Published May 29, 2011Without hesitation, Simone Schmidt says that Songs Of Man, the new album by her band One Hundred Dollars, could have been made in several different ways. However, one option was not to attempt to replicate the stark spontaneity of the Toronto roots rock outfit's acclaimed 2008 full-length debut, Forest Of Tears, a one-day session that essentially marked the group's first six weeks of existence.
"When I came into music, I wasn't even thinking about making records at all," Schmidt, the band's singer, says. "I just had a lot of energy that I needed to channel in a positive direction. We made Forest Of Tears pretty haphazardly, but for me it's still a great document of a time when I don't think I'll ever have that same kind of relationship with music again."
The approach that One Hundred Dollars instead took on Songs Of Man was quite the opposite, booking 12 days at Blue Rodeo's Woodshed studio and focusing on recording one song per day. The results have brought Schmidt and her bandmates a lot closer to their ultimate goal of refashioning country music as an honest reflection of the world in which they, and most of the rest of us, live.
The album's title is a clear indication of that intent, as each track showcases Schmidt's considerable ability to write character-driven material, in this case from an entirely male perspective. "We wanted the production of each song to reflect the speaker of each song," she says. "We all love different eras of country music, and what I think we did successfully was make a modern country record."
Since Schmidt and guitarist Ian Russell first got together as a duo in 2006, One Hundred Dollars have continuously evolved into their current six-piece line-up that now finds original bassist Paul Mortimer on lead guitar. Pedal steel guitarist Stew Crookes has also added producer to his list of duties, while the departure of keyboardist Jonathan Adjemian has prompted Schmidt to fill that role.
"We've switched things up a lot since the last record, with Paul's shift to lead being the biggest change," Russell says. "We definitely like what we sound like right now as a live band, and we're hoping that this album gives us a chance to get a lot of work. We're all happy to have it as our calling card."
The added musical dexterity certainly played a key role in Songs Of Man's more dynamic, electrified sound, exemplified by the standout track "Black Gold," the story of an itinerant Alberta oil sands worker struggling to cope with his harsh existence. Although the song isn't about a specific person (unlike some of the album's other tracks), Schmidt maintains that she wanted to treat all of the characters she had developed equally.
"I wanted to make sure that all of their motives were fully expressed," she says. "That came to me first by trying to understand them. I created all of the characters and then tried to figure out what their song would be. For some, I found that they wouldn't express themselves, like they were hiding something, and I had to reveal what that was."
Schmidt continues, "With 'Black Gold,' I knew a lot of women whose sons went to Alberta and came back totally mangled, if they did come back. A lot of them were vulnerable to begin with, especially non-whites who have more trouble getting housing. But I think my real message with the song is that we're all affected by what's going on there, so it wasn't a stretch for me to take on that character."
Evoking those types of pure human emotions is something Schmidt has sought from her work since she first heard George Jones sing "A Good Year For The Roses," the song she says still inspires her most. At the same time, she has no desire for One Hundred Dollars to be lumped into any sort of country music revival, given the political complexity that that entails. "As a female songwriter, if I wanted to write like they did in the '50s and '60s, it would have to be from the point of view of a woman stuck in the home," she says. "I'm not saying that I write autobiographically, because obviously this album is about male characters, but I wonder why more people who are into what I consider the throwback aspect of country don't acknowledge that you can trace back in the music a lot of things that I find utterly despicable about the world both then and now.
"Maybe I'm too serious about it," Schmidt continues, "but I believe the essence of country music has always been in how it lends some poetry to the existence of people both common and extraordinary, and for me there's no difference."
An example of that is "Aaron's Song," written about a man with whom Schmidt worked as a speech facilitator, helping him to communicate in all aspects of his life. "He was my best friend at that time," she explains. "I was going places with him I'd never been before, and because he was so physically different, I became very attuned to how other people judged and interacted with him. He taught me a lot about friendship and how to live with your personal struggles. As well, because he had a limited vocabulary, that job really taught me the value of using the right words."
Building upon that kind of clarity is what Schmidt says the band will continue to strive for while writing new material this summer before hitting the road in earnest in the fall. As Ian Russell says, the two years spent on the road between Forest Of Tears and Songs Of Man brought One Hundred Dollars to a point where they knew what they are capable of doing, and now they are ready to start going further.
"Country music is very much about looking back, and people seem to enjoy that aspect of it," he says. "But a tradition, to be living, has to be moving forward."