Photo by Frédérique Bérubé

Jesse Mac Cormack does it all on Now

The debut album by the Montreal singer, songwriter and producer sounds like something from another era.

They don’t really make albums like Jesse Mac Cormack’s Now these days.

The first long player from the Montreal native is the sort of ornate, dense production common in the 1980s, when industry money was flowing and studio time was ample. In 2019, sidled up against minimalist hi-hats and wobbly bass squeaking out of my rinky dink AirPods, it sounds positively alien.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, that Mac Cormack didn’t have some secret nest egg funding his opus. Now was painstakingly done, one surgical adjustment at a time, at his then-home-studio in Rosemont. Mac Cormack was the songwriter, the arranger and producer all rolled into one.

“I guess I did do most of it alone, and I don’t know if that’s a positive thing or not,” he says. “Sometimes I spend a lot of time on technical details, which I shouldn’t be doing when I’m writing songs. Right now even the mixing, recording and writing processes is mixed up together — it’s not separated. The boundaries between each step is never really clear.”

If he could do it again, Mac Cormack – who ironically enough built his rep in Montreal as an eager collaborative sideman — would probably have brought more people into his full-length debut, which came following a trio of introductory EPs.

“I did too much by myself. In the future I wish to collaborate more,” he says. “But every time someone came to the studio, I had them listen to a song. I like having people’s feedback. Overall, I think I’m better with other people. By myself I’m not quite as strong.”

That being said, there’s plenty of confident songwriting and playing to be found on Now, making his admission all the more unexpected. Side A, especially, is rife with bouncy, folkish art rock recalling some of the more straightforward works of adult contemporary dynamo Peter Gabriel (opening track “Give a Chance” follows a similar flow to “Rhythm of the Heat”) and even Talk Talk (Mac Cormack’s forceful, face-first vocals definitely give some Mark Hollis vibes at times).

Overloading the listener with the best tracks right off the bat was by design, Mac Cormack said.

“Side A is more intentional. I wrote all the songs from Side A starting with specific rhythms. My only goal with the record when I started writing the songs was I had just come back from a tour and I really felt like I needed more rhythmic songs, songs that would be a little more fun live that people could dance to. That was my only thought before I even started doing it, and after that, I just layered whatever I felt like layering.”

The way he describes it, the process of making Now was one of intense, never-ending home studio tinkering. Besides a desk full of hardware, behind his work chair there were 12 keyboards, guitars, amps, a piano and a booth for drums (his neighbours were cool with his playing). Finally, there was the thing that tied the whole room together: huge windows, with a lot of light coming in.

“I worked on it forever,” he says. “I did that for three years. It never stopped.”

At one point, Mac Cormack even presented a tentatively finished version to his label, Secret City, and was told it wasn’t quite ready yet. He worked on it for another year after that.

“They told me simply it could be better and there was another step to get to,” he recalls. “A lot of little things changed for sure, but mostly I made the songs shorter.”

While there wasn’t enough time to update the lyrical themes, Mac Cormack’s thoughts on the effects of climate change have inspired some new songs he’s working on, and also factored into Now’s striking artwork.

He and his daughter went down to Death Valley to shoot the cover, along with videos and promotional material. It’s an inspiring place for him that fits where his headspace is at these days.

“We went to a place called Badwater. It used to be a sea, but now it’s just salt. With what’s happening right now with climate change, this place has an ominous quality that makes it look like our future. The place is such a strong image for me.” ■

Jesse Mac Cormack is playing this year’s Jazz Fest with Land of Talk at Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent) on June 28, 9 p.m., $32.25