Earmark is a series of interviews with the artists who have recently joined the CMC as Associate Composers. In this installment, we hear from James Lowrie about the comedy scene in London (Ontario), staying ambitious with your music, and instinctive reactions to Ryan Gosling.
CMC: What got you excited about music at a young age?
James Lowrie: I grew up in the small town of Belleville, Ontario. One of my favourite things to listen to as a child was a local children’s music performer named Andie Forgie. He inspired my interest in the guitar.
As a result of not having any cool friends, the recorded music listened to was mostly dad-provided classical tapes. This changed when I was 11. I became friends with a boy named Jordan who was deeply hooked into early internet culture. This friendship exposed me to 2002 era meme music – Japanese noise bands, popular culture collage, electronic nonsense, forgotten euro kitsch. This was all deeply exciting to me.
CMC: What is an important music event you attended?
JL: The most important musical event I attended was not a musical event, but a movie. About a year ago, I went to see First Man – the Ryan Gosling astronaut movie — in IMAX at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. Obviously, someone set the volume much too high because it has given me seemingly permanent ear pain and tinnitus that the doctors in the Canadian healthcare system have no interest in taking seriously. As someone who has been disabled my whole life, this lack of care has not been surprising.
It has become harder to compose and also harder for me to enjoy certain concerts whose frequencies bother me the most (related to that, please don’t feel offended if I ever head out of a concert). However, it has also hardened my resolve to make music that sounds like what I want to hear in the world.
It has certainly made me think about the embodied cognitive aspects of the compositional process, something I am lucky enough to be exploring right now at the University of Edinburgh on a research trip. One final side effect is that I am angered whenever I see Ryan Goslings face, which is really too bad because he is rather handsome.
CMC: What have you been listening to lately? Does any of this make its way into your music?
JL: I’m a runner, or at least I try to be when it’s above 0 degrees Celsius. I’ve been listening to the early Kanye West recordings on my runs and the one track I can’t get over is Through the Wire. Now 17 years old, it is Kayne’s debut single about how he was recently in a car accident and how his mouth is now wired shut because of his broken jaw. Since his mouth was still wired shut when he recorded the track, the listener can hear the effect this has on his rapping, resulting in a muffled sound. He even goes on to call this out in the song during the part of the song when, traditionally, the rapper is hyping up the next verse: “I really apologize for everything right now if it’s unclear at all, man. They got my mouth wired shut for like… I dunno, the doctor said like six weeks.” The cherry on top of this is the beat, which is made out of a sample of Chaka Kahn singing the phrase “Right down to the wire.”
Now, why did I just do a little piece-by-piece breakdown of this old Kayne West single in the middle of a CMC interview? I will tell you. It is because, for me, if I am going to write music that is “conceptually” based one needs to be at least this rigorous in connecting my image, lyrics, affect and music content. If one cannot be this coherent (even if it is a rather incoherent coherence in my case), don’t write concept music. Also, this ability to take something that is personal, venerable, or outside of the realm of what is generally considered a “normal” subject matter and use it with such confidence and braggadocio is something I admire and seek to replicate in my own work. To quote Rupaul, to show venerability is to show strength!
CMC: How do you define your musical/artistic community?
JL: I think of my musical friends in Toronto, London, and Montreal in the world of contemporary music: those I started with, those who started before me, those who started after me. I am always excited to hear their music in the hopes that I will learn a little more about them. I have a secondary artistic practice in the world of Stand-Up Comedy and right now am delighted by my local comedy scene in London Ontario. I seek to replicate that support and joy of that community in the world of new music as best I can.
CMC: Tell me about a work of yours that you are particularly proud of.
JL: During the Array Young Composers Workshop in 2018, I wrote a piece called WINDOW. I don’t think it’s my best work, I don’t think it’s my most representative work, but it is one of the works where I really put everything I had down on the page. The struggle to stay ambitious is important to me and I think I won that battle this time. The juxtaposition of the toothbrush guitar vs the repeating pop song on the piano is the sort of musical idea I like the best: semiotically loaded but drained of specific meaning, pedantically literal but frustratingly abstract.