Home Feature Shawn William Clarke gives a track-by-track breakdown of his new album

Shawn William Clarke gives a track-by-track breakdown of his new album

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Shawn William Clarke - photo by Laura Proctor

Toronto’s Shawn William Clarke emerges with a 12-track album entitled Softer Scissors (April 19, 2024), following his Spectral Acoustics album series (Vol. 1 & 2 released in 2020 and 2021, respectively). Clarke has sewn together a collage of various sonic influences, from Paul Simon to Sloan, all rooted by his image-rich storytelling and winding melodies.

Softer Scissors was recorded at Currie’s Music in Gravenhurst, Ontario with Rob Currie, who recorded, mixed, and co-produced the record. Clarke brought together many talented Canadian musician friends to play on the album including Graydon James (Young Novelists), David Gluck, Mike T. Kerr, Claire Coupland, Sarah Hiltz, Laura Spink (Young Novelists), Katie McLeod, Kristian Noel Pedersen, and Brandon Munday.

Clarke is pleased to share an exclusive track-by-track breakdown of the album with Roots Music Canada, digging deeper into the story of each track! Take in the album below as you learn the behind-the-scenes of Softer Scissors!

1. New Drug p1

“I’m hoping for mental clarity, the fog to lift from me / Improve my focus for a while”

A few years back, I was diagnosed with ADHD and began taking medication for it. I kept a small journal where I logged my symptoms, goals, etc. Those notes made up the lyrics for “New Drug p1” and “New Drug p2”. The chorus for this tune lays out some goals, and while the drugs are helping me a lot, my head is still in a fog and it still takes me forever to write a song.

We recorded the solo verse, my vocal and guitar with one microphone, and mixed it with a lo-fi mono frame of mind, which helps to give the chorus more impact. My favourite recorded drum beat is Kenny Buttry’s simple support on Neil Young’s tune “Out on the Weekend”, and (probably to the chagrin of every drummer I’ve ever worked with) I try to get that feel on every record.

2. Everybody Gets Sad

“Sometimes, I know, I generalize / My flaws I usually recognize / I’m hard on me”

Like most acoustic singer-songwriters, I’m a rockstar in my own mind. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years listening almost exclusively to power pop from the 70s through to the 90s. I even play in a cover band where we only play Canadian power pop from 1986 – 1996 (we’re called The Kim Campbells, by the way). “Everybody Gets Sad” feels like an Elvis Costello song to me. I had written this tune probably back in 2018, but when I was preparing it for this album, something just didn’t feel right between the verses and chorus. It seemed like I was saying contrary things. I ended up rewriting all the verses. First time I’ve ever edited that much of a song. But I think it works better, and no one will ever know why!

I play all the guitars on this track, and I love the back and forth sloppiness of the panned electrics. I also love the jangly guitar riffs in the bridge, I’m living out my Marshall Crenshaw dreams with those.

3. To Walter, Sincerely

“You were sick that night in Spain / I held your hadn’t and sang / The few songs that I know / It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”

For a few years, I was part of a weekly songwriting night where we’d put on shows, book other acts, come up with theme nights, and share our music with each other. It was a beautiful thing and I miss it a lot.

The first one I was a part of was a night where we were given a few weeks to write and prepare a new song to perform at the showcase. I chose to revisit characters I had created for an earlier song of mine called “Empty Houseabout a couple on the verge of ending things. “To Walter, Sincerely catches us up on them many years later. Both songs ended up having subconscious links to my own failing relationships at the time of writing them. The mind does strange things.

This is the first song on this album where I use an Open G tuning. Sometimes, to end a writing block, all you need is a good tuning.

4. Franny Stares

“Franny stares / She rolls onto her back and stretches her paws / Offering up her belly for pets”

Quite simply, this is a song I wrote for our cat, Franny. She was a wonderful perk when my partner moved in with me, and a constant comfort during the pandemic years. I had this simple riff I’d been playing for years, and had almost used in different songs, but it never felt right. A little too simple, and since the notes are so close and low, the riff can get a little muddy. But I am trying to embrace the pleasure of simplicity these days! Considering the framework of the tune and the whimsical lyrical content, I thought recording it lo-fi would make the most sense. So, other than the synths parts by Kristian Pedersen, the entire song was recorded on a ‘90s Yamaha 8-track cassette recorder. Experimenting with the machine, I realized you could hear the other side of the cassette backwards on the opposite channels, so I utilized that at the end of the song, and throughout the recording.

Sadly, Franny passed away a couple years ago, and we miss her greatly.

5. New Normal

“We’ll read books, and tend our gardens / Spring softens what winter hardens”

During the pandemic, everybody seemed to be talking about leaving the city, my partner and I as well. Thankfully, that never progressed past the talking stage, because I love it in Toronto. I was thinking about this on a road trip, where we found ourselves running out of gas without a station in sight. “New Normal” is a daydream, a possible future, an escape, a choice.

Musically, this is me in power pop, classic rock mode. This is what happens when I listen to too much Wings. The cassette recorder is utilized here on the drums. We ran the drums through the machine for all the tracks, and this album has the best drum sound I could have possibly asked for. Having Graydon James behind the kit doesn’t hurt either. This, with “Franny Stares”, features my partner, Katie McLeod, singing with me. The songs are so personal to the both of us that I’m glad she was able to join!

6. All is Lost, All is Fine

“Sadness, gladness, falling, mending / All is lost, all is fine”

While “locked down,” I kept myself sane by going for walks in High Park. Every morning, I’d download an album I hadn’t given a fair shake, or maybe I had ignored, and I’d try to listen to it subjectively. One day, it would be Celine Dion, the next it was Slayer. I’m not sure what music I was thinking about when I wrote this. “A slow and dense crescendo in my ear” makes me think of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But I definitely know and love that band, and have for a long time. Either way, the song really captures a moment when I was unsure of the future, and trying to figure out my next steps. It’s really a song about depression. I was depressed. I can see that now.

I sent the song to my good friend, Claire Coupland, who just happened to be touring in Ontario when we were recording, and she happened to be touring with Sarah Hiltz. The two of them came in with harmonies that absolutely floored us. Better than anything I could have possibly thought of. We recorded them together on one microphone, and their vocals are one of the most special moments on the album.

7. New Drug p2

“I’m hoping to write a song a day, and even if I play them / For nobody, that’s ok”

“New Drug” was originally conceived as one song. In that format, it has a gradual, but small build, bringing Mike T. Kerr’s guitar into the mix. I’m an album guy, I love the format, so I tend to think in terms of how it works on a record as opposed to how it works on a streaming site (much to the detriment of my career), and thinking about it that way, it made sense to use the song as an introduction to both sides of the LP. Again, the vocals are by Claire and Sarah, and we recorded all three of our vocals on one microphone, which I loved. It has some wavering in pitch that I think is natural, and a magic that just doesn’t exist when you overdub and over edit.

8. My Key Light

“The Gaffer is my boyfriend / We hang out on the weekend / When he’s not working on a show / When he’s got time he’ll let me know”

Power pop strikes again! I love this song so much, it’s so fun to sing. Lyrically, it’s simply a love song, but I think it feels like the kind of love that isn’t what pop singers usually write about. It’s about the important stuff that’s actually important. Being able to read each other. Knowing when to give each other space or when to be there. I pictured this as a love song between an actor and a gaffer on a set. I like to keep the sexuality of my characters ambiguous – this could easily be a queer love story – and I think it works very well that way.

Musically we had a lot of problems figuring out how to edit this. Something just didn’t sit right with me – I didn’t really love the riff, which was present at the beginning of the song (whether that’s the riff itself, or the guitar I chose to play it on, or both, I’m not sure). This was a problem solved in the editing phase. Rob Currie had a eureka moment and sent me the version you hear today with the drums by themselves in the intro and having less instruments in the verses. Kristian Pedersen sent a bunch of synth ideas, or “twee orchestrations,” as he called them. We softened the twee a bit, and were finally happy with the results. The fake out ending is my nod to Sloan. I’m not sure if they’ve even done a fake out ending like this, but it feels like a very Sloan thing to do.

9. Tall Trees

“I’m thinking of my family, the ones who mean the most to me / Generations weighing on our minds”

It’s probably unprofessional to say, but I still haven’t figured this song out. Deep into the pandemic, I had suddenly found myself with time. Time to do what, though? I learned to knit. Scarves, toques, socks and one pair of mittens. I reignited my love of film with 70’s Italian B-horror movies. I made music purely for the joy of it (what luxury!). Through my mother, we were just facing our family history while becoming part of the Métis Nation of ON. But I was scared. I worried about my health, my family and friends, and how things were going to change forever. I think “Tall Trees” is a snapshot of a time and place in my life, and hopefully it resonates with others in a similar way.

We recorded all the percussion for this album at Graydon James’ studio, and he had these bells lying around. Luckily they were in the right key for this song (and “New Normal), and they ended up adding an ethereal quality to the recording. Also adding to that ethereal quality are Claire and Sarah’s vocals in the bridge. I wanted this back-and-forth, non-lyrical harmony, and asked them to be my owls. Claire and I sang the lyrics together on one microphone, I think capturing another magical and human performance.

10. Something Unsent

The instrumental track of this album, I originally envisioned “Something Unsent” as bridge between “To Walter, Sincerely” and “Time Intervenes”, releasing the three as an EP, sort of a suite. When I decided the songs should be on the album, I found that this tune was lacking, so I showed it to Mike T. Kerr. With his help, we ended up shaping it so it was more musical and rhythmic. This marks my first recorded co-write, hopefully not my last. I very much enjoyed working with him. This was a late edition to the album, so the rhythm section (Graydon and my musical brother David Gluck), didn’t record anything for it. I asked Rob if he knew any upright bass players up near Gravenhurst, and he suggested Brandon Munday. Brandon and I recorded our parts together, and he really complimented the tune with his playing. Mike later overdubbed his guitar part. The funny thing with Mike, I made suggestions for all the songs he played on, and he ignored every one. I’m glad he did. He’s such a talented player, he was able to find the heart of each song and lovingly support that heart. What supports the heart? Muscle? The ribs? He was that.

11. Time Intervenes

“Stopped in progress, face to face / With memories from another place / Creeping from behind a billion cells”

Recording at Curries Music means having access to a lot of cool guitars, and I thought I’d use a bunch of them on this recording. But then I played THE perfect acoustic. It’s a 1981 Yamaha CJ-52, and it was formerly owned by Canadian folk legend, Murray McLaughlan. What a guitar. A great strummer, but an equally great picker. I love how it sounds on this tune, simple strumming in an Open G tuning. I pictured this like a Wilco tune. All hands on deck, with a fun build in the bridge. Originally conceived to feature Mike on lead guitar, but while in the studio, I asked Rob to take a pass at it, and boy did he deliver! The man knows his country licks.

Lyrically, this is the other side of “To Walter, Sincerely”. I looked at the scenario like a Rashomon situation, where both people remember things differently: one melancholic, and the other maybe a little more indifferent. There are two tambourine tracks on this song, performed by myself and Graydon. Can’t have enough tambo.

12. My Key Light (Quiet Company)

“At nights when I get home / And I need a little time alone / We give each other space/ Love’s a journey, not a race”

The last song recorded for the album, during the period when we were having trouble figuring out “My Key Light”, I rewrote the song, figuring maybe we’d just change the whole thing. But in the end, after Rob’s editing expertise, I ended up loving them equally. I wasn’t sure about having them both on the album, but I remembered that there are great examples of this happening in the past (Wilco’s “Out of Site, Out of Mind”, and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”, for example). It also plays into the repetition of themes, ideas, even words that appear on the album. As Mr. Kerr put it, the album has moments that are like a tape loop.

I recorded the guitar at Curries during our last session, but needed to add everything else. I went to Graydon’s home studio, and his partner (and one of my favourite singers), Laura Spink, and I recorded the vocals. This was after an evening of percussion, and we didn’t lay down our vocal tracks until midnight. We each did one take, thinking we’d do more another day, but listening back to our performances, I felt that we really captured the feel of the song. It’s like something you’d play around the campfire before bed. There was a magic that I knew we couldn’t recreate. This is the other track that Brandon added bass to, and again, he nails it. The bridge of the original version felt a little too whimsical for this version, so I left it out and replaced it with a bit of guitar experimentation I had recorded for the demo. We’ve left the campfire and are now floating off into dreamland.

Buy Softer Scissors on Bandcamp now! For the lastest news and releases from Shawn William Clarke, follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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