These days, pop tunesmith Jason Plumb is virtuously making music for the joy and love of music’s sake itself. The evidence? Look no further than his band’s name. Formed in 2002 as Jason Plumb and The Willing, Jason explains that the name addresses his friends’ and musical peers’ desire to help him perform music, while evoking a political undertone. “The [band members] were willing to play for free. I was lucky enough that these guys enjoyed my music enough to want to help me out. The name also stems from George W. Bush’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’.” (The Willing is Mike Thompson on drums, Cody Gamracy on guitar, Gord Smith on bass, Jeff McLeod on keyboards, Dan Silljer on guitar, and Jason Plumb).
After taking a break from The Waltons, his long running prairie-born and highly acclaimed group, Jason figures it took a couple of years - with a hearty push from friends and industry peers - to finally decide to make a record not for industry’s sake, but under his own direction, and to quench his passion for music. “I’m enjoying it more now than I ever have,” he says frankly. “I think it’s that I just don’t give a sh*t anymore...it’s really not the end of the world if I don’t sell any records. I’ve sold records in the past; I know what that’s like, and I know what kind of treadmill that puts you on, so it’s not as important to me.” Jason describes the excessive demands and “hectic, crazy pace” of The Waltons’ busy career. He seems acutely happy not to be pursuing fame and gold records any more, perhaps if only because he is free from shouldering others’ label and business expectations. “It starts to feel like it’s not about the music at all; it’s more about appearances. Now that nobody cares what I’m doing, I feel a lot better about it! To tell you the truth, if any kind of moderate success was to come my way, I don’t know how I would handle it. I would welcome it, I’m sure, to a certain degree; but I’m older now than when I was touring and playing 250 shows a year.”
Jason first began performing near the end of his high school years, and clearly remembers the set he played, including a song called ‘Summer School Blues’ which he’d penned himself. Having played the piano since a very young age, he’s always been a keen fan of music. Listening to Jason talk about his first band (which eventually become The Waltons, once he stepped into the role of lead vocalist), it indicates just how much of his life he’s invested in music, and why he is now willing to let go of ‘the industry’.
Jason is quick to admit that The Willing isn’t really a self-sustaining project (given the high costs of assembling shows with string sections in soft-seaters), and reveals his side business in post-audio work, which allows him the cushion to write and record without having to worry about making a living on the road. Jason mentions that he's recently worked with Saskatoon's Juxtapose Productions and Plan 9 Films on post-audio, and that he's helped indie folk singer Nicol Lischka and country/alt-rock group WYATT (both from Saskatoon) record and work on their recent albums.
Jason operates mostly from his own audio space, Clubhouse Studio in Regina, where the majority of the second Willing album - the easygoing, illustrious and wonderfully presented Beauty In This World - was recorded. Jason is all over this record, having worked on nearly every single stage of its evolution, from writing to engineering to performing to mixing. “It’s a different gig, producing your own record,” Jason relates. “I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and it was definitely interesting to do it myself because it came out how I [wanted it to], without any outside influences.” Jason says that however people react to his album, he’s ready to accept their response.
When discussing his position in relation to today’s leading alt-country and indie pop record scene-makers, he modestly imagines himself “warming the hockey bench rather than skating full speed on the ice,” to apply a Saskatchewan-ready metaphor. Mentioning prolific songwriter Ryan Adams, Jason admits to being a huge fan; he then runs off a lengthy list of his influences. Humility aside, Jason is a gifted melodist, possessing an organic songwriting quality that holds its own with today’s top songwriters. He makes numerous mentions during this interview about the importance of developing a full album, as opposed to chasing the quick single. That’s an attitude that invigorates this writer’s ears and spirit. Jason explains, “Beauty In This World is a journey. I’ve always been a fan of records; I’ve always been interested in the course an album takes. However, it’s certainly getting rarer and rarer, in the epoch of the iPod Shuffle and downloadable singles. People mostly care only about the one song - the single - and that’s it.”
Overall, Jason says his album is easy to listen to, incorporating a sound where “hardcore pop meets Steve Earle”. He also says that critics in Europe have tended to describe the album as “an alt-country record with symphony strings.” “You can’t help but be influenced by country music, growing up on the prairies,” he explains.
Jason signed with Ontario’s MapleMusic Recordings in 2000 to release a live Waltons record, and then released his debut album Under and Over on the same label. However, for Beauty In This World he opted to handle it himself. He notes, “The making of music these days is completely accessible. I think that the value of a live performance, in the future, is going to become more important, because it’s not something you can download or mess with.” He states, “To me, making a record is just a means to a live performance...so I can go out and tour and perform for audiences.”
“I’m about halfway, I’ve got some nice stuff,” Jason admits when asked about his propensity for musical equipment. Jason describes some of his favourite gear used on the album; he plays a Gibson 335 1982 hollow body, a 1971 Fender Deluxe Reverb, and a 1973 Ampeg GU12, which Jason highly touts as “a great little amp”. He adds, “My partner in crime on the record, Dan Canfield, is a gear pig; he’s got every kind of microphone. A big part of the record’s sound came from his great collection of mics and pre-mics, and through his ability to not only output the sound from two digital channels, but through sixteen channels.” He admits to the album’s tiresome workload, having spent three months on mixing. Jason ultimately champions Joao Carvalho Mastering in Toronto, where Beauty In This World was polished. “He’s a music fan,” Jason explains, “and he’s got great ears.” He adds, “It’s the best mastering room in the whole country, hands down.” Jason says they worked very well together in weaving a “wall of Jason”. Drawing on his love of Freddie Mercury's vocal gallantry, he essentially harmonized to his own lead vocal for the first time, instead of hiring backup singers or having his bandmates do the majority of the backup singing. It sounds like something Jason had long planned to do, and as a result, the vocal layering effortlessly fastens itself to the main vocal, offering a consistently strong, pleasing sound on the album. To complement Jason’s sound, he was absolutely adamant on having string arrangements flavour the album. Eight players from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra recorded the string accompaniments at Wolf Willow Sound in Edmonton, Alberta over the course of one day with recording assistance from John Blerot, an incredible feat given that the beautifully played strings appear on nearly every song!
Of further note is Toronto-based Ian LeFeuvre - the Telecaster-loving guitarist who plays the awesome lead lines on tracks ‘Drive’ and on ‘Seems to Me’. Jason says, “He’s got a great sound, and a great ear for country-rock. Definitely one of the top three or four guitar players in the world.” Expressed as a great, soaring tune, ‘Drive’ reflects the many, many kilometers spent on the road as a result of Jason’s love of performing. The song's liner notes include ‘fate tempted for the love of performing’, as a reflection on a dangerous close call. Jason explains how he and Ian were able to collaborate even though they weren’t operating out of the same studio, thanks to the advantages of the Internet and file transfer capabilities. Pondering the ever-paradoxical relationship created between the usefulness and exploitation of Internet technology, he now feels that, “You don’t have to live in Toronto to make a world-class record, but you have to go there, visit there.”
Appropriately enough, Jason is preparing for a fall tour which will see The Willing visit Eastern Canada, to Montreal and perhaps Quebec City. He discusses his recent regional tour as well, marking once again his love of performing. He just completed a mini-tour, with shows in Swift Current, Moose Jaw, Yorkton and Gravelbourg. “They were really nice folks down there. I was very impressed,” he recalls of the latter, historically prominent Francophone town. Discussing tour particulars, Jason also notes, “The sound man is the most underrated part of any touring operation!” With the importance of the people working off-stage, Jason is sharply aware and additionally appreciative of the need and courtesy of taking care of those that help carry out his musical undertakings.
He elaborates at length on his bandmates. “I’m very lucky to have a band like that.” Jason stresses the importance of recognizing that many of the world-class musicians performing around him, including those in his band, choose to stay in Saskatchewan, or have made a conscious effort to work under the prairie sky. "Unarguably," he says, “we have to appreciate our own a little more, and promote our own.” Jason has tremendous pride and trust in Saskatchewan’s music community, noting, “I think there are some really smart people in the Saskatchewan music business.” As for the challenges of working out of Saskatchewan, Jason advises to “do it, do it, if it’s your life’s passion.” He also cautions about being overly-confident about your abilities...while you can't give complete weight to critics, if an artist finds themselves with a long string of less-than-admirable reviews, there just might be something to it!
While Jason has put industry expectations aside, he is focusing on those things which keep great music alive: honesty, creative integrity, peer appreciation, a pronounced love for performance and touring, and the drive to create a full album’s worth of great songs in a business steadily dispensing of the album’s worth. He simply says, “I just like to make music; I try not to worry about it.” He stops for a second, pondering the fact that he’s operating on his own now, and that it’s become “my own job to sell my records!” (Beauty In This World was released on Jason’s own label, Soccer Mom Records.)
I have to ask Jason that timeless question: “You’re stuck on island for the rest of your life, and you only have a few albums to keep you company. What will you listen to?”
Jason stumbles a bit, as any music lover will when presented with a question of such magnitude. Finally, he decides on XTC’s Oranges & Lemons and Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’.
Before long, Jason needs to catch up with his vacationing family. For a family man who’s making music for no one’s expectations (save his own), Jason Plumb is definitely still riding tall, and making plays in the scene just as he surely did during the 2007 JunoCup celebrity hockey match.