Old Reliable entertain with their gritty party brand of country rock. Mark Davis tells us dramatic tales of fiction and personal experience via his double-disc release. And Shuyler Jansen? What sort of country crooning can we expect from his current solo work? From Jansen’s latest album, Today’s Remains, it’s clear that yet another facet of country music is being explored in all its gritty, teary nostalgia. Jansen’s astute and seasoned sound props up the entire album, specifically through the wall-of-sound effect that’s created by repetitive harmonies and proud instrumentals. “Today’s Remains” and “Windswept” are sophisticated, crisp and incisive, and couldn’t be performed in a nobler manner, while “Pegasus” is the record’s most prized accomplishment, epitomising Jansen’s storytelling skills within the track’s tragic lyrics. If you can picture Shuyler Jansen dressed in a suit and tie, a beaten banjo in one hand and his life’s dreams in another, transfer that into notes and chords and you’ve got Today’s Remains. This is a record that lives up to, and possibly surpasses, the previous discs released by Old Reliable, et al., although we should probably admit that Today’s Remains isn’t the last we’ll see of this prairie quintet.
Why did you record the album in the first place?
I’d been talking to Steve Dawson about doing a follow-up to Hobotron for more than a year. I would’ve liked to have put out a record quicker than I did — there were a couple of years between the two — but it was scheduling and having enough good songs to make it that held me back.
Mark Davis just released two CDs and now you’ve released a record. Are solo projects something the Old Reliable crew are aiming towards now rather than group projects?
Yeah, I think Old Reliable will always be making records but I doubt we’ll be much of a touring band. I’m sort of focused on my solo career as a full-time gig, and then we’re going to try to get together every couple of years and make a record, because we’re still good friends and like making music. It’s the touring logistics of Old Reliable that are more complicated, considering everybody’s involved in a bunch of other musical projects, jobs, journalism and all that kind of stuff.
One of the things I noticed with Today’s Remains is the full-bodied instrumental accompaniment. It’s almost like a wall of sound. Is this something you were consciously aiming for?
Steve Dawson produced the record, so a lot of it is his vision. This is actually one of the only records I’ve worked on where I haven’t been in control of the whole project, and I kind of wanted it that way. The record was sort of Steve’s baby. We recorded it in about five or six days together, then I went back home to Saskatoon and he finished it off in Vancouver. There was no conceptualising really before we did it. We talked a bit about records and labels we liked and stuff like that but he’s got a sound already established through the other 20 or 30 records he’s produced.
Why did you choose to hand over the reins to Dawson?
I’m a fan of the records he’s produced with other people. He works with a lot of unique musicians and people who are multi-instrumentalists. We did a little tour together about ten years ago and talked about [making a record] then, but mostly it was because I’m a fan of his and I’m on his label, which promotes a sort of family-type atmosphere. They’re trying to run the label the way that maybe Motown was, where you’ve got a house band that play on everybody’s record and everything gets done from home that way. It produces great records and as long as you’ve got good songs, it’s going to work.
How might Today’s Remains be a reflection of your life until now?
Some of the songs are a few years old and some are newer. I think mood-wise, it might have some consistency there, but I don’t know if the songs really reflect the past five or six years. It’s not really about personal things either — sometimes I like to write stories that are made up. Typically, because you’re a songwriter, people think it’s about your life but it isn’t; it’s just my imagination. When you write a lot of songs, they can’t all be about things in your life. I don’t think my life’s that exciting anyway. I don’t think Bob Dylan’s life was that exciting, either. But that’s the job of a good songwriter: to write something that has an emotional quality to it. It doesn’t really matter what it’s about or where it came from. It just has to be about something that’s real.
Near the end of “Pegasus,” the lyrics talk about a girl placing all her money on a horse. What sort of significance do these lyrics hold for you?
Oh, I don’t know! That song is one of those classic story songs. I’m a fan of listening to songs that are like that by Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Bob Dylan and Neil Young but I don’t know if “Pegasus” has any significance for me. It does for the girl, though. In the song, she gets to the point where she’s sort of giving up on everything and then she wins the money.
If “Pegasus” is more of a story song, which songs on the album relate to your life?
They’re all about different people and things, and there are aspects of me in those songs for sure. But I don’t want to pinpoint things because songs change night after night. I might write a song that I don’t relate to at all, and then a few years down the road I’m playing it and I know what it means. I’ve played “Pegasus” over the years with Old Reliable and stuff but a lot of other songs I haven’t played before. I haven’t really gone out there and experienced them on the stage yet.
- Amanda Ash