Patrick Watson

Patrick Watson. Photo by Ilenia Tesoro

Patrick Watson dives deeper on Wave

The Montreal singer-songwriter spoke to us about his latest album and working on Leonard Cohen’s Thanks for the Dance.

“This is probably my most personal set of lyrics,” says Patrick Watson, reflecting on the planned and unplanned elements and events that went into the making of Wave, a beautiful set of songs and the sixth studio album for the Montreal singer-songwriter.

While this record was in the works, Watson lost his mother, he and his partner separated and his longtime drummer left the band. When a songwriter infuses their work with sadness, I always wonder how they’re able to revisit that material night after night, and while Watson admits that this tour will be “tricky” in that respect, recent performances of new material have left him with an uplifting feeling — and that’s by design.

“I do have a rule, the only thing I got from music school, to be honest: a great sad song is a song that still smiles. I like sad music that lifts your head up; I’m not a fan of stuff that totally shrinks you. I write a lot of songs for each record, I’ll write like 30 songs, and (to make the cut) I’ve got to feel like something good comes out of it, that it’s not just whining about how things suck. 

“I don’t pretend on stage, ever,” Watson states emphatically. “I could never do that. It would be taking the stage for granted and totally disrespecting what I do for a living. I take my job seriously. So when I write songs that are heavy-handed, I make sure there are multiple sources of things that kind of belong to it. If I do a song like ‘Broken,’ which is obviously about a really specific thing, I can always relate it to so many different things that can get me into that state in a concert.”

Even before the recent whirlwind of misfortunes in Watson’s life began, he’d already committed to revealing more of himself in his lyrics, a trend in modern music that he’s been inspired by.

“I think the line of intimacy has been pushed way farther than it’s ever been pushed in a lot of music. In hip hop or modern R&B, Frank Ocean, even some pop music, the personal introspection has increased so much in the past 10 years. If there’s anyone in the past who did that really well it was John Lennon, especially after the Beatles, ‘Jealous Guy.’ It’s just really inspiring when people lay it on the table. How do I respond to that? I wanted something that was really direct and really personal and a little bit more sober in terms of the lyrical content, songs that are poignant that can stand in the world that we live in, a fast-paced world.”

While Patrick Watson is on-board with contemporary lyrical trends and understands more than most the importance of instrumentation, production and everything that goes into sonic texture, he feels like there’s been a decline in other areas of music.

“There are billions of produced records right now that have their merit and are super interesting to listen to but in my opinion the songwriting has dwindled a little bit because people are so focused on what they’re going to sound like,” he says. “There’s so much music out there right now — the world does not need anymore music unless you have something meaningful to say. So with this record, I really wanted the songwriting to be bang-on.”

The other project that has occupied Watson’s time recently (aside from the occasional collab with people like Safia Nolin and assorted soundtrack commissions) is working on Leonard Cohen’s recently released posthumous album Thanks for the Dance. Cohen’s son Adam enlisted Watson to add music to some of Cohen’s vocals, which were recorded back in 2016. (Producer Howard Bilerman and singers Daniel Lanois and Molly Sweeney were also involved in the project.)

“I’ve always appreciated Leonard Cohen but you have to understand, I come from an instrumental music background. Especially when I started, lyrics weren’t my forte, it wasn’t my gift, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more and more and more into lyrics, so working on this project, when you have Leonard Cohen’s voice all by itself without any music and then you have the task of building all the music over the delivery, obviously you’re gonna have a different appreciation of how much you like the person. It’s such a special thing to do; it’s a very touching experience. And Adam’s a really great guy, so it was such a fun thing to do and such a great honour.

“Regardless of how good you are as a wordsmith or how good you are technically as a musician, intention, for me, is the name of the game more than anything. It’s really risky writing the kind of lyrics that Leonard would write. He had gutsy things to say and not everyone can say them in a convincing way. There’s a lot to it, and I find that that intention is really inspiring.”

Circling back to the influence of modern music, despite the fact that his own style is so far from rap, Patrick Watson admires the way that hip hop has raised the stakes for everyone.

“The way rock ’n’ roll changed everything — once people played loud electric guitar, it changed the depth of field that people are used to — hip hop has changed everything. Not just the sound, but there’s an intensity to it that you can never go backwards from. You can’t go back to folk lyrics afterwards. It’s too raw. That’s why it’s an interesting time to make music.” ■

Patrick Watson performs with opener Thus Owls at MTelus (59 Ste-Catherine E.) on Dec. 10, 11 and 12, 8 p.m., SOLD OUT

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