Listening to David James Allen, it often feels as if he’s channeling every cool record you’ve ever owned. He’s been releasing his own music for more than a decade, but over the past five years—after moving eastward from Toronto to the wilds of Prince Edward County—he has been startlingly prolific. Beginning with 2017’s When The Demons Come and carrying on through 2020’s Radiations and the following year’s The Architect, David has been steadily amassing a remarkable body of work that stands alongside those of any of his Canadian contemporaries.
Now comes By The Summertime, an album that keeps David’s winning streak solidly intact, despite being conceived under unusual circumstances. After finishing The Architect, he found himself in an unexpected position of needing to make another record within a specific time frame, and that’s basically how By The Summertime came to be. His first instinct was to dive into old notebooks and hard drives for past ideas, but of the 10 songs on the album, only two came out of that. He ultimately decided to use a clean slate for the rest, an approach he’d never taken before. With the deadline looming, David found himself jotting ideas down constantly during breaks at work and demo-ing them at night. He settled on a goal to try some different writing styles steeped more in poetry and stream-of-consciousness, as opposed to character-driven narratives. That ended up blending with a more free and open musical approach, stemming from his recent interest in learning how to play guitar in a more jazzy style.
To record By The Summertime, David reconnected with his co-producer for The Architect, William D. Crann, with sessions conducted online until it was safe to book in-person time at Catherine North Studios in Hamilton, ON. In keeping with his desire to try something new, David decided to record his own parts first and then add different combinations of instruments through overdubbing. He called upon many old friends and collaborators to achieve this, and the results range from the easy-flowing opening track “Billowed,” to the swampy “The Devil And Me” and the blue-eyed soul of “Blush And Hide.”
Finding the sweet spot between simplicity and boundary pushing is a goal many artists seek with varying degrees of success. For David James Allen though, it just seems to be where he naturally resides. By The Summertime is another treasure trove for those who haven’t yet lost the belief that music can inspire a sense of wonder when looking at the world. We caught up with David before his run of shows that kick off July 14 at Musiikki Cafe in Kingston, ON. For full dates, go to davidjamesallen.ca, and to get By The Summertime in your preferred format, click HERE.
Your new album By The Summertime continues a run of fantastic work you’ve been doing over the past few years. Do you go into each record with a plan, or does a theme emerge as you’re writing the songs?
I tend to have a rough idea for some of the themes and subjects, aesthetics and sounds that I’d like to explore before actually sitting down and getting into the creative process. A lot of the subject matter comes from day-to-day thoughts and reflections while I’m out doing groceries, watering the garden, or taking a walk around the block. I put a lot of trust in my process — little ideas get born in my head and then sometimes groww quickly or sometimes take years to percolate, grow and take shape into the right words. Thinking, re-thinking, meditating on an idea and a feeling, and then I move on. The writing, recording and design and artwork process all work hand in hand for me. Sometimes I’ll actually have a name for an album before any of the songs are solidified and I’ll have a vision for what the album artwork would look like, and I’ll draft up a working version, and that helps to put gears into motion. I’ve got this artwork sitting here with no tracklist, so I start to fill up the artwork with a bunch of tracks that fit together, like a glass or a vessel.
Every album is a bit different, but I’m usually a couple of albums ahead in my brain [of] the album I’ve most recently released. So I guess “big picture” kind of ideas are floating around, and then the more specific writing themes and sounds gets honed in as I become more absorbed in the project. Like right now, I’ve got two other albums floating in my head, slowly kind of building themselves, but who knows if they’ll get done proper. One is called Sad Ass Songs, which is like a bare-bones country/singer-songwriter album, and the other, which I’m working on more actively, is called A Beautyful Victory, which is named after my daughter. That being said, I plan on taking my sweet time with the next album I think… give By The Summertime room to breathe!
By The Summertime contains what might be called an eclectic range of sounds, from traditional country to pop and neo-soul. Is this a result of you just constantly experimenting with your songwriting approach?
Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment. Sometimes it’s not an intentional experimentation with my songwriting but it takes shape by surrounding myself in different musical moods and subconsciously learning and absorbing different artistic ideas from other creatives, or experimenting in the studio figuring out how to capture a sound a certain way, on my own. I keep a lot of voice memos and demos, and I keep a collection of ‘musical themes’ on my phone and on my hard drives. It’s all about capturing the moment and the feeling when it comes and then either rolling with the idea in the moment or coming back to it after I have more time to really digest what’s at the core of that moment. Sorry to sound a little corny or abstract. I never stray too far away from my roots and a pop song structure, so those outside inspirations just help me to think of fun and exciting ways to make a pop song structure more captivating to my ears. I find letting myself be free in my songwriting approach and not thinking about the technical or theoretical aspects of a song idea at least while capturing the foundation of a song is most suitable to how I work and it produces the best results. I learn what I can and then when writing I try to forget what I’ve learned, but those lessons bleed into whatever the subconscious or the free creative state produces. When it comes to starting to record these ideas and the foundation and heart of the song is written, then I’m all for letting more of the technical or theoretical ideas take more presence in the process.
Lyrically, you’ve noted the influence of Canadian poets Al Purdy and Nelson Ball on this album. What is it about their work that speaks to you?
Nelson Ball had an incredible skill for painting such a vivid idea or feeling with such simple and concise language. He’s like a minimalist when it comes to poetry, and he speaks to these day-to-day encounters with friends, inanimate objects, bugs — reflections in nature, gentle and honest observations that are full of life. It really touches my heart anytime I pick up one of his collections. It’s his simplicity and power in conveying an emotion or deep thought in sometimes a humorous or gentle way that I gravitate towards. He inspires me to be more creative in the way I use language to communicate an idea or feeling or observation through songs and lyrics.
You also moved out of Toronto to Prince Edward County a few years ago. How has that change of scenery affected you?
Prince Edward County has a lot of open fields and farms; it’s surrounded by Lake Ontario, almost like a little island. I think this particular move has affected my sense of space and time and my appreciation for nature more so than other moves I’ve made. In the city, things are always on the go; bars are open late, there is a concert every night, and in a lot of cases, people seem so busy and wrapped up in their heads that they hardly have time to say hello to their neighbours. In Prince Edward County it’s slower paced. I’ve heard people refer to things on ‘County Time’ here, which is an entertaining thought, a little microcosm of time just off the 401. People take time to wave to their neighbours or stop to say hello. This pairing of slowed-down time and big open space I think has made its way into exploring more of the slower side of my music and encourages, or rather forces, you to become more introspective because there isn’t really a whole lot to do around here, especially in the winter. You can really get more comfortable with simpler things.
You’ve got tour dates coming where you’ll be doing a kind of one-man-band performance. Could you give people a preview of what that will be like?
The Growing Machine is what I call it, because it’s always changing form and growing with me. The idea is to bring a trio-band sound to the stage with me and my machines. I’ve got a drum sampler holding down this super-dead ’70s-style drum kit samples. I’m using Korg foot organ pedals to control a mini organ through Midi, which I use to fill out the bottom end of the band. It sounds a bit like a bass guitar or bass synth. And then I’m playing my electric guitar, dual harmonica and a series of effects pedals including wah-wah and some tape delay and amp reverb/tremolo. You can expect kind of like a groovy jam trio jam band sound. It’s honed in on some of the slower jams on the album like “Blush and Hide,” where I’m playing wah-wah with one foot, bass with the other foot and singing and playing guitar with the drum machine. At times I’ll incorporate some looping into the picture, depending on my mood. I find loops can become more of a distraction or hindrance than a benefit in this arrangement. But in a more experimental mood I may do some looping. It’s been a blast playing shows with it so far.
JASON’S JUKEBOX PICKS
Great Lake Swimmers / Uncertain Country (Harbour Songs)
On their first album since 2018’s The Waves, The Wake, Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers sound more confident musically than they ever have. Conversely, the band’s creative centre, Tony Dekker, seems preoccupied with questions none of us have been able to answer over the past five years. On “When The Storm Has Passed,” Tony sings, “Things are changing, maybe for good, I would hold on if I could.” It’s a powerful statement within a song that advocates for reconnecting with the natural world, although the tension generated between that uncertainty and the fuzzy folk-rock that drives this song—as well as the expansive opening title track—makes for some of the most exciting sounds the band has ever put on record. Other standouts, such as “Swimming Like Flying” and “Flight Paths” nod to classic Radiohead, while “Moonlight, Stay Above” and closer “Am I Floating In The Air” stay true to Tony’s almost orchestral approach to folk with choirs and strings. But what makes any Great Lake Swimmers project emotionally resonant is a connection to something we can’t experience living in the city. After our lockdown years, it’s time to have that experience again, and Uncertain Country offers a map to find it.
Whitney Rose / Rosie (MCG Recordings)
Although she’s been based in Austin for several years, Whitney Rose should never be ignored as one of Canada’s finest alt-country artists. That kind of attention is even more deserved for Rosie, given its troubling backstory. Following her 2020 album, We Still Go To Rodeos, Whitney reportedly experienced a serious health scare that forced her back to her home in Charlottetown to recover. While some of the songs on Rosie were written prior to that time, much of the album is a testament to her strength and resilience, particularly the roadhouse-ready “You’re Gonna Get Lonely” and “My Own Jail.” As a singer, Whitney isn’t much of a show-off, instead allowing her velvety tone to casually entrance the listener, with the spell firmly cast on “Minding My Own Pain,” a classic weeper. While the album’s bare bones production sometimes makes it feel as if some songs are being short-changed, Rosie overall is a successful return to form that will hopefully bring Whitney back to Canada under better circumstances in the near future.
Bettye LaVette / LaVette! (Jay-Vee)
When Bettye LaVette re-emerged on the scene in 2005 with I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, a collection of songs by notable female artists, few outside the world of hard-core soul music fans knew who she was. However, since then, Bettye has told her remarkable life story through her music, bravely venturing beyond the worlds of blues and soul into country, folk and classic rock. In an unusual twist, LaVette! contains songs by a single writer, Randal Bramblett, perhaps best known for his collaborations with Gregg Allman and others within the Allman Brothers’ circle. His skills at updating familiar blues and soul themes clearly hits Bettye’s sweet spot, and with a star-studded backing band assembled by drummer/producer Steve Jordan, the results reveal LaVette! to be her most accessible—and fun—album in years. The humour lies in contradiction, as on the swampy “Lazy (And I Know It),” since even in her late 70s, Bettye’s attitude is the exact opposite. Other tracks like “Plan B” expand on this with killer lines like “my mojo’s busted, and I ain’t got a spare,” and “champagne and a joint will do me just fine.” If you add putting LaVette! on the stereo with those other two items, you’ve got a pretty satisfying night in.
VIDEO OF THE WEEK
Nadjiwan — “Break To The West” (from The Great Sea / Heading North Music)