Murray Lightburn can write a song to save your life

An interview with the Dears singer about his new solo album, Hear Me Out.

Murray Lightburn

The Dears have been a pillar of the Montreal music scene for nearly a quarter century, a milestone that will be celebrated by the “art-alt-orchestral-pop-rock” band next year. During the ongoing downtime that followed the tour for their latest record Times Infinity Vol. 2, singer Murray Lightburn made a second solo album called Hear Me Out, a record propelled by a familiar songwriting style and a sound that rings classic — a little vintage, perhaps, but mostly timeless.

“It’s not like I wanted to be as different as possible from the Dears,” Lightburn says, “it’s that this project reflects a side of me that I really have to make a little island for myself to embrace.”

What differentiates this set of songs from Dears material isn’t just the sound — with its echoes of pop, soul, doo-wop and gospel from the 1950s ’60s and ’70s, it’s a departure both from the band and from Lightburn’s solo debut, the synth-soul experiment MASSLIGHT — it’s the personnel. Absent from the record is the Dears’ second in command (and Lightburn’s wife) Natalia Yanchak, while producer Howard Bilerman provided a break from self-producing. On stage, Lightburn has the spotlight almost all to himself.

“I really wanted to write stuff that I could play by myself because that’s how I’m touring: mostly by myself, just me and a guitar. It’s terrifying, but it’s also amazing, because it’s super liberating and it’s really bringing me closer to songs in general. I don’t have to fiddle with pedals and, you know, point at the audience and sweat in a leather jacket or something (laughs).”

A string quartet is accompanying Lightburn on some of the dates, but not the same one. He’s enlisted different musicians in Toronto, Mexico City, London and L.A., as well as for this week’s show in Montreal.

“I like playing with strings a lot, and it doesn’t happen a lot — people don’t see that a lot. And it gives me a chance to work with local musicians when I can. It’s the same music, but there’s an energy there that I can’t even explain because half the time I’m meeting with these people for the first time and we’re going to play a show together that night. Whenever I tell that to the audience — I just met these musicians today, this morning, and we’re playing a show together — they can’t believe that that’s what they’re seeing. That level of communication is really kind of special, and not done a lot in rock ‘n’ roll.”

As for the drive behind going solo (again), Lightburn understands the assumption that this is a vanity project, but he argues that the opposite is true.

“I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid, and it’s my only skill-set, creating music, composing music. When I was very young, my dad said I was a composer. From his observation of me, that’s what he said I was: “Well, you’re definitely a composer, that’s for sure” — and that’s as much encouragement as I ever got from my parents (laughs). That’s what I have to offer, and so the reason why I made this particular record — it’s so weird how it has so little to do with me and more to do with the people around me and that I’m close to. I’m quite literally doing this for them — I want to give them something meaningful.

“But it’s not just for them,” he explains, “it goes deeper. I think about the amount of times people will find that one opportunity to take me aside after a show to just say something to me and have a one-on-one, and it’s always, always, ‘this song saved my life,’ ‘this album saved my life.’ That’s always the thing that inspires me to keep making stuff, because I feel like this person still fucking needs me to do this for them.”

As much as he loves to perform, the other side of being a career musician — studio work — is equally if not more fulfilling for Lightburn. Prior to making Hear Me Out, he recorded Hawksley Workman’s new album, adding to his long list of production credits.

“Honestly if I could make enough scratch just holed up in my studio mixing people’s records, that would be amazing. I’m not saying I would never perform again or I would never make a record again, but if that was something I was doing and I was making a meaningful living… ”

For the moment, the fanfare for Hear Me Out, from fans and critics alike, is keeping Lightburn busier than he expected to be. Media requests are piling up and he’s got enough gigs to keep him occupied for the rest of the year. As for this week’s hometown show, along with a local string quartet he’s enlisted a rhythm section and back-up singers, featuring some familiar faces from the Montreal scene. “We’re putting together something pretty special.” ■

Murray Lightburn performs with opener Cedric Noel at Bar le Ritz PDB (179 Jean-Talon W.) on Friday, March 1, 8 p.m., $13/$15