Published Sep 26, 2014It's been nearly nine months since the quiet day in early January that UK-born, Toronto-based songwriter John Southworth and co-producer Jean Martin finished the mixes on Niagara, Southworth's 11th and "totally ambitious" double-album exploring the two sides of Niagara Falls, and through that, Canadian and American music and identity. As the record's September 30 release date nears, Southworth has opened up about how the natural wonder inspired the album.
"It's that experience of being so connected to another country, and yet it's another country," Southworth tells Exclaim! of the falls' location on the Canada-U.S. border. "It's so mysterious. Immediately you cross the border into the United States and it's different. It's different musically too."
That difference is reflected in the sonic differences between the two sides of Niagara: Southworth explains that there's more space between the notes on the Canadian side and that the American songs are more frenetic.
The concept for Niagara evolved organically, with Southworth visiting the falls to do research only after him and his band, the South Seas, got close to finishing the recording.
"I did a little bit of research on the American side and the Canadian side, just to give two or three of the songs a little bit more weight lyrically," he says.
These were not the songs with Niagara Falls in the title ("Niagara Falls Is Not Niagara Falls," "She Is My Niagara Falls"). In fact, Niagara Falls, as a place name, appears in nearly all 10 of Southworth's previous records.
In terms of natural beauty and wonder, Southworth equates Niagara Falls with the Grand Canyon, but says that Southern Ontarians tend to be so jaded about the touristy landmark that no one from Toronto ever goes.
Yet he believes in the falls' inherent power. "I had this visionary feeling," he says. "What if the energy of Niagara Falls is actually sustaining us on a certain level? Not just hydro power, but I mean feeding us: feeding our dreams and spirits. It's almost like the capital of North America to me — the sheer natural."
Southworth identifies to a certain extent with the newcomers and visitors drawn to the falls.
"Maybe I'm just sensitive because I came here from Europe as a kid and I often feel like I'm having a classic immigrant experience," he says. "I'm trying to find a sense of home in this region, and I can't quite connect, even though I really want to — that's where a lot of the songs came from."
Since the album's recording, Southworth has hardly sat idle: his first book, Daydreams for Night (an Edward Gorey-esque children's story book illustrated by David Ouimet) will launch October 1 by Vancouver-based publisher Simply Read; he acted in Maggie MacDonald's play Young Drones (for which he also composed music); he recited poetry at a Thom Gill event and directed two videos for Niagara ("Ode to the Morning Sky" and "Hey I've Got News for You"), as well as one for an upcoming Devon Sproule album. (Southworth went to film school before he got into music and since 1995's "Entertaining the Troops" has directed most of his own music videos).
"This is a total cliché Renaissance year for me," Southworth says of 2014. "I've done every single possible medium, except for paint this year; I think that's what I want to do next."
Look for Niagara on September 30 courtesy of UK imprint Tin Angel.