Home Feature The Chat Room: Charlie Angus of Grievous Angels

The Chat Room: Charlie Angus of Grievous Angels

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Photo by Paul Rincon.

Charlie Angus recently announced that he will not be seeking re-election as the NDP Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay, a seat he’s held since 2004. That certainly came as disappointing news for his supporters who will miss his voice as a counterpoint to the far right in Ottawa. But after 20 years, Angus says that he wants to return to grassroots activism, and making music with his long-running group Grievous Angels.

The band has just released its latest album Last Call For Cinderella, 10 songs that reflect our post-pandemic reality, such as the first single “This Is How The City Falls,” Angus’s response to the 2022 so-called Freedom Convoy occupation that he experienced first-hand in Ottawa. Other songs like “Barcelona (I’ll Be Free)” — released to mark May Day — and “Friday Night” feature Grievous Angels’ other voices, Janet Mercier and Alexandra Bell, while the group’s overall musical evolution is displayed on their first song in French, “J’ai Passé la Nuit,” and the unexpectedly funky “Litany Of The Saints,” co-written with Angus’s old Toronto pal and Broken Social Scene member Jason Collett.

Last Call For Cinderella was recorded live-off-the-floor over several steamy days at Toronto’s Canterbury Music Company last summer with Grammy-nominated engineer Jeremy Darby, and the band’s current seven-piece line-up is getting ready to recreate the album on stage throughout this summer, starting Sunday, June 9 with a special afternoon show at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern.

Charlie Angus took some time to tell us more about Last Call For Cinderella, and reflect on his time on the national political stage. Last Call For Cinderella is available on Bandcamp and Spotify.

 

I guess you could call Last Call For Cinderella the Grievous Angels’ first “post-pandemic” album. How has the group evolved since the previous album Summer Before The Storm?

Thematically, Last Call for Cinderella feels like a book end to Summer Before the Storm. It seems strangely prescient that Summer Before the Storm, with its sense of foreboding, was recorded on the eve of the massive global storm that was the pandemic. Last Call is about picking up the pieces from this storm of climate uncertainty, disinformation and conspiracy. Both form into soundtracks for a dystopian time.

But musically, there was a huge transformation between the two projects. Summer Before The Storm was the first time our new band line-up went into the studio. We were still finding our way with new band members vocalist Janet Mercier, guitarist Ian McKendry and drummer Nathan Mahaffy. Many of the songs were actually written during the recording session. I would hand out lyric sheets and we would do a quick practice and then get the sound down. It was a very spontaneous, fly by the seat of our pants approach. Last Call was much more planned out. We worked on all of the possible song ideas before going into the studio and were determined to bring a much higher level of precision to the process. And yet, I feel that both records capture the natural evolution of the band.

Many of the songs on Last Call For Cinderella certainly reflect the political climate in Canada over the past two years. Obviously, you’ve been in the middle of it all. Does songwriting allow you to express things that you haven’t been able to as an MP, and what are some examples of that on the new album?

We are living in a time when words have become increasingly devalued and where political discourse has been debased by toxic online wars and sloganeering. I find myself going back to the song format because it still seems possible to reach people at a more emotional level. “Barcelona (I’ll Be Free)” is a very political song as is “Litany of the Saints,” but in general I try to avoid pedantic politicking. Rather than telling people what they should think, I like to invite the reader to walk with the band through a three or four-minute world. Songs like “Sleepwalking” or “I Could Tell” are set against the backdrop of doom scrolling, pandemic and climate fires. And yet, they remain stories of two lovers trying to find their way back to love.

Our first single, “This is How the City Falls,” was written in response to what I witnessed during the convoy occupation of Ottawa. It was a frightening and disorienting time, like January 6th with bouncy castles. It was especially difficult for young women and the racialized who had to make their way through what had become a very threatening and lawless city. And yet if you listen to the song, it renders the dystopic fears through a simple, 1950s AM radio sound.

Last Call For Cinderella was mainly recorded live in the studio. How challenging was that, and how long did you and the band need to prepare for the sessions?

The band really wanted to do an album with the incredible engineer Jeremy Darby who has worked with everyone in the business. We started out with a list of about 15 songs knowing that we needed to get it down to 10 songs. The majority of the band is based in the Belleville area and it is not always easy for me to come from the north or fiddler Peter Jellard to come from Toronto. We had to find weekends where we could make the most of our time together and this stretched the preparations out over many months. Much of the editing and arranging was done in the basement of our bass player Tim Hadley.

I was pumped to record at Canterbury Music because I knew that Jeremy could capture the feel of this line up. Over three days, we recorded everything live off the floor. I wasn’t sure whether the songs “Bells of Pontecorvo” or the ballad “Close Your Eyes” would work in this format. “Close Your Eyes” was recorded at the end of a long day. We were tired and on pins and needles as vocalist Janet Mercier and pianist Alexandra Bell led the full band on a song that needed space, precision, and sensitivity. Jeremy was there talking us safely to the other side. It is one of the highlights of the recording.

You recently announced that you won’t be running again in the next federal election. What are your thoughts on how Canada needs to address its most pressing issues, and what life might be like under a CPC government?

It has been the great honour of my life to serve in parliament for 20 years. My region is bigger than the UK and in the next election it will become a riding greatly expanded in area. This seems to me a good time to step out. I have seen some very powerful changes for the good over that time, most notably the growing confidence and determination by the young generation of Indigenous people to claim their place culturally and politically. I have been honoured to be an ally and a witness.

But there are elements that deeply concern me. There is a growing level of conspiracy and rage politics being exploited by the Poilievre Conservatives. This had led to a serious erosion in the ability to work across party lines and it threatens our ability to tackle the huge issues like the climate crisis. I have known Pierre Poilievre for two decades and he is not fit to lead the country in any capacity.

From a personal perspective, what are your immediate plans, and where do you see things going with the Grievous Angels?

I have been so thrilled to play with this band. The original line up of Peter Jellard and Tim Hadley have remained committed to this project through so many ups, downs and sideways journeys. It is always a joy playing with them. One of the reasons I wrote the song “Last Call for Cinderella” was as a kind of band history -– that after all these years we still haven’t made any money, we are still seeking out gigs and trying to hold our audience and yet we do it because of the love of music and the love of playing with each other. We have been invigorated by the augmented power and energy of the seven-piece band.

I am so keen to keep this thing going because I feed off their energy. I’m sure you can feel it in the tragic beauty of the duet “Friday Night” or the honky tonk fun of the francophone honky tonk song I penned called “J’ai Passé la Nuit (I spent the night on the clothesline).” The phrase is a hilarious Franco-Ontarian expression for getting way too drunk. As for me, I intend to remain an activist as I always have been. I just want to have a little more time to concentrate on the stories and music that makes the Grievous Angels a unique cultural voice in Canada.

 

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