Brendan Canning, Broken Social Scene

If you email Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning, a word of advice: don't ever greet him with "nice to e-meet you!" This is horrible, and Canning hates it. He's also not a fan of any reference to "hump day" in emails he gets on a Wednesday. I agree with Canning's point, and I hate these phrases because they are lazy. Canning probably does too, but as a songwriter who creates original art, hackneyed phrases like these must especially make him cringe.

Of course, I might be reading too much into this. But Canning is always creating: he cooks, he gardens, he plays soccer, and he DJs. "I live life with my curiosity piqued," he told me. In fact, you can often find him on the streets of Toronto on his bike, staring at people and wondering what their stories are. The important thing is that Canning is always keeping his brain going in some fashion. So if you're in downtown Toronto and notice Canning staring you down, there might be a Broken Social Scene song in there somewhere.

Hug of Thunder is the band's fifth album, out now on Arts and Crafts Records. Listen to the single "Skyline" off the new album, then read my interview with Canning about his creative process.

What other creative outlets do you have?

I DJ, which keeps me sane because I can play music that's not my own. It keeps my ears in tune to what I should be listening to. And watching how other people react to music other than my own can be helpful.

I do a little bit of sketching and color collaging, but that comes in waves as a stress releaser when I want to retreat into another world and not make any noise. Hell, I do a lot. I like cooking, tending to the garden, and playing soccer. I find all of those things to be creative outlets. If you're a thoughtful soccer player, you're trying to create, to make things happen.

I like going on bike rides and just staring at people. I find that fascinating. I imagine what their life must be like and the stories behind them. I live in a big city and bike everywhere, so there are lots of opportunities for that. It's a constant sociological and anthropological study. It's all about keeping the brain going in some fashion.

Many songwriters have told me about getting ideas from observing other people. Is that what biking does for you?

Song ideas? Not necessarily. It's more about living life with your curiosity piqued. And if it's not piqued, then I want silence. I look for peace in the valley, even if it's just me riding around. But I think things that make me incredibly angry can be effective too. In those cases, writing is cathartic. If you go through a particularly rough time, you'd like to be able to think, "Well, that was horrible. I hope I can at least get a couple of good tunes from it." Laughs. If this is the life I'm living, let's at least hope it's worth something.

You're not the first songwriter to tell me that they like to cook.

It can be meditative. It's all about experimenting with different ingredients, which is what a songwriter does. As I get older, my life is more about enjoying nice things and good food. It's not as much about being at a bar pounding beers.

Do you have a favorite environment when it comes to songwriting?

It depends on my energy level. Sometimes I can get really inspired early in the day if I have lots of energy; other times it's just all I can do to pluck a couple of guitar chords. I've never found that one part of the day is better than any other. If I'm working on stuff and I'm in a good flow and feeling good about what I'm doing, I can write any time and for long stretches. It also helps to be calm.

Now to the important question: computer or paper for writing lyrics?

Oh no, never on a computer. I'm a lyrics after the fact guy, to be honest.

What do you mean by that?

Just step up to the microphone and sing whatever comes out. Then I make sense of whatever I'm singing about after the fact. I'm not a balladeer, though I wish I was. I'm more of a collage guy. Literally, the first lead vocal I ever did was on Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It in People. It was done in one take at two in the morning, smoking lots of weed. I just said, "We should do something a little like this," and I just sang it out. Our producer says, "Hey Kev, Brendan's got this idea." We kept the take. It sort of sounded like words. Or close enough.

I'm not putting myself out there as an amazing songwriter like Stevie Wonder. I'm just a simple guy with ideas who plays in a big band and who knows how to pick other people's brains to pull the best out of them. That's where I think I've had the greatest success.

You said "never on the computer" with such utter contempt. Why?

What are you going to do, type away and hit delete? Laughs. It's not complicated: you get a notebook, you write stuff down, you scratch out words. I look at my screen often enough. I'm already on Facebook too much. I don't want to look at a screen any more than I already do. For something as intimate as songwriting, I don't want to get machines involved. I work with enough already as it is. That's probably why I first got into black and white sketching with just a pen and paper. I made weird little drawings just to soothe some suffering and anxiety that I was feeling. And I looked at them and thought, "I could actually interpret that. It's a weird little picture."

There was a short period in my life where the sketching came in one short spurt. I had some anxieties and didn't have many song ideas, so sketching was helpful in relieving those anxieties. It's never really quite come back. Inspiration is almost like the brain going through some strange psychosis; I mean, I look back and wonder what causes me to sit for three hours and draw strange lines.

Broken Social Scene, with Canning on bottom right. photo by Norman Wong.

And do you have a preferred writing instrument?

I do prefer a certain type of Bic Roller. If it's not around, I don't get all weird about it, though. Maybe your classic songwriter who writes every day is more particular, but I'm more cosmic than that. I don't get hung up over my routine. My songs have never been the hit tunes for Broken Social Scene, but the big musical arrangements that I've been a part of have been some of our big tunes. I'm bringing more of the music. The turns of phrases? I wish I could write something like that, but it doesn't come to me the way it does with other songwriters. Maybe one day I'll crack the code. I would like to be more funny and comical in my songwriting. But I'm funny without singing. Laughs.

Do you much writing outside of songwriting? 

Not too much. I've written some articles and book reviews, though it's always something I wish I did more of. I'm just trying to make sure my emails are entertaining enough on a daily basis and trying to avoid writing horrible phrases like "pleased to e-meet you."

Wait, what? 

Have you ever gotten that? Someone starts an email with "pleased to e-meet you!" I sent something out recently that required some email responses, and I thought, "Just wait, I can feel it comin'." And sure enough, it came. That's the worst. The email before that one started with "it's hump day!" That's when I knew I was in trouble.

Where do you stand on the idea of inspiration? Do you work at it or wait for the muse? The songwriters I've interviewed who have been around the longest--people like Chris Difford and Neil Finn--scoff at the idea of waiting for it.

Songwriting is work. With Squeeze, I'm sure songs like "Tempted" and "Pulling Mussels from a Shell" didn't just bounce into their minds with the arrangements and bass lines all set to go. Those are some well-crafted tunes, and that takes a lot of work. We are an emotionally driven band, but we still to have to spend hours in the studio to get our frequencies right. Broken Social Scene is obviously a very different beast from bands like Hall & Oates and Squeeze. But I grew up with and enjoyed that that music too.

Chris Difford actually told me the story of how he wrote "Tempted." He did it in 2 1/2 minutes in the back of a taxi on a cigarette box.

Really? That's just incredible. See, I have a hard time writing autobiographical stuff like that. It's possible I just don't want to share too much.

How much reading do you get to do?

It comes in waves. I was reading Alexandra Fuller's stuff for a while. I love her book The Legend of Colton H Bryant. I also just finished a book called Agent Zigzag by Ben MacIntyre. It's a World War II non-fiction espionage story. Another one I highly recommend is Us Conductors by Sean Michaels. But I'm not doing as much as I should be.