The Heavy Blinkers- Health

Article by Andrew Sisk with illustration by Kristian Bauthus

Jason MacIsaac is jogging beside me with the atlantic coast’s autumn chill all around us; this has become our morning ritual before we head to our respective jobs. We talk as much as we run. “Who has a better song catalogue: solo John Lennon or solo Paul McCartney?”, he asks as we run the circumference of the Halifax Commons. I have come to know him through proximity and a shared sense of humour in the tight-knit Halifax music scene . Jason is known for his quick wit and encyclopaedic knowledge of music which has made us fast friends and resulted in an unofficial mentorship between he and I. He has understandings and philosophies about music and the music industry as a result of his years of experience that consistently change how I think. He is steeped in musical history and culture such that, I continuously stop him to explain his references when he speaks. He fantasizes about the writers of Tin Pan Alley and uses influences like Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks and The Beach Boys as inspiration in ways I hadn’t heard before.  He is full of gems of wisdom and famous quotes like: “The difference between a pop band and a rock band is that a rock band spends a lot of time trying to get their live sound to tape and a pop band tries to figure out how to pull off their recorded songs live.”

It was 2008 and his band, The Heavy Blinkers, were currently inactive, leaving MacIsaac as the only remaining member, after having built an international audience through 4 critically acclaimed records which led to tours in all corners of the world. In retrospect, “It wasn’t until the band had broken up that I inherited the job of getting this album doneSometimes it felt like my bag of chains.

He was living in a bachelor apartment with an upright piano and his cats while he worked on writing musicals, the occasional advertisement music, and producing records for other artists. On his wall hung a painting of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birken and beside his work station was a framed photo of himself with Brian Wilson. We hung out a lot in those days and he was a generous friend, he once fled a rehearsal to help me retrieve a towed vehicle full of my music gear. The legend of the epic unfinished “Health” album was whispered to me from others who knew about it but Jason always kept his cards close to his chest.  I remember the day I drove Jenn Grant to record vocals for the album at his apartment in early 2009 as the beginning of my awareness that the re-opening of the gates of labour that would be required to complete the monstrous album had begun again.

Although the story of Health begins with a band falling apart, then travels through years of pause, relationships ending in between intense blocks of composition and recording, it was a long enough period of time that nothing was consistent except for MacIsaac’s determination to finish it.  As an elaborate work it is easy to see how one year could turn into 8 with an album of unique complexity becoming caught in a labyrinth of life’s twists and turns. When asked now about the long story of the making of this album, MacIsaac says, “The circumstances around the making of the record changed over time, such that if the album had been released any earlier, it wouldn’t have been as good as I hope people think it is. However, I did not work on this record for 8 years straight, in fact,  I just DIDN’T work on this record for 6 years. Enough time has passed that the guy who released this record is a totally different guy than the one who tracked the piano on day one of recording.

Forebodingly, the album begins with a choir singing a pick-me-up mantra that no matter how bad things get “as long as you have your health” you’re on the good side of things. The thesis, a wry observation with all it’s nuanced self-consciousness lying beneath the sombre consolation, lets you in on the theatrical rabbit hole you are entering as you listen to the 16 tracks that make up the newest and long awaited release by the Heavy Blinkers. “The music I love the most is sad and beautiful and there is nothing sadder than a break up song but there are so many people who are better at that than me so I decide to throw in jokes.” Jokes are necessary when the concept of the album is based around the themes: love that is gone, death, and war.  “At the risk of sounding immodest, I knew what I was doing all along while making this album. As much as “concept album” is a dirty word, that is essentially what Health is.”  The sum total of the album is a collection of fictional stories with intertwining themes with a back drop of lush orchestral pop that works on a level that is penetrating and powerful.

There is an apparent complexity that is consistently ironed out of the songs by the sweet melodies and lush arrangements that has been a part of all of the Heavy Blinkers albums. I know enough about music to know that a chord, for example- C diminished 9 add 11, is not something you come across on the street at night. Perhaps it is strummed on a guitar by accident or during a Jazz recital but rarely is it used in a pop song. “The difference between my music and  much of what you hear in other people’s pop music nowadays is that my songs often times are very chord-ally different. I’m not saying that my songs are better or that the chords are more clever or anything, but it is a fact that I’m using chords that don’t often get used in pop songs anymore. I use dense jazz chords because of how I learned to play music.  The songs I learned growing up were Elton John, Billy Joel, Burt Bacharach, and the Beach boys so I was enamored of major seventh chords by the age of 17. I suppose I had a slightly different education than my friends growing up, because I didn’t spend hours in my bedroom playing Neil Young songs, I was playing Bill Joel on the piano. More than 90 per cent of songs on the radio deal exclusively with major and minor chords. Van Dyke Parks (the famous composer/arranger) is my north star, and he says “Make your songs sturdy” and most radio songs would fall apart without the production. If you go back to the days of tin pan alley and broadway, those song-writers had to pitch those songs with only a piano and vocals. That’s why Carole King is a genius, her songs are made no better with a band or high production than they are played solo on a pianoAt some point in my childhood I became extremely surgical and analytical about why songs did certain things and became fascinated with chords at that point.”  As a testimony to this philosophy, a Health PDF songbook will be made available to people who purchase a copy of the album from the band, so you can try the songs at home on your piano, exploring the chords and melodies in the same way MacIsaac learned to do.

Health is beautiful and layered in ways music is not currently made in this era. There is something so entirely unique, theatrical, and intricate about the chord progressions and resulting melodies that is simultaneously impressive and appealing. Hearing an album that is composed rather than happened upon is an entirely different experience for the soul. The players assembled under MacIsaac’s production were completely different than every previous Blinkers album.  “I have really fond memories of making this record because it was done over such a long period of time so there was time for camaraderie and enjoyment rather than having 2 weeks in an expensive studio to rush to finish everything.”  With an all-star cast of musicians and over 30 songs written to choose from the final leg of recording was done at the Village sound studios liberating them to finish the album at their own pace.

One of the major contributors on the record is Jenn Grant who is known for her singular voice and who features as the lead singer on the majority of songs. “When these songs were first presented, Jenn was in the Heavy Blinkers and we had done some international touring with her and because I am a colossal fan of hers I felt she was the definitive interpreter of these songs.” The band has reinvented itself with different singers since the original line up dissolved including Mel Stone and Zuppa theatre member, Stewart Legere. “I enjoy the fact that I sometimes write in a strange key, so when singers sing my songs they often times end up singing in ways that they wouldn’t normally, which is very exciting to me. One of my favourite parts of the record are when Jenn sings the line “I see the bullet holes in the church” on Waiting for the riverboat.” The diversity of voices only adds to the theatrical nature of the music and diverse instrumentation.

Dave Christensen knows the intricacies of music the way a surgeon knows the human body. He is able to tell you, without missing a beat, which notes are in each chord and which chords are in each key.  “He and I have been working together since 2004, he is absolutely vital to the heavy blinkers and takes everything I do to another level consistently. Many of the memorable musical hooks that people seem to enjoy on our records are quite falsely attributed to me and are in fact Dave’s contributions. He has always been the one in the band that tells me what it is exactly that I am playing on the piano, cause I sure as hell don’t know half the time. He is very scholastic and studied while being very intuitive so it’s a complete joy to work with him. I don’t know what I would do without him. We work together on so many projects.”

In this day and age of music the Heavy Blinkers Health stands out as an aberration in most of it’s elements despite it being what would traditionally be termed as a “Pop” album. It sounds nothing like the top 40 of today nor does it come across as antiquated. “The last thing I want this album to be is a museum piece. I don’t want to make a record that has already been made better by other people.” While the Heavy Blinkers can finally celebrate the completion and release of their master work they will continue working as actors, composers, symphony arrangers, and music industry busy-bodies so that they can eventually start work on their next album, which according to Jason MacIsaac won’t be long, nor take as long. “The only thing that I regret about this album taking so long to come out is that now I have a backlog of material that I am beholden to getting out. I have enough material that I don’t need to write another song for 5 years.

You may find all things Heavy Blinkers at http://theheavyblinkers.com/

including their brand new and long awaited album, Health.