Published Feb 19, 2016Jim Bryson's excellent, long-awaited fifth album is called Somewhere We Will Find Our Place. It concerns the middle years of life; its inherent anxieties, frustrations, joys, acceptance. "I think the record has to do with aging," Bryson tells Exclaim! from the home he shares with his partner and two young daughters in Stittsville (just outside of Ottawa), not far from where his friend and long-time collaborator Kathleen Edwards has her coffee shop, Quitters.
"People say, 'That's very funny: you stayed in Ottawa' — almost like it's a failure cause I stayed in my hometown. And I felt that way sometimes: what is wrong with me that I stayed? But it's not just okay, it's more than okay, to feel okay about where you're at."
Actually, Bryson didn't merely stay in his hometown, he's living precisely where he started from: "The truth is, I grew up here," he says. "My father tricked me into buying this house seven years ago. It's good, but it took quite a bit of getting used to and ghost-erasing."
At first, Bryson's studio (then called "The Basement Brigade") was in the family's basement; he built Fixed Hinge, a dedicated recording shed, on the property almost two years ago, at the advice of Zane Whitfield (North of Princess Recording Studio in Kingston), who he worked with on Oh Susanna's Namedropper.
"We were sitting in my backyard after we had mastered [Namedropper] and we were drinking whiskey, and he said to me, 'You should put a studio right over there.' And then he drew a picture of it, drunk, and it looks very much like the studio I ended up building." Not actually a shed (that's a joke since he got a shed permit for it) Fixed Hinge is a 400 square foot building that looks a little like a Scandinavian sauna, with multi-coloured wood, an angled ceiling, and windows down the side.
It contains a multi-instrumentalist's array of tools, including a 1960s Rogers drum set, a 1930s Heintzman upright piano, lots of guitars ("good and junk"), various stringed instruments (Bryson plays banjo and mandolin, amongst other things), a collection of mini synths and Bryson's Critter & Guitari Pocket Piano. "Even my house is a very small space, so I can't have a lot of large things anywhere," Bryson explains. "I have a keyboard that I tour with, but other than that I have all these miniature keyboards."
Bryson learned piano and drums as a child, sax in high school and studied music at university. "The idea was I wanted to do film music, but I never got that far," says Bryson. Instead, he dropped out. "I just wanted to play really loud, scrappy music," he says.
He got his wish in the mid-'90s with Punchbuggy, playing 150 or 200 shows in two years, and contributing a handful of songs to the band's debut 1994 record All Nite Christian Rollerskate. "In punk there's a physical reaction," Bryson says of those years. "I liked that music, but it wasn't the only thing I wanted to do."
Bryson credits Lynn Miles, and Dave Balfour (who got him his first post-Punchbuggy gig), with encouraging his transition to being a singer-songwriter.
"That's the first time I ever played and people listened," Bryson says, of his first solo show in an Ottawa basement venue. "I felt an emotional reaction and it kind of was the moment I thought, maybe I can do this?"
An accidental sideman, Bryson has since alternated between his own songwriting career and "riding in the musical sidecar," as he puts it, playing and touring with Kathleen Edwards, the Weakerthans (with whom he also recorded 2010's The Falcon Lake Incident) and the Tragically Hip.
"I never considered myself — I still don't really consider myself — a gifted guitar player," he says, explaining he's more of an auxiliary player. "For me, the guitar is a melodic instrument, so when I would play with people I would play melodies. I was never good at the crazy guitar solos; my soloing was more inspired by Neil Young.
"But my rationale does not go hand in hand with the amount of times that people have asked me to come play said instrument that I've never 100 percent felt that I should have my name attached to."
On top of helping to inspire the studio, Bryson's work with Oh Susanna also paved the way for him to do a lot more production work. Before that, he'd produced Tanya Davis's Clocks and Hearts Keep Going (2010) and recorded some overdubs for Edwards' Voyageur (2012). Since then he's worked with Amanda Rheaume (production/some recording/mixing), produced and mixed songs for Skydiggers' 2013 Christmas EP, Angels, Megan Hamilton, Ken Yates and an Australian, Larissa Tandy. He credits his friend Dave Draves (who owns Little Bullhorn Studios in Ottawa) with supporting him while he was getting into recording. "He lent me bits of gear and promoted the whole concept of it," Bryson says.
Bryson uses Apple's Logic Pro X and interfaces made by Universal Audio, along with Hamilton's Catherine North Studios preamps, microphones, a LA-2A-style tube compressor, a rack unit of eight preamps made by engineer Phil Presnel (Skydiggers), along with gear made by bigger companies like Neumann and Neve. "I am also treated very well by HHB Canada, from whom I buy far too much stuff," he says.
Bryson doesn't have a sound board, just tons of outboard preamps and his computer. "It works well for me," he says. "I can record full bands if I need to, but I'm not a commercial studio."
Fixed Hinge is more of a work space than a studio — a place Bryson can work on his music and producing projects. "The idea of me having a space was really so I would make more music with other people, not less," Bryson says. "Cause I like going into other studios and working with people."
For Somewhere We Will Find Our Place, Bryson worked with producer Charles Spearin at four different studios: Whitfield's North of Princess, John Dinsmore's The Lincoln County Social Club in Toronto, Aaron Holmberg's The Bathouse, in Bath, Ontario and at Fixed Hinge (it was mixed by Shawn Everett [Alabama Shakes] remotely, after).
"For a while I didn't like playing my own music, and that's why I loved being a side person," Bryson says. "But now I don't want to be a side person anymore, because it doesn't engage me the same way."
Not that he's been in a huge hurry to get the new album out. "My joke is that I already had a career as a failed singer-songwriter, so I don't need to race back to that," Bryson quips. "Of course that's self-deprecating but the great thing about having a studio is it lets me do a whole bunch of things that feel interesting to me and I get to choose them; it's kind of the best of two worlds — two worlds that I'm really interested in."