Too often we define ourselves in the context of and in comparison to others.
What would blank do? What would blank not do?
But it’s when we stop asking those questions, stop comparing and cease using those others as our guides that we truly define ourselves and find our own voice.
While he’s been making music for the past decade and a half and having great success at it, Fort Macleod roots artist John Wort Hannam thinks he finally discovered that and accomplished that with his latest album Love Lives On.
“I think I’ve stopped worrying about if what I’m doing is something my songwriting heroes would do. I certainly used to. I guess it goes with anything that you begin to do for the first time, I looked at people who I thought were successful at songwriting and began to mimic them,” the 47-year-old Hannam says, noting Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Fred Eaglesmith among those.
“I still listen to a lot of music and try to deconstruct songs and ask myself why they’re good, but I guess I’m at a point where I’m happy to write about things are important to me and in a manner in which, ‘This is what I do.’ Some people are going to like it and some people aren’t, but I have to be happy with it.”
Not surprisingly, Love Lives On is a defining moment in Hannam’s career — far and away his best collection of material and featuring warm, wonderful performances from the artist and what he calls a “great, little ensemble of players,” such as Russell Broom and members of Corb Lund’s band.
It was produced in the Lethbridge home studio of friend and sometime touring mate Leeroy Stagger, who Hannam credits with getting him further towards defining himself as an artist and finding his own voice.
“He said to me, ‘Nobody yet has captured your voice, I think, the way that you sound live.’ He said, ‘I know what that voice is supposed to sound like,’ ” Hannam says.
“I believe that and I trust Leeroy … I’m very comfortable around Leeroy. Probably more comfortable in his little home studio in his basement there than any studio I’ve been in. And I think that all played a role.”
It helped, too, that the recording process was spread out over a year, allowing the “songs to sit there, percolate and stew,” with Hannam getting them to where they needed to be, up to his standards of expression.
Actually, one of the album’s highlights, Man of God, was begun over six years ago and needed that final push to get it on the record. It’s a deeply moving, deeply emotional account of abuse in the Canadian residential school system, ironically, written in someone else’s voice.
“I didn’t know how to finish the song, and I also didn’t know if I was allowed to sing the song,” Hannam says.
“You have to be so careful of misappropriating a narrative that’s not yours or a history that’s not yours. I didn’t want to be the guy at the folk festival with the headdress on, that’s what it was. I didn’t want the song to be the soundtrack to that guy, so I sat on that song for a long time. And actually rewrote it in third person so I wasn’t saying, ‘I, me,’ and it just deflated the song, it took all of the impact out of the song.”
What changed his mind was the response from elders and others on the Blood reserve, where he used to teach before pursuing his musical career, when he sent it to them.
“Everybody said, ‘No, please, please sing that song,’ ” he says, noting that he also came to another realization about the subject when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was released.
“I don’t think it’s a native issue, I think it’s a Canadian issue, and I really wanted to try to speak to that. I guess that’s why I finally felt comfortable as a non-native person singing that song.”
Helping also was that he was able to connect with the song on a more personal and fundamental level — that as a parent being separated from their child.
It’s something he can now fully understand, having become a father three years ago. That, he says, indirectly inspired much of the songs on the album, which is, as the title suggests, full of heartfelt, heart-driven material. But to get to that point of love, Hannam admits he had to walk through a remarkably dark place.
“I think I can say I had a mental breakdown when my son was born. It sounds crazy coming out of my mouth now and if somebody had said to me during that time, ‘I think you’re having a mid-life crisis or you’re mentally ill right now,’ I would have said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m just going through a hard time,’ ” he says.
“But as much as I love my son, and thank god he’s here, it really threw me for a loop. I was not ready to try to figure out how to balance fatherhood and still try to build this little career of mine.”
Hannam says it created a great deal of tension in his marriage, with talk between the two actually turning to divorce. It was getting to the other side, coming to terms and appreciating what he had, being happy with who he is, that allowed him to fill Love Lives On with that sense of joy and, well, love.
“I feel like I’m back getting on my feet again,” he says.
“I’m loving being a dad, I’m loving being married, I’m loving being a musician … But there was a time there where I didn’t think we were going to make it, and then when I realized, ‘Oh, no, I can make this work, we can make this work,’ a lot of those songs came out.
He continues. “Going back to what I originally said, I really like love songs and ballads … And I so confined myself when I first started writing songs, because I would think to myself, ‘Oh, man, Fred Eaglesmith wouldn’t write this. I need to write about a Ford truck or something like that,’ because Fred has this great way of making a love song somehow with a Ford truck as the focus …
“I think those love songs are just like, ‘Shoot, I’m just going to write what I want to write.’ ”