Within the context of Broken Social Scene and in his solo work, Charles Spearin is all about community
Charles Spearin’s first solo release, The Happiness Project, is an experiment in making soundscapes out of speech. It’s also a tribute to his Toronto neighbourhood—and to the kind of “one for all and all for one” spirit that animates Broken Social Scene, the best known of Spearin’s several bands.
Unlike that indie-pop collective’s releases, which have featured such indie notables as Leslie Feist, Jason Collett, and Emily Haines, there’s no singing on The Happiness Project. But people—Spearin’s friends, neighbours, and kids—speak on every track, and from their musings he’s extrapolated musical settings that range from whimsical to soulful to slightly unsettling.
“This is an idea I’ve been toying with since I was a teenager, listening to my parents talk,” says the resourceful composer and multi-instrumentalist, on the line from his inner-city Hogtown home. “My dad has kind of a deep bass voice, and my mom has kind of a sharp, quick voice. It’s kind of like in Charlie Brown, when the kids listen to the teacher and you hear the trumpet and the trombone: ”˜Wah wah, wada wah wah.’
“I kind of had that as a teenager,” he continues. “I’d hear my parents, but I wouldn’t actually listen to what they were saying. So I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, and the more I got to understand music and how different intervals in music have different emotional weight to them, I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to take some of the natural intervals of voice and try and create songs out of them.’”
Even more than a fascinating piece of conceptual art, The Happiness Project is a paean to urban life—and an implicit rebuke to suburban sprawl.
“Where I live isn’t an ideal neighbourhood,” he cautions. “Somebody was shot around the corner last year, and there was a big arrest up the street for drugs, and stuff like that. But everybody in the neighbourhood kind of knows what’s going on, and there’s no fear, really.
“In the suburbs,” he adds, “the houses are too big and they’ve kind of got their backs turned on to each other—the garage is at the front, and everybody hangs out on the back porch. But in my downtown neighbourhood everybody’s on their front porch, and the sense of community is obvious. It’s just how people live, and I think it’s healthy.”
One of Spearin’s concerns is that ordinary people, like his neighbours, rarely get a chance to air their views. In that sense, his solo debut is a decidedly democratic undertaking—much like Broken Social Scene itself. There are no leaders in that band, but just as Spearin did with The Happiness Project, someone generally steps to the fore when it’s time to go to work.
In its upcoming Vancouver concert, Broken Social Scene “will be doing a fairly Brendan-heavy set,” Spearin explains, referring to BSS singer-guitarist Brendan Canning, who’s recently released a well-received solo project of his own, Something for All of Us”¦. “We’ll be doing a lot of Brendan’s songs, but not more than half. There’ll be a little bit from every record, and we’ll also be performing one, maybe two songs from The Happiness Project at this show.
“Brendan and Kevin [multi-instrumentalist Kevin Drew] are kind of leading the charge for the band,” he continues. “We won’t call them bandleaders, but they’re the ones who’ve kind of organized it. But mostly it’s a lot of schedule juggling. Everybody has their own projects, which they’re very geared to. But we’ve been at it for eight or nine years now, so we’re pretty good at schedule juggling—and everybody’s happy to be involved.”
Not everyone heard on The Happiness Project is equally overjoyed, however. Cue up Track 6, “Ondine”, and the first thing you’ll hear is a delicate harp glissando that floats atop a lurching cello line. The music sounds like a Pre-Raphaelite’s dream of Erik Satie, but the mood shifts when a petulant two-year-old enters the picture, lisping her way through a strenuous complaint.
“It’s almond buttah!” she pouts, as her father attempts to feed her a piece of toast. “I just want buttah! Not almond buttah!”
The effect is strange and silly and sad all at once, especially once you realize that the cello and violin have been aping Ondine’s phraseology ever since the piece started. There’s a lot going on in this brief composition, including the implicit message that it’s best not to sweat the small stuff.
“That’s true on both sides of that: with Ondine wailing about her almond butter, but also from the perspective of a parent,” says Spearin, who just happens to be Ondine’s dad. “It’s important that you don’t get too annoyed by the whining and complaining of kids, because there is a song to it. And there’s something kind of natural to it, as well—which, as a parent, you can forget about when you get caught up in trying to make everybody happy.” -
Broken Social Scene plays the Orpheum on Friday (February 6).