Picking over the bones of a failed relationship is hard. Forget the door-slamming arguments and name calling, the toughest moments are those of quiet introspection: coming across a hand-written card; finding a cherished picture torn up in a drawer; packing up the minutiae of a life shared, a life you fear may never be experienced again. It’s a scenario that Canadian singer songwriter Abe Davies sounds familiar with; his debut record, 2013’s Reports Of Snow, was an intense mix of the cathartic and lovelorn, where lines like “She’s just another way to drink and drive” intertwined with poignant melodies and sparse, elegant guitar picking.
Even the song titles – ‘The Best I Could’, ‘Stay Home, Elizabeth’, ‘In The Wreckage’ – hinted at a man wrestling with the demons of romantic breakdown and struggling to make sense of it all. But his new record, The Traitor Shore, has a warm, wistful air and a more pronounced rootsy, Americana feel; not happier exactly, but more at peace with itself. Perhaps it’s down to the passage of time, or a move to Scotland’s picturesque East coast; via Skype he tells me of long drives down deserted country roads, and insanely beautiful sunsets. “I literally can’t stress how amazing it is here,” he says, and it’s bled into his music; sure-footed, warm, and shimmering, Davies is finding his voice and a silver lining in amongst all those clouds.
DiS: Your debut album was a bit of a collective effort, wasn’t it? There were eight of you in total, working on it at various points?
Abe Davies: Yeah, it just kind of came out of nowhere when I moved to Oxford. I never really had any particular thoughts about making a record or having a band, or anything like that, I would just kind of write songs, but I ended up getting involved with a few people at work, in the music scene around there. A couple of them were producers, and they ended up hearing a couple of things and decided they wanted to make something of it. It started with going into the studio for a couple of days to do some acoustic things that were just me, and then, as these things happen, people started saying: “Well, it’s going to be good as acoustic, but maybe if we add a piano here, or a little bit of keyboard there…”, and before you know it you’re recording full drum kits and slide guitar! It was a fucking two-year nightmare. Whereas, with this one, I have had a lot more experience, and I know what to avoid. It was still a lot of the same people involved but, it was me going: “Let’s do this! These are the songs we are working on, and these are the arrangements” nd if anybody would bring something different – which, of course, they always did, and that was great – but it had a lot more direction to it. It was a lot more me.
So I was going to ask, was this more of a collective effort or was this more ‘You’?
Well, like I said, I had the songs, pretty much. I had written the basic lyrics and music. Then a couple of months before I was thinking of recording, I got a show at a big venue in Oxford, the 02. As it was coming closer, I was thinking: “Gee, It’s a four hundred person venue, and I don’t really want to do it on my own.” I did a solo show one night, at some little club, and I met a guy who was there playing in one of the bands called Jamie [Cooper], a guitarist. He was into the last record, so we were chatting, and he’s an amazing, amazing guitarist and I asked him after a few beers if he maybe wanted to help me out. We ended up meeting up, and then we were playing shows together every week or two for the next year; I’d send him a couple of songs every week, and I would get there thinking that he probably wouldn’t have come up with anything and, of course, he’d come up with these amazing parts. So, he was really quite a big part of it this time, in giving the songs the sort of direction that they ended up going in. Then we got Nick [Simms] on drums, and when you can pin him down, he is an amazing drummer. He’s always on tour with Paul Weller and the Manic Street Preachers, I think, so it’s always a bit of a challenge to find some time with him. We did it in the same studio we used before with Richard Neuberg and then we have Ben [Walker] on keys and piano.
You’re the primus inter pares of the group then?
It was very collaborative; there was just a little bit more direction from me this time. When we started, I knew what we wanted. But yeah, I drive the bus. It’s cool mostly because they are such good musicians; I can trust them to bring the best thing to a song and also to keep coming up, at pretty short notice, with really cool things. But, when it comes down to it, they’re my songs, and I’m making the decisions.
Reports of Snow was, in parts, a pretty bleak break up record. But The Traitor Shore sounds like it comes from a much happier place. Is that a fair comment?
Yeah, I think so. One of the things when I started making Reports of Snow, I had no real notion of making a record, or anybody ever hearing those songs. I had never really performed live either, so as I started to write the songs for this one I was playing live a lot more and I realised the limitations of the songs that I had written for the first one. One of those was that they didn’t necessarily work acoustically, so what I did when I was heading into this one was a song wouldn’t make the cut if I wasn’t super happy to play it live. I went through a lot of songs making sure that everything had a pulse. Songs that really work have a kind of inner pulse to them, and no matter what kind of context they are played in or what kind of arrangement you have, the song has a heartbeat to it.
Like a natural flow?
Yeah, kind of a rhythmic thing, just in the way that the lyrics work over the tune. I was just really strict, according to my criteria. I’m sure there are lots of people that say that it didn’t work at all, but the idea was to only have songs that really worked at that level and then to build them up. So I think I ended up with a more upbeat sounding record, just because it kind of moved a bit more naturally and had a bit more of internal propulsion to it; that was what I was trying to do.
When you play them, and it’s just you, and you strip them down again, do you feel that they still have that pulse or that kind of lift to them?
Yeah. I mean, as much as a fairly middling guitar player can really bring a song across! Certainly, I’m happier and I don’t get bored playing them – that was my ultimate criteria. I had to find them interesting enough to play. It’s awful when you have to play two shows a week, playing songs that are boring to play.
Is it frustrating that, as a songwriter, you spend quite a long time crafting a song and building it up, adding layers and little flourishes and so on, then when you have to go out and play you take all that away and are like: “Yeah, I’m just going to play this on my guitar”?
It is frustrating, but it’s a lot less frustrating when you put the legwork in to pre-empt that frustration. That’s the idea. Of course, I would love to be in a situation where I just have the full band at my disposal all the time, and we could just play shows as a six piece, but I realised that was probably not going to be the case, at least in the short term. Especially as I just moved 500 miles away from the rest of the band!
Are you gonna tour The Traitor Shore the traditional way, or just doing odd shows as and where you can?
I don’t know. I know a couple of guys in Edinburgh. Like I said, basically I didn’t know this was going to happen, this move to Scotland. It was something that I always wanted to do, but it wasn’t part of the plan; I only found out that I had funding [for a PhD] two months ago so, I had no idea I was going to be here, and I haven’t really had a chance to figure anything out yet. I want to go and see a couple of promoters in Edinburgh and see what the kind of set up is, maybe Glasgow too. So, the whole thing is kind of in disarray at this point, basically in terms of live stuff, I would love to go and do some shows but, at this point they would certainly be solo things.
It’s out on your own label, isn’t it?
Yeah, you know a friend of mine is on a label in the States. I was in New York last year, and we went and had a beer, and he spent the first half of the evening saying: “Give me your record as soon as it’s done, I’m going to send it to this guy, and he’s going to love it.” Then after we had a couple of beers, the second half of the evening the conversation was like: “But you never want to be on a label, it’s the worst, you don’t sell any more records than you would anyway (unless it’s a big label), you just have to surrender control of everything, and you will only get a fraction of the money for the records that you do sell”. That’s my anecdotal experience, so I just thought: “You know what? I would rather have myself to blame for a lack of press coverage or for a lack of sales” rather than kind of sitting at home saying: “When’s it all going to happen?”
Hmm. Is it easy to put down your guitar and pick up your ‘mogul’ hat, and say, “Right, I’m going to sell myself today”?
No, it’s not! Actually, do you know what the problem is? It’s too easy. Not the selling of one's self, but the sitting at the computer and constantly checking emails and buzzing around the internet looking for the next blog that might be into it. It is such an ADD-inducing terrible, terrible thing because it just requires so much less….it’s work, but it requires so much less continuous attention, and it’s then harder to go back to the guitar, or whatever else it is that you are doing and to focus on making something, and not going: “Right, now I’m going to check my Gmail again, for the second time this hour!” It’s more of an effort the other way, to try and reclaim the old mindset of not being in constant communication and not waiting for the next person to respond.
From the perspective of what you are and what you do, how does being on Bandcamp work? Is it a useful thing?
No, I don’t have any reservations at all about Bandcamp. Maybe for disclosure, Ben [Walker], who plays piano and keys, works for Bandcamp actually. Not that it makes any fucking difference; they still haven’t put us on our pick of the week or anything! Probably because he plays for us. It’s pretty much faultless, though; it’s a great system. The amount of money that they take is infinitesimal, and it’s really flexible. It’s a super… I’m going to use the word ‘interface’ which seems kind of gross, but just in terms of all the internet interfaces that we all use every day; it’s really that rare thing where it combines being adaptable with a lot of different possibilities, and not being constrictive, but also being really user friendly. It’s obvious what you do, and if you want to move beyond that, then you can do really easily. So, yeah! It’s great.
Are you going to pop up on Tidal at some point?
Do you know what, I think we are on Tidal. Are you on Tidal, can you look us up? I don’t have a subscription, so I can’t.
I don’t have a subscription either, to be honest. There must be a way to check though.
I think that we are on Tidal!
I don’t know if it is Google-able, that’s the thing.
Well, there are things called ‘Aggregators’. I don’t really stream stuff very much, but I do have a Spotify account, and I know that we are on Spotify, and that’s because of these aggregator things. You pay a $20 one-off fee, and they distribute digitally, the record and the metadata, whatever you want to put on there, to everywhere on earth. So, if I do a Google search right now, it comes up that we are on streaming services that I have never even heard of, and I’m sure most people have never even heard of, at least in this country because they are, for example, Russian and exclusively Russian, so you would never hear about them. But, it’s a digital distributor.
Interesting. So, do you get cheques for this occasionally? I imagine not very big cheques, as nobody seems to get very big cheques anymore but, does it pop through the letterbox?
No, they come directly into your bank account, and this is going to make us sound pathetically small but I haven’t checked in a month; but from streaming revenue I think we have maybe got $20 or something, for the last single. So, I’m not on the verge of retiring.
Do you mean for The Traitors Shore?
For the single. No, but you know what, that also includes Amazon for the single and I think that that’s Amazon worldwide. Maybe we haven’t even heard about some things; I think there is maybe a month or two’s buffer before they start paying you. It’s such a weird thing because it does give you a breakdown; I was looking at it and saw that the single sold five copies in Taiwan.
That’s a start!
Yeah, it’s a start, and that was more than it sold in the U.S. So, maybe the tour will not be a tour that anybody is expecting!
You hear all these stories about bands and sometimes it is some old crappy Britpop band, and they go off to Japan and play shows to like 10,000 people.
Do you know what is amazing; Nick, the drummer in our band, is the drummer in Corner Shop. They still tour in Japan, and they still tour occasionally over here, but they are far, far bigger over there. They can fill big venues over there.
Yeah. That’s got to be weird.
I think I saw on Twitter, some super interesting graphic about 90’s songs that were the biggest, or had the most streams or something.
The Goo Goo Dolls with 35 million streams!
It was mental and yeah, the second biggest band was the Goo Goo Dolls! With a song from a Nicholas Cage movie that nobody remembered! A completely generic song that I certainly know, not because it was just me streaming it! But I have heard it a lot on the radio. How weird, right?
And the info, the data on that whole thing on what had been streamed and stuff was fascinating, and totally not what you would have expected either.
I mean, Nirvana was up there but, a lot of other stuff it’s like: “That song? That band? Really?” It just goes to show that there is no accounting for taste.
No, there really isn’t! I think it also shows that there are also these weird cultural currents that one just isn’t aware of. Like, I don’t hate that song, but I think I hate the Goo Goo Dolls…but I don’t know. The thing that’s interesting to me about the Goo Goo Dolls, incidentally, is that they started out as a Prince Tribute band. Did you know that?
I did not know that.
They come from Buffalo, New York, and they started out as a Prince Tribute band.
This sounds like one of these Wikipedia facts that is blatantly not true.
No, no, I knew this from before Wikipedia. This was back in the day when they were big but, they are apparently still really big – I just didn’t know they were.
They were relatively big for a bit, but I would have thought that someone like Counting Crows would have been way bigger, or one of their songs would have been streamed 30 million times.
Exactly, and this is something that I think about quite a bit actually; everybody lives in their bubble. In the UK we live in a bubble, and we kind of think that because a certain group of bands are bigger. We only hear about a band like the Goo Goo Dolls because they were in a movie and they really take off, then that’s it and then we forget about them. In the States, or in Canada, or like Sweden; they are really big, and that is kind of inconceivable to us because it’s all about constant exposure and we aren’t exposed to it, and then you just forget about it. It is just weird to think that somebody else is exposed to completely different stuff.
Photo Credit: Sally Davies Photography
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