I’m finding it difficult to talk to A.C. Newman, but not because he’s a reticent interview or cursed with an iffy mobile connection. Today, chatting is a chore because someone is playing the piano very loudly in the room where he is—and playing it so well it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.
“That’s funny,” says the songwriter and New Pornographers spark plug, calling from an Edmonton hotel on bandmate Paul Rigby’s cellphone. “We’ve got this hotshot young piano player named Zach Tenorio-Miller, who loves piano so much that he found one in the lobby, and he just started playing it. He’s incredibly good.”
Newman’s not kidding. The din in the background sounds like a happy meeting between Art Tatum and Keith Jarrett; Tenorio-Miller’s got chops. So does Rigby, Neko Case’s regular touring guitarist and a highly accomplished musician. The other members of Newman’s band—drummer Nick Kinsey, formerly with Elvis Perkins; flute, sax, and clarinet player Chris Miller; and Vancouver’s own Megan Bradfield on bass and clarinet—aren’t exactly untalented, either.
Their boss might grouse about taking such a “massively expensive” ensemble on the road, but he’s doing it for a good cause: reproducing, as closely as he can, the layered and subtle sound of his third solo album, Shut Down the Streets.
Conceived in homage to the songwriters of the 1970s, it’s a sonic anomaly in Newman’s catalogue, having little to do with the caustic power-pop of his previous ventures. It’s also a nakedly emotional effort for the often cryptic writer. Mostly written between the death of his mother and the birth of his first child, Shut Down the Streets finds Newman baring his soul on the gorgeous love song “I’m Not Talking”, welcoming baby Stellan into the world on the chiming, hopeful “Strings”, and delivering a heartfelt eulogy on “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets”.
“The biggest thing was trying to reconcile different things,” Newman says. “Trying to reconcile losing your mom with gaining your son—and all that while being a musician, which is such an absurd life. I think that’s what a lot of it is about.
“And I wasn’t, you know, as concerned with how I presented myself,” he continues. “I felt like I had to get it out of me, somehow. Or when I opened my mouth to say things, I had a hard time being very artistic about it. Previously, when I was writing lyrics I’d always try to make them more impressionistic, and this time I thought, ‘This has to be straightforward.’ ”
The effect is immediate and engaging—but don’t get too used to it. Newman says that his next effort, with the New Pornographers, won’t contain a single ballad.
“I don’t necessarily see this [Shut Down the Streets] as where my music is going to go from here on in, but it’s where I wanted it to go at this time,” he stresses. “I just wanted to make a sort of palate cleanser, in a way, to say, ‘Okay, well, I made this record, so now I can go back and make some weird rock record.’
“Of course, whenever I talk to people about what I think the next record is going to sound like, I’m always way off,” he adds. “So we’ll see!”
A.C. Newman plays the Biltmore Cabaret tonight (November 8).