By BRUCE DENNILL
Ian Thornley’s debut solo album, Secrets, releases as Ian Fletcher Thornley, allows the Canadian rocker to stretch himself thematically and sonically, though the musical flair he contributes to Big Wreck, his “day job” band is always evident.
In the publicity bumf for Secrets, there’s a line about Thornley being able to get “closer to the core of his musical identity” on the solo album. That suggests that, in a band context, something gets in the way.
“For me, it’s not about being in a band format or not,” says Thornley in his considered, ruminative way.
“I have a tendency to get carried away with all the pretty things involved in recording – the decorative aspects; the adornments; how you dress up a song. I’ve been guilty of over-dressing songs in the past. On the last two Big Wreck albums, I think we’ve got the balance right, but with Secrets, the song had to be the focal point. There’s a rawness and immediacy that hits you in a different way to a Big Wreck album.”
Does maturity have anything to do with it? Does Ian embracing what makes him tick now make more difference than it might have as a younger man?
“I don’t think this is the first time I’ve got that close to the core,” Thornley says, “but it can make you self-conscious, putting out a record like this, with nothing to hide behind. That said, I’d been threatening to put out an album like this for a long time, and I hope it won’t be the last – or the last album I make with [producer] Mark Howard. It’s easy to get lost in the end goal, as opposed to constantly stepping back and asking, ‘Is it good?’ With Mark, I’ve learned that if it is good, if something only sounds like a mistake to me, then it only sounds like a mistake to me, and it’s important to realise that an move on. That’s been a chance to mature in some way.”
Will that process help when going back into the Big Wreck situation?
“I think so,” Thornley nods.
“I’m in the process – just the baby steps – of demoing for the next Big Wreck album. I’m digging through a mountain of ideas, trying to discover what vibe we’re going for. When it comes time to make the record, I hope to carry this ethos from Secrets forward. I’m a perfectionist, but maybe I need to realign what ‘perfection’ is; to allow for listeners to hear the interaction between the musicians, for instance.
“At the moment, we’re talking a lot as a band about how we’re going to do it, but once you start recording, the music takes you where it wants to. It asks you the questions.”
Mark Howard is not a household name, but he’s worked with other producers who are, including Daniel Lanois, and has been in the room for projects by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, U2 and a number of other A-listers. How has that experience affected the way he works now?
“There’s an air to Mark’s records that I love,” states Thornley.
“He’s Canadian, so we’d heard stories about working with him from friends of friends – and we almost managed to do so about five years ago. But just as an engineer, he’s able to do stuff that doesn’t need a particular kind of room. The lights just dim…the incense just burns, man. And his aural ornaments are fantastic. I don’t know how he does what he does: I watched him do it and I still have no idea. He’s one of those producers that makes you imagine a sound when you just hear his name.”
The first few tracks on Secrets have an unashamedly big, lush bass sound. Some producers are afraid of that.
“I was hoping for stuff like that,” says Thornley.
“Mark mixes as we’re recording. He makes sure that that low end is solid and builds around it. Then on another take, he might do it differently. Whatever he does, though, he ends up with this warm, analogue thing.”
Thornley plays any number of stringed things on Secrets – guitars, a ukulele, a mandolin, a banjo. He’s said that he feels that not everyone can pull off an acoustic album, but is he talking about stripped-down, empty arrangements there, where this album is layered?
“The one-voice-one-guitar thing is very difficult to pull off, unless it’s by the people who are masters of it,” muses Thornley.
“I’ve been part part of an ensemble for so long that I think in that space. Maybe if I’d been solo for the same sort of time, I could do it convincingly. And given the way I work, if I had done this project solo, I’d probably still he recording, trying to do it right. I look at a whole song as one thing – it’s just the focal point that changes. But to be believable, I’d need to re-train my ear. I wouldn’t want to sound like a rock and roll guitarist who isn’t plugged in, or like I’m trying to be James Taylor. I’d just sound ridiculous.”
Another analogue aspect of the recording process for Secrets saw Howard insist on live recording, without click tracks. Did that result in extra pressure or extra freedom? Are some artists too careful, using to many safety nets?
“I usually know what I want to go back and fix – here, there, here and there,” says Thornley, “but that’s not the case with Mark. He said: ‘You’re allowed one overdub – what’s it going to be?’ But then he’d do amazing things with the takes we’d recorded, capturing certain phrases and flipping them around or speeding them up, so we’d have overdubs, but generated by the same initial take. [Bassist] Dave [McMillan] and I were listening to him doing it and high-fiving like teenagers, shouting, ‘Dude! That’s so cool!’”
Secrets as a collection encapsulates a range of song moods and influences – Peter Gabriel on Frozen Pond; Led Zeppelin on Fool and On My Way and Big Wreck on Eloise – but is connected as a cohesive whole. Did it require conscious effort to make that happen, or was it just a natural outcome?
“A lot of these songs – I’m not sure of the percentage – were built from sketches and ideas that were sitting around for quite some time, waiting for the right vehicle,” recalls Thornley.
“Just To Know I Can and Stop And Think were almost bonus tracks on the last Big Wreck record, but they were too good for that. I put them on the back burner, but then some stuff happened in my personal life that helped make sense of the songs.
“I sometimes find that a part I’ve been playing for some time becomes the vessel for a song, and you need to trust it to carry what you’re saying and playing. I’ve tried not to dress up the lyric too much; to just say what I mean. So often you can come up with something very clever and beautiful and poetic, but when someone asks you, ‘Yeah, but what are you trying to say?’, you can’t really give them a solid answer.
“For me, the lyric comes last. I have an idea about what the voice will be doing, and I might have an idea about what I’ll be singing about, but then I need to figure out the words to go with that.”
Secrets was recorded fairly soon after Big Wreck completed the recording of their Ghosts album. Was it good to carry momentum into a new project or weird to wander into a new headspace?
“The latter,” grins Thornley.
“We had the time. There was no real touring going on, and I’m happiest when I’m busy. It was a difficult year, too, so it was good to sink my teeth into Secrets and to let go; to not be controlling. The whole thing only took 12 days, too, and it was good to come back to the city [Toronto] after that and not worry about it; to be able to think: ‘That’s done – and it’s great.’”
Ghosts was seen in many quarters as a bit of a revival for Big Wreck (certainly, it was the band’s first proper introduction to South African audiences). Leaving that train for a while to record a solo album – is that part of the ‘What happens happens; art over business’ approach that Thornley has mentioned before as a possible reason for his not being more widely known?
“Exactly,” agrees the singer.
“If I have the opportunity to record an album, I’m going to record an album. I always have enough music lying around…”
“Knock on wood, I’ve never had writer’s block.”
He then replaces superstition with certainty.
“I don’t believe in it. It’s a myth. An album is just working through a set of ideas I have at the time I’m writing. And the stuff that gets left out allows me to mine for gold later.
“Secrets was a bit different. The thing was not to be clever. With Big Wreck, I’m often trying to do that, rather than being direct. There’s room for both.”
Does that anything to do with the name change – adding the “Fletcher” part? Does that make it easier to see Thornley as something other than a band frontman?
“Sure – it helps to separate this from the Big Wreck stuff and from the Thornley [another band he’s written for and performed with] stuff, which was more streamlined radio rock. It’s not something I’d do otherwise, you know – [affects posh accent] ‘Oh, good day, Fletcher!’”
Thornley’s been at pains to reassure Big Wreck fans that Secrets will have no impact on the future of the band, which he’s still committed to. But what if the sales of the solo album go supersonic, overshadowing everything else he’s released?
Thornley gives a short, dry laugh.
“I’m not worried about that. Nothing I’m going to do is ever going to go supersonic.”
His self-deprecating attitude is refreshing in an industry – and a genre – saturated with ego, but it’s also maddening, coming from an artist whose superior technical skills should allow him, in a musical marketplace with any class, to lead the pack.
“I need to make a living, and people want to hear Big Wreck, so we’ve got to hit the road again,” he says evenly.
“Secrets was a labour of love and I’m very proud of it. You can hear the honesty.”
Do audiences and journalists tend to make too much of the supposed politics that come with career diversions like this?
“The other guys in Big Wreck are supportive – they’re great friends,” Thornley says.
“In Canada, we can make a living playing music, and I can’t take it for granted just because I’m going through a tough time and want to document my feelings and use my middle name. Nobody would listen to an Ian Fletcher Thornley record if there weren’t Big Wreck records.
“The guys put up with a lot. There’s so much ‘Hurry up and wait’ in the music industry. We were in a lull when I did Secrets, so I could sneak away to a cottage for 12 days and do my thing.
“I’ve been through the bad version of this band, but now it’s great. The lines of communication are open and it’s a privilege to share the stage with them.”
Secrets by Ian Fletcher Thornley is available on iTunes in South Africa. Ian Fletcher Thornley and Big Wreck are distributed in South Africa by ASP Records.