By Sebastian Buzzalino
CALGARY — Clinton St. John is a modern-day renaissance artist. The lush alt-roots artist moves between artistic disciplines with ease, often releasing marathon multimedia projects that traverse the spectrum of emotion, each particular medium — traditional storytelling, visual art and recorded music — bringing its own bodily force to bear on the project. His last release, Storied Hearts and the Three Assimilations, included an illustrated book to accompany the album, all of which was created by St. John in his own vision. His upcoming album, The Minor Arkhana, produced by Chad VanGaalen and set for release on September 12th at Festival Hall, explores an intimate world of haunting, beautiful emotional experiments.
BeatRoute: Haunting beauty is the central aesthetic to The Minor Arkhana. What were some of your inspirations for fleshing out how this aesthetic would sound? In your mind, before starting the project, how did you conceive of the aesthetic? How did this notion change throughout writing and recording the project?
Clinton St. John: This album was the follow-up to the 30-page illustrated book and album, Storied Hearts and the Three Assimilations, which took two-and-a-half years to make, including the artwork, recording, and production. So, I wanted this album to come together quicker. Initially, I was going to record it live off the floor at Electrical Audio in Chicago, but getting the timing right with Jesse Zubot and Steve Albini was proving tricky as they are both so damn busy. So, when I was on the way to a friends 40th birthday party and Chad suggested I record the album with him, we talked about it and it was a pretty easy sell for me.
BR: Your press release mentions that this is your most accomplished work to date. What kinds of milestones were important for you to hit with the record? How do you feel you have evolved throughout as an artist?
CSJ: The press release wasn’t penned by me, so I can’t say I feel it is my most accomplished work entirely. The illustrated book I’m very proud of and The Cape May record, Glass Mountain Roads, stands out as well. But, I am really stoked about The Minor Arkhana. After the endurance test of making Storied Hearts, it was nice to see an album come together quickly: the sessions were short, as it would take about four to six hours typically to track a song. I wasn’t thinking of any milestones, just wanting to make a good record and document some songs, which had piled up. Every record is a different process and, though my evolution seems slower now, there is a growth still occurring, I think. Things seemed to change radically and all the time when I was younger, but have gotten steadier to the point where it feels like I’m honing the craft more than trying to figure out who I am and what I want to do.
BR: Tell me about having Chad VanGaalen produce the album. How did you two connect? What did he bring to the project that you would have otherwise perhaps not included?
CSJ: I’ve known Chad for almost 20 years and the last time we tried to record one of my songs was when he was living with his mom. Nothing ever came of that session, so it was nice that we redeemed ourselves with this album.
I wasn’t sure, going into the recording, how extensively Chad would be producing, but, from the first day, he really asserted himself on the songs. Having spent lots of time in different studios but never working with a producer, it was refreshing to see the songs taken in a different direction and come together so nicely with little or no neurosis on my part.
The approach varied from song to song but, basically, he would fire up his amazing old Tascam reel-to-reel and we would record my vocals and guitar and then he would work his magic. If I felt it need an extra texture or melody after he had given the song his treatment, we would experiment until everybody was happy. The eight tracks on the reel-to-reel kept us honest, in a way: we didn’t want to go beyond that if the song didn’t need it and, for most of this album, the minimalistic approach was working. Sometimes, adding more made the songs sound less powerful. On the song, “Tired Eyes They Argue,” the really awesome shaker sound is actually Chad playing his beard. The final track, “Boat On Fire,” is quite different from the rest of the material: it has a pulverized drum loop and we had a lot of raw material to work with — Jesse and Chad had layered it with synth, so there were a lot of decisions to make and it was tricky to find the balance and keep it interesting over the six minutes of the song. We had been going in circles for a little while one day and then we cut out a verse and dropped the drums out for a section. When we came back to listen to it, we all cheered and high-fived.
BR: You’re known both for your music and your visual art. How does each discipline inform the other? Do you approach each discipline from different philosophical places, or are they manifestations of the same aesthetic?
CSJ: I guess going back a few years is the best way to answer this thoroughly: after touring extensively I became burned out on making music and dealing with the business side, as well. It took me a while to realize this and I was still going through the motions, like Wile E. Coyote still running in mid-air after the ground beneath him has disappeared. Then, I stopped making music for about a year and, in that time, I was pretty much drawing, painting and riding my bike. I started illustrating some short stories I had written and that slowly morphed into the Storied Hearts project. I would draw the picture first and that would inform the music and lyrics.
I think the philosophy for both is the same but I just have different tool chests for each process. I feel like I have the most clarity when I’m doing both even if they aren’t intertwined conceptually. My drawings tend to be very detailed and I think searching out all the little creases and veins in the world helps when I’m writing new music.
BR: What are some of the most visual moments on the record? Do you bring in any surreal touches to the music?
CSJ: “Noise On The Pond” has some really interesting visions attached to it. I’ve considered illustrating it, but decided not to. Although I will combine the two mediums in the future, I think it’s also nice to let the audience have their own interpretation and visions when listening to the music. I feel like a lot of the strings on the album help give a surreal and dream-like quality to the music.
BR: You worked closely with Jesse Zubot on this album. What was it like collaborating with him? Was there anything in particular you wanted to achieve working with him?
CSJ: I wanted to work with Jesse after seeing him conduct a workshop at the Calgary Folk Festival. He was playing one afternoon with Melvin Gibbs Elevated Entity, Marco Caliari and Mark Berube. The way he effortlessly moved from song to song amidst really different styles was very impressive to me. I didn’t know exactly how his playing would impact the songs, but I thought he was such a great player that it would work no matter what.
Collaborating with Jesse was great. He has a very different approach and aesthetic to Chad and I felt like his contributions were a nice counterpoint. One song on the album, “Woollen Path,” was recorded in the attic of my old house. I tracked my parts and then Jesse spent a couple days working on string arrangements. Then, we took it to Chad and he added a few touches. It has a really different feel to the other songs and is one of my favourites off the album.
Clinton St. John will release his latest, The Minor Arkhana, on September 12th at Festival Hall.AB, Alberta, Clinton St. John, Festival Hall, The Minor Arkhana