Published Oct 30, 2013Walking into Brendan Canning's house on the south end of Draper Street in Toronto, there's little indication that a Canadian indie rock star calls this place home. A pair of acoustic guitars and a piano rest against the north wall, while a Juno Award stands next to a photo of fellow Broken Social Scene co-founder Kevin Drew holding a koala bear. The western end of the spacious front room is consumed by Canning's ever-expanding record collection, from which he pulls for his frequent DJ nights. "I haven't yet put everything back from the past couple gigs," he says, noting the vinyl sprawl.
The rest of the downstairs is filled with the kind of domestic ephemera one acquires after having lived in the same place for two decades; photos, a juicer and a Chihuahua named Santi who dutifully guards the front door.
Canning moved to Draper Street as a couch surfer in 1992. By '95 he was an official tenant, then bought the house ten years later. It's the only place in Toronto he's ever lived in.
Strains of Yellowman filter in from the front room, as he sits down at his kitchen table to finish typing up an email before closing his laptop. He's part of a group looking to preserve the old Sam the Record Man sign that once dominated Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. But he admits his limited computer skills are proving to be a bit of a hindrance. "I'm technically pretty useless," he says. "I've had interns helping me."
The handicap rears its head most prominently when writing. Despite a plethora of digital home recording options, Canning deferred to his telephone landline while assembling material for his second solo album, You Gots 2 Chill, released on his own Draper Street Records. (His debut, Something for All of Us, came out in 2008.) "I saved a lot of the tracks that made the record on my answering machine. I'd call my home line and record them." Unused riffs, which he plays via the handset's distorted speakers, are saved for later reference. "I've got probably 60 or 70 nuggets on voice memo."
A mostly acoustic record, its mellow vibe is a product of its creation. "When I get off a Broken Social Scene tour or whatever, I don't come home and play electric guitar," he explains. "I play either acoustic guitar or piano. If I'm playing, I'm writing. So that's how it came about."
Recording with Ohad Benchetrit and high school friend Steve Singh at their respective studios, Canning says he used whatever guitars happened to be around. He's never owned a high-end, vintage guitar but with an acoustic record in the can he decided it was time to invest in "a nice acoustic guitar to go and play shows with." Jocelyne Lanois's old 1949 Gibson caught his eye at Toronto's Capsule Music. But fellow musician Kevin Kane (The Grapes of Wrath), who works at the store, advised otherwise. The road is probably not the best place for a $5,000 antique. "I owe [him] for talking me off the ledge and getting something a little more affordable."
For a professional musician, Canning is surprisingly nonchalant when discussing gear and instruments. One of the two acoustic guitars is borrowed from a friend. And neither the piano nor the stand-up bass that stands in his front window have found much love from him. "It's not super fun to play by myself," he says of the bass, while he's never really taken to the piano, which replaced an older model several years ago. "It's a weird emotional thing." Yet he becomes visibly animated when talk turns to his vinyl collection. "I have my party jams and funk-disco compilations there," he says, motioning to a cubby stuffed with vinyl. "Lots of funk and soul, lots of reggae, lots of indie rock. I'm a bit slack in the '90s R&B stuff. I can't find [R. Kelly's] 'Step in the Name of Love' anywhere. I need that jam."
Touring is often as much about finding new records as playing shows. "That 2010 tour [with Broken Social Scene], I feel like it revived my DJ career," he says. "That's how I make my living at this point. That and score work."
Canning helped score more than half a dozen films, most recently music for The Canyons, the much-maligned Paul Schrader/Bret Easton Ellis/Lindsay Lohan comeback flick. Despite its infamy, he's proud of his "Depeche Mode western" soundtrack, even if a low-profile iTunes release is its ultimate fate. Promotional duties for You Gots 2 Chill have further complicated the soundtrack's chances of finding an audience. "People can only take so much of your shit."
Even for an established artist like Canning, gigs don't necessarily pay the bills. "I'm touring a brand new solo thing with a five-piece band. It's not super profitable until you get some heat on your record," he admits. Despite financial concerns, fun remains the name of the game. "It's just music after all. As long as you can play halfway decent, you can't fuck it up that bad."