By Ryan B. PatrickThe actual recording of calypso collective Kobo Town's latest album Jumbie in the Jukebox was a globetrotting affair, bouncing between Canada, Trinidad, and Belize. But for Trinidadian-Canadian frontman Drew Gonsalves, the actual musical genesis begins at his condo home nestled in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood. There, his den-cum-creative nexus coexists with an array of guitars, bongos, and a lone electronic keyboard festooned with the piano method books his kids take lessons with. It's a workspace that functions well for the singer-songwriter and musician in working out the lyrical and melodic content, though occasionally the father of four will step out to play in the building stairwell when inspiration strikes, often in the wee hours of the morning. "The acoustics are sometimes better there," he says with a laugh.
With only so many hours in the day, working in this space is about snatching time when he can, between the duties of being a husband, father and teacher. "I'm a completely undisciplined songwriter," he says. It varies from song to song, adding the songs typically arrive fully formed by the time he starts recording. "Sometimes I have a melody that sticks with me for a long time before I have any words. Or sometimes it's the other way, where I have lyrics and I try to get them to sound good. The arrangements are shaped in the studio, where we start to lay them down, play around with them, and all kinds of melodies suggest themselves."
The thrust of calypso, from the musicality to the thematic content, is a covert form of social commentary, something that he is committed to upholding. The songs were actually written over several years and on an array of socially relevant topics. "There's a lot of continuity and some big influences, from old-time calypso, with some early '80s dancehall and reggae thrown in too," he says. Named after the Trinidad neighbourhood where calypso was born, the group's new album refers to the ghostly spirit of the local folklore; Gonsalves wanted Jumbie in the Jukebox to both expand upon and be beholden to the old time calypso sound. "I imagined this jukebox haunted by a jumbie and spitting out all of these sounds from the Caribbean. The inspiration is obvious and there's a lot of acoustic instrumentation on the album. We try to keep things natural, but also with the music and the writing, we're pushing the limits of the tradition."
This time out saw Kobo Town work with Belize-based producer Ivan Duran. Collaborating with a third party brought a new dynamic — sharing the creative load with the perfectionist impresario Duran was a true learning experience in itself.
"I'm a bit of a neurotic freak in the studio," Gonsalves admits sheepishly. "I didn't think I had that in me, but I became so emotionally invested in every little sound. It was about stepping outside of myself; every songwriter goes through this where you get fixed on an idea where it takes someone else to make you realize that this is maybe not the best treatment."
The classically trained guitarist (his voice is probably the least polished instrument, he quips) is self-taught when it comes to playing the cuatro, bass and percussive instruments. "The ones that I've been falling for a lot are the old Teisco guitars. They're all made in Japan but they got pretty innovative and wacky in design," he says. There's just something about the pickup in guitars from that era. They're kind of punchy and messy in all the right ways."
The bulk of the recording took place in Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize at Stonetree Records studio. They primarily used the Pro Tools platform — "no plug-ins," he says —and a lot of "junky" audio equipment. "Working in the studio was bit of a revelation for me. Ivan's studio has all these rusted, nasty old guitars from the '60s and these old buzzy amplifiers from the '40s and '50s. And so we used a lot of that old equipment, which has a really rich texture and also brought me back to the sound of old Trinidadian calypso greats like Lord Kitchener and the Mighty Terror," he notes.
It was a collaborative band effort in finding the overall sound from the project. "The group comes with ideas and they're great at taking direction. It's lovely. We really experiment with all sorts of things to find just the right sound," he says. In looking for that perfect kick percussion sound, for example, "we experimented with all kinds of boomy boxes and application before settling on rhumba boxes and marímbulas to give things a deep bass hit. Although we did end up taking a lot of it out later," he says with a laugh.
Additional session takes happened in Trinidad's Razor Sharp Studios and various home studios in located in Toronto and Montreal. For example, a lot of the background vocals were captured in Trinidad. "The music comes from there and was so shaped by the experience of coming from that country, so it was nice to bring it home." A lot of the material was recorded live and also digitally layered in afterwards, he says, adding, "it was just about not cluttering things up."
But it all starts back in his Parkdale place, from which his creative juices initially start to flow. "You have to keep your creative source of inspiration close to you. Keep writing, playing and reaching out in the music world, in the hopes of touching and making an impact on people."