James Irwin takes on a major music cliché

With his new record, Unreal, the Montreal musician challenges widely held misconceptions about electronic music and folk.

James Irwin
James Irwin
James Irwin used to make music in the realm of modern folk. Western Transport, the record he released in 2012, was made up of songs enveloped in that warmth that one associates with acoustic arrangements, with autobiographical lyrics that are suitably earnest for a songwriter working within that genre.

Since then, Irwin played in the Moment (alongside Nicholas Scribner, Adam Waito, Julia Lewandoski and Jeffrey Malecki), a band whose style leaned towards pop. His new solo record — Unreal — was recorded at local studio the Pines over three years, and what emerged is another new sonic path. He describes it as “adventures in slow groove” with “nightclub vibes.”

“I made an electronic album in a two-week binge in Toronto I kind of found that the energy was much more visceral and spontaneous than what I got from making an acoustic album. I got more interested in that sound palette and what I could do. So the Moment was making an album and I was making my own at the same time and it all ended up coming together.”

As for his choice of title, “unreal” was an adjective that Irwin happens to use a lot (to the point of being teased by his girlfriend about it). But there’s more to it.

“It goes back to when I made the electronic album and I realized that people think acoustic or live-played traditional instruments are somehow more human and more honest, and what I found was basically the opposite. [The title] refers to the digital process, and how it doesn’t really matter what you can play — it’s what you want to assemble. You have so much freedom to reassemble things after the fact and that process was kind of scary to me until I learned to manipulate it to my own aesthetics.”

Of the lyrical, narrative side of Unreal, Irwin explains, “My last album was quite autobiographical and introspective in a sense, and this one is told from the POV of various characters — it’s all fictional. It’s reversing the emphasis from trying to communicate the real you to communicating something imaginary.”

For this week’s launch show in Montreal, Irwin will play every single tune from Unreal (and a brand new track or two), with his old Moment bandmate Malecki on drums, Adam Kinner on sax, Pietro Amato on French horn and keys and Michael Feuerstack on guitar — anyone familiar with Montreal’s large pool of ace musicians will recognize the all-star-ness of that line-up.

“It’s a large, really experienced band, and it sounds great,” Irwin confirms. “The set mixes the paces of the album, so it’ll be moody and ambient at times, but there’s a lot of boogie, too.”
James Irwin launches Unreal with Alden Penner and Caro Diaro on Thursday, Jan. 22, 9 p.m., $8/$10