Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Daniel Isaiah at Chasse-Galerie

Daniel Isaiah  |  Chasse-Gallerie

       PHOTOS  |  Jess Svoboda

“Il connaît la valeur exacte des sons et leurs plus subtiles nuances. Il tire un parti habile et sûr de tous les artifices de la cadence poétique.”

Comme l’idée importe peu quand la fantaisie s’envole avec cette subtilité, cette grâce, et se rythme en aussi délicates sonorités.

That is what Louis Dantin, poet, novelist and literary critic who was Émile Nelligan’s professor at École littéraire de Montréal said about his protégé’s poetry skills back in 1904. In fact, for Dantin, Nelligan’s real genius had more to do with the way he used the very musicality of his language to create a fluid, irresistible melody than with the actual content of his pieces.

Daniel Isaiah, member of local acts Percy Farm and Shoot the Moon, appears to be another one of these poets who devote careful attention to the rhythm that a fluid succession of words creates, who make such rhythm their primary concern when writing. “Sometimes, it’s not meaningful, but it sounds nice,” he says, talking about his playful approach to scribbling verses and choruses. “I’ve ruined songs by trying to give my lyrics meaning.”

Fair enough. However, these are the words of a modest man, who appears to be slightly unaware of the high quality of his lyrical content. Granted, it sounds nice, but it sure as hell is not empty of meaning. Consider this excerpt from the title song of his first solo album High Twilight:

The graces kissed your eyelids
And wrapped you in their robes
Before your skin was spotted,
And your mouth was filled with gold
But you keep playing ‘em down
These memories of your hometown
That steal into your slumber
Draw water from a stone

Intriguing, huh? When asked what the song is about, Isaiah answers that it’s the story of an old man looking at a Botticelli painting titled Primavera, on which three woman (“the graces”) are dancing, and inviting him to dance along. Unfortunately, he cannot get his legs going, and instead of joining them, he remembers all the mistakes he has done in his long life. He becomes filled with regrets, and overcome with nostalgia.

If I have no problem believing Isaiah when he says that, when writing, he starts with the musicality of the words before getting into the content, I have a lot of trouble sharing his opinion that his lyrics lack meaning. I do not know many songwriters who so concisely describe the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia, while throwing a Botticelli reference in the mix. Do you?

In my eyes, Isaiah is one of these musicians who manage to keep a healthy balance between all parameters of their music. The way the words flow, the words themselves, the melody in which they are sung, the story they tell, the music binding it all together, as well as the overall atmosphere or the pieces: nothing seems like it’s ranked under the column “less important” in Isaiah’s solo endeavour.

He even pays attention to aspects I have not heard other singer-songwriters discuss. For instance, when asked to describe the nature of what he considers “his sound” (one that, according to him, is well-represented by the song Candlemaker Row), he responds, amongst other things: “The voice that I’m singing in isn’t particularly masculine or feminine, it’s somewhere in between.”

However, do not be fooled. The fact that everything is evenly brilliant in this man’s music does not mean that it is thoroughly calculated from the get-go. Indeed, Isaiah’s approach to his art is very spontaneous, which apparently is why High Twilight contains songs that are aesthetically very different from each other. “It really just happens naturally,” says Isaiah, “and it’s kind of been a problem, in a way. Some of the feedback I’ve gotten from people about the record is that it’s too eclectic.” Although he is happy with his first LP, Isaiah does recognize that “it feels a little bit like a collection of songs”. In his mind, any work of art can benefit from a certain amount of cohesion.

This reflection on his part explains the way things are going to be handled for his upcoming solo album. First of all, this time around, Isaiah will not be producing the record. Second, on every song, he is going to be surrounded by the same crew of five musicians, playing the same instruments. “I think it’ll have a more cohesive sound,” he claims.

Again, though, do not be fooled. The recorded versions of Isaiah’s songs, cohesive as they might be, are never the only way they are going to be played, forever and ever. The man considers his pieces to never be completely finished, and he likes to alter them on a continuous basis: “There is so many different ways of playing a song, and it is overwhelming. You can do it in different time signatures, you can speed it up, you can slow it down, you can change the words, and I don’t think I ever feel totally settled on one particular way of doing a song, I always want to try something different with it.”

This total openness really seems to be an inherent part of Isaiah’s personality. After all, he did include two songs in French on High Twilight (J’habite un pays and Mélissa), both of which are the fruit of a collaborative effort with documentary filmmaker (and apparently gifted writer!) Annie St-Pierre. “I’ve always really loved French chanson,” he says, “and I’ve always wanted to do it. I just never really had the chance.” This chance finally came when St-Pierre, a good friend of his, helped him make his ambition come true. The result is very convincing, and although it might have contributed to the “collection of songs” feel of Hight Twilight, it also serves as a great demonstration of his stylistic depth.

On the night of March 22nd, when Isaiah delivered his “eclectic” oeuvre to the public of Chasse-Galerie, the applauses were loud in between moments of perfectly silent listening. Helped by Plants & Animals drummer Matthew Woodley and unbelievably skilled guitarist Chris Flower, the guy with the head of shuffled blond hair sung his poetic words, in the form of sweet-sounding ballads or progressive, driving pieces. The trio happily dwelled in that middle ground between rock and folk, and it did not shy away from trying original things: Woodley sometimes hit the drums with a maracas, while Flower performed finger-picking tricks with his guitar, or dropped subtle little funky riffs here and there. It was pure ear candy.

Furthermore, the trio was amazingly tight, especially given the absence of a bassist, which Isaiah recognized to have been challenging after the show was set and done. It was very hard not to notice the in-depth musical talent of every member, and never more than during the encore. At that point, Isaiah started playing the chords of Bod Dylan’s It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, inviting his two counterparts to follow him along after the first four bars. They did, effortlessly, and Isaiah began muttering Dylan’s verses, in the sweetest voice. The moment proved just as stunning as you’d imagine. There are good musicians, and then there are trios like this one.

I don’t know about you, but I will sure be on the lookout for that next solo record. Mr. Isaiah has left me no choice.

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