Julie Doiron & Wooden Stars Two Solitudes
Published Feb 01, 2000"I wanted Broken Girl to be a little thing that wasn't attached to me - I wanted it to be apart from me as a person." Many artists have hidden behind different names, identities, even glyphs, separating themselves from the on-stage identity of songwriter and storyteller, but Julie Doiron's desire to hide seems a little odd.
It's difficult to imagine an artist whose work is less apart from her life. The subject matter of her songs has never been anything but personal - intensely, occasionally painfully so. It's a characteristic that has been with her for her whole musical life, one she shared with the rest of her mates in Moncton's noisy rock band Eric's Trip, who collectively wore their hearts on their record sleeves.
In her solo work, the moniker she chose initially to "hide" behind was another intimate choice. Broken Girl combined Doiron's own assessment of her emotional life, a history of health problems, and probably most of all, her own self-deprecating sense of humour.
How personal is personal? When Doiron's romantic relationship with Eric's Trip bandmate Rick White came to an end, the band wrote, recorded and toured a record about it, 1994'sForever Again . (It's an album Doiron has said her husband can't listen to, and no wonder.) Her 1997 albumLoneliest In the Morning , is a sad, beautiful slip of a record full of the haunting doubts of early motherhood. "I would have been crying for a couple of hours because I didn't know what I was doing anymore, and I'd go off in a room and write a song about it."
The unexamined life is indeed not worth living. Her truth is what gives the work its heft, and her strength stems from sharing openly. It convinces you that she wouldn't lie, that the most painful truth is the first she'll tell. She shares all of this in her songs, yet claims, "I've always been a really shy person."
It's that shyness that has endeared so many people to her. When she was still performing as Broken Girl, the word most likely to come out of her mouth was "sorry." "I would put down everything I did, I suppose out of nervousness or insecurity, and the name accentuated that. I've even bumped into a wall before and said 'sorry.'"
For someone who seems to doubt many things she does, Doiron has managed a series of remarkable accomplishments: acknowledging her insecurity even while pushing through it, performing soft, quiet confessional songs in noisy, chatter-filled rock clubs; navigating the early '90s East Coast music explosion with Eric's Trip's, and carefully carving out a solo career while nurturing her Sappy Records label with her husband Jon Claytor.
Predictably, Sappy has primarily been a vehicle for Doiron's own releases, and rarely left her own musical backyard. One exception, in 1997, was a remarkable album called Mardi Gras by one of Doiron's favourite bands, Ottawa's Wooden Stars, a group of young men who are also rife with their own set of contradictions.
It's hard to fathom that Wooden Stars are still together as a band. If the grinding gears of the music scene were going to chew up and spit out any group of sensitive, talented young men, it would be them. They've been a band for more than seven years, yet they've never been successfully marketed, never even had a long term manager or a booking agent. They've been consistently mislabelled and misunderstood by the alternative press - the only media whose radar has picked them up - and the adjectives used to describe them invariably make the band cringe: intellectual, difficult, antagonistic, math rock, for want of a better term for their not-quite-rock music, jazz. They themselves have offered few alternatives.
For a band to claim that "it's just music" is about as clichéd as hearing a million dollar athlete talk about playing it one day at a time, but for Wooden Stars, it really is all about the music. "No success," is how drummer Andrew McCormack explains their longevity. "Nothing to argue about. No money to talk about. We still enjoy playing together, and that's about all we have going for us. I don't mean to sound depressed - I'm not kidding. That's it."
"A lot of people play in a band because they like meeting people," according to guitarist Michael Feuerstack. "They like hanging out in night clubs. They like the energy of being on stage and the power of having a band - the force, the courage. They like music - I'm not accusing anybody of anything - but there's not a lot going into the music itself. For us, it was disproportionate - we cared a lot about the music and we still do."
That care has resulted in three beautifully challenging albums, and the band has evolved from the ambitious, exuberant cacophony of their debut, which stands as a truly remarkable creative achievement for a band of teenagers, to the (relatively) more subtle, spare sounds of their latest album,The Moon . "I think we've all learned that nothing sounds heavier and tighter than loosening up," Mike says. "As you learn to play better and you relax more, you learn to appreciate simpler patterns and directness."
On paper the pairing seems a little odd, to say the least. To call Julie Doiron's songs spare is almost too cluttered. The quietest, simplest guitar accompaniment to her shy voice creates the most intimate spaces, on record and in performance. Wooden Stars, on the other hand, are an ambitious entity that's always encouraged more input instead of less - the push and pull of unconventional harmonies between Feuerstack and songwriting partner Julien Beillard, the constant flow of surprising ideas has put musical challenge to the fore. Lyrically too, they're guarded and obscure.
Yet this month, Julie Doiron and Wooden Stars embark upon their second tour of duty together. They're supporting Doiron's latest EP, Will You Still Love Me?, on which Beillard plays guitar and bass, as well as Wooden Stars'The Moon , where Doiron sings backup on three songs. But the tour is also launching their full-length collaboration Julie Doiron & Wooden Stars (available at this month's shows, in stores in September).
In August 1997, a few months after Eric's Trip had called it quits, Doiron released Loneliest In the Morning on Sub Pop, her first album under her own name. (She had tried and failed to come up with a replacement for Broken Girl, although she still struggles with non-French speakers mispronouncing Doiron.) Recorded the previous winter at Doug Easley's famed Memphis studios, her album was fleshed out by the instrumental presence of Easley and Giant Sand's Howe Gelb.
When it came to touring, Sub Pop suggested a band would increase her chances of being heard in clubs. "Initially I was looking for people to play what was on the record, although I'd never tell anyone what to play," Julie explains. "Someone to play piano, maybe a bass and guitar. I was thinking of people in Halifax, I called a couple of ex-Superfriendz, and was going to call a couple of other people."
In the end, it was Doiron's A&R rep Joyce Linehan, a holdover from the Eric's Trip days, who suggested the Wooden Stars. Sub Pop was certainly familiar with the Ottawa band from years before - when the band was in its infancy, they had been offered a deal by the Seattle label.
From a personal perspective, it made sense. Doiron and Wooden Stars guitarist Mike Feuerstack had been friends for years, had casually played guitar together, and Doiron has sung on early demo tapes of Feuerstack's solo project Snailhouse. Doiron and her husband, who's known Feuerstack even longer, had released the band's second album, Mardi Gras , and on a Sappy tour, everyone had become better acquainted. Musically, however, everyone involved admits it's worked better than they ever could have imagined.
"I don't know if we knew we could do it," according to Stars drummer Andrew McCormack. "It seemed like a mismatch at first, a pretty weird pairing of musical forces, but we're all into a challenge, into checking out new ideas and pushing ourselves."
"Her songs were so skeletal, especially at that time, it left us complete freedom for arranging and turning into something completely different," Feuerstack explains. "The arrangements became pretty delicate and elaborate, and it was more of a challenge and more fun than I might have realised in advance."
"I'm not used to playing guitar," Doiron says, "so having them play with me really filled it in, certainly in a way I wasn't used to. I used to just use the guitar as a backing instrument for singing. Starting to work with them, I really wanted to play - my newer songs rely a whole lot more on guitar than any of the older ones did."
"It's not about getting your head around it, but opening your heart to it."
- Wooden Stars' Mike Feuerstack
The positive effects of collaboration and maturity are being felt by both camps. "I think the ambitions have changed," Feuerstack says. "The criterion of what comprises a good song is different for us now. We can be a little more direct and solid about presenting things a little more literally, a little more heart on our sleeve. It's not a Rubik's Cube of music; it's not about getting your head around it, but opening your heart to it. Not walking in with any expectations of what a band is supposed to sound like and just hearing it."
Doiron senses change as well, although she isn't about to abandon her first person perspective, or emotional, sentimental songs. "I can't imagine what else I would do. What I was worried about was doing the same feeling of songs - really slow, by myself. Now after working with the Wooden Stars, I'd like to make the next one completely different as well."
"I want to start a real band, and not just be Julie Doiron."
Not surprisingly, she's still trying to get away from her lonely self. "I want to start a real band, and not just be Julie Doiron. Collaborate on writing songs, and have it be a really heavy cool band. That's my goal."
And Wooden Stars? They're all surprised when I point out the band has been together at least seven years, not the four or five they want to think. Feuerstack and Beillard have played together even longer, and even the new guy, bassist Josh Latour, whose work is on record for the first time withThe Moon , and the Doiron collaboration, has been with them two years.
They are doing the most accessible work of their career, but years of being ignored may finally take their toll. The Sub Pop offer of long ago is the only one that's ever floated their way. "That attention came too early," according to McCormack. "We assumed that hell, if this is happening right now, why don't we get better and smarter and wait a year to see what happens? I guess what happened is that we got weirder and dumber and we got the shaft. It's been that way ever since."
Part of their loneliness comes from being in Ottawa - away from Toronto scene that supports, at least to a certain extent, explorative innovation from a collective like Guh. Few and far between, for the Stars, are bands like New York's now defunct Beekeeper, the only band they ever felt a real kinship with. But that isolation has also given them complete freedom to work outside of audience expectation and peer pressure. "I think we're gonna recapture a little of the 'we don't give a fuck' attitude, and just do whatever the hell we want," McCormack says.
"We're not trying to be antagonistic," Feuerstack explains. "We want people to like our band. We've made some bad moves as far as appealing to audiences, but it's always been my belief, and I'm clinging to it, that if the person on stage is doing what they want to be doing, the show is going to be a lot better."
"I think we're good musicians who can do a bunch of different things pretty convincingly," McCormack continues. "Able to go outside if we want, or to play really heartbreakingly simple stuff. I like that broader range of emotions. I think it might make for 55 minutes of music that will keep people on their toes."