By Scott A. GrayAs one of the principle supporting pillars of Toronto's rich music scene, Charles Spearin has demonstrated the beauty and selflessness of his artistic vision time and again. From the evolution of Do Make Say Think's pioneering post-rock to his experimental electronic pop collaboration with Kevin Drew as KC Accidental, right into the great musical amoeba of the north, Broken Social Scene, Charles Spearin has been an integral background player in shaping the musical identify of this country. Now, Charles finds himself in the leadership position for the utterly fascinating Happiness Project, a unique album based on the melodic and rhythmic patterns that form randomly in human speech. Charles took some time away from recording a new Do Make Say Think album to discuss the process of documenting the universally musical sounds that emerged from a series of recorded conversations he had with his neighbours on the topic of happiness.
What inspired you to embark upon this project, both thematically and musically? They're different inspirations. The musical inspiration came first. When I used to live at home with my parents, I'd sit and listen to my parents talk and my dad would be like, [softly and deeply hums] "Hmm hm hmmm, Hmm hmm hm hmm," and my mom would be [more shrill and sharply] "Wuh wuh, wuh wuh wah" and I thought it'd be a nice little duet. That was part of it. It's something I've been thinking about for a very long time. I used to do long meditation retreats -€“ my dad's a Buddhist and I'm a Buddhist - and part of it is solitary retreats and lots of silence. Coming home after periods like that, you get to listen to people in a different way because people are in such a rush to say what they have to say and they don't think about the presentation as much. But when you've had a time away from talking for a while, you start to pay attention to all the other things in people's speech. So that kind of sharpened my ear for melody in voice. I thought it'd be an interesting project. I've heard some composers touch on it. Like, I don't know if you know Different Trains by Steve Reich, I think it's from the '70s, but it's an amazing composition where he took recording of different people saying, just short little things, like there's a woman who says "From New York to Chicago, from New York..." and then [he] composes the melody on that and "different trains every times." so that gave me some wind in my sails because I thought okay, it can be done. So I had the idea and I'm thinking it can be developed, and then I heard a couple other things like it and I thought, okay, well I can try and make songs out of it instead of grand classical pieces. I can try and make somewhat more digestible pop songs, if you will.
It is surprisingly melodic and song-orientated for the boundaries set on the project. Yeah, it sounds like kind of an art project but when it started coming together it was really surprising how easy it was to make songs out of it. Thematically, at first I wanted to just record some conversations on the street and that kind of thing. There were a lot of times where I was sitting waiting for the bus or something and I'd get little sound bites of people talking and there are so many different colours and tones and little melodies that happen randomly, but I didn't want to be the guy going around recording everything all the time. Also I wanted to get a better quality recording to work with, so the idea of working with my neighbours came up because we spend a lot of time together in the summer time. I've got two little kids and they're out playing. So I just invited my neighbours over and happiness was one thing that's easy to talk about with your neighbours, you know? You don't want to invite your neighbours over and talk about politics or religion or that kind of thing, you start with something kind of friendly and approachable and it ended up being kind of profound I think. My neighbours said some really nice things, really wise things, so I was really excited about doing that and I didn't plan on calling it The Happiness Project it just what my friends started calling it.
Was there a particular reason you decided to talk with your neighbours instead of other friends of yours for the conversations? Kind of, yeah. Part of the thing I like about having my neighbours is that they're basically a random cross-section of the city. I wouldn't have known any of these people except for geography. It's not like I'm picking people because they're wise, because they're going to say great things. I'm not picking people because they have interesting voices, I'm just picking the people who happen to be around to sort of show that it's universal to a certain degree. People are from all kinds of different cultures and different backgrounds and have different ideas and the randomness of it appealed to me. They're still friends, they're my neighbours and I've gotten to know them but I don't know any of them except through geography. So that helped.