Analogue Music | Charles Spearin

Charles Spearin

By Matt Conner

Unless he wanted to be kicked out of the group, Charles Spearin had 24 hours to make something—anything at all.

In the face of a global pandemic, an international group of artists found a way to push back against the clouds and confusion in order to find inspiration. The process required enforcing harsh parameters on each other—at least when it comes to linear time—to create something around a common theme within a 24-hour period.

For the first time in his professional career, Spearin found himself with full permission to write and record anything at all. The constraint was that he had a single day in which to do so. In response, Spearin, who is typically surrounded by several other musical friends in bands like Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene, leaned in and came out the other side with My City of Starlings, his first solo album in over a decade.

Spearin is uncertain how much he's grown in the last year or two but he acknowledges he's a changed man, an artist who has come through some sort of creative portal to an "other" side. It's the topic of our recent conversation with Spearin to hear more about his new album and how he leaped over these creative hurdles.

Analogue: I read about a song club that was instrumental to this whole album so I’d love to start there. Can you tell us more?

Charles: A lot of these songs come from this club that I was invited into with a group of musicians from around the world—some friends, some strangers—but all really inspirational people. We had this challenge where we’d write and record a song a day and send them in.

Every morning you’d have this playlist of brand new songs, and that forces everybody to get over inhibitions and doubts and go with whatever musical incants you had. I did that a few times and it was really helpful. You had this sense of urgency to cut through any kind of lingering ego. You have to get over yourself. It doesn’t have to be important, it just has to be done.

"When I had to package it and present it to the world, all of a sudden, I was presented with new self-doubts I hadn’t considered quite so much in band situations."

That was a good experience for me and a lot of these songs started as that. I ended up going back to work on them further, a lot of these ideas came from that song-a-day club.

Analogue: Had you worked with creative prompts to that level before?

Charles: To that extent for sure. I mean, working in bands, we’ll often do things like that like, ‘Let’s record three songs today.’ But as a personal challenge it was really fun to just be forced to spend a day in my garage with all these instruments and think, ‘Okay what am I going to do?’

I think every artist or musician has some kind of ego that gets in the way or self-doubt or critical thought. There’s something really inspiring and helpful about pushing through the cloud no matter how much you criticize yourself.

Analogue: By the way, the parameters sound very demanding to make a song a day. How long did that last?

Charles: Basically you had to write and record a song every day for a week straight, so every day for seven days. If you missed one, then you were kicked out. If you wanted to hear everyone else’s music, which of course you do, then you had to keep playing the game. You had to hand in something.

It could be anything. It could be a second long or I even did one that was a 54-minute loop. There were no limits. There was no definition of a song. All it was was that you had 24 hours to create something to share with people. It was a fun project.

Analogue: You said something earlier like it didn’t have to be important, it just had to be done. I wanted to go back to that because that felt to me like an important realization. Do you feel like you’re a different artist on this side of the pandemic?

Charles: [Pause] Maybe I do. That’s a good question. I haven’t thought of it that way. I do feel that I have grown as a musician in this time. I’ve done a lot more practicing for one thing. I’ve had time so I’ve played drums a lot more, played trumpet a lot more, played piano a lot more. I feel like I’m developing as a performer, but at the same time, having to do projects where I have to mix all the pieces together and play most of them myself made me look at music in a different way—a little bit more spontaneous.

This album is only the tip of the iceberg. I made three or four albums worth of music over this time. Then these songs sort of fit together nicely and have a continuity to them. I asked some friends for advice. I sent them all of the music and asked, ‘What do I do with this?’

Owen Pallett was extremely helpful. He went through all of it and said what was good and what was bad and gave me an order. He was very helpful and found 45 minutes of music that flowed nicely. I basically went with this order. I changed a couple things, but it was helpful to have that objective take. I really admire Owen for everything he does, so it was nice to have some confidence in his decision-making.

As far as growth as a musician. I think we’re always changing. I don’t know if growth is the right word, but no one can go through a pandemic without being changed.

"When you’re working with a group of people, it sort of mitigates the anxiety because you’re a part of something."

Analogue: How vulnerable did that feel to offer that up to others? Or does band life prepare you for those creative exchanges?

Charles: Band life helps, but when you’re working with a group of people, it sort of mitigates the anxiety because you’re a part of something. When it’s all my own music and I’m sharing with people, I was confronted with a lot of self-doubt and anxiety that I was surprised at. I felt this album was more of a reflection of me as a person or my personality. Then when I start to think about that, I think, ‘What kind of person am I? Am I going to include all of my emotions and feelings and doubts in the music?' That’s not really fair and it is separate from your mind. It’s a product of the mind, but it’s not the same.

So I had a lot of struggles with ego, I guess, in the final throes that I didn’t feel when I was making it. When I had to package it and present it to the world, all of a sudden, I was presented with new self-doubts I hadn’t considered quite so much in band situations.

Analogue: These self-doubts… how does what we’re talking about come into play when an artist like Jared Sales is moved by the music and is making some music videos for you? I’m sure that helps.

Charles: Of course. Basically anytime someone I respect says anything nice about my music, I’m relieved a little bit. [Laughs] I sent my album to Jared and he’s sending me essentially a glowing review and that he’s inspired by a lot of the music. That was really helpful and took away some of the doubts I had. Then of course his visions and ideas have been just spectacular.

My City of Starlings
My City of Starlings

Jared has done two videos now for my music. One was “Unsolicited Advice,” which we released for Mental Health Month, and then he did another one that’s a 12-hour loop of a video for the single [“Portrait of an Artists as a Thursday”]. I just like the way his mind works. He’s a meditator and has studied zen meditation for a long time and I’ve been a Zen Buddhist for a long time as well. So it was a coincidence that we’d both had a lot of meditation so we agreed with some of our views on music and life.

Analogue: As post-pandemic demands pick back up, are you giving any thought on navigating solo music with band life?

Charles: Yeah, I do. I think about what’s going to be band music and the future of Do Make Say Thank and Broken Social Scene and what the plans might be for solo projects. For the most part, I’ve come to more of a relaxed approach to making music after doing all of this. I almost feel I’m an artist with a garage full of canvases, and I just come in here and work. There’s no real pressure to make it public or do anything spectacular with it.

;Whether it just shows in the pop-up art fair in the church parking lot or whether I have an agent share my art, I just feel at home and comfortable making music for the sake of the music and not necessarily worrying about how it’s released and presented. Digital music is easy to just put online and let it be there, so it’s only as complicated as I choose to make it.

Analogue: That sounds like a healthy headspace.

Charles: Well it comes and goes. [Laughs] Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing and others times I know exactly what I’m doing. I can be in a good headspace one day and a terrible one the next day. It seems to be the tides of the mind.

ViSIT: Charles Spearin