Shuyler Jansen

Shuyler Jansen

Today's Remains, Tomorrow's Treasures

by Levi Soulodre

August 7, 2009

Today’s Remains, the latest album and second solo effort from folk/electro rocker and Saskatoon resident Shuyler Jansen, is a breathy, life-filled testimonial to a prairie musician’s unselfish musical drive and compelling, narrative-propelled songwriting. Released on Vancouver’s Black Hen Music and pressed to the wonderfully (and hopefully never outdated) vinyl format by Calgary-based Saved By Vinyl, Today’s Remains is gathering Shuyler a whole lot of deserved attention - not only for its songwriting and recording quality, but also for its altruistic nature, where a commonality exists between Shuyler’s writing and the listener’s emotional response. The soaring yet distressed opening opus, “Pegasus”, immediately propels the album into its proper form; uniting clear, thoughtful lyricism with skillfully layered yet soberly applied instrumentation for instantly likeable and returnable songs.

Meeting over a few pints at Amigos, Shuyler is easily affable, possessing a kind soul with a halo of unpretentiousness orbiting his being. A down-to-earth musician, he speaks vividly of his music influences, favourite albums (including the KinksSomething Else and the Meat Puppets II), musical tastes growing up, current fixation on Saskatchewan’s music scene, and subsequent ways he works as a “poor man’s A&R” for Calgary’s Saved By Radio and renowned West Coast-based musician Steve Dawson’s record imprint, Black Hen, which is also now home to Shuyler’s “companion group”, Saskatoon’s The Deep Dark Woods

Shuyler first met Steve Dawson in 1997, with Dawson being impressed enough to release Shuyler’s debut album, The Hobotron a few years later in 2004. An Edmonton resident at this time, Shuyler wrote part of Today’s Remains in Edmonton, the other half in Saskatoon. Being a fan of Saskatoon’s blossoming music scene and its many music venues, it was felt logical for Shuyler (whose wife is also from Saskatoon), to settle there in 2005 and make a home with his family in the city.

Shuyler notes that the folk/country-heavy sound of Today’s Remains was written principally as a “cowboy album” for his father, who “loves Willie (Nelson) and Waylon Jennings and all that.” By no means, though, does he feel confined to the style, admitting that his next album - alike the synth-heavy Hobotron - might well be totally different. 

Today’s Remains retains the sensibility of a musician diligently avoiding the mainstream confines by incorporating psychedelic and electro-based looping elements into his music, especially apparent when listened to on headphones. A true fan of the unfortunately now under-appreciated ‘album’ medium, Shuyler’s goal was to create just that: fifteen songs were initially recorded for the album. “(Then) we just tried to pick the ten songs that would work best together,” Shuyler explains, “and also, I didn’t want to make a really long record…I’m not a fan of the long-ranging, 65-minute-plus albums.” An argument surely justified in today’s increasingly digitized, short-attention-spanned society, and which corresponds to Shuyler’s love of the typically shorter ‘60s/’70s album lengths. 

Today’s Remains flows effortlessly and easily and was recorded in a surprisingly short five days, with many of the vocals cut live off the floor, “all playing in a room together,” creating a more traditional, spontaneous sound and feel. Accordingly, Shuyler admits to being a huge proponent of the mix tape aesthetic, admitting he “still loves and plays tapes” and only purchases vinyl when possible; ways of retaining that ‘wholesomeness’ of the way music should be shared and listened to. “(iPods) just don’t have the same sentimental value,” he muses.

And Today’s Remains possesses more than just Shuyler’s own confident songwriting and traditional feel. Throughout, a terrific working relationship is evident between Shuyler and Dawson, as Shuyler admits, “I let go, and trusted him to complete the album. I mean, we’ve been friends for a long time; I know what his records sound like-and I wanted something similar to his albums.” With Dawson’s production wizardry, the album boasts a plethora of varying sounds and tones from guitar, pedal steel, organ and a cornucopia of instruments. Unassumingly beginning with an innocent yet strong guitar line, the opening track "Pegasus" chugs along like a train making its way across the plain on a trip from Saskatoon to Edmonton, with Shuyler executing a Dylan-esque narrative over the song, which he admits is “pretty much devoid of any typical verse/chorus structure.” The second track, "Play Fair," immediately churns out crashing cymbals and drums; a rock-edged pace, with an understated looping composition layered into the chorus. This hybrid of traditional folk songwriting and modern experimental sonic techniques distinguishes Shuyler’s musical signature, and characterizes the musical interplay between his classic folk/rock and grunge/psychedelia inspirations. He enjoys old folk and country, of course, but talks passionately of early ‘90s pioneers the Meat Puppets and Dinosaur Jr. (the latter whom he recently saw perform three times on their North American passage).

Shuyler also champions the album’s mixing engineer, David Travers-Smith, as a “crazy old man…hunched over the mixing board, spending a long time pouring over the record.” The album does possess an excellent mix, as the numerous instruments and tones work cohesively rather than each fighting to be heard. Yet again under Dawson’s production, string arrangements support certain songs, recalling an old-style Western balladry (especially in the album’s title track). Lyrically, Shuyler shines on the plaintive narrative, embodying his songs with Prairie naturalism (“Baby, you’ve been windswept”) and confessional honesty (“There’s a black fog on the lake/You’re no model; you’re no saint/you’re obsessed with death, so it follows you around”). While Shuyler’s voice is a steady, no-frills affair, comfortable in its mid-baritone range, it leaves more to be discovered in Shuyler’s poetry and reflections on life, love, relationships and addictions.

Aside from some piano work, Shuyler never really received much in the way of formal training, opting rather for “friends who would teach me here and there.” While he acknowledges that lessons lead to a more consistent path for singing and playing, he values the emotional connection as the most important factor in delivering a performance.

At that, no band in Saskatchewan has been further championed by Shuyler over the past year than Saskatoon’s the Deep Dark Woods. After debuting their full-length album in 2006, they really exploded onto the Canadian musical scene last year with an amazing follow-up, Hang Me, Oh Hang Me and a cross-country tour, both of which were organized and collaborated, in part, with Shuyler. The Deep Dark Woods are Shuyler’s backing band, recreating a close representation of Shuyler’s album, with Shuyler in return joining in on the Woods’ set with additional instrumentation. “I just asked them out of the blue,” Shuyler recalls, “because most of my old band mates were back in Edmonton. I was excited to play with them, and we rehearsed all of last summer, no pressure, just to see if it would work out, and everyone seemed really happy with it all.” Shuyler praises the double billing as an opportunity for each group to bring different audiences together to a show, with “two bands able to tour together, but with only one extra guy”, increasing the chance for each band to make new fans. Recalling their last tour out west, Shuyler highlights the Railway Club show in Vancouver in particular: “That felt good, selling out the Railway Club, with The Sheepdogs playing with us. It was pretty exciting, given that it was three Saskatoon bands…The shows are (always) getting better.”

While Today’s Remains is also available in Europe through Rounder UK, Shuyler has no plans to travel across the Atlantic just yet; coming off a recent, hectic schedule, his 2008 engagements include an upcoming gig in New York City (with the Woods), and he anticipates hitting the folk festival circuit this summer around Western Canada. While having only released the album late in 2007, Shuyler is already working on a new album; announcing that he’s now teaming up with production-team extraordinaire JCDC (John Collins and Dave Carsewell), who have an impressive list of productions credits including The New Pornographers, Destroyer and Tegan & Sara. When asked whether this choice was consciously made to eschew being labeled strictly a folk singer, Shuyler ponders, “I love working with people I trust,” he explains, “but I’m also not interested in sticking to just one sound.” He hopes to have the album out by Christmas, with vocal recording sessions scheduled for May.

Unquestionably yet altogether courageously, Shuyler is not making music to achieve rock stardom, asserting, “I’m not trying to write hits…I’m not on a giant label, and that’s not what’s being asked of me. What is a hit these days, anyway?!” He reflects, “(Music) phases come in waves…which is why it’s important to retain your originality.” While Shuyler admits that he’s never been a big fan of money, he does stress the importance of longevity, especially for his family’s sake; “Keep yourself invigorated, and making music that’s good, even though it might not be fashionable.”

Before heading off to catch a friend’s show, Shuyler remarks again on The Deep Dark Woods’ growing success, “Which is why I might even get them to sing background vocals on the new album…they’re the best harmonizing singers around!” 

The combination of Shuyler’s inviting personality and relentless musical integrity will certainly yield future successes, while his growing fanbase patiently awaits the next show or new album…tomorrow’s treasures.  

By Lévi Soulodre for SaskMusic. Originally published Spring 2008.

This article is posted as initially published. For reprint/usage permission or any other questions, please contact SaskMusic.

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