"Hope was smiling high on melancholy": In conversation with Patrick Watson

Ahead of the release of his latest album “Wave” and his upcoming Istanbul show, we chatted with Patrick Watson about melancholy, love, Istanbul and Father John Misty.

I would like to start the interview with asking you the story behind your song “Melody Noir”, by personal favorite. What was the inspiration behind it? What about the Spanish lyrics?

I think it all came from a bunch of different things. Lyrically, it was a song that I wanted to write a long time ago, but I couldn’t find the right way of doing it. Mishka, our bassist in the band, had the musical idea for a long time and we tried this thing over and over, but it didn’t work very well with my lyrics. And then I heard this singer called Simon Diaz, a Venezuelan singer. And just the way he plays these melodies over the course of time was just way too beautiful and I thought that I maybe we could apply his way to the idea we had with Mishka and I just started to play it. I kind of wanted my lyrics to answer Diaz’s song but then I didn’t understand all the references inside the song, but the main idea was that you know you have these holes inside you, and they will always be a part of your life. Wherever you go. And I wanted to write a love song for this hole inside every one of us. Everyone interpret these holes in different ways of course but I was particularly interested in the way we carry them our whole lives like a companion. I really wanted to write a song for it and this needed to be a love song.

You have an “eclectic” career, if this is the right term to use. You have been singing and writing your own lyrics for over fifteen years now. How did everything go along the road? How did music shape your path?

Music has been a part of my life since I was very young, I guess maybe since I was 6 or 7.  I grew up in a pretty small town and this was something that kept me company a lot. I used to play music at night. I don’t think I was fairly good at it but I just kind of enjoyed the company in a weird way. I guess that’s the best way to look at it. It just always kept me company almost always in my life and in everything that I’ve built, I built through music. So, I guess it’s just a very important part of my life. I can’t even take it away from me right now, I honestly don’t know what I would be without it. It’s just so integral, in all the decisions and everything that I have done. I don’t remember choosing music, I think music chose me. In good moments and bad moments, it just keeps me the best company. Often the people you meet, you don’t feel well with them or you feel them fake. Music is just the companion. I don’t particularly enjoy the idea that I do a specific style of music, it doesn’t really interest me. I like music as a noise. Different noises speak different languages and tells different stories. This excites me more than one type of noise telling the best story in a specific style. I like the idea of music more than I like the styles in music.

The use of melancholy in your songs is presented in the purest way possible. Does this melancholy come from your real-life experiences? How would Patrick Watson define love?

Those are two big questions there! Melancholy… I like it when the world slows down, becomes very quiet and all the details start to show up and shimmer at you. And it’s like everything is in a peaceful slow motion. I really don’t think that melancholy is based on sadness. I think melancholy based on what is surreal. I’m a big fan of surrealism, but in grounds. I’m not a fan of “let’s put a rabbit head on a donkey” kind of surrealism but more like “everything’s tripping normal but there is this little thing that makes everything look like a movie” all of a sudden. I kind of enjoy this feeling. I think basing melancholy on sadness is a big mistake. And about love? I didn’t know how to speak about love until later in my life. I knew that people talked about it and it was kind of an important thing. My last partner was… I can’t even put it in words right now but was an amazing partner. It’s the easiest thing in the world you know. The amazing companionship, feeling crazy together… I don’t know, it’s hard to describe but I didn’t know it until I met my girlfriend – then I was just like “Oh that’s what they are talking about! I get it now. They are not crazy!” I felt like it’s not this extraordinary thing just happened, but just this ordinary thing that just feels amazing. When you’re in love, the mundane becomes so much better! You don’t need big things anymore; all these small things are total winds and it’s just like you’re in a state of appreciation. And I think that’s what love is built out of.

Your new album “Wave” consists of your most sophisticated work to date. What was your favorite song and lyric from your album?

My favorite line was “Hope was smiling high on melancholy.” I really love that line. It’s a line from Strange Rain. I’m not a naturally gifted lyricist, it’s something that I work hard for. And that line makes me feel like this person who’s really proud of what he done. I just like everything about that line.

You are often compared to a few of the powerful auteurs of our time like Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave or Father John Misty. How is it different to tell a story in this time than fifteen years ago? Is it hard to speak to one’s inner self in digitalized world?

I think this time is very particular because it’s a relatively new time. I would say that lyrics today are heavily affected by hip-hop and new R&B, in a great way of course. There’s a certain edge to them. I back then songwriters had to play far behind the imagery and not necessarily had the balls to say really where they are going with things. I feel that the nature of songwriting comes from the deep R&B like the Frank Ocean stuff which totally changes the perspective to singing and forces you to put more on the table. It reinforces you to leave classic imagery that we used go-to, like the stuff used in folk songs or something. I think that line is radically shifted, and I think people are not affected by those traditional metaphors anymore. I have even finished adapting them. I have a new record started a couple of them there and also “Melody Noir” is a good example also. And Father John Misty, I mean! I really appreciate his lyrics; I think he’s very funny. He is a naturally gifted lyricist. He just is! Even if you don’t like his stuff, he’s still a great lyricist. Like Nancy From Now On is such a funny song! It’s just so smart and fun. It’s an interesting time also; the styles of music: "no one gives a shit"! Like Spotify blows ending and previous ways of making an album out of the water like there is so many… I find it kind of a funny time to make music, I don’t even have to bother thinking about what kind of style of music I’m making you know. I think hip-hop is a gamechanger. I mean hip-hop also gives you certain limits that you maybe don’t have in other types of music and it’s just fair enough. You can’t necessarily cross all the lines by the nature of the music that you do. But you can definitely get inspired by the intention and the intention just like such a commitment in the lyrics and the hooks are just so fun to listen to and the people are just like totally going for it! It’s quite exciting to listen to.

I think it is hard in a sense that we life in a skimming age. People are always skimming through stuff and music but not digging in really. And you start to pay more attention to what you are going to listen to next than what you are listening to at the moment. A lot of music out there is a lot of heavy production you know. Very flashy in terms of the sound design; which is totally amazing I mean it’s not a bad thing. But I felt like when I get home at the end of the day, I just couldn’t take in the amount of information that they were giving me at the production level. And I was like “OK, if I’m going to do a record, I will be doing something that I can actually listen to.” So I stripped a lot flash out of the arrangements on purpose so that you would have room to digest the song. So I definitely thought about this very loud world versus making a “regular” song for example. In “Strange Rain” I even wrote it in lyrics: It’s a loud, loud world… I can’t function in such a noise. Constant noise. Even while listening to records I think like “I love music so why can’t I listen to records?” I can’t listen to anything today that is.

You are very popular in Istanbul. Did you like the city the last time you were here? What was one memory that you remember from here?

Am I? Really? I didn’t even know! I’m a huge fan of history and Istanbul is the city of history. I like the idea of Istanbul being the place between the two continents; to walk in the middle where the two worlds are meeting is amazing. I mean for example in Canada, everything is so young here. Obviously, there were people here before us for many long years but the city today that we live in is very new and young; the buildings and everything. In every step that you take in Istanbul you feel like stepping on a thousand of years of history. It’s very special for me to come to a city like Istanbul. Like we know that cities can be old, but we’re just not used to them being this old! It’s a bit of a magical experience for me. I mean while walking through a random market I think of all of those people who walked by this place and its really kind of amazing. And also, some people make judgements based on thirty years of history and make huge claims out of them but compared to such a history that Istanbul has it’s just nothing and nonsense. These are places that are very important to civilization today. I’m very excited! My tourist memories I remember from Istanbul, there are two. One was drinking coffee! And I loved watching people on the streets sitting together and having these beautiful conversations while drinking their coffee. And you have these coffee conversation rooms for like thousand years now and they are very simple; I really enjoyed watching people there. And I liked walking through the markets; I know that these are very touristic and not the most original things though! I didn’t have the time to dig in. Imagine like you’re sitting on the street of a 400-year-old city which is older than North America. I mean our history is pretty much all erased; there’s not much about it. The show will be very fun!

Interview: Nazlı İlke Kaya