarot / it showed a bow and arrow / I looked into the sky / I saw the sun and moon collide / My heart was beating like a drum / I expected the worst / but it didn’t come.” Apollo is a sun god, and Artemis, his sister, is a moon goddess. That vision of the sun and moon colliding is a meeting of the masculine and feminine that runs throughout the record.
RL: Is that the way the songs got written, based on a particular experience that coincided with writing music?
DI: There are also songs that are narratives. There’s a song about two brothers who were separated by a divorce — one brother goes with the father and the other with the mother. The song is in the form of a letter that one brother writes to the other, about their world being split in two. It tells a story. Sometimes a song wants to be a narrative and sometimes it’s more like fragments of poetry, like in Heart Attack.
RL: Do you start with the melody first, then?
DI: Always, always melody. I play a few chords on piano or guitar, then I hum it. Then, it’s a Tetris game to get the words to fit in. Some of my friends who write songs do it this same way. Others start with the lyrics. That’s cool. I can’t do what they do. It’s funny, they are such fundamentally different approaches –- starting with lyrics vs. music.
RL: But your lyrics are meaningful…
DI: Most of the time, my lyrics are meaningful. When they’re good. Sometimes you cheat — you have a deadline, you have to finish the song for a recording session. Sometimes I put something in that maybe suggests meaning, but I don’t know what it is exactly. Sometimes – and I don’t know if this is a rationalizing after the fact – you don’t understand a lyric until much later. It’ll be mysterious when I write it, then a year or two later, I’ll understand it better. It reveals itself later.
RL: How many songs did you record and how many made it to the album?
DI: We recorded 17. Ten of them are on. The other seven… if they’re still knocking around in my head months or years later, I’ll finish them, or else they’ll disappear.
RL: How do you decide what makes the cut? Is it thematic?
DI: I generally pick the ones I like best. I don’t put out records very often. So I just put the best ones on.
RL: Was there a reason you opted for a full record instead of a few EPs?
DI: Well I grew up listening to records. The EP still feels a little too short for me. I could have put out EPs too — my albums aren’t concept albums. But I’m on a label (Secret City Records). A label usually wants a full album. It’s harder for them to market and promote an EP. It might come down to economics.
RL: Is the album a continuation or a development from your previous work?
DI: I think there’s a sense of continuation. Jean Luc Godard — I’m not a big fan of his films — but he said the best way to critique a film is to make another film. Each film is an answer to the film you’re critiquing. That’s sort of how I feel about my records. Or sometimes a song is born from another song. For example, in Information Blues, I liked the bridge, but it was just a short thing. So I wrote another song using the chords from that bridge. So, there’s a sense of continuity.
RL: Is there anything that is influencing you most now?
DI: A lot of young bands in Montreal are playing music that sounds like the music I grew up with in the ’80s. I forgot about that music, being in the car with my dad, listening to Phil Collins or Cyndi Lauper, which became kind of cheesy and you wanted to get away from it. It’s very popular now. I see these kids, 15 years younger than me playing that music. They weren’t alive when it was made. When I was their age, it was corny. But they’re young and pretty and it’s cool now. They’re good sounds, though. There are arty songs from that era of popular music. They’re more artful than the grunge that I was listening to when I was growing up. So that was in the air, and filtered into the album. It was never deliberate.
Check out Daniel Isaiah and Fruiting Bodies in the intimate atmosphere of Casa del Popolo (4873 St Laurent) on April 7 at 8 p.m. $10. Daniel Isaiah’s new album is available here via Secret City Records.