Doug Paisley :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

We caught up with Doug Paisley on a foggy January night at his home in Toronto. His new album Say What You Like, out March 17th on Outside Music, was recorded over the past few years, with selections pulled from his huge trove of songs in progress. “For me it’s all about recording these little ideas and then they just keep coming back,” Paisley said. “And there’s a question in them and then the answer is somewhere way down the road.”

Paisley was describing his songwriting process, but that same searching typifies the songs themselves – characters look back on trouble or survey future sadness, but find no easy answers as they piece things together. In a verse from the title track, we find two exes meeting on the street long after a relationship is over, a straightforward enough scenario, but Paisley complicates it when revealing that this is “a scene I may have dreamed long ago / when you were mine…”

Getting together, breaking up, looking back, deciding to try it again, failing again, looking back again – “it’s the same old story in each new catastrophe,” he admits on “Rewrite History” – it is all grist for the sad country song mill. Paisley’s been a perceptive writer from his self-titled 2008 debut album onward and he continues to illuminate that ambiguous space that is often avoided in the she-did-me-wrong/I-did-her-wrong binary of country songwriting. This is his fifth full-length, with a few singles and EPs scattered in over the years as well, and there’s not a dud in the entire batch. Some of the songs on this collection stand among his very best, and the thoughtful, crisp production by Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas) provides a great sonic counterpoint to the uncertainty expressed in the lyrics.

Paisley returns again and again to failure, and in particular the failure to exert the effort needed to preserve a relationship. “Almost reached the top of the mountain / almost sailed across the sea / almost was somebody to someone / who loved me,” he sings on the wistful “Almost.”  Many a great country song has been written from the muddy wallows of self-pity, but Paisley descends from the line of songwriters who keep out of the muck. The protagonists of these songs are reflective enough and honest enough to identify their failings and accept their share of the blame. Their regret comes not only from the demise of a relationship, but from their acknowledged inability to do what was necessary to save it. | w furgeson

Aquarium Drunkard: I was looking at the liner notes, and the songs were mostly recorded in 2020, with some additional recording last year, one recorded in 2016 and a couple in 2018 – I hate the idea of a “pandemic album” but was there an unplanned pandemic break in there?

Doug Paisley: We actually recorded the album in the last week you would have considered doing that. There was stuff happening, but not really something that people were thinking about in Toronto. And then I think it was the week after that that people didn’t go outside. It was kind of remarkable. Things crystallize around big events like that so they can seem more remarkable than they were at the time. I do have a tendency to sit on stuff so I may not have noticed, although that was a pretty significant time gap. It’s not so unusual from previous albums but certainly it intervened, maybe psychologically more than logistically.

AD: Was that additional recording last year cleaning up odds and ends? Or did you rethink some of the material?

Doug Paisley: It was pretty remarkably done when we when we walked out of there. I’ve always been able to work that way. Maybe more out of circumstances than any kind of a creative choice but with past projects, I’ve had a similar thing. With this one I think we were less than a week in the studio, and when we left it was pretty much done. I might even say it was so done that it was kind of hard to acknowledge the little bit that needed to be done if that makes sense. You know, I think in my mind I was already like totally working on something else and Afie [Jurvanen], who was such a great counterpoint to how I work, was like, come on man you gotta go and do this. So he and a few other people helped with that last little bit. But I really like to sit on something for quite a long time after it’s done. I’ve always found it really strange because it doesn’t actually have any function in terms of what you’re making, but it’s still kind of a process for me, it’s almost like aging the Tabasco sauce or aging the whiskey. I don’t know, there’s just a point where it’s mine and nobody else’s. But then there’s a point when it’s mine and maybe one or two other peoples’, and I certainly got a lot of that on this one.

AD: I read that these songs were selected from a couple hundred unreleased songs that you’d written over the years. How does that selection process work? How do you know when it’s time for a new record? And how do you decide that these are the songs that you’re ready to revisit?

Doug Paisley: I do have many, many, many songs that I’m working on and I’m working on them all the time. Not each one all the time, but they’re always going around and it’s always been like that for me. It’s strange because it’s almost at the point now where, if I have an idea and I like it, I’m a little skeptical about actually capturing it because I know that it’s gonna haunt me or bug me. And in many cases it’s gonna go unfinished. Sometimes I’ll get together with an old friend and it’s like when someone tells you a story they’ve already told, you know, like I’ll play them a song I’m working on and they’ll be like yeah, you played me that song when you were working on it five years ago…

AD: That’s hilarious.

Doug Paisley: I heard this thing with Tom Waits once, he talks about driving and an idea came into his head and he said he kind of talked to the idea, and he’s like, are you gonna stick around until I get home? Everyone has a weird relationship or approach to it. But for me it’s all about recording these little ideas and then they just keep coming back. And there’s a question in them and then the answer is somewhere way down the road. And a lot of songs go that way for me.  And then there’s ones that are like ten years old and there are ones that are like ten days old and the newer ones often seem more urgent. It’s basically my life is like this really big… I don’t know, you can’t really call it a body of work because it’s not done, you know?

AD: A slowly developing body of work. Are you committed to a daily writing practice or is it just when an idea strikes?

Doug Paisley: I’m not committed to it. Although I have been trying in the last six months or so to get a little bit more of a process. I think maybe it’s like some people when they check their stock portfolios, like I go into my voice memos and I say, oh you know, December was a good month! And you hear about people like Robert Hunter writing three of the Grateful Dead’s biggest songs in the park one afternoon. There are moments like that but I don’t have a regimen for it or anything. I’m just following the whim but I’m always playing guitar and it usually comes out of guitar playing. So I guess I’m always kind of trying to be ready.

AD: I think Willie Nelson once said that it’s like he’s pulling them out of the air, it’s like he’s just gotta be ready for it and if the song happens to be close by he just grabs it.

Doug Paisley: I mean there’s Grieg or some composer who says I don’t write them, I write them down, you know? Like that idea of the inspiration. But I guess the other point that Willie Nelson is referring to is that you have to be in the position to be able to pull them out of the air.

AD: Exactly.

Doug Paisley: Like if you ever watch a movie about how people hunt for seals in the hole in the ice, you just have to sit there with your face in a hole in the ice for days on end. I’ve always thought about it like panning for gold. We often associate people that do that, they’re kind of rubby, which is kind of what unsuccessful or moderately successful songwriters are like. And you’re in this environment that a lot of people would find questionable. And maybe out of a certain kind of madness or maybe it’s just some sort of greed. But you’re in this kind of weird place looking for gold.

AD: My vinyl version of [Paisley’s 2018 album] Starter Home came with an extra 45 that had a completely different version of the title track. And then I noticed on this album – “Wide Open Plain” was on your first album but has been totally reimagined here. When you’re writing a song, do you usually have a sense of how you want it to sound on the record or is that something that you’re discovering in the studio with the musicians that you’ve gathered?

Doug Paisley: By the time you’re actually playing I’d say it’s much more of a discovery. This is the first time I worked with a producer in the traditional sense of the word. So someone else may have an idea or it may be what we’re feeling at the moment. You’re choosing who you work with and the environment and then you see what you get. I listen to a lot of music but I don’t have a lot of great language for music in a technical sense. So I don’t give people a lot of direction.

When I did the album Strong Feelings I worked with Emmett Kelly and it was great because he had all kinds of ideas and he gave them to the other musicians. And also he was an American, and I think Canadians maybe just aren’t as inclined to say to the bass player, “Hey, why don’t you do this instead?” I think it’s a cultural thing. So this one and that album are the two times when there has been someone else’s oversight.

With “Wide Open Plain” that song is kind of a mystery to me. I love that song and I worked on it a lot but I it feels like one of those out-of-the-air songs. I was on tour with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and we played this place called The Smell in LA. It’s quite a place. And not to complain because it was that kind of venue but the backstage was like a little corner and there was like a mop bucket. There wasn’t even a chair. And I remember coming up with part of that song there, and then finishing at home.  And really feeling like it came from somewhere else and it wasn’t really mine and that’s really how I got it down on the first album. But I think over time I realized it’s actually a really fun tune to play and a really fun one to play with a band. And that’s how this version came about. The changes move in what for me is an uncharacteristic way, and it’s fun to play.

AD: How did you end up with Afie Jurvanen as the producer?

Doug Paisley: He played on Constant Companion so that’s like twelve or thirteen years ago when we made that. So I’ve known him for a long time and we’ve been friends for even longer than that. He’s definitely one of the people that I would always go to with songs, once I thought they were done. In fact I always thought “Starter Home” was kind of a joke song, you know? And one time I was at his place and I just played it for him, kind of hoping to crack him up or something and he was like that’s a really good song. And he’s someone I really respect. So once he said that I was like oh, this is a really good song. So he’s been in that role actually playing on a number of these albums and also kind of overseeing them as a friend. I’m like a self-doubter and a waffler and an idler, that’s just who I am, and he’s the opposite and I think his career really reflects that. In the case of this album he was like, come on, man, I’ll get the band, I’ll get the studio, and you just show up. I’m the kind of guy that would just sit at home at my kitchen table for another five years if it weren’t for him.

AD: There’s some crossover from the last album but also some new players. It sounds like he gathered up the players, or found mutual friends that you have that got together for the recording?

Doug Paisley: Yeah, mutual friends, but in most cases people that play with him in Bahamas and in some cases have been touring with him nonstop for like two or more years. So just like a ready-made band, incredible musicians and they respect him and they’re used to translating his ideas. And they have such a telepathy. There was a lot of stuff that I didn’t even realize was happening until I heard it played back, you know, and then I kind of vaguely remembered, oh yeah, they did that guitar part together or he had that idea. So he was like an angel for me, he set this whole thing up. And those musicians are incredible, so they can jump on anything, but I really felt like they knew the tunes, and again I think that was his preparation and his contribution.

AD: It is interesting to hear you say that about “Starter Home” as a joke song.  It always struck me as a little bit of an outlier in your catalog because you have this conceit that you pull all the way through the song. It’s a different way to write, like an old Nashville way to write a song.

Doug Paisley: I always think of it a being similar to “Golden Ring,” it’s almost like that Tolkien thing where there’s something that’s nice, but then maybe the ring was evil and it caused their divorce and the house sort of becomes like a trap or it becomes maybe the cause of their problems. I mean, I don’t know why I thought it was a joke because it’s a pretty sad song. But I guess if you can work lightheartedly, which maybe is the joking part, then that’s a good way to work.

AD: One thing that struck me when I was listening to the album, in particular, “Wide Open Plain” and certainly “Make It A Double” and “Old Hometown” as well, the sound on those is a little different than what we’ve been used to hearing on a Doug Paisley album. They sound like early 80’s country radio hits. That bright production. Was that Afie or was that a particular sound that you had in mind going into recording?

Doug Paisley: If I had to speculate, I guess I would say that I don’t think of myself as a country artist, you know? And these things have all evolved. But I think it’s got to do with some sort of origin or authenticity. I’ve always been so deeply into country music but for me it’s kind of subsumed, like I just don’t even hear songs as country songs. It’s like you’re wearing clown shoes and everyone’s like, what’s with the shoes? Maybe for some of these players or for Afie, it’s more obvious to them that I am so oriented toward that or focused on that, and I don’t think it’s like a facile interpretation of what I’m doing at all. I think it’s more like, hey, you do this and you’re really into it, so you should really try and make it. So I would say it was coming from them and maybe it was coming from them saying something about me that I just don’t ever really see or perpetuate about myself.  I listen to so much Don Williams and so much George Jones and I love Keith Whitley, I love all these people.  It would never occur to me to try and make those [Don Williams’ producer] Garth Fundis type recordings, or like those [George Jones’ producer] Billy Sherrill things, but I do love it, so I think maybe that’s a bit of a gift and a bit of a push from Afie and the band. It’s like, go for it, you wrote this song called “Make It A Double,” you’re not gonna play it on a zither. You might as well do the best that West End Toronto can do with this kind of country song.

AD: Funny you mention Don Williams, your music has always reminded me so much of his.

Doug Paisley: Yeah, I mean I love Don Williams, if you’re hearing that, that’s like a huge compliment. That Garth Fundis sound, to me it’s just untouchable.  And I’ve done what I thought was approaching it, but I think it’s incredible on so many levels. I was just talking about this the other day, it’s this triumvirate of Don Williams and Garth Fundis and Bob McDill.  I mean the Don Williams stuff with Jack Clement is awesome – I think “Fly Away” is one of my favorite tunes. But the three of them, it’s just incredible. I don’t want to corny about it, but that’s a high-water mark that I would be quite content to spend my whole life looking up at.  The players and the studio that they’re in, and ­his voice is beautiful, he’s also got like at least an octave on me, just so much great stuff there. That song, “It Only Rains On Me” is one of my favorite songs, but the groove that they get is just so incredible. The artwork on his album Expressions is the tracking sheets.  And when I’m trying to sell people on Don Williams, I’m like listen to this tune and then look at that tracking sheet and there’s like fifteen instruments on this tune, but as far as you can tell, you can’t really hear any of it. And there’s a great Don Williams quote. I’m sure I’m not gonna get it right. But he says, I know my band is playing right when I can’t hear them.

AD: Oh wow, I never heard that.

Doug Paisley: I think that’s what he says, it’s definitely along those lines but I just love that. So yeah, that’s something I really aspire to.

AD: I’ve been struck by the by the videos that have come out so far. “Say What You Like” looks like it was recorded on some dark sound stage with the players illuminated as the song goes on and them there was the one that came out last week for “Sometimes It’s So Easy” with you riding the bike with no hands while playing guitar. Are these concept that that you’re coming up with or are there directors approaching you and saying here’s the funny idea I had for a video?

Doug Paisley: No, it’s just me. There’s a Johnny Cash movie from the 60s and there’s some footage of him playing in the dark.  His face is in the spotlight but it’s really cool because there are people taking pictures so all of a sudden you see the drum kit but for the length of a flash, or all of a sudden you just see the guitar. It’s worth checking out just for that one moment. So we tried to do something like that. A really good friend of mine does all my artwork and one time she made a video that was animated, but other than that I’ve never made a music video in all the time I’ve been making music. So that was the first one. And then I’ve always wanted to try riding my bike with the guitar for some reason.

AD: It was an impressive feat. I mean I ride my bike without hands but never while doing an entirely different task. How long did it take to film that? 

Doug Paisley: We did it for like two or three hours, so I probably had to do maybe 20 or 30 times. And on the one hand it gets easier. But on the other hand you kind of know that you’re using up your odds on not wiping out. And actually at one point, I can’t be sure because I didn’t turn around, but I think somebody threw a frisbee at me and just missed me.  And it was one of those things where the teenager in me was like, fair enough, you know, like here’s this guy again.

AD: This asshole’s been riding his bike up and down here for twenty takes.

Doug Paisley: Yeah, exactly.  When I was a kid we used to challenge ourselves to get across town without ever touching your handlebars. So if you saw a traffic light changing you had to slow up or you had to lean against the light post. So I knew I had it in me, but like a lot of things when you get older, you forget that there’s several intervening decades in there. But fortunately it was still there.

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