Rodney DeCroo

Rodney DeCroo
With his new album Allegheny, critically-acclaimed Vancouver-based singer/songwriter Rodney DeCroo returns to his literary roots. He was actually a published poet before he became a recording artist, and this new release features what he terms poem-songs. Set to a minimal instrumental soundtrack, the material on Allegheny also serves as a preview for an upcoming book of poetry. With candour and eloquence, he relives an oft-traumatic childhood spent in the rust belt of Pennsylvania. DeCroo spoke to Exclaim!ahead of the record's release.

You've got your Vancouver launch party for Allegheny soon I gather?
Yes, I'm gearing up for that. I'm also finishing another record, more of a singer/songwriter record. It's called Campfires On The Moon. Most of the tracks have been sent to Toronto, as I'm collaborating with Great Aunt Ida, who will be singing and playing piano on most of the songs.

You've worked together before, I know.
Yes, and I wanted her to play more of a principal role on a record. So I've been working on that, plus I have a book coming out with Nightwood Editions.

So on a creative roll?
I think so. Well, I've been off the road for nearly a year. Queen Mary Trash was a double record, so that was a lot of work. I've been known for touring a lot, especially in western Canada, but I just got burned out. It was affecting my health, it was making me very unhappy, and I had a very acrimonious split with a band I'd played with for seven years. That was totally unnecessary, but kind of due to the rigors of the road. It is not easy doing this in Canada. So I decided to take a break. I thought, "Lethbridge isn't going anywhere." And in the west, the venues change over so frequently, and the collective memory is pretty short. Frankly, it gets fuckin' exhausting. Since then, I got this record finished, a book finished. I'm really going to look at the way I tour. It won't be the way I used to. I'll probably tour western Canada only once a year in the future. If I go east, I won't drive, I'll fly. I won't bring an opening act along and have to be responsible for 12 people.

What are your performance plans for Allegheny? Would it be solo and more like a reading?
I've been playing a lot with a guy named Mark Haney. He plays upright bass, but he's very innovative in the sounds he gets out. He has been accompanying me at shows for most of the songs on that other record I've been working on, and we've expanded what he does with me into presenting the poetry live. That is really working, and I'm focusing on that for the launch show. I don't have touring plans currently for Allegheny, as we're applying for grants. We envision a much bigger project for that. There's a gallery here in Vancouver, Gallery Gachet. Archer Pechawis is a multi-media artist. they're going to come on as a partner and Archer, if we get the grant money, will help package Allegheny as a multi-media performance. With visuals and lighting and I shall perform the soundtrack live. It'll be a fairly big presentation. What's nice about that too is that the cover image of Allegheny was taken by an old friend I grew up with there, and that and other photos he took would be included in that project.

Pleased with the reaction to date?
I was a little nervous. It's not completely in lockstep with what I have done in the past. I wondered how open people would be listening to something that demands their attention in a different way. They are essentially poems, and they require a focus on the lyric to get anything out of it. It's perhaps not something you'd put on while you're doing the dishes. People are very used to verse chorus.

Was it your idea to add the sonic accompaniment?
As you know, this is pretty much the first record I've done without [producer/guitarist] Jon Wood. At some point you know that a creative collaboration, especially one as meaningful as I had with Jon, will end someday. you can only take it so far. I knew that day was coming. Working together had become very familiar and safe. I was very nervous about going into this process with someone else. It is difficult for me to trust somebody in that position, of producing a record. But I'd known Rob Malowany for a while, and we talked about this. We'd done some demos for another record and I liked that process. I was very pleased with how intuitive he was and attentive to detail. I told him I had this strange idea of working up a group of poems as a record. He was enthusiastic about it, but I told him that the thing holding me back was that I'd heard this done before, this kind of concept. What I heard in each instance was that it felt like the music was just tacked on cavalierly, as an afterthought. The whole point of poetry is that the language itself will have a musicality. I spent a lot of time wondering if this was even a valid approach. If it is necessary to do this, then the poems are failing. And if the poems are successful in their own right, then what's the point of this? Then Rob said "I think they can be something else with this. They can be enhanced. It can present the experience of those poems in a different context, making it become something else. like the difference between a novel and a movie for instance." I came in and did the readings. He was painstaking about each piece. We worked slowly. He'd play me what he'd come up with, and I'd make suggestions. I was really impressed, seeing he'd really got inside these poems. I felt like he managed to help convey a sense that if you listened to this in one setting, all 27 minutes, that there'd be a sense of, if not a linear plot, but of having come through something. I hate to sound like a hippie on Commercial Drive by saying a journey. A story arc of some kind, and I think he accomplished this.

Were you aware of not taxing people's attention spans in deciding upon the length?
I reined myself in there. I realised that making something requiring the listener to pay attention to text for 30 minutes is already a stretch in this present era. But part of me always seems to enjoy kicking at that a little bit. I just put out a double record of 26 songs last year, and there was a live record before that. It's like I want to kick at the expectations of what a record has to be. Part of me doesn't like the channels through which music is presented to the public now and the pressures for music to conform to market values. I fuckin' hate that.

Last time we chatted you mentioned a manuscript. Are these song/poems part of that?
Yes. That manuscript was in partial form then. Over the past year I revised a lot of it, then wrote another 40 pages worth of poems. It will be published by Nightwood Editions in 2013. So the seven poems on Allegheny ― well seven tracks and eight poems ― are, with the exception of one, all in the book, verbatim. I didn't want to change the text at all. I consider the record as perhaps a primer for the book. A lot of the people I reach aren't necessarily heavily into Canadian poetry. My hope is they'll hear the poems on the record and go "OK, this is accessible. I'll buy a book of this as it's something I can relate to."

So you aim to turn the kids onto poetry?
I find that for a lot of people I know, poetry comes with a lot of baggage attached to it. Students probably aren't being exposed to Al Purdy and Irving Layton. I've been rather dismayed over the years since Al passed away to see almost a backlash against his poetry. I don't understand why poets like those two and Gwendolyn MacEwan aren't being taught more. Being an American I have a different perspective on issues that often come up in Canada about identity. Why don't we have one? What is it? Often it comes up in respect to the U.S. dumping its culture. I'm like "Well, why aren't you teaching your poets?" They really help define an idea of what Canada is. And singer-songwriters too. I know who the artists are out there in those small clubs right across the country, climbing into vans, getting up and playing for 50 people a night. The sacrifices that people have to make to present their art to other Canadians is soul-killing. Sorry for the rant, but I've seen too many really interesting artists go under, and it's a shame. There's so much talent in this country.

Did you physically return to the Allegheny area to refresh memories?
No. I've been thinking about that a lot. I left there when I was 16. I vowed I was never coming back. It was a very difficult place to grow up. My father had more or less abandoned us, and my mother was raising three boys on welfare. We were very poor. She turned to the church and became a religious fundamentalist. The rust belt thing was happening. There was a lot of violence, a lot of hatred towards anything that didn't fit in. It was very traumatic growing up there, frankly. To revisit it was important as I discovered it was more than that too. My ties to that place and the people there run deep. What I didn't seem to realise was that a lot of people there were feeling the way I felt, especially people my age.

Apprehensive about how this will be received back there?
I did an interview last year that was pretty focused on my book of poetry and growing up there. I didn't exactly say glowing things about growing up in that area. Now I understand there is a lot of courage and a lot of silence about things people wanted to talk about, but didn't feel equipped to do that. These are people rather regarded as disposable. "We don't need them to work in our coal mines or steel mills any more. We'll send them off to Vietnam." America grinds up its minorities and it grinds up its poor white people. Some of the guys are Facebook friends, and I was nervous about what they'd say after hearing that interview. Several listened and got back to me, saying they really enjoyed it. Others contacted me to say they felt like that too. When I left there, I didn't talk to those people for 20 years. now I'm hearing from them through Facebook. This record has allowed me to come to terms with my childhood, and to feel connected to it in a different way that is not entirely negative. there is a lot of meaning there now. That place shaped me. It gave me a lot of grist for the mill.

Your voice in narrating the song-poems sounds very natural. Any poets that influenced that approach?
A lot of what they call spoken word or slam poetry here in Vancouver I'm not a fan of. One thing I really dislike about it is the way they speak poetry. There are these artificial cadences that bear no resemblance to the way in which we speak. It locks the language into what I see as a parody of what a poem should be. It is not simple everyday speech. It needs to have a certain depth or tension to it, but at the same time it should have music that is akin to the way we talk and speak. If it is roped into that narrow slam poetry cadence, you are stifling it. So when I did these performances I wanted the poems to be delivered in a speaking voice and for the nuances of emotions and images and ideas to be coloured by that voice, not some shotgun delivery in what I see as a ridiculous cadence.