Ian William Craig`s recent album, Red Sun Through Smoke, is such a personal document that I had my reservations about reviewing it. The songs and music represent an audio diary that chronicles a forest fire, falling in love – then being separated from said love – and Ian’s grandfather`s demise. I was worried that my interpretations and assumptions would be at best wrong, and at worst cause offense. To help redress this, Ian has kindly prepared an in depth, track-by-track, account of the record and its recording. To be honest it`s a detailed and frank account, which at times is both heartbreaking and powerful.
O life, o this
All of it, nothing less, the possible
This is how far back to draw your bow
To carry and carry and still not know
All the random, all the random
But therefore all this moonlight
Here is a beginning that was actually the last thing laid to tape during the recording process. I’ll say more of what happened during those eventful two weeks, but I needed to sing the whole process out. By the time of this song’s recording, I had put all of my tape decks away and the house I`d turned into a studio had emptied out; I was alone with my thoughts for the first time since beginning to record and I just needed to sing at full tilt for awhile. I hadn’t anticipated a song coming out of it, but yielding finally to a sound to unknot the events of those two weeks ended up being a solid place to begin crafting the rest of the record. All healing begins with admission. This song became kind of a thesis statement: the time spent recording was such a cosmically thick layering of events one on top of each other that the only thing to be done was to give over to the randomness of it all. Singing out at the end, without any tape decks or toys to hide behind, I realised that there wasn’t going to be any meaning or moral gleaned from those events, but that the random and the grief and the love and the sorrow experienced over that time were all tied together. The chance nature of things is what gives them their life. We can’t know or predict, but we can sing and watch the moon set over whatever valley we find ourselves in.
This record was recorded in a city surrounded at the time by forest fires, right up to its border. Because of the warming climate, British Columbia is now regularly engulfed in fire at the end of summer. That year was no exception: the houses across the cul-de-sac couldn’t be seen save for a brief white on white outline. The sun was dull red on grey. The air was steadily dangerous, which was a bit fascinating for a singer as air is the fuel upon which our sound is predicated. The most striking aspect of this was that there was nowhere to go that was not this way; all the space filled up with worry. I needed to come back to something calming, and my grandfather’s piano came to the rescue. I hadn’t really brought the correct equipment to properly capture a piano, but my genius dad was on the scene, and he cobbled a mic rig out of vice grips and foot stools and bric a brac found in Grampa’s garage. It all held up and sounded surprisingly good, so the piano became the anchor around which the record revolved and all the subsequent emotions that dragged themselves along with it.
The simple act of ink in water
Slowly spreading out in grace
And all the things, the things that could be
In the centre of its shape
A valley flooded full with drama
A box of keys no door can place
Taking earth inside your belly
Just to feel the weight
Just to feel the weight
Watching all the words unfinish
Wondering how long it could take
The sound of radios and static
Swing sets there beside the lake
We took it there inside our surface
Took it there inside our space
The dissonance of love and measure
I will bless you for the weight
Bless you for the weight
Grampa had been afflicted with dementia for the last ten years or so of his life. Before this time, he also struggled with alcoholism, albeit in a functional way. As a result, our relationship before he began to fade was a difficult one: he was a traditional man and didn’t take very kindly to some of my choices, and his opinions would be rather forcefully expressed. His traditional nature also meant that since I was the only son in the family, I was somehow responsible for carrying on a perceived legacy. I admit I was complicit in this too, being young and brash at the time. These things combined to foment a great deal of conflict. I bring this up because it was at his house that this record was made: he was living in a care facility at the time and my parents gifted me with two weeks in his empty condo to make a record in. Because life is an unpredictable thing, the day after I arrived, had trekked all my gear across the province and set everything up in the living room, they called at 7 in the morning to say that they were flying in too because Grampa had been moved to palliative care, his lungs filled with fluid as a result of the smoke. He held on for a week or so before passing away, drifting in and out of memories both true and false with people who may or may not have been present in his room at the time. My parents convinced me to keep recording. This meant the whole thing became a document of where we all found ourselves at that time, but this song specifically is a song for my grandfather made in his own home on his piano. To still find mutual love and respect there even after all that happened, and to see that a lot of what did go on was as a result of misshapen expressions of those feelings was humbling.
Along an edge
We search for a climbable tree
Of everything in between
Your brand new shoes
Wearing blisters on your feet
As we rename the ground
After ships lost at sea
Into a comma
Since everything was a bit raw, shall we say, I didn’t want there to be anywhere to hide in this record. My parents and I were in a small house together while my grandfather slowly died across the street in a world filled with smoke, after all. If it were a movie it would be an unbelievable amount of dramatic pathos, but that’s what happened. So in this record, more than most, there exist a great many things straight to tape without any effects because there really was no space. So the challenge here was to try and find space within that plenum, and a place to have a relationship with all of the feelings that were there. Things just happened and happened and happened. For example, on the day that Grampa died, my parents and I went to the pub where a man in his late twenties collapsed from cardiac arrest. No fewer than eight paramedics showed up to revive him in a cacophony of wires and devices and emergency medical procedures. They got his heart going again in the heavy silence, but it took a very long and very tense time. It was shocking. More shocking still was that fifteen minutes after the man was taken away on a stretcher, the gentleman in charge of Saturday night karaoke arrived knowing none of this and began singing some ridiculous thing like nothing had happened. It was one of the most absurd moments I think I have experienced. Because of everything else that had occurred, however, the whole thing just slid off our backs. It was two weeks of “and then, and then, and then,” with each huge event compacted and elided because of the barrage. I thought eventually all of these sentences would just be reduced to commas with no words left, which is where this piece comes from.
It’s not really a secret that I`m interested in notions of decay and forgetting. It is a salient part of our lives, and so there is no sense in not having a relationship with it. However, exploring it through artistic means, though important, is a bit paltry when faced with it directly as it turns out. Perhaps paltry isn’t the right word, but every poem pales in comparison to life. I felt somewhat artificial making disintegrating vocal loops while my grandfather lost more and more of himself, as he had been doing for years. There really is no way to empathise with that kind of way of being, is there? There is no decaying tape loop in the world that can adequately describe it, because how can we know? I certainly don’t. Confronted with it, it is actually a brutal and cruel thing to slowly lose like that – something I tried to reflect upon in this piece. Perhaps it is only terrible to be aware of the loss, and that we shed things we no longer need and become happy there, blissfully unaware. But this would mean that my grandfather was more like himself in those last moments without any of his memories or awareness. Indeed, in a way he was: he was shining, impish, generous, kind. But then he would look through you to the ungraspable ghosts that were almost there and a dull unknowable panic would seem to descend. I have constructed great lies to try and understand this gradual loss. I don’t believe I have succeeded if my experience with Grampa is any indication, but I think it is important to try.
A plot twist: also included in these strange couple of weeks was falling in love. Of course, true to fashion, it wasn’t quite that simple. I met someone truly special, she and I found we had mutual feelings for one another, and then more or less the next day she left for Paris for four months. We started a long and rich correspondence together, but we really didn’t know anything about what being with the other person was like. We had about three weeks to go before actually seeing one another again when I started making this record, and so all of that built up unknown was brought to bear here as well. It has turned out to be a happy thing, which is not to suggest it wasn’t also then, but having a honeymoon period when the person wasn’t actually physically there was altogether uncanny, especially with everything else going on. Relationships are always a trip into the unknown though, and so in amongst everything else, there are some unknowing love songs on here for her as well.
All of my stable
All of my known
All of my safety
All that I owe
All of my meaning
All of my lies
Take it all
Take it all
Here is a small song. I like that it sounds like a weird failing barbershop quartet. I had an old four-track cassette recorder that I turned into an impromptu looper in the studio, which was a really handy thing on which to generate a lot of ideas quickly. If I didn’t like something, I could layer something else on top of it, feed it back into itself, or use the deck’s circuitry to introduce eerie distortions. Eventually a melody or a song would emerge and I could try and fashion a song around it. It’s found here, but in a few other songs on the record as well. Just as fragmented was the manner in which the lyrics were developed sometimes – I would put my diary in front of me and turn to a random page and just sing whatever words I found over top. I didn’t know what else to do really. This small piece was a snippet of this process that seemed oddly complete.
Last of the Lantern Oil
Grampa was a ham radio operator. When I was a boy, he would let me sit in his den while he talked to the world and send his voice careening out into the world. For a kid, one predating any notion of internet or email or messaging, this was the most magical thing. What’s more fascinating to me is that all of the sounds inherent to that process, from the crackling of the static to the disembodied voices breaking up to the glissando of the frequency dial searching for connection, have directly informed what it is that I do. Perhaps all of the meaning inherent to my work can be distilled into merely loving the aesthetic beauty of that experience. His radio and all that came out of it become almost my entire metaphor now that I think about it. Someone in art school once told me that we make work simply to understand why it is we are drawn to what we are, and I hadn’t really realised the profundity of those childhood experiences until this record. There was still some of his old equipment stashed away in his house, and since this album is mostly about him, you can hear some of these old radios swirling around on this piece.
We had grief for supper
The tray was black with little flowers
And for an instant all at once
The world became the dress
That you were wearing
The last time that I saw you
I like songs based on mistakes. I was writing then with my now girlfriend, and wrote out the exact words for this song as a paragraph to her, relating how the tray our evening meal had come on reminded me of the dress that she was wearing on the day she left for Paris, but more than that it was one of those memories that expanded completely into the world and for an instant I really was standing there in front of her with awkward smiles and shifting feet and so many feelings. I missed her a great deal just then. She thought I had written “we had grief for supper” even though I think it was sushi – she caught her mistake but said that reading it like that with the accidental word gave the passage a whole different meaning. So I sat down and immediately recorded it with a little melody that was going through my head. She gave me a lot of hope during that time, even being so far away, and since the record is more plain-spoken than my usual fare, I wanted her to literally show up there too. What’s funny is that I completely misremembered the actual colour of the dress she was wearing, and that it was nothing like the tray, but brains are funny things, especially when romance is involved. So this is actually a song of two mistakes.
Far and Then Farther
Though I wouldn’t really recommend it as a sustainable way to make music, this whole record existed without thinking. Between hospital visits and the smoke and emotional support, there wasn’t time for it. Any moment spent singing or composing or manipulating tape was simply spent doing that. I threw away pretty much all expectation and tried to turn myself into something like Grampa’s radio receivers, just there to channel what was going on while the operator was away. Very little time was spent in reflection. I would get some ideas out, iterate on them, shape them, mostly without editing or revising. So I made a lot of garbage those two weeks, which I then sifted through to find what was useful. It made me realise that perhaps I don’t know much about composing at all, I just know a good song when I hear one, and that my process is much more of an archeological one than one of building things from nothing. Besides which, on a record dealing with themes of loss, I thought it was fitting to distill ideas down from the whole and forget the rest.
Open Like a Loss
Here we find ourselves towards the end, but this piece was actually the middle. In fact, it was during this piece that Grampa actually died. We almost didn’t think he would, since he had seemed to rally and flicker back into existence so many times, but whatever strength he had was expended and he stopped. The day that he died was also the smokiest: at least two other people in his care facility died on that same day from respiratory failure. This piece is a photograph of that moment. But since time wasn’t working how it normally did, that moment ended up being put last. Looking back at the experience, there was a strange parallel between the man-made destruction caused in the city by climate change, by both fire and smoke, and the slow battle of disintegration happening in my grandfather. A loss of landscape, a loss of self, a loss of space, a loss of meaning. Those giant movements also precipitated a jumble of incidental moments that were poignant and unforeseen, and caused vast emotional tracts to be examined and recalculated. We don’t know the future we are walking into as a result of the choices that we have made as individuals, as a community, or as a species, but they are nevertheless indelible and must be reckoned with for better or worse. The universe does not care, yet still we find ourselves here; I think I choose for that to be a hopeful thing, and I’m grateful to have been there for my family during this time and to have a unique document of the entire thing as a result.
Even the dark has a dark of its own
Moving somewhere just past what it knows
What it knows
Time doesn’t care whether forward or reverse
O little future, all your friends are words
All your friends are just words
So tell all your stories to the fires that you love
Let them burn, let them glow
Let them burn, let them glow and glow and glow
When I was finished mixing this album, I joked to my friend that it must be one of the first ambient records without any reverb on it (or hardly any). Anytime I tried to apply any effects that weren’t directly a result of the process, it started reading as untrue, because this record is simply a man in a room with the whole world twisting around it. Coming back to some very core elements of my practice – piano, voice, tape, songwriting – was the only way I could make sense of it all and get anything done. That this thing exists at all is kind of astonishing to me. So we finish things like we began, unadorned, with a different reflection on coming to grips with the random nature of life and distilling things down into only that which is necessary without any of the raiment we usually cloak ourselves in. It is a song that, along with the record, happened, starting and ending when it needed to without expectation.