Letting go of the things you love is not easy, but sometimes it’s essential to great writing — and music.
It’s a classic lesson Woodpigeon’s Mark Andrew Hamilton learned from a scriptwriting teacher when he was in film school, and it’s a lesson he returned to while working on his new album.
“When you finish writing something, you find your favourite parts and you cut them out. If the story can still exist without your favourite parts, then you’ve written something good,” he says. “I find a lot of my favourite parts in music are the meandering bits that maybe other people don’t necessarily love. So to cut them out was a nice challenge. I’m all about challenging myself.”
Tightening his sound is one of several challenges the Calgary native tackled throughout the writing and recording of Thumbtacks + Glue, his fifth album.
Woodpigeon’s previous release, the 2010 concept record Die Stadt Muzikanten, found the hushed-voiced frontman and his revolving cast of musicians travelling romantic peaks and melancholic plains in grand, orchestral folk-pop style. Thumbtacks + Glue, recorded over two years with producer Arran Fisher, retains Hamilton’s penchant for widescreen drama, but this time the terrain is occasionally grittier.
“I wanted to go as pretty as you could possibly go last time around and then never do that again,” he explains. “[This album] was more about the texture than having a really specific orchestral score.”
Though the bulk of the album was completed over a single weekend, he spent a long time experimenting in the studio, honing the atmospherics for each song.
For the title track, he created a quivering feedback loop using his piano and guitar pedals; the angelic duet “Little Wings” glides atop sounds played on wine glasses full of water and Hamilton’s voice reading lines from one of his favourite books run backward.
Thumbtacks + Glue was recorded before his move to Vienna a year and a half ago, and its lyrics are imbued with a yearning to move forward. Although his current boyfriend and his mother’s family are in Austria, the decision to move was not taken lightly, but — like many independent Canadian musicians before him — he decided a full-time career in music would be more sustainable on the other side of the Atlantic.
“It was a big choice for me because I decided to walk away from a career in advertising,” he says. “I was feeling kind of stuck when I was in Calgary making the record. I kept thinking of Gulliver’s Travels. You know those little people holding down the giant? I was thinking of the little things holding me back.”
To move forward Hamilton had to return to a past heartache to put it behind him once and for all. Hence, another challenge: writing one final song about his first love. (He won’t reveal which song, but the embittered “Robin Song” sounds like a likely candidate.) It’s a topic he has covered in song before, but this time it was as much about the challenge as it was about catharsis.
“I had to be truly specific about something so I could never write about it again,” he says. “Get in everything you ever possibly want to say about this situation because you can’t rely on a first-love crutch for the rest of your life.”
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