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Why Toronto publisher BookThug is getting into the record business

Author Jacob Wren, left, and Broken Social Scene member Andrew Whiteman, seen here in Montreal on Aug. 15, teamed up to adapt Wren’s 2016 novel Rich and Poor as part of three seven-inch vinyl ‘poetry records’ pairing notable Canadian musicians with BookThug authors.

Valerian Mazataud/The Globe and Mail

Andrew Whiteman, the Montreal-based songwriter and musician, has long been interested in the intersection between music and poetry. Years before he was a member of the celebrated musical collective Broken Social Scene, or founded the indie-rock act Apostle of Hustle, or recorded with his wife, Ariel Engle, in his current band, AroarA, Whiteman released an album of spoken-word poetry, Fear of Zen. ("While many tracks succumb to the overly verbose," wrote one reviewer, the album was "nonetheless vibrant and visually interesting.") He even performed on the spoken-word stage at Lollapalooza during the music festival's heyday in the mid-nineties.

These days, when he finds the time, Whiteman likes to pull clips of poetry readings from PennSound or UbuWeb, two repositories of avant-garde work, and score them, as if they were lyrics in need of musical accompaniment, and he also curates, along with the filmmaker Adrienne Amato, a YouTube channel called Sonic Poetry.

"Poetry shouldn't always be something that's thought of as on the page," says Whiteman, who is also currently working on an album based on his poetry soundtracks. "Hearing a poet is almost more accessible than trying to read a poet."

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A couple of years ago, Whiteman pitched an idea to his old friend Jay MillAr, the founder and publisher of BookThug, a Toronto independent press, who he's known since they worked together at another small press, Coach House Books, in the early 1990s: Would BookThug be interested in helping with a project – specifically a series of "poetry records" – that married Whiteman's two interests? The answer was yes.

"Listening to music is a very different thing than listening to a literary reading, and talking with Andrew he had this really interesting idea to try and merge the two," MillAr says. "The questions he was asking – can we make literature pop? Can we make music literary? – those questions, and how that stuff would all work together, was really interesting to us, mostly because we love work that breaks down barriers between genres."

This month, BookThug announced Chaos & Star, a new record label (and offshoot of the press) that just released its first three seven-inch vinyl recordings, which pair notable Canadian musicians with BookThug authors: Whiteman teamed up with Jacob Wren to adapt the latter's 2016 novel Rich and Poor; Carlin Nicholson and Mike O'Brien of Toronto indie-rock quartet Zeus paired with Liz Worth to score her book No Work Finished Here, her poetric remix of Andy Warhol's A, A Novel; and the husband-and-wife team of John K. Samson and Christine Fellows joined forces with Jennifer LoveGrove to transform her most recent collection of poems, Beautiful Children With Pet Foxes, into music.

"We were immediately thrilled by the idea," says Samson, the former lead singer of Winnipeg-based rock quartet the Weakerthans. The project, he adds, "is something that sits at the cross-section of all we're interested in: language and music and the power of objects, especially in this age we live in where objects are so diminished in the culture – everything is digital or kind of ephemeral in some way."

It's also a project rooted in past traditions; there was a time when it was not uncommon for authors to release recordings of their own work. (At one time, Greg Gatenby, the former artistic director of Toronto's International Festival of Authors, maintained the world's largest collection of writers on wax.) A more recent influence was the Basement Revue, an annual variety show curated by musician Jason Collett and poet Damian Rogers that pairs writers and musicians.

"It's important for [writers] to think about different ways they can get their work out there. To think about their writing as something that can exist beyond a book," author Liz Worth says. "I think that literature can become really interesting when we do find ways to reinterpret it, that goes just beyond reading something on a page or sitting with it, quietly."

The collaborations took shape in different ways: Wren and Whiteman, both based in Montreal, had the opportunity to work side by side, whereas LoveGrove recorded her "vocals" and e-mailed them to Samson and Fellows in Winnipeg. The results are similarly varied: The B-side to Rich and Poor, for instance, is rooted in footwork, a Chicago-born style of dance music, whereas the collaboration between LoveGrove and Fellows and Samson wouldn't be out of place on either of the latter's own albums.

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"I trusted them to do what they were going to do," LoveGrove says. "It was kind of a surprise, because I don't know them, I don't know their music, so I wasn't sure what to expect at all. It was, I guess, a bit of a risk. But I really like how it turned out.

"I am the least musical person, and absolutely cannot sing, so to be involved with something on vinyl is kind of amazing and hilarious," she adds. "I don't even have a record player. I guess I'll have to get one."

Only 500 copies of each single have been pressed, which are available at select bookstores and record stores, although digital versions are for sale, as well. At this time, the hope is Chaos & Star (the name comes from an Alice Notley poem, whose work Whiteman adapted for AroarA's 2013 LP In the Pines) releases a couple of new records each year.

"I see it as a small press," Whiteman says. "You don't want to try and push this into the mainstream in any aggressive way. It serves the community it serves. And that community grows very slowly, person by person, listener by listener."

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About the Author
Books Editor

Mark Medley is an opinion editor with the Globe and Mail. He previously served as the Globe’s books editor, and, prior to joining the paper in 2014, he spent more than seven years at the National Post, where he served as an arts reporter and books editor. More

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