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INTERVIEW: David McFarlane

Hi David, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

I’ve been good. Super busy! I’m a dad, fulltime working stiff, I make art and I just released my second full-length album. It’s pretty nuts but it feels vital, real, un-boring. I’m really happy with the new record and grateful to those who supported it’s awkward journey.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Miss Kubelik”?

The song initiated from an interesting chord I happened on while playing in a less common tuning. It developed musically first and I sang nonsensical words to it for some time, while it settled in. Some of the unintentional lyrics stuck – the reference to “Ms. Kubelik”, who is a character from the Billy Wilder film, “The Apartment”. I started to realize that the sleaze-bag executive types portrayed in the movie very closely resembled our current climate of leadership, socially, politically, etc. So the song thematically morphed into a surrealistic overlay of modern day onto Mr. Wilder’s archetypal flic. Only it’s 100 times worse now.

It’s a dark song. It’s a tragedy really. It’s what I fear most: when skepticism becomes cynicism – when you lose hope for change. I suppose I want people to feel mad about that.

Did any event in particular inspired you to write this song?

The market crash in the late 2000s and just an overall concern and disbelief with which the way big finance influences and manipulates our governments. It leads me to question whether or not democracy is a convenient fiction. I’d like to think it isn’t. I wrote the song prior to the “me too” events going down but that stuff is all there, woven into the fabric of the song. Shirley Maclaine carried that flag for a long time!

Any plans to release a video for the single?

Yes! In black & white.

The single comes off your new album Fieldwork – what’s the story behind the title?

“Fieldwork” is an approach I adopted a long time ago in my visual art practice and refers to actually going out into the world, as an artist, and doing research, gathering insight, observations from the ‘real world’ and bringing that stuff back into the studio as raw materials from which to work with. It struck me about half way through art school that sitting in a white studio, waiting for some lightening bolt of creativity to strike you was ridiculous. Kind of pretentious too as the end result of that ‘white room‘ process tended to produce elitist, inaccessible crap. I wanted to trick myself out of making that kind of stuff so a buddy and I started a little group of artists called “Fieldwork”. The album derives its title from that ethos and all the songs reference personal experiences and site sensitive moments, to some degree, that were brought back to the song writing shop for assembly.

How was the recording and writing process?

It’s a bit of an epic. The record came about in an odd way and was recorded, mixed and produced in phases by myself, Brad Kilpatrick and Jace Lasek. It was recorded in part at Hawksley Workman’s studio up in Northern Ontario in a 4 day binge where Brad and I put down drums and bass bed tracks, to analogue tape, for some 17 songs I had brought that contained ‘scratch vocals’ and guitars to a click. Hawksley had an amazing sounding Tele that we also managed to track at that time on Kubelik. Hawksley’s space was a true creative playground and was intentionally orchestrated to enable playfulness and immediacy. For example, an array of vintage keys/organs were available, wired up and ready to go at any time. That alone encouraged the capture of some improvised parts that would never have happened if not for Hawkley’s ‘grand scheme’. One of my oldest friends and pedal steel player, Andrew Osborne, was omni-present as a trusted touchstone throughout the process.

Rarely do songs come fully formed – lyrics, chords, melody, boom. It’s only happened a couple of times like that for me and it’s wonderful when it does. Usually, I’m a scrap-book keeper, a suggested narrative thread will come to mind, a line or two will emerge and get written down. Separately, a riff or chord progression will consistently come to mind and find a connection with another orphaned set of chords that might fit as a bridge. I learned a long time ago the value of journaling and trusting this kind of scrap-booking of little nodes of ideas. Eventually they begin to fit together into something grander…a song, a record. I try to honour the muse and capture these little sprites on whatever device is handy, wherever I am. I have a trust that they will find friends and become whole.

Did Billy Wilder get to influence the album as a whole?

No, not really. If we’re talking directors, I think Peter Greenaway is perhaps more of an influence on how I write songs. But I will say that Wilder and, perhaps to a larger degree, Capra, are masterful storytellers in that they were able to present some uncomfortable subjects and truths in their films while, at the same time, allowing for amazing stylization and a release of emotions. I think, because of the authenticity and relevance of the core message, they were granted a wide range of creative freedom and permission to tap our emotions – without coming off ‘smarmy’. I think those dynamics are at play in my songs. I think too that we are living hyper-conservative times and I think EVERYTHING is becoming about sub-text – what’s meant, not what’s actually being said.

What role does Toronto play in your music?

I’m a born and raised Torontonian and it is home to me. But I’ve lived in some other places and have learned to see my home from that vantage point too, which I highly recommend for other Toronto natives. It’s a healthy exercise!

For me, Toronto is a fairly conservative town and, in contrast to other places I’ve lived, is not particularly supportive of the arts. I think folks that work in the cultural sector become resilient and scrappy as a result. I think it helped me realize I could chip away resiliently at song-craft and the sum of the parts would eventually take form. So I suppose it has informed my process to some degree.

What aspect of politics and society did you get to explore on this record?

It’s a personal record. I allowed myself to explore a range of things: There’s a song about my son where I try to see the world through his eyes. Another is about parenting and trying to be an exemplar of being true to oneself. There’s a sort of abstract tone poem about meeting my wife. There’s a song about reconciliation and the desire to play a stronger personal role in treating our first nations peoples with respect. There’s another about being betrayed by a trusted friend and my sheer anger at that person. There’s a song about my childhood, nostalgic, tragic and lost. There’s a lullaby and there’s a full-out assault on the current flavour of political leadership that propagates hatred, xenophobia, fear, violence, cowardice and the denial of climate change, all in the name of god, justice and the economy. So, it’s kind of a full-meal deal.

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

It’s an ongoing thing for me and I’m grateful to be able to recognize and capture things as I move through my days. I continue to draw inspiration from many of my personal experiences, past, present, and my hopes for the future.

We are increasingly removing counterpoints and voices of dissent in our world. Social media empowers but simultaneously reduces us and dilutes our individuality. I suppose these factors contribute to a sense of purpose to writing and performing music.

Any plans to hit the road?

I’d love to get the band out for a little road trip. I’m looking for someone to help manage that. Any suggestions?

What else is happening next in David McFarlane’s world?

I have a batch of new songs that I’m working up, so that’s on the radar. I’m playing the pedal steel in an improvisational group that is very different than my song-writing efforts, which is a very healthy way to stay honest. I’m also focused on getting out and supporting this new release with live shows.

Listen to “Miss Kubelik” here: https://soundcloud.com/david-mcfarlane/miss-kubelik/

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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