Ten years after the release of his debut record Sometimes, City and Colour (aka Dallas Green) is releasing his fifth studio album on October 9. If I Should Go Before You kicks off with the beautiful nine-minute long “Woman” and goes on to deliver 10 more tracks characteristic of the musician’s signature wistful style.
But there is something different about this record. It seems to mark a sense of “coming home” for Green, both literal and figurative. Having just come off a highly successful tour in support of 2013’s The Hurry and The Harm and a relocation to Nashville (not to mention his acclaimed side project You + Me with P!nk), he wasn’t necessarily expecting to write the next album so quickly. But finding himself in the right environment with the perfect bandmates (his touring ensemble of Dante Schwebel, Doug MacGregor, Jack Lawrence and Matt Kelly) led to a very productive few weeks, and the singer-songwriter now finds himself on the eve of his next tour. We recently spoke about the new album and the peace he’s found with life at home and on the road.
Given the extent of your previous tour and other projects you’ve worked on recently, when did you find the time to write this record?
Well, I really didn’t think I was going to write it so quickly. We got home from touring The Hurry and The Harm and I had done all I needed to do with the You + Me stuff. My wife and I bought a house in Nashville and had moved there in November of last year. So with all of that going on, I thought I would maybe take a couple of minutes to enjoy myself. But just being in this new, fresh environment and having had such a great time touring over the past couple of years with my guys, I just started writing. And wrote a whole record in a couple of weeks.
The difference was that I didn’t have to really sit and pine over the songs for months and months, demoing and putting them together. I knew that I wanted to make the record with the band, so I left the songs in their raw form, had the guys come over to see what we had and it all worked out.
The last time we chatted was close to two years ago and you were discussing this new band and what a great fit it was. Tell me about the experience of now writing with the band you toured with and how the tour itself prepared you for making the record.
In the past, with the City and Colour stuff it had been such a smorgasbord of different people playing on all the records. The first one was just me, but then as I started to incorporate people, it was very much a matter of whoever could play it at that moment would play it. Bring Me Your Love was mostly just me and Dan Romano playing everything…Little Hell was a bunch of different other people and again, there were songs on that record where I played everything myself. The Hurry and The Harm was also different studio musicians. So the difference really was that, after two years of touring with the same group of people and having them have to learn four records’ worth of material for touring, they all got a pretty good insight into my songwriting. But we were also able to create these new versions of all of those old songs as our own version. And so I think in doing that, everybody got comfortable with what I’m looking for as far as my songwriting goes.
But then we also started to develop this really nice musical relationship with one another. That’s a difficult thing to find when you’re doing the whole “singer/songwriter and hiring a band” thing. It just was really simple, I guess is the best way to put it. Because they’re all very talented musicians, but they’re also all very good at playing for the song as opposed to playing for themselves. That really helped. There’s a lot going on in the record, but there’s still tons of space and everybody leaves room for each other. It was a really great experience.
Obviously you’re no stranger to collaboration. But to be doing so for a City and Colour project…did it require a bit of an adjustment period for you, someone who is accustomed to working alone?
Not really, I guess because I felt so comfortable with the guys, you know? We had built up not only a good musical relationship, but we had also become really close over those last couple of years on the road. Part of the reason I think I wanted to make a record so quickly was just so we could get everybody back on the road. We had such a good time.
Imagine when I used to make demos by myself where I’d have to come up with a rhythm idea and would have to play a rudimentary drum part on the demo…then I would play a rudimentary bass line, then I would try and come up with a keyboard line. Then I would come up with an extra guitar part, then I would try and do the vocals and all that. It’s a tedious process when you’re doing it that way. In this regard, it’s not like I wrote the songs with everybody…I had the songs written and I had the ideas of where I wanted them to go. But instead of doing all that other stuff, I was able to get everybody in the room and go “OK, here’s the song, here’s the vibe I’m looking for, here’s what I’m thinking rhythmically…maybe try something along these lines”. And then because they’re so good and because they knew me at that point, it was simple to just go “Here we go”. When we were demoing, it was basically an hour of each song, just trying to get the right feel of “this is where it should be”. And when we went in to actually record it, it was even quicker because we had done preproduction at my house.
Karl (Bareham), who engineered and coproduced the record with me, has been working with me for maybe 12 years. I’ve known him for a very long time and he knows me very well. He’s seen the evolution in my songwriting and my singing and he knows everybody because he tours with us. So there was none of that “let’s get to know each other”, you know? And there wasn’t really any need to pull any punches – if I didn’t like something, I would say it. And if Karl thought I needed to do it better, he’d say it to me because I’ve known him for a long time. Even though it was his first time engineering a – for lack of a better term – “big record”, he was confident enough in himself and what he knew to do in the studio. We were all friends and trusted each other and that none of us were going to make a bad record.
Let’s talk about a few tracks in particular. First off, the title track, “If I Should Go Before You” – obviously that immediately conjures thoughts of those conversations we’ve all had, or thought of having, with our loved ones. Was it tough subject matter to navigate? How do you tread the line between wistful and bleak when it comes to a song like that?
Well, I’ve sort of made a career out of being wistfully bleak, I guess is the best way to put it!
I like all types of music. But when it comes to me, when I go to put pen to paper, there’s just a certain mood I like to conjure. A mood I like singing about. And I don’t know if it’s subconscious or not, but I just tend to fall into that line of “is it sad or happy?” or “is it really happy in a sort of mournful way?” I think with “If I Should Go Before You”, a lot of people could listen to it and say “wow, that’s too dark” or “that’s too sad”, but for me, when I listen to it I think of a love that transcends life and death. I think of a love so strong that it will carry on beyond all of those things. That’s the way I look at it when I write it and when I’m singing it. I feel closer to that than I do to just sing “Oh my god, everything is amazing”…do you know what I mean? There’s a perfectly suited time for that type of music and perfectly suited people to like that type of music, but I’m just not one of them.
“Woman” is also a very interesting choice for an opening track – both because of its feel and its length. Tell me about that decision. How does it set the tone for the rest of the record?
When we first wrote that one, it was based on a jam, a long kind of groove. I didn’t think that was going to be a song – it started actually as a soundcheck jam that we played. We started playing it maybe on the last tour before I started putting the songs together. So in my head, I just really liked the groove of it but didn’t necessarily think I would write words for it. I was writing the song that became “Mizzy C” and had started with the lyrics that are now the lyrics for “Woman”. I guess I just shifted gears in that song and it became a whole different thing…so I was left with this group of words that I really loved but I had nowhere to put. It was one of those days where I was fiddling around, and I started humming, and then I started singing these words I had…and it all just started to make sense. So then I started to think about putting it into a more structured, three-minute song, but then it was like “why am I so worried about that?” When have I ever in my life worried about what other people were going to say or what rules should be followed? I love music and love long, atmospheric songs so I thought “we’re going to have one”. When we first demoed it, it was like a 30-minute version and I figured we had to whittle it down a little bit! So when we went to record it, I said let’s try and get one that’s under ten minutes. We played maybe four versions and the one you hear was the one that was just perfect.
So then when I was starting to sequence the record, right away I figured it would be the last song. This is going to be the big, epic closer. But then when I did that – I sequenced the record and put it last – it just didn’t make any sense to me at all. It was almost like I was tired of it, you know? By the time I got to the end, I was like “no way, we can’t do this…it’s going to lose all of its steam”. So then I just put it first and to me, it makes perfect sense when I listen to it. Maybe too because of the mood of the song and the way it sort of ramps up, it almost is like an intro as opposed to a closer. Obviously it’s a test in patience, which I was definitely trying to do as well. I think in this day and age where everything is so quick and everybody moves on so quickly, I just wanted to slow it down a little bit and see if I could get people to listen to a ten-minute long song.
How do you enjoy living in Nashville and what kind of creative environment does it provide for you?
It’s actually really wonderful. It’s funny, when I tell people I moved there, a lot of times they think it makes sense because of the music. And I’ll say “No, I think I’ve worked my whole life in music to move to Nashville and just relax”. I mean, I guess I did move there and immediately write and record a whole new record! But I think that had more to do with the guys in the band. Jack and Dante both live there with their wives and we’ve become very close with them over the last couple of years. When my wife and I decided to look to move somewhere else or try something different, it was the first place we thought of because I had made my last record there and had obviously played there a bunch of times and we now have friends there. Knowing the place a little bit more, it just seemed like the right fit. We found a great place and it’s been nice.
I love Toronto, but it’s such a big city. It’s always moving and it’s very stuffed full of things and people. I guess maybe because I’m surrounded by that all the time with touring, when I’m home I like to just do nothing. Nashville, as much as it’s very busy and has got everything a big city has to offer, is also very small and quiet and relaxing. A couple of weeks after we first moved there, I said to my wife “When I sit on the couch at home in Toronto, I don’t relax. All I do is sit back and think about what I have to do. But when I’m in Nashville, I sit there and I think about everything that I’ve done”. That’s something that I guess I didn’t really know that I needed or know that I wanted. But I think that’s pretty much what I’ve been singing about for all these years. So it’s been really lovely. We haven’t been there in a while because we’re still trying to figure out how to live in two places at once…but it’s really the first time, maybe in my entire life since I was a child, that I’ve felt like it’s my home. And I don’t mean the city – I mean the place that we’ve found there just feels great. It’s a combination of a lot of things.
Does this record mark a turning point of sorts for you?
Yeah, I definitely think so. I think the reason I wanted it to be called City and Colour was just because I never knew what it was going to be, you know? When I put the first record out ten years ago, I didn’t think it was going to be anything. But I knew I didn’t want it to just be this “Dallas Green” thing…I wasn’t stepping outside of the band I was in to be solo. I just happened to have these songs that I wanted to play by myself. So right now, when I listen to this record and think about the group of guys I’ve got with me, I think this is what I’ve always wanted it to be. I’ve always wanted to be in a band. So for me I guess it’s a turning point in a lot of ways. Ten years after my first City and Colour record, it’s my fifth City and Colour record. I mean, I still worry about everything…but put it this way, I’m as happy in my unhappiness as I’ve ever been.