Many of us with parents who grew up in the Great Depression undoubtedly heard stories about its miseries, and perhaps also heard some of the songs that came out of that era. However, many of these songs have lain dormant for years – but no longer. The Flypaper Orchestra, organized by guitarist/producer Ken Eisner and featuring appearances by a number of well-known Canadian and American artists, have resurrected some of the great songs from the Depression years and made them totally fresh and current.
Regular readers of this blog will recognize names like Luke Doucet (Whitehorse) and Ron Sexsmith from the album’s roster, but there are numerous other musicians of note who participated in the project: Paul Pigat, Jim Byrnes, Delannah Gail Bowen, and Jenn Bojm (just to name a few). Their talents combine here to make a fabulous album that pays tribute to some of America’s songwriting history.
We’re delighted that Ken Eisner took the time to answer some of our questions about this wonderful album.
It’s really intriguing to me that you chose songs from the Great Depression era for this project (especially given the current political context as I write this, from this side of the border). Why this specific time period, and what do you think that these songs have to say about the situation in which we find ourselves right now?
We started reworking some of these classic tunes in a band mostly comprised of mostly film critics. The group, which was called Twisted Siskel and backed local actors and celebrities at benefits and such, took unlikely material and updated it radically, or familiar stuff and deformed it. After tackling “42nd Street”, “Pennies From Heaven”, and other tunes associated with Depression-era musicals, I began noticing parallels with what was already happening in this century, especially regarding income inequality, climate change, and nationalism. Obviously, this became a lot more pronounced over the course of the project—although the need to remind people of the fun and wonder of life is just as important as it was in 1937. That’s why there is escapist, exotica fare like “Flamingo” and “Temptation.”
How did you select the musicians who participated in the project?
I always saw Jim Byrnes, who’s a great raconteur as well as a consummate stage and screen performer and blues man, as a kind of emcee for this project—a street barker to get people in the door of our cabaret, as it were. With him on board, I started picturing other characters for different scenes in varied moods. After picking out almost 20 tunes, my co-producer Joe Cruz and I worked up studio backing tracks—mostly using my guitars, Rene Worst’s acoustic bass, and Geoff Hicks on drums—and, through the miracle of modern technology. sent them out to the people I hoped would contribute. Not everyone said “yes” but everyone who did was fantastic. That’s how we got artists like Ron Sexsmith, Robben Ford, Jordan Officer, and Nina Miranda contributing from a dozen locations in three countries.
On your site, you have this mission statement: “The overall goal of Flypaper Records is to bring together artists from many genres to reinvent classic sounds, in order to build a broader musical community.” Can you talk a bit about the connection between reworking classic songs like these (which keeps them alive for another generation, I hope!) and building a broader musical community?
Marrying music from different eras and styles went well with the idea of connecting musicians who have different followings in varied places. And I knew that songs this beautifully constructed would bring out the best in veterans like Cecile LaRochelle and Dalannah Gail Bowen, who haven’t received enough attention over the years, alongside wonderful younger singers like Jenn Bojm and Colleen Rennison, who are just getting started, relatively speaking. Selfishly speaking, it was also a chance for me to work with guitarists I admire, such as Harry Manx, Paul Pigat, and Luke Doucet.
Was there one part of the process of putting this project together that especially surprised you, or that went somewhere you weren’t expecting?
Most demos were made at Joe Cruz’s own studios, before he moved to Los Angeles. But we were able to get Vancouver’s fabled Mushroom Studios for two days just before they closed. [It’s now reopened as Afterlife, under producer John Raham’s tutelage.] We banged off ten backing tracks there, and the biggest excitement was doing the backing vocals, with The Sojourners gospel trio and trombone, trumpet, and-tuba tracks live for “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down Out”. It was already the livest thing on a record assembled over months and years. But when I sent the finished track to reed player Chloe Feoranzo in Southern California, regarding another number, she said, “You can’t have a New Orleans horn section without clarinet.” (She was only 20 at the time and now tours with Postmodern Jukebox.) So she added a part in her home studio and sent it right back, perfecting the song in a way I couldn’t have predicted!
Even though we’re not currently (yet) in a Depression, it seems to me that a lot of us feel some of the same disappointment and disillusionment that is in these lyrics. How do you see the role of song both in capturing the mood of the times and in inspiring change?
Most of the compositions here approach the ideas of poverty, drought, and exploitation (“Love For Sale”, anyone?) through the wised-up irony common in the Dirty Thirties. Since World War II, the developed countries have seen almost steady growth until very recently. It’s alarming but not really surprising that so many people have been slow to recognize that material security can be taken away in less than a moment. Social media has actually created a climate of confusion, not clarity, in the face of what’s really kind of worldwide cash-and-resource grab. But it can also help remind people, especially through songs like these, that our forebears have been this way before. Most crucially for artists, it also allows us to share creative impulses with people who live thousands of miles apart.
What is next for Flypaper Records?
The next project is tentatively titled “Detour Ahead: North America Travels Down a Lonely Road”, drawn from tunes associated with Film Noir and Sci-Fi movies of the ’40s and ‘50s. We’ve done some recording with people like singer Susie Arioli and guitarist Paul Rigby, and are talking to many more, in the UK, Canada, and US. This one looks to be accidentally timely, too!