Published Apr 20, 2009Emotionally ragged but musically flawless, Notes To An Absent Lover finds Toronto, ON singer-songwriter Barzin Hosseini drifting gently away from his slowcore tendencies. Leaving behind an atmospheric and effects-laden sound in favour of a more nakedly melodic songwriting style, Barzin's third album is a dreamy, elegant stunner of a folk pop release. The hazy lament of a pedal steel anchors many of the songs, giving them a tone of countrified heartbreak. Lush string arrangements, vibraphone and banjo contribute much to the warm, roots-y charm of the collection. Lyrically vulnerable and achingly confessional, the songs are marinated in the considerable emotion that accompanies the collapse of a relationship, each one describing a slightly different flavour of heartache, from regretful to bitter to plain old sad. There are goose bump-raising sonic elements on almost every track: the tremulous lead guitar line on "Tangled in Blue," the mournful cello of "The Dream Song," the thick emotion in Barzin's forlorn vocals on "Soft Summer Girls." Despite its overall restrained and melancholic tone, the album has enough range in tempo and style to keep it flowing without a single lull. This is a gorgeous and poignant album that should be entered into the canon of required post-break-up listening.
There's a lot less reverb and distortion on your vocals this time than on your first two albums. Is that because you feel more confident in your singing?
I haven't actually changed my singing since my first album, I just had an opportunity this time to work in a really good studio with really high-end mics and a really good engineer, and it's pretty amazing how much they can make a difference in what you sound like. On my last album I just didn't have the budget, so I just tried to go for a more lo-fi sound.
There's a wider range of tempos and song styles this time around as well.
This is my third album and I did want to try and introduce a few elements that brought a little bit of a break to the mood. I have to say though, when I first started to work on this album, because of the theme, it felt like it should have even more of a subdued mood and feel than my last album. That's what I was going for: even more of a monotonous sound. But once I got into the studio the songs didn't lend themselves to that approach. I'd envisioned acoustic guitar and vocals and maybe a little bit of piano but the songs didn't hold up with that sort of structure. So I had to build the songs and introduce more instruments so that they functioned better.
It is a very sad album, lyrically. It's a break-up album, right?
That's right. I didn't feel a lot of instrumentation was appropriate for this topic. So when I first thought of recording this album that's how I envisioned the instrumentation. But I'm realizing that I'm not one of those songwriters who can sustain a song just on acoustic guitar and vocals. I think I have a few albums to go before I can get there.
Did the theme make the songs harder to write?
Yes and no. Yes, they were more difficult to write because I felt like I needed to reach a level of honesty that I really hadn't reached before. I really wanted to capture and honour the relationship that was. And so I felt I really had to step it up compared to my other albums and get to a place that I hadn't been before. But it was easy at the same time because I had such focus. A theme was there in front of me. I didn't have to search for what I was going to talk about, so it was just a matter of what attitude I wanted to approach the break-up with. That was really my main concern. Did I want to be angry about this, did I want to be sad about it? I was actually reaching for more of a neutral place, kind of a Leonard Cohen approach; I find he's the master of neutrality when it comes to break-ups. I don't think I succeeded. There's sadness and there's bitterness and it made me realize how difficult it is to try and write from a neutral perspective. You can't really fake it. You have to reach a certain level of maturity in your outlook in life to get away with talking about relationships or break-ups like that. And obviously I haven't reached that place, and so I threw my hands up and said, "I'm just going to write what I know." Maybe next album, or two albums down the road, I'll be able to reach that level of neutrality that I was hoping for this time.
You have a whole new set of musicians this time around. How did that work out?
The musicians were mainly because of the guitar player who was on the album: Nick Zubeck. I've known Nick for a long time; he's a really great singer-songwriter from Toronto who's been releasing albums for a long time. And basically I stole his band, that's who played on my album. He knew the musicians and I felt comfortable using them because I trust Nick and he works with really great musicians. I did use a few musicians who were not related to Nick, such as Karen Graves, who did the string arrangements. I stole a few musicians from Justin Rutledge, too. People like Burke Carroll, who's the pedal steel player, and vocalist Melissa McClelland and Darryl Neudorf, who engineered his albums. So I'm all about stealing.
Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers has played with you on previous albums. How was he involved this time?
Tony's been a long-time friend. He came and toured with me; he played bass with me the first time I travelled to Europe, before he was really getting out there and performing his music. So I've known him for many, many years. He was more involved on my last album just because he was still playing bass for me but by the time I started working on this album, his career had taken off and so really there was just no time for us to work with each other. This time around he was more of a guide, an advisor. He's very honest with me when it comes to music, and so having him there to comment on things has been tremendously helpful. (Monotreme)