One-on-One with James Irwin

James Irwin
James Irwin

by Michael Thomas

James Irwin didn’t get into music until a little later in life, but his prior life experience provided a lot of material for his songs once he got into it.

It wasn’t until he was 19 and living in a house in Ottawa that he finally took up music, and only because his roommates had the idea of forming a house band. His roommate informed him that he would be the keyboard player, so Irwin bought one and an electric guitar before switching to acoustic, which he found to be easier.

Irwin’s songs are rooted in folk music, though his album Unreal embraces more electronic influences.

“I’ve always had a really romantic mind that likes to mythologize things,” Irwin said, catching up with us while in Toronto for Canadian Music Week. His mind no doubt had a lot to take in during his six years as a tree planter, working north of Thunder Bay, Ontario and in Alberta.

“It was super easy to see the beauty of the suffering. A man against nature I guess,” he says. “Just fighting with yourself all day long. It’s a real mental thing. You have to be able to fight off your mind for 10 hours to do a really repetitive, painful movement.”

Had his house band worked out, he said he would be doing punk or rock music, but found it easier to do folk because he’s considered himself more a writer than a musician:

“Being a balladeer suits me. I’m into lyrics and words and I consider songs to be a platform for delivering a story or a monologue. The simpler, the better.”

His songs seem to be an even mix of personal stories and tales of others; Western Transport was firmly the former, while Unreal looked more at the latter. Seven of the tracks on “Unreal” are about historical figures (ex “Did You Hear Who Shot Sam?”) or imaginary characters (“A Wave is a Wild Thing”) but a few are personal, namely “Everything Passed Me By” and “Face Value.”

When it came to “Did You Hear Who Shot Sam?” for example, based on Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Irwin explains the process of building a “soundscape” around it:

“I thought of it as a soundscape that put a distance between me and the material. Struggles of black people in the 50s and 60s and not really about them. It was about my own concurrent perspective on it. So it’s a really murky perspective on connection. I was trying to evoke a…if a soul song was happening somewhere in your imagination and you were trying to get to it from across a great distance.”

As for the music, a trip to Toronto in 2013 was one reason Irwin started to experiment with electronic music. He wrote and recorded in two weeks an electronic album with a rented synthesizer and drum machine.

“I became so much more fascinated with the spontaneity of electronic music, which is what tends to be the opposite of what people think of it,” Irwin says. “A whole band is immediately available to you. I could write a drum beat, bass line, guitar and synth and then come up with hooks within an hour. With an acoustic guitar I stew over it forever.”

His time playing in the band The Moment—one based around grooves and dancing—also had a hand in his flirtation with synths. Initially he thought he’d be writing two albums, one electronic and one folk, before the two influences merged to create Unreal.

Irwin will be leaving Montreal later this year—not out of frustration with the music scene but because he’s attending grad school, though he is ambivalent about his place in the city that churns out a number of internationally successful acts.

“I thought I was making music that’s really uncool and I still think I make music that’s sort of uncool,” he says. “But I thought to a certain extent I was connecting with what was happening at the time. It turns out I wasn’t really, as much as I hoped.

“I think I’m fully supported but it would be a little easier if it was something people were willing to push outside of the community. It really is a tight community and people give me a lot of respect, and I feel pretty grateful and they respect my music, but I don’t necessarily receive the kind of support that could make me bigger. But I can’t blame anyone for that.”

Irwin has plenty to contemplate for the future—he’s right now on a solo tour in France and Italy, and has already recorded a third album. It took him four days to record it with a band, whereas Unreal took three years.

“It was such a better experience,” Irwin says. “I had made demos for most of the songs and then some of them didn’t work out. We only had two practices, and most songs I showed them just before we recorded them and then we made it up on the spot basically.”

Irwin hopes to finish the album by the end of the summer and then decide how to it’ll be released. Suffice to say 2015 won’t be a quiet year for James Irwin.

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