“One of the crowning glories in any recording experience is getting a first take, and we got a first take on the first track on this record,” said Jason Collett, sitting in a quiet corner of Halifax’s Carleton bar. He’s describing the recording process of “Rave On Sad Songs”, a track off his sixth album, Rat a Tat Tat. Like most of the Toronto native’s musical endeavors, it was just another unrehearsed and unhewn moment that came about through a series of chance events.
It all started with Toronto musician Don Kerr’s home studio and some good wood.
“I had not set out to work in Don Kerr’s studio, but he had called me to ask about a particular kind of wood because he knew I had a connection to get some white cedar from a local mill just outside of Toronto,” said Collett, who in addition to being an icon on the Canadian music scene, playing regularly with indie supergroup Broken Social Scene, also happens to be a carpenter. Kerr needed the wood to build a deck; Collett helped design and build it.
One thing led to another, and they struck a deal. “I had a little time before I was doing some other studio work with the Zeus boys, so we did a little barter and booked a few days with him.”
True to style, Zeus, a band whose members have been backing Collett for many years, joined in and picked up instruments, no questions asked.
And when they played, they played it perfectly.
“At the end of the song we just looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow, that was kind of what we talked about and it worked out great,’” said Collett. “Nobody had ever played the song before. So there are moments of magic that are a real thrill. We got lucky with that one.”
As Collett talks about his musical career, it is clear that these magical moments are almost commonplace. Things have a way of coming together for Collett—just as they seem to come together for the artists around him.
He’s developed a knack for bringing artists together, something that he picked up from having people over for dinners. “I think I have a pretty natural inclination towards curating, I really enjoy it,” he says. “I like doing dinner parties and I like the chemistry of the various guests that come over.”
Soon, that inclination extended from the dinner table to a songwriters’-circle-inspired program called Radio Mondays, followed by collaborations with Broken Social Scene and other artists, and now manifest itself as a regular variety show event at Toronto’s Dakota Tavern called Basement Revue, a show that Collett calls an experiment in spontaneity. In it, he acts as the ringmaster, the head scientist splicing and mixing together friends from the musical and literary worlds and throwing them on stage.
The real test of the night is when a band is assembled behind a poet. “The poet describes the piece and then the band just starts to interpret that, so they start interpreting what they think the tone is, of what she has described the poem to be. But then they are also listening to each other and falling into a groove together so all these things are happening at once, and then they’re reading and then the poet is trying to lock into the rhythm that has been created,” says Collett, his words quickening and picking up into a poetic cadence itself. “It’s a major recipe for a train wreck, and sometimes it is, but most often it just kind of magically comes together.”
Collett’s goal in this experience is to share with an audience the moments of unrehearsed and unadulterated musical connections that are usually confined to the studio, while also giving a platform for artists from different areas to connect and collaborate.
“I’ve always felt that good things happen when you stir the pot like that with other artists. There’s a reason the Group of Seven worked as a collective. You’re inspired by each other’s work, you are pushed harder on your own work to stretch further, because you don’t want to be left behind,” he said. “It’s a healthy environment to be in.”
His fascination with the environment of collectives may have started small, but it was bolstered by the success of Broken Social Scene.
“I learned a lot by being in that accident that became the Broken Social Scene,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of intention with what happened, but what did happen were these friendships with a lot of our working together on one project but also continuing to work on our own projects, and both benefited from that reciprocation.”
Broken Social Scene, itself a collective with a vast membership, includes many prominent indie musicians across the country. In the last 10 years, the group has marked a shift for Canadian music, and Collett was happy to be a part of it. “Something changed this century when Canada suddenly became cool to the outside world,” he says, “but I don’t know how much that has changed Canada.”
He thinks artists need to work in a community to validate their work. “This is the typical trajectory: you go and get celebrated somewhere else, typically in the U.S. Then critics start taking notice of you—that’s how it happens in Canada. You have to leave and then we all pat ourselves for creating such a good artist.
“I don’t know why these things are and I don’t even know if they are ultimately that negative,” he says. “I think there is something about the way that artists are ignored in Canada that might actually make them better artists.”
That may be true, but when it comes to supporting the talents of others, it can’t hurt that Canada has artists like Collett.