Patrick Watson: Perfectionist's Pursuit

Music Features Patrick Watson
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Last November, I visited Patrick Watson’s second-story recording space off of Boulevard Saint-Laurent during a trip to Montreal, Quebec. From the moment I entered this cozy space, the Canadian singer/songwriter and his bandmates seemed right at home in the place where they crafted their latest album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard. The converted loft is adjacent to his home—both located on the second floor of a building in the heart of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal.

“I just had another kid,” Watson mentions. “So it’s handy to have a studio…on the other side of my house. You know, you like change the diapers and you come back to record. So I mean that aspect, I think it was kind of a necessity.”

Patrick Watson doesn’t have a backyard in the traditional sense, but the birthplace of his latest record acted as his urban sanctuary. It allowed the Polaris Prize winner enough time to become satisfied with his album while capturing a musical spontaneity that doesn’t always exist in a traditional studio.

“We kind of had like the same setup for the whole year in the studio so it’s easy to come in and out and just press record and know something was going to happen,” Watson explains. “So it was to kind of nice to try and capture raw moments and not like studio moments.”

“The big difference is like if you record a part and it doesn’t work, it’s very easy to re-record it and have the time and not the pressure to get the right arrangements and stuff you know,” he continues. “’Easter’ and ‘Noisy Sunday,’ where we weren’t even supposed to record that day and we were just like doing a demo test and songs got this beautiful take. You know, those are the types of moments that never happen in the studio.”

Watson’s ability to record at will was vital in making Adventures. An admitted perfectionist, he struggles to finish his songs, waiting months or years until the finishing touches reveal themselves. For instance, Watson waited seven years until he fully fleshed out his complete musical vision for “Big Bird in a Small Cage,” one of the standouts off his 2009 record Wooden Arms. This process has always frustrated him, but it’s an integral component to his songwriting.

On Adventures, this painstaking process continued with several tracks. Watson originally wrote a “heavy-handed” version of “Blackwind” for his 2006 Polaris-winning album, Close to Paradise. His earlier takes didn’t come to fruition, so he waited until this record to rework the track into something “lighter” and “bouncier.” For “Lighthouse,” his album’s breathtaking opener, Watson also struggled to complete the song, meticulously working to find the perfect lyrics.

“I had all the words and I had this amazing take, except for three fucking words in the second verse and I just couldn’t get them.” Watson explains, “So that means I had to start the whole fucking take over when I had this perfect take when I initially wrote it and it was just missing three words. It took me something like four or five months to find the goddamn words.”

“I don’t like making compromises when it comes to, you know, something that you really love,” he continues, “you work hard on [it] and I don’t like mediocre kind of moments. I really try to make every moment as good as every other moment in the song.”

As Watson and his core cast of supporting musicians—Simon Angell (guitar), Robbie Kuster (drums) and Mishka Stein (bass)—followed up a brilliant stretch of musicianship over those past two records, they refused to rest on the laurels of their award-winning artistry. On Close to Paradise and Wooden Arms, Watson and company became known for their intricate orchestral compositions and creative, eclectic instrumentation. For Adventures, however, they opted to keep things simpler in order to better serve the songs.

“We’ve always been a band that’s really been well-known for like having crazy arrangements and kind of interesting instrumentation,” Watson says. “We still use a lot of different instruments on this record, but it’s like the seams are hidden. It’s well sewn together in a way that you don’t notice, I mean that’s a big strength because a lot of the other albums we do, people notice all those different influences and it’s like they see all the seams, you know? I feel like this record is really kind of really graceful in a way that all of the influences are kind of really well sewn together that you don’t even notice.”

For a musician who has found past success through complex orchestration, keeping things simple wasn’t the most intuitive path. Watson’s determination to improve as a composer, however, remains one of his most distinguishing traits. But by scaling back, he’s cohesively refining his past compositional tendencies, no longer finding his work overshadowed by his own experimentalism.

He’s also writing increasingly poignant lyrics that complement his more direct songwriting approach. “Into Giants” reflects on a growing solidarity developed in the close relationships within his life, while he wrote “Words in the Fire” about a campfire party the group attended while on tour in Northern Quebec.

Watson’s largest stride as a songwriter comes on “The Quiet Crowd”—a song I first heard him and his band perform in their studio loft. Watson wrote the song for “the kind of quiet people that get lost in all the loud voices.” It’s a subtly stunning track that slowly builds over four minutes into an evocative flourish.

“I always use the example of you know like when you get on an elevator and it’s like dead quiet and there’s like 10 people not saying anything but you can hear the back of the brains going crazy,” he says about the song. “It’s just kind of a dedication to those, you know I feel like a lot of people are lost without a voice and it’s kind of you know this landscape of whoever we are right now. And I don’t necessarily feel like the right people have the mic.”

We discussed “The Quiet Crowd” at length, delving into the nature of your average talking head and other types of loud figures forcing their opinions onto the world. In hearing him talk about this song, I got the sense that it’s not only an observation about the world around him, but also a song based on his own experiences as part of that crowd. He’s not the kind of guy that would share his political opinions unless you asked him, nor would he outwardly share them in a song.

“I don’t really want to write songs that tell people what I think, you know,” he says, “I write songs about what I think about.”

In our conversation, he contends that this kind of creative process wasn’t much different than his past recording experiences in a traditional studio. I’m inclined to disagree with him on that point, though, as the recording space one story above Boulevard Saint-Laurent seems to have a profound impact in the way he composes, writes lyrics and sings throughout this album.

For someone constantly in pursuit of perfection within his work, there’s something transcendent about the directness of these songs. It might just be the continued progression of a talented composer, but it’s more likely the direct results of Watson’s adventures in his own backyard.

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