Jon Middleton and Roy Vizer each brought something new to the sessions for Riverside, their sixth recording as the acclaimed roots/folk rock band Jon and Roy.
Vizer, a trained percussionist, treated himself to a traditional drum set — not his typical studio path. “I put down the hand drums completely,” he said. “This was us trying to push it a little bit.”
Middleton also went off script. For the recording sessions at Greenhouse Studios in Vancouver, where records by Sarah MacLachlan, Matthew Good, K.D. Lang and 54-40 among others have been recorded, the singer-songwriter used a semi-acoustic guitar. He played the vintage 1947 Gibson L4 hollow body (on loan from the band’s manager) during each of the seven songs on Riverside, eschewing an acoustic guitar for the first time ever on a Jon and Roy recording.
The sound of amplification took some getting used to for all involved. But while it produced a revamped sound, adding more dynamics to the group’s already-upbeat folk stylings, nothing endangered the Jon and Roy trademarks: Vizer’s intuitive timekeeping, Middleton’s haunting, original voice, and the easygoing synchronicity of the longtime friends and musical partners.
Those remain front and center on Riverside. But there’s a freshness, too. “A new guitar can inspire new things for me,” Middleton said. “It put me in the flow of where I was going with the songwriting.”
The decision to tinker came at a point where Jon and Roy were already rolling creatively. The group’s 2012 album, Let it Go, won a Western Canadian Music Award for roots recording of the year and led to tours at home and through the U.S. and By My Side, their 2014 effort, received rave reviews and commercial radio play, European remixes and festival touring across Canada.
The Victoria, BC outfit has been a steady presence on the Canadian roots music scene since the arrival of their 2005 debut, Sittin’ Back. Tours with Xavier Rudd, The Cat Empire, Trevor Hall, Buck 65, Current Swell and more, furthered their reputation as a must-see live act, while song placements in national TV campaigns for Scotiabank and Volkswagen, ads for Lululemon and Hootesuite and TV shows on HBO, MTV and OLN put fan favourites like Another Noon in front of viewers across the globe.
The group, which also includes bassist Louis Sadava, has certainly made a mark during its time together. Vizer credits much of that to Middleton, whose significant emotional impact is one of the band’s strongest traits. “It’s all passion with Jonny. Honestly, I’ve never met anyone who means it more than him. Every time he plays, every song, he never goes through the motions. That just doesn’t happen with him, and it all comes across in his voice.”
Riverside is Jon and Roy’s first album in their catalogue not recorded at Victoria’s Blue Heron Studios though the production and mixing was still handled by Stephen Franke. The novelty of a new studio experience kept everyone loose, but the four-day session at Greenhouse also required a good deal of advance planning to ensure the songs were fleshed out well in advance.
In records past, they spent months recording, adding and over-dubbing when they saw fit. Not so on Riverside, Vizer said. "We had to make it count on this one. Play with a little more confidence."
Energy ties together the songs on Riverside. That is a by-product of living with some of the songs on the road, Vizer said. Three of the tracks (Quatro, Riverside, and Dark Night) were fine-tuned during recent concerts, in order to gauge fan reaction. “We snuck them into sets, just to see if they worked or not,” Vizer said. Others had never been performed live prior to the recording of the album.
“That’s what gives this record life,” Vizer added.
Riverside’s running time barely cracks half an hour, but there’s a lot of magic and mystery therein. “Now the fall has come, and waves are upon the sea,” Middleton sings on the upbeat highlight, Ripples. “Everything is dawning, all around me.” Though he is known for being a colourful and intriguing lyricist, Middleton flatly refuses to discuss the meaning behind his material.
He’s not a traditional singer, either, so fans often come up with their own interpretations of what he is singing about. Which is more than Middleton’s longtime bandmate Vizer has ever attempted. “I don’t know what the lyrics are about, but then again I don’t want to know what the lyrics are about. You want to bring your own meaning to it.”
Middleton couldn’t agree more. “There is definitely a feel and theme to it lyrically,” Middleton said, “but I’m hesitant to say. I was only interested in creating an album that sounded like an album, not just a collection of tracks.”
It has been a long journey for Jon and Roy to this point, but in some ways the process of making Riverside — on which Middleton sings of a “new morning” — marked the point of another departure.