Five Questions With Jeff Gay

Canadian Americana folk-country rocker Jeff Gay is back with his new album, Stargazer, as well as a new single, “XOXO” featuring multi-award winning singer-songwriter Christina Martin.

Many of the tracks on Stargazer wade into the darker depths of romantic relationships, and “XOXO” is no exception.

“Honestly? I was thinking about women I’ve known through the years who’ve told me stories about their partners threatening suicide as a way to try and hang onto them,” Gay shares, immediately delving deep into the inspiration behind the song. “As much as I despise this idea and that kind of man, I really wanted to try and get into the head of a person who would do this.

“I imagined a sort of self-absorbed individual while songwriting or someone with a real depression or mental illness, but it’s truly open to interpretation of what type of individual’s perspective is shared; like, maybe it could be you? Or maybe he’s just looking for that impossible person to put the stars in his crown?

“I think one line says it all: ‘I love, and I grieve, and I always feel bad,’ as if his trouble should be his lover’s problem.”

Check out “XOXO” below and find out more about Jeff via our Five Questions With segment.

Care to introduce yourself to our readers? 

Hi, I’m Jeff Gay. I’m 41, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I write songs and collect records. My parents live across the bridge to Dartmouth in Cole Harbour, in the same house that I lived in from the time I was five. I believe my musical style is influenced by the fact that my mother’s parents were from Newfoundland, and that my father was born in England – my sound is like a well organized, formal gathering for afternoon tea that turns into a kitchen party. Music seemingly consumes every aspect of my life. The first cassette I ever bought was by New Kids on the Block. My dad was none too keen on this choice, and so the next few tape acquisitions were huge for me: Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits; Cat Steven’s Greatest Hits; Neil Young’s Harvest; The Band’s s/t; Grateful Dead’s American Beauty; Jethro Tull’s Stand Up. At the time, I was a boy soprano whose voice was changing, and I think my switch from the very disciplined operatic music I was singing to listening to more rustic rock and folk also had an impact on my sound today. I’m a slow but avid reader, and literary ideas definitely inspire my lyric writing. For instance, after I read Thoreau’s Walden, I thought… all this story needs for this hermit living alone in the woods is probably just a girlfriend (and perhaps a bit more mysticism) – next thing I know, my song “In the Dead of Winter” was born! Around 2012, as an occasional respite from music constantly (at both home and at work), I started to follow NBA basketball. I used to say that watching ball was a good way to forget about music for a few hours, but now I find that I’ll watch and work on chord changes or lyrics at the same time. Immediately after the Toronto Raptors won the championship in 2019, I seriously thought to myself that I could now die happy… and I still feel that way! My favorite thing is having time off, turning on my NES or Sega Genesis, and listening to records. I’m also a big movie fan, which also creeps into the music. Since I enjoy doing most of these activities sitting idly on my couch, I try to run 10km every two days: roughly 7 loops around the perimeter of the Halifax Commons on a good day for me. I also love playing with my band (Curtis MacPhee, Maxwell Cranford, Brett Waye, and Drew DeBay). Since the pandemic bubble opened up a bit, we were able to practice and that feels great to hang out with my best friends. We even played a show recently and it’s been a long time since I’ve been so happy to be on stage.

Tell us a bit about your music and writing style.

When I was younger, creating music for me was very much about copying the styles of artists that I admired. I see clearly now that I had a very long Elvis Costello period, another period when I was imitating The Band’s sound. Thankfully, by the time I was ready to make my first proper CD in 2008 (Kindly Requests by Jeff Gay and Special Blends), I had most of this copying out of my system and I was more concerned about establishing my own thing as an artist. With my 2017 release, Cuban Rum on Hungry Records, I felt that with my accumulated musical experiences, I was finally able to present a fairly succinct, representative piece of art. My idea for the current album, Stargazer, was to really stretch out and attempt to bring people into my musical world. I decided that I would not only write and arrange but also perform all the parts myself. With my cohort and recording wiz Jeff Macdonald by my side, we set on course to work on 21 songs. 16 of these songs were completed and released as Stargazer. The process would be to record an acoustic guitar part along with a click, over which I would record my drums over at Jeff’s studio, The Drum Room, in Three Fathom Harbour. As Jeff is an excellent drummer himself, he would give me arrangement ideas that I wouldn’t have come up that helped give the album more drama. From here, I would take these basic tracks and overdub parts by myself at home, or with Jeff’s help at his studio. I got my friends to help me with backing vocals. Anyway, what emerged was certainly my most personal work, and it really feels like something that I needed to get out of my system. Around the time I was finalizing the songs that appear on this album, a couple of my friends encouraged me to listen to more modern music. I went on a deep dive, and a few things stuck out for me, but nothing as much as Snail Mail’s Habit EP and Lush LP. Now I take a lot of flack from naysayers: of course, they may be right, or is it also possible that they might dismiss the output of a nineteen-year-old girl before they even give it a chance; regardless, the densely romantic content of those Snail Mail records really fit in well with the stuff I was working on for Stargazer. So if someone picks up my album and they don’t really get it, I don’t sweat it anymore because I know that not everyone loves Snail Mail, not everyone is into reflection, romanticism, etc. And as I really feel that every record is a response to the last one, my next musical moves will be a reaction to what came before it. For instance, I’d like to shift focus away from love songs on my next release and work on some songs that are more like a slice of life, or political/social in nature. There are a few different sounds I would like to capture as well. I am working with a band with two songwriters in Max and Curt, and our original material has a raw sound that I am enthused to capture on record. I also would love to work on something that is a more stripped-down, solo record – something like Van Morrison’s Moondance with horns and a bluesy feel. Moreover, I would love to do a record with orchestral backing like the classic Scott Walker records. I am really inspired by albums with great arrangements, like Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On – albums that seem to achieve perfection through their details.

Do you have any upcoming shows? For someone who has yet to see you live, how would you explain your live performance?

We are in a relatively low-risk area from COVID at the moment in Halifax. Nonetheless, live performances have slowed down and have become more complicated. I played a show last week, for instance, at a great little venue, Gus’ Pub, with my friend, Ronok Sarkar. Me and Ronok are likely to play a show at another great spot in Dartmouth, The New Scotland Brewery, in November. For the show at Gus’, whereas there might’ve been nights I’ve played here in the past where 100 people or more were squeezed in, we were limited to a seating capacity of 30 people. Before the show, it was stressful, much more like being an event planner than a singer-songwriter preparing for a performance. I was concerning myself with who would sit with who, which was sort of weird! Having said all that, by the time I got on stage, all of those concerns evaporated and it was just pure joy. I’ve spent a lot of time on stages in my life. As a young soprano, I sang in churches and at the Rebecca Cohn, and later on, in my twenties, I worked full-time at a dinner theatre in which I was an actor, musician, and waiter rolled into one. So having an opportunity to be an entertainer and perform my original material at the same time is something I feel very fortunate to be able to do, and I like to think that when I’m joined by the band, it is a wild and woolly, exciting time for all! I started this current version of my backing band around this time last year so that we’d able to do shows to promote Stargazer, but Coronavirus more or less blew up all of those plans. Perhaps because it is so difficult to organize band shows, I’m getting more into it! I like doing the Chuck Berry duck walk, a random Dylan impression, jam along and smile with my right-hand man Curtis next to me, and jump around like an idiot. When I’m on stage, especially these days – life is good.

If you were asked to suggest only one of your songs for someone to hear, which would it be?

It is too difficult to choose one song over the other! I spend a lot of time on my Spotify Artist page and worry about the songs with the least amount of plays. They all feel like my children. I can’t single one out, I’d feel bad for the rest and might stunt their development! OK, since you are pressing me on it, Canadian Beats, I will say please check out my single, XOXO. It features Christina Martin. She is so great. I saw her and Dale perform at New Scotland Brewery in August and it was truly inspiring. They are consummate performers and great entertainers. I would kill to be able to stage banter like that! Anyway, I would love for people to check out the single. Check out the video my friend Paul MacRae directed for it on YouTube. Check it out even just to hear Christina’s parts, as she just nailed the feel I was going for. And for those of you who are more used to my more country-rock sound, this song was influenced by The Cure’s Disintegration period of hard-rocking melodic pop but mixed with the spirit of Sly Stone that you can especially hear in the song’s intro.

Canadian Beats is all about Canadian music, so who are your current favourite Canadian bands/ artists?

My favourite Canadian artists are from Halifax, and are some of my favourite artists – period! I feel as those I belong to a group of unsung songwriting superheroes here in this province that go about their business of rescuing music behind the scenes and under the cover of night! Several of them are featured backing vocalists on my album, Stargazer. To start, my good friend Ronok Sarkar who sings on my album and who does wonderful work on his own and with his band, Bend the River; he is just about to release an album of solo material that I had the good fortune to contribute to. Ronok’s soon to be released album, to me, feels more like Donald Fagen’s Nightfly, in that it sounds incredible and more clinical than BTR with very polished arrangements. I’m very stoked for when that comes out! Also featured on my album are N.S. singer/songwriters Norma MacDonald and Laura Merrimen. Norma’s new album, Old Future, is deservedly capturing a lot of attention, while Laura’s last effort, This Time & From Now On, is just the bomb! I had a chance to catch Laura recently at New Scotland Brewery which was great, and I was excited to hear that she also has a new record in the can. Julia Weir and Trevor Murphy from Quiet Parade also sang on my album; I encourage everybody to check out their latest release, The Will to Weather the Storm, and especially my personal fav, Thunder. I always enjoy Wintersleep and related projects: POSTDATA; Jon Samuel’s Dead Melodies album; even Loel had a single recently that was fire. I always check out Mays’ stuff – my old dog Chelsea might be on the cover for Dog City. And also my friend, Alexander MacNeil, released the terrific Super Turbo last year that I’d encourage people to listen to. I’m always interested to listen to the newest Jah’Mila single, and the Aquakulture album was just next level good. Also, my friends Meaghan Dalton and Tyra Brennan contributed outstanding backing vocals to my record, and I am very much hoping to be apart of getting their voices on the airwaves as well. There is so much talent in this city, it is just nuts. Hope it survives a pandemic! And I would certainly be remiss to leave out The Everywheres, as their Dignity Fever will always be in my rotation as my favourite all-time Halifax release.

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