Although the Canadian music cognoscenti don't always seem to know what to make of him, Gord Downie remains this country's most intriguing rocker. He is a published poet, his music has inspired Dora-recognized dance choreography and he is aggressively championed by the novelist Joseph Boyden. He has rhymed "Jacques Cartier" with "right this way," and his cryptic flair makes Arcade Fire's Win Butler look like Bryan Adams. He is 50 years old. And although he has made himself into a highly watchable showman (as the flamboyant and intense singer of the arena-filling Tragically Hip), he's quite comfortable sublimating himself within a band or even lurking in the shadows, even when he goes solo(ish).
Alas, perhaps too comfortable.
Downie's new project is Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun, a stirring, confronting collaboration with Toronto's Sadies, the cosmic cowboys who ride with curious singers – the nervy songstress Neko Case and the pimp-y Detroit soul-shouter Andre Williams – when they're not putting out excellent alt-country albums on their own.
The Sadies-and-Downie disc has been released on the indie label Arts & Crafts, whose publicists have stymied my editors by not okaying a photo shoot with Downie and his current bandmates. Instead the label has supplied murky imagery involving projections and highly stylized photographs that obscure the participants (see above).
The album artwork, created by illustrator Nik Dudukovic, is a darker, more congested version of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper cover. (Spot Downie or the Sadies amidst the crowd if you can.) And as for Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun, when asked if that is the album title or the band's name, Downie's stock reply is "exactly."
So, yeah, Downie is something of a tall riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Today, he's a fedora-wearer, wrapped in a jean jacket, inside Blue Rodeo's Woodshed Studio, where the long-rumoured album was in part recorded in fleeting sessions over a period of some seven years.
It's a basement room. "We're crypt-dwellers," explains Downie, sitting down with Sadies drummer Mike Belitsky for an interview.
Downie has balanced a solo career over the years with the pursuits of his long-running meal-ticket band, the Tragically Hip. The alliance with the Sadies first took effect in 2007, when Downie and the Sadies were invited by CBC Radio's Fuse to combine for a set list of cover songs. The meeting ground for the fandango involved the roughshod material of Roky Erickson, Johnny Cash and Iggy and the Stooges.
The one-off project was a success enough in the minds of all concerned that they began working on original material together. "It was a reactive way to start a band," says Downie, "which was not knowing we were actually starting one."
The album's material is what fans of either Downie or the Sadies might expect. The sound is earth-toned and varied, from jangled psychedelia to fierce rock to woodsy Americana.
The tunes came together here and there, over the years. "It seemed like every time we got together, we'd punch out a song or two," says Downie. "They were means to an end, which was to get us out on the stage." Adds the wiry Belitsky, "Playing them live is invigorating. It's the next chapter."
Downie and the Sadies have gigs lined up this summer , with a show at Market Hall in Peterborough, Ont., on April 29, kicking things off.
The allure of the project is the application of Downie's voice and words against a new backdrop. "The Sadies have the ability to create soundscapes, and to put you in places," says Downie.
Asked about the song places and inspirations, the "I'll paint a scene from memory" songwriter fills me in. Budget Shoes came from Downie's vision of two escaped convicts chained together, running in the desert in cheap footwear. For Los Angeles Times, Downie imagined a Hollywood-style rooftop patio. "It's forever June and the night air is fragrant," he elaborates. "It's a wrap-party, a big star being feted, toasted, when across a crowded room he saw her."
And The Conquering Sun? "It's a farmer's field, a migrant worker bent to the task," he says. "His Sisyphean struggle is aided or hindered by the promise of nightfall and the thought of her – the 'cool hand of a girl.'"
With that, the interview is over. Downie stands up on a couch and unfolds the bulky wooden window blinds above us. So much for being crypt-dwellers. Thank you, Gord Downie, for the illumination.