What would you do if your singer/songwriter career had taken off nicely, including an offer from notable indie label Scratchie Records and a tour of Japan with as an opening act for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, but fate and American immigration policies intervened to sideline you for a full four years? If you’re Dan Bryk, you hunker down and do what your visa will allow you to do—Canadians get very restrictive visas permitting employment in one area only—which was graphic design, while keeping a low profile as a musician in Raleigh, NC. Bryk’s enthusiastic press was silenced from his absence from the touring circuit, and his audience inevitably subsided during his enforced hiatus.
But Bryk didn’t seem to be worrying about it one Saturday night in February, playing Googie’s Lounge at New York’s Living Room bar. After chatting with the small but devoted crowd, he casually sat down at a white grand piano and sang “Feelings”—a gutsy move—with such wholehearted musicality and lack of winking that he actually redeemed the song. He went on to perform a string of engaging originals whose subjects range from a major-geek fantasy about computer programmer Mark Turmell to the ambivalence of relationships. “She Doesn’t Mean a Thing to Me Tonight” is his best-known song, from 2000’s Lovers Leap—an irresistibly catchy ode to loving the one you’re with. Bryk’s honest, funny lyrics flirt with self-deprecatory gloom and loneliness as well. “If misery loves company, where the hell did everybody go?” one song begins. His voice is warm and confident, with occasional indie rock casualness towards intonation. His piano playing is idiosyncratic and follows his moods, so it’s good he accompanies himself. He started laughing, for instance, during his song about Mark Turmell, at the lines “so you could modem me and I could modem you back.”
As noted, green card problems have prevented Bryk, a transplanted Torontonian, from touring for four years, which is only part of his bad luck. His album Lovers Leap was slated to be released by Scratchie Records (partnered with Mercury) in 1997, but the deal fell apart when a corporate merger forced restructuring. The record was eventually released by Scratchie without major label support and met with critical acclaim but weak sales. Once a regular face on the indie scene, Bryk now finds himself having to rebuild what he lost during his period of enforced anonymity. (And all for being a Canadian! Well, some, anyway.) Dan is currently working on a new album entitled Pop Psychology. He spoke to Glorious Noise via email from Raleigh where he lives with his girlfriend.
GLONO: One thing I’m curious about is, what is your job right now? I think you said you’d only recently gotten your green card.
DB: I work as a graphic designer for a printer in Raleigh. I’ve had a temporary visa to do graphic design the past three years, but it’s a temporary visa you have to renew every year. It’s a remarkably simple and efficient system if you meet the criteria, but there are issues. For example, my girlfriend and I couldn’t go home for Christmas last December while I was waiting for a renewal. We had a big family Christmas planned and the approval came in two months late. That’s not the end of the world, but you try telling your parents at the last minute you can’t be home for the holidays. Another issue is that overnight I could only work as a graphic designer, not as a musician or performer or barista or gardener. I couldn’t simultaneously have a visa to work a day job and have the visa I’d need to be a performer.
GLONO: Has it been awful not being able to tour for two years? Or was it a nice break in some ways?
DB: It’s been four years! I’ve played a handful of local gigs when people have asked me, but always totally under the radar, no press or actual touring. More than anything I’ve felt like my life was on hold, or that I was being lazy compared to when I was back in Canada. I’m fortunate in that I love designing, and I’m good enough at it that I’m not resenting going to a day job every day or making minimum wage.
I kind of wish I had a day job more involved in music, but then again the jobs I’ve considered in the music business all seemed to be at the expense of the artists. I used to be the art director for MMSdirect [a cd manufacturer in Toronto], designing record sleeves all day, and I loved that job even though it didn’t pay all that well and I was forced to quit when Lovers Leap came out. The owner said, “I don’t want an art director who has his mind on his music career as well.” But some of my friends who went into the music biz proper have become corrosively cynical. My friends say I whine about the music business enough as it is.
The Living Room show you attended was my first NYC show in years, and it was amazing that a bunch of people who are fans of Lovers Leap for years were actually excited that they finally got to see me play. It feels like I’m coming out of some weird retirement.
GLONO: Have you been recording in the meantime?
DB: Yeah, that’s really all I’ve been able to do. I’ve been building up my home studio (“Flabby Road”) one piece of gear at a time to the point where I can make some decent records here. I home-recorded a “singles club” single that came out on Pop Up Records (Biirdie, En Masse) and I’ve had some other songs come out on compilations. I have a new record called Pop Psychology that I’ve been working on—well, on and off—for the last three years. It’s kind of a concept album, or at the very least it has a persistent theme. I’m hoping to finish that up in the next month and get it out by the summer. It’s sort of half-recorded in Toronto with many of the same players from Lovers Leap, and half-recorded in Brooklyn and Raleigh with my American posse, so it’s kind of a transitional record, a lot more textured and overdubbed versus the off-the-cuff feel of Lovers Leap (which actually began as a CBC radio session).
When it became apparent that I was, in fact, going to get my green card, I quietly put out an earnest/ironic holiday-themed release (Dan Bryk Christmas Record) last November that ended up getting a four-star review on Pitchfork and a bunch of other cool places. It kind of brought me to the attention of some other bloggers, and kind of reminded fans of Lovers Leap that I still existed. I also finally got my first big article in the local paper from Christmas Record (iTunes), although of course I couldn’t play a show to capitalize on it! It felt good to test the waters and get a lot of enthusiasm back, considering I hadn’t put out an album in five years. Hopefully those people will also like Pop Psychology.
GLONO: You said Raleigh has an active music scene and you’re in several other bands.
DB: I joined another band called Down By Avalon. We’ve played a handful of local gigs over the last two years but mostly we get together to play and go for sushi afterwards and talk about our girlfriends or wives. It’s as much a men’s therapy group as a rock band. It’s very poppy rock, sort of XTC meets REM meets Moody Blues and a dozen other things, but the sound overall is a bit heavier than my solo stuff. We’re also finishing up making a record. I de facto produced it and did a lot of the arranging at Flabby Road, but I’m not the main songwriter. The singer, Alan Martin, writes most of the songs with Dempsey Elks, the bass player.
GLONO: Many of your songs deal wittily and poignantly with frustration – with love, one’s self, relationships. Now that you are happily in a relationship and settled in Raleigh do you see any change in your subject matter?
DB: I honestly don’t know. I think that Pop Psychology is a very melancholy record, even though parts of it sound sunny, lyrically it’s pretty bleak. In a way I was glad to resurface with Christmas Record, because there are some actual joyous moments amongst the suicide ballads and the tragicomic roadkill story. I think that might pose a better picture of me as a sane person rather than some big fucked up bundle of neurosis. But that’s the flip side of making your art “confessional”—it’s ultimately up to the listener to determine whether or not your life is actually of any aesthetic interest to them.
As for worrying that domestic bliss will silence my muse… Erin and I are both fairly driven people, and like in any partnership we have our fair share of ups and downs, more than enough for a dozen songs per annum. At least I won’t be writing as many whiny “Why don’t I have a girlfriend?”-type songs. One big difference with Christmas Record is that Erin was a participant, she sang on it and helped me finish a couple of the songs I was struggling with. She definitely has a more romantic, lighter touch when it comes to narrative. Fortunately for me, she’s an excellent bullshit detector and she’s way more book literate than I am, although she’s a ruthless editor… if I asked her opinion all the time I’d never finish any songs.
I have a few dozen songs written that I’m in the process of recording for yet another album, and hopefully there’s an acceptable balance of the wry and the wrist-slashing.
GLONO: You toured Japan with Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. How did that happen and what was it like? Was it like the Replacements opening for Tom Petty? (They hated it apparently.)
DB: No, Malkmus was great, and I watched the Jicks every night from the side of the stage like a lovestruck fanboy. I don’t really think the Jicks were as into my stuff as much as the promoter was, but they suffered me gladly and let me sing “Fantasies” with them the last night of the tour and invited us along for Teppanyaki. Considering how hard Slanted & Enchanted bitch-slapped me as an undergrad, it really was like a dream come true. The whole experience was incredible.
To make a long story short, Akiko Ohno, an Avex A&R person picked up Lovers Leap as a US import in Tower Records Shibuya. She’d never heard of me, but she said she just liked the cover (a detail of a Joe Fleming painting). She bought it, fell in love with it and a month or two later I was on the same label as Britney Spears and Duran Duran. They offered me the promotional tour with Malkmus, and it was a lot of work—five hours of interviews a day, and through a translator which is a very peculiar experience. (It was something like Bill Murray in Lost In Translation.) But I really was treated like a pop star for a week. Akiko shepherded us around from city to city, translated our requests for bizarre Japanese junk foods, and took us to Sanrio (Hello Kitty mecca) in Shibuya.
GLONO: I know how much you admire and support many Canadian musicians who are unknown here in the States. Do you feel any conflict over your move to the U.S.? Do you miss Toronto?
DB: God, I miss Toronto, but kind of like an old girlfriend who never really treated me that well. I know in my heart I still love her but I’ve come to realize her heart really wasn’t in it where I was concerned. It was really good to move on, for both of us.
I mean, there was such an explosion of amazing musical talent in Toronto between 1995 and 2000, and so little of it reached the hearts and minds of people outside the immediate music scene, and so very few artists still have sustaining careers where they can make a living doing their thing.. I know it’s probably not that much different from New York or LA, but it just got me incredibly jaded that it was so HARD for anyone I liked to get traction. Look how long it took for an artist the calibre of Ron Sexsmith to get on the radio in Canada. When Whereabouts came out, there was this hand-wringing article in the Toronto Star: “Why hasn’t Ron Sexsmith MADE IT??? WHAT is he DOING WRONG??” Maybe he wasn’t playing up his natural cuteness? Pretty faces always go to the front of the media queue in Toronto, you know.
I know I was really fortunate in that when Scratchie and Mercury signed me, Toronto people all of a sudden were paying attention. Then when Scratchie’s major label distro fizzled out and Lovers Leap ended up coming out as an indie record, all of a sudden I was this sort of music business failure. It was very disconcerting.
Also it didn’t help that the distributor (Song Corp.) sort of imploded right when my record came out. I miraculously ended up with the cover of [Toronto weekly] NOW and there were ZERO CDs in stores across Canada that week. Mark from Teenage USA had to BEG to HAND-DELIVER a case of CDs to Sam’s Yonge Street that day. Textbook music biz fuck-ups right out of Spinal Tap.
I’m pretty into DIY now. I’ve started a co-operative label of singer-songwriters called the Urban Myth Recording Collective with a couple of friends like Chris Warren (Toronto), Lee Feldman (Brooklyn) and Corey Landis (L.A.). We all think we’re at the top of our game creatively, and the intention is to band together to share resources and advertising and hopefully become sort of a reliable “brand”, sort of like Warner Bros. or Asylum in the 70’s. We haven’t exactly had a “hit” yet, but both Chris and Corey have new records ready this spring.
GLONO: What do you think is the hardest obstacle for singer-songwriters trying to make it these days?
DB: The cost of living! I think if your music is good, there are so many avenues for people to find it today. Just the internet alone… it’s a much slower process than having a big label throw you against the wall, but I think that music fans are seeing through the treat-of-the-week, big marketing spend mentality and when they find something they love it means more to them. Just keeping your head above water financially, having enough time left to make music… that’s the challenge, for me at least.
I also haven’t really broken into licensing my music for TV and films yet (“She Doesn’t Mean A Thing To Me Tonight” was in a straight-to-DVD feature film) but now that I have lots of new music to get out there that will hopefully change this year. While we’re not so much into songs in commercials, Urban Myth as a label is working hard at getting our stuff into the hands of music supervisors. Also, there’s a notable Hollywood-friendly director developing a script based around the songs from Lee Feldman’s I’ve Forgotten Everything album (á la Aimee Mann and Paul Anderson’s Magnolia…) but I’m not allowed to say more than that!
Exclusive MP3: Dan Bryk – “The Next Best Thing” from the upcoming Pop Psychology.
She Doesn’t Mean A Thing To Me Tonight from Lovers Leap