Timber Timbre Behind the Mask
Published Mar 27, 2011Timber Timbre are happiest when visually represented by spooky, blurry and otherworldly images that evoke their music. But as their popularity grows, demands like photo shoots increase, so the band have taken a break from rehearsals to convene in the faded 19th century glory of Toronto's Great Hall for a new photo session. Everyone is affable, but no one is particularly comfortable. Front-man Taylor Kirk fidgets with his shirt and both he and lap steel player Simon Trottier seek tacit approval from violinist Mika Posen before posing in front of a slate backdrop. The sharp focus of the scene elicits an "oh my god, this is painful," from Kirk. Timber Timbre's magnificent new album Creep On Creepin' On will see the media's glare bear down harder than ever before, again and again requesting insight into how an enigmatic, highly personal project has become amplified and diversified by its metamorphosis into a full band. Timber Timbre is experiencing growing pains, but they're all in this together.
The photo session isn't the only source of bewilderment today; rehearsals are also a new concept for Timber Timbre as they try to translate their new record live. Kirk remains front and centre as supernatural raconteur, but the band's finely nuanced experimentation is like a kaleidoscope of grey. Though Creep On Creepin' On suggests a prom night in hell circa 1956, influences of eerie film composers Angelo Baladamenti and Ennio Morricone are more pronounced than ever. "Suddenly I feel a certain amount of pressure to recreate to some extent what that record sounds like," says a typically introspective Kirk. He's not fretting openly but his apprehension is clear. "A lot of these songs are really weird to play. We're just now trying to find some time to sit down as a group and play these songs. I don't know how we're going to do this."
Mika Posen and Simon Trottier joined Timber Timbre in 2009; she comments "it's still pretty new for [Kirk], playing with a band. The last record was still mainly Taylor's project and was put together as a live band afterward. With this record it was the first time we're sitting down together and trying to figure out how to do things for a live show."
Both she and Trottier speak of Kirk protectively, respectful of the strength of vision bound up in Timber Timbre as a solo project. Though guest musicians have graced most of Timber Timbre's records, the essence has always been Kirk's personal vision, which evokes the many moods of rural, if not necessarily beautiful, settings. Comparisons have been rightly made to painter Andrew Wyeth and author Flannery O'Connor's unsettling natural abstractions. Kirk was raised near Brooklin, ON, and though he's no farm boy, he admits an affinity with natural themes so common in Canadian singer-songwriters. "The nature thing," he deadpans. "Rural spaces can get really romanticized. For me it just goes back to my childhood, then living in the city and missing that space. I think that a lot of people who are in Toronto that aren't from Toronto [miss it too]."
Kirk spent his first few years in Toronto (and has since relocated to Montreal) as a drummer and guitarist in various bands without a burning desire to start his own. Timber Timbre came about after an extended stretch in a cabin in the woods. "When I started to write, I was looking at recordings of old folk music and kind of imitating that songwriting. I've tried to move away from relying on that sort of thing." His first album, 2006's Cedar Shakes, yielded a deeply introspective but not melodramatic soul whose music had a strong back porch vibe. Back in Toronto Kirk found himself associated with a collaborative scene of recombinant players preoccupied with nature and spirituality that would produce Ohbijou, Ghost Bees (now Tasseomancy), Forest City Lovers and most notably Bruce Peninsula.
Bruce Peninsula is where Daniela Gesundheit met Kirk. She's the front-woman for Snowblink, who will be touring with Timber Timbre this spring. "I moved here in 2008 from California and [Bruce Peninsula] were an immediate portal to the Toronto community. We all had gone up to a cottage to work on songs," she recalls. Kirk, she says "was a little shy, but we had a nice rapport from the beginning."
Gesundheit describes the growing mystique of Kirk's Timber Timbre persona, which by then was starting to inspire ardent admiration from friends and fans. "He's really attuned to his surroundings. Some people dance, some people get a little teary, often people are totally entranced and really, really present which is really rare. Sometimes people are at a show and they're daydreaming. That's not the case with him."
Timber Timbre's third, self-titled album in 2009 resulted in an expansion of his sound and his popularity. The album's producer Chris Stringer recounts: "As a friend I lobbied for a long time to do that record, like a year and a half. We spent three or four days in the studio, and I think every song was take one or take two. I have pretty high standards, but it was amazing how easily it came from him. He's just got that thing that all of us try for." Eerie organ flourishes, subtle and insistent drum parts and Posen's quietly dissonant violin represented a great leap from the relaxed sparseness of previous efforts. Kirk's vocals continued to gain character drawing comparisons to Elvis, Leonard Cohen and Gene Vincent, and he's often mulled over the perceived retro-authenticity of his approach. "I've never really been interested in becoming too 'authentic.' But for me it's almost like preserving certain aesthetics that are in all the music I've liked and been interested in."
Arts and Crafts picked up the record for distribution, and gradually a fuller performance ensemble emerged. He had toured separately with Posen and Trottier, and then the trio came together by accident. "I went with Taylor to Montréal to do a show at La Salla Rossa to open for Torngat," recalls Posen. "That's where me and Simon met: onstage with no rehearsal." Each member praises the chemistry of the live unit, which brings depth and spontaneity to Kirk's songs. Both Posen and Trottier have backgrounds in improvisational scenes, and their contributions belie the stereotype of Timber Timbre as retro music.
Timber Timbre, by Kirk's estimation, came out four times on different labels and in different territories, and its popularity spiked after the use of "Magic Arrow" in TV series Breaking Bad. "The first year we were touring, we were together every second of every day," says Posen. "We were sharing one hotel room." Onstage the method was the same, exploring and reconstructing the repertoire without much formal discussion or rehearsal. However, certain offstage roles emerged. Kirk and Trottier had been friends for years and shared a music-dude kinship; it was a bit different with Posen. "I am definitely the optimist combating negativity every day," she declares, choosing her words carefully. "I've never felt so much like a girl in my life than playing with this band. I find myself making sure that people have eaten. I'm always the one who carries snacks and water. Sometimes it gets to me in certain situations, but I feel I've sort of naturally fallen into it, it's become part of the dynamic. I have mixed feelings about it but it's okay for now."
When it came time to make Creep On Creepin' On, Kirk needed to articulate respective roles more thoroughly. The songs germinated over two years, pushed along by a residency in Sackville, NB in June of last year. The final product credits "Timber Timbre" as writer, arranger and producer. "It was Taylor's solo project before we started playing with him," says Trottier. "I'm trying to bring my ideas to the arrangements, but Taylor's writing all the songs." Adds Posen: "I prefer not being the leader. I contribute, but I'm not responsible for the record. I'm totally happy in that role."
Kirk acknowledges "the writing is still a solitary process, that's always going to be something that I do on my own, usually in some kind of isolation." However, thanks to the close quarters of recent years, Posen has a deeper understanding of Kirk's obsessive and paranormal lyrics. "I feel I can guess at what the songs are about now, as opposed to previous records where I had no idea. I think you have to spend that much time with him and know what's going on in his life to know what they're about because he really disguises things very well. They are relationship songs for sure, and maybe not even that disguised."
What has changed substantially is the music. There are moments when Creep On Creepin' On threatens to abandon the minimalism of earlier records. The dissonance has been seriously amped up, with Trottier's lap steel providing an alien presence at every turn, and Posen's curdled Nelson Riddle-meets-Stravinsky string arrangements saw through the listener's synapses. There's also a tighter approach to rhythm anchored by Kirk's understated kit work, which makes the rockin' songs hit that much harder. Further essential contributions are made by saxophonist Colin Stetson and keyboardist Mathieu Charbonneau. Mark Lawson (Arcade Fire) helped record and mix the album. Put it all together and you get… hip-hop? No joke. Just try not to nod your head during the album opener "Bad Ritual."
"I felt really strongly about 'Bad Ritual,'" says Kirk. "I didn't have a clear idea of how that song should sound, and I thought it was really well realized. I've always been into really into that kind of production and feel; like Wu Tang and Raekwon or early White Stripes. I've always wanted to make music that sounded like it was sampled or being cobbled together."
Timber Timbre is still indelibly identified with Kirk. He is aware of the tension between needing his own space, working in a band, and the increased demands on his time. Success "is a problem, but it's a good problem to have" he reasons. "I would love to be [recording] all the time. I don't love playing and touring. I mean, I do love it, but I don't really need it all the time."
The integrity of Timbre Timbre still requires blurry edges; for the solitary mystery to bubble up in order to create inspiration for Kirk. His friend Gesundheit knows him well. "His lyrics are the epitome of soul-baring honesty, they're so artful and clever. They have a bit of a disguise, his lyrics have masks."
Four albums into the Timber Timbre experience, and having to delve more deeply into himself, then share it with collaborators and audiences, Kirk says: "I hope I'm just getting good. I never felt that I was really that good expressing myself that way. I've always really struggled with it. I hope it's more fluid and natural. It's still pretty laboured to me. But that's okay."