No details are given, but put the pieces together and it’s obvious that something traumatic happened right around the time that Mark Andrew Hamilton released Thumbtacks and Glue into the world.
Standard procedure would have had the man also known as Woodpigeon doing all he could to support his latest full-length. Instead, the Calgary-raised nomad chose to disappear, something that ultimately helped him see all wasn’t lost at a time when he was going through a mammoth existential crisis.
“I think travel saved my life last year,” Hamilton says bluntly, on the line from Buenos Aires, where he’s rented a flat for a month. “Istanbul was life-changing. I took a lot from the music.”
There was no shortage of inspiration to be found in the Turkish metropolis, including the city’s energy, the exotic architecture, and the legendary friendliness of the people.
“We went to a street party, and on these tiny, tiny streets there must have been a million people,” Hamilton remembers. “Every 10 metres there was a different drummer, playing with a horn player. I couldn’t follow what they were doing—to my western brain they didn’t make any sense because it seemed more based on rhythms than songs. Yet every person would listen to the rhythm and then right away know which dance to do. That’s where the whole thing started.”
By “the whole thing”, Hamilton means his beginning to feel alive again. The songwriter notes that, in many ways, he was unable to cope with the world for much of 2013.
“Last year, I released Thumbtacks and didn’t tour it because I had a bad year,” Hamilton admits. “I took a year off, which is not what you do when you release a record. I think I touched a guitar maybe four times. When I started playing again a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t even have calluses.”
What rekindled the spark was travel.
As those who use their passports for more than all-inclusive vacations in Mexico know, there are few things in life more rewarding than getting on a plane and leaving your comfort zone. Hamilton completely subscribes to that theory, noting that’s the major reason he’s currently in Buenos Aires, a city he knew nothing about before his arrival.
“I like the idea of struggle—the idea of having trouble to communicate on a day-to-day basis. Like when I was younger I moved to Scotland, and when I first arrived there I couldn’t figure out how the phone worked, how you dialled over there. And because the plugs are different, it was hard to figure out how you plug something in. I like to feel not complacent, and travelling makes you feel not complacent.”
That sense of being content with never leaving your hometown is something he feels too many Canadians suffer from. That probably explains why Hamilton has left Calgary for Vancouver, where he now lives, even if he hasn’t been here much. It explains why the past decade has had him living in foreign locales like Vienna and Edinburgh. And even though Thumbtacks and Glue is Woodpigeon’s most ambitious album to date, it explains why Hamilton is eager to move forward with his next release, which he laughingly suggests might be a collection of Turkish tango songs.
“At this point, I really don’t care what people think, and I think that’s a really good place to come from,” he says. “I certainly hope people like it [Thumbtacks and Glue] and listen to it and give it their time. But I think that if you write something and record something hoping that it will get on the radio, or that you can sell it to a commercial, then you’re making a huge mistake. Getting back into the tortured thing, and I guess tying back into the travelling that I’ve done, I want my next record to be work, and to be difficult, because I want to feel challenged and then surpass what I’ve already done.”
What he’s done with Thumbtacks and Glue is deliver a sprawling work that draws as much on distortion-injected folk and DIY indie rock as it does on unvarnished chamber pop and operatic ambient soundscapes. Hamilton is as apt to play things hard and driving (the straight-ahead guitar workout “Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard”) as he is likely to be lovely and lush (“Little Wings”). And he’s evidently as comfortable going classy with soaring strings and horns (“Red Rover, Red Rover”) as he is with the idea of embracing his inner Tom Waits and staggering down to the broken end of town (“Hermit”).
If there’s one thread tying things together, it’s that Hamilton isn’t exactly going to be accused of sticking to the sunny side of the street, this revealed right off the top with “The Saddest Music in the World”, featuring lyrics like “The saddest music in the world/Those songs we sing that don’t get heard” and “I’ve lost the tune, forgot the words/Prepare myself just for the worst.”
Hamilton is justifiably proud of Thumbtacks and Glue, a much-laboured-over project in which songs were built up, stripped down to the studs, and then built up again.
“The basic stuff was recorded really quickly, and then it was a year of tearing it apart and putting it back together,” he says. “I hope that it doesn’t sound tortured, but the amount of work that went into that record was really incredible. And the timing of not wanting to play music when it was coming out was really bad.”
As much as Hamilton is unwilling to pick at the giant scab that was 2013 (“Maybe, let’s talk about 2014”), he will allow that his extended stints in exotic locations did make for bright points.
Even though he’s loving feeling completely out of his element in Buenos Aires, the man behind Woodpigeon is also excited and upbeat about an upcoming Club PuSh concert that will have him teamed up with the Coastal Sound Youth Choir. The collaboration will feature Hamilton originals as well as classical and indie-rock choral music. Whether the choir’s members know it or not, Hamilton owes them something.
“I was at a kind of low point, and the choir sent me a couple of videos doing one of my songs,” he says. “I thought it was really cool, even though I had basically classified myself as retired. We wanted to do something together, but it was always sort of up in the air. Then I visited Vancouver and went to a couple of practices, and my parents happened to be with me. They got to watch me sing a song with them. To stand in the middle of those people singing is pretty amazing. So we promised that we would do something together, and that kind of convinced me to try again.”
The darkness has seemingly lifted. At least until it’s time to pack up and head to the airport again.