There’s a mild irony in the fact that the next album from local folk-rock act the Nautical Miles was written in landlocked Bruno, Saskatchewan, just about as far from the sea as it is possible to get. Perhaps, though, it was the oceanic vastness of the billowing prairie that allowed songwriter Corbin Murdoch to unburden himself so easily in the dozen songs that make up the as-yet-unreleased Ode to Joy.
“It was an amazing experience,” the singer-guitarist confirms, shivering over his cellphone on the shores of False Creek. “Tyler Brett and Kerri Reid are two artists who live there and run this residency program out of an old RBC bank building. Bruno is a town of 600 people: there’s the main strip, and that’s the town. And Tyler bought the bank building at the end of that strip for a song, and has converted it into an amazing arts facility. On the ground floor there’s a miniature museum, a music venue, a record store, a coffee shop, and an art gallery, and then upstairs, where the old bank manager’s residence was, there’s two studios. It was an amazing little oasis, and it was incredibly productive for me.”
Even more amazing was that Murdoch landed in the middle of what many might consider Nowheresville after four months of being, well, everywhere.
“After having taken buses and planes and trains every single day, and having been in six countries in four months,” he says, “I was able to ground myself there and go on big long walks through springtime on the Prairies. I got up every day and worked five to seven hours on my songs, and I was amazed that it worked. It’s a pretty special place.”
Earlier, though, Murdoch’s travels had taken him to some other very special places: to the Festival au Désert in Mali, just before that country was besieged by Islamic fundamentalists; through Burkina Faso and Ghana; to the world’s second largest carnaval, in Barranquila, Colombia; and then to the world’s largest contemporary art fair, in that country’s capital, Bogotá.
“You could call it an artistic sabbatical, just checking out some festivals that were meant to be amazing,” he notes. “And, sure enough, they were.”
Not surprisingly, Murdoch came back from his travels with renewed purpose—and fresh inspiration for his band, which laces his songs with gritty slide guitar and eloquent horns. But the main thing he picked up on the road, he explains, is a newfound sense of optimism about the future, and the desire to work for change here at home.
“In South America, the narrative around recession and decline is very different,” he explains. “I mean, all those economies are booming. It’s like the 21st century belongs to those emerging economies, and there’s a lot of optimism there. Similarly, in Ghana there’s a real sense of optimism about the future. And I was struck by the contrast, specifically at this time when we were just overwhelmed by talk about the end of the world, with the Mayan calendar and all that. It just struck me that it’s so much more interesting to talk abut a future that exists, as opposed to a future that doesn’t exist. What happens if we stop making believe that the world is going to end and start taking the future seriously? So that’s where it started, and these 12 songs just kind of poured out.”
Understandably, Murdoch is quick to point out that while his new tunes might reference Montreal’s Maple Spring and other social movements, Ode to Joy shouldn’t be seen as a manifesto. And while some of its songs are set in far-flung locales, it’s not a musical travelogue, either. Instead, it’s an album about human interaction, charged with a vision of a better future.
“We’re in a process of finding a way forward, and I think that’s what’s really exciting,” he relates. “People are starting to recognize that the romance of nihilism is kind of a dead-end street.…So I think there is this optimism, but at the same time it’s not a naive optimism. People are waking up to the fact that being optimistic takes a lot of hard work, but it doesn’t need to be grounded in ignorance or naiveté.
“We’re trying to make those themes manifest in the music,” he adds. “Originally, way back several years ago, I put forward a challenge to myself as a songwriter: is it possible to write good songs that are earnest and about joy? Is that even possible? I don’t think that’s what this record is about, necessarily, but some of that aesthetic is still alive in these songs. We really just wanted to embrace music that makes people feel good.”