Musicscan: Charles, first of all, congratulations to the album. It has been one of the few memorable and utterly pleasant musical surprises in the last weeks. Please tell me a little bit about how this project developed and came to fruition. What were some of the most remarkable moments in that process for you personally?
Charles Spearin: Thank you. Basically, the project started as an honest experiment without any expectations. I was not looking to make a record, nor was I imagining it as a live performance. I just wanted to see if I could make songs out of the accidental melodies of people’s speech. But the more I worked on it, the more exciting it became, partly because the speech-melodies were so workable and musical, and partly because what my neighbours were saying was so warm and poignant. It was then my friends who encouraged me to release it.
Musicscan: Your music, not only with this project, but also with Do Make Say Think or Broken Social Scene has a strong communal aspect to it. Do you think a sense of community is increasingly lacking in our society these days? What role does music play in constituting community?
Charles Spearin: Community is our mirror. If we do not relate to the people around us we become delusional and solipsistic. It’s one thing to relate to our friends, we choose them because we feel comfortable with them. It’s another thing to relate to our community where we often have to work a little harder to find common ground. Yes, generally I think a sense of community is lacking in the western world. Many people end up being marginalized or accidentally ostracized because there has not been the effort to find out what we have in common. Common is the root word of communication and community after all. Music has a great power to bring people together and it speaks to us on a much more meaningful level then ordinary conversation often allows. The way people relate to a minor chord versus a major chord is almost universal. It connects us in an obvious way. But because it is so powerful people often try to own it and include it in their identity. We dress like our favourite bands, we close our minds to whole genres of music and dismiss it in a very prejudicial way all the time. So it’s a double edged sword.
Musicscan: How has the fact of your father being blind influenced the way you perceive music?
Charles Spearin: It’s hard to say exactly. When I’m with my father I often find myself listening a little harder to what’s around us. He says that there is very little sense of space in blindness. For example when someone comes in the room, you see them, they walk toward you, and then they say: “hello”. Without sight all you get is the “hello”. So my father find he reconnects to that lost sense of space sometimes by listening to the sound of wind in the trees. So I listen with him.
Musicscan: The Happiness Project seems to play with blurring the boundaries between life and art, but also between sound and semantics to a certain degree. Does sound have a semantic dimension? If yes, how might it be constituted?
Charles Spearin: Well, I think that’s a question for a linguist. I don’t really know what you mean but sound definitely includes semantics. How we assign meaning to certain sounds is amazing, and the level of sophistication at which we assign these meanings is even more amazing. It’s great to be a human isn’t it?
Musicscan: Do you think that your music would sound differently if you lived in a different city? In how far does the cultural, social and also aural soundscape of Toronto influence your work?
Charles Spearin: Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods. I can walk to Little Korea, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Portuguese area, the West Indian area and more all from my house. When I don’t understand the language I can still hear the song of the language. I don’t know that very many cities have quite the same variety of cultures as Toronto and so I don’t know if I would have noticed the sing-song qualities of speech as much had I lived in a more mono-cultural city.
Musicscan: Were you aware of existing works that try to incorporate and work with instrumentation and spoken, oral communication? Do you see any similarity in the approaches of Steve Reich, John Cage or Scott Johnsons, for instance, with what you did?
Charles Spearin: I had not heard Scott Johnsons work until reviews started to come in after the release of the album but I was familiar with John Cage (I still have not heard anything too similar to the Happiness Project by him) and am quite a fan of Steve Reich. Reich’s album “Different Trains” was very inspiring. I had thought of speech as being musical and wondered if the intervals we used in conversation could be approximated on different instruments and turned into songs but it was not until I heard that album did I begin to see the full possibilities.
Musicscan: Although, your songs are based on somewhat arbitrary speech samples, they are still clearly songs and adhere to a song format. What makes for the perfect song in your opinion? Have you ever achieved something like a perfect song in your opinion? How would you define a perfect song?
Charles Spearin: An Irish proverb: What is the most beautiful music in the world? The music of what happens.
Musicscan: Is it necessary to create a certain distance between you and the music in order to get a better understanding of its inherent quality? When do you know a song is finished? Do you also rely on outside opinions?
Charles Spearin: It is important to lose a bit of familiarity with the music and listen with fresh ears from time to time. Outside opinions help in this way. One of the most helpful steps toward completing an album I find is to play it to people I admire and pay close attention to the moments where I feel anxious. When I can play it beginning to end to a good friend, without being overly self -conscious, then I’m close to finished. Regardless of what they say.
Musicscan: What is the difference between art and entertainment in your opinion?
Charles Spearin: Art is enlightening. Entertainment is distracting.
Musicscan: As far as I know you’re a practicing Buddhist. What role does happiness play in Buddhist thought and what role does music play for your personal happiness?
Charles Spearin: Several Years ago, a Tibetan Lama came to Toronto and gave a hilarious talk about looking for happiness. He said that looking for happiness is like looking for a lost yak. You wake up in the morning and you go outside and your yak is gone. You look everywhere, across the fields, over the mountains, you search and you search. Since it’s a metaphor, you could look for your yak (which is happiness) snorkelling off the coast of Australia, at a crowded rock concert or even at a monastery - where yaks appear to congregate regularly. But you have no luck. Exhausted, you return home broken-hearted. And there, in your very own barn, is your beautiful, beloved yak. And when you see your yak….It’s so emotional. The point was, of course, that you already have everything you need to be happy. For a long time I thought music was my yak. Now I just write songs about my yak.
Musicscan: What role did the element of chance play on this album and how does that perhaps also relate to Buddhist thinking?
Charles Spearin: There was a lot of trust in the making of this album. I did not write a single note that was not inspired by the voices in the interviews. I carefully listened for naturally occurring rhythms and keys worked with them only. I suppose that could relate to Buddhism in that Buddhism teaches you to trust that there is some wisdom in every situation. Even confusion is an expression of wisdom.
Musicscan: What were some of the responses of the people featured on the Happiness project? How did the people react to the project when they heard how you transformed your conversations into something quite different?
Charles Spearin: Most of them liked it but did not fully understand until seeing it performed live. Then they got it.
Musicscan: Has your outlook on life and music in particular changed since you became a father? How do you juggle life as a touring musician and being a daddy?
Charles Spearin: That’s three questions isn’t it?! I guess my outlook on life has changed in that I can’t just say: “the world is fucked!” and shake my head anymore. I have a reason to try and help. My outlook on music hasn’t changed much as far as I can tell. I still want to make meaningful music, and that’s what I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I juggle my life pretty well. When I’m not on tour I spend a lot of time with my daughters and I know them very well. When I’m away I miss them of course, but I’m not usually gone for more then 3 weeks at a time.
Musicscan: What can we expect from you in the near future? Any tours, collaborations, new projects?
Charles Spearin: Do Make Say Think has a record coming out in the fall and tour to follow. Broken Social Scene is recording. The Happiness Project will be touring a scaled-down version soon and a full-band version hopefully next year. But you never know.