By David DeRocco
Ian Thornely’s got a new solo album, a packed tour schedule, a sore throat and something he hasn’t had in a long time: performance jitters. Chatting with GoBe Weekly the day after the tour’s first show in Montreal, one where monitor issues required Thornley to over-sing and push his vocal chords, the big voice of Big Wreck confessed to feeling a little nervous before taking the stage.
“Last night was a weird sounding room, I had a lot of trouble hearing my vocal,” explained Thornley, who’s touring without his Big Wreck band mates in support of SECRETS, the first solo album he’s released as Ian Fletcher Thornley. “And then we’re not using a lot of the same tricks we would use with a Big Wreck show. The stage plot is very different. The drummer’s not behind me, he’s beside me. You wouldn’t think it would make that much of a difference but it really does. You close your eyes and every room and space feels different. But that’s what I want this to be. I want it to be different. When you take on something new it can be a bit rattling. I’m enjoying the little jitters. It’s like, yeah, I’m alive.”
There’s an assumption often made by fans used to seemingly flawless concert performances that nothing goes wrong when bands are on stage. Even for an eternal perfectionist and self-confessed OCD sufferer like Thornley, there are many times on tour when things go wrong; the key is just being prepared.
“They happen a lot,” admits Thornley. “I remember when (Big Wreck) were doing a lot of heavy music, tuned really low and pushing a lot air, we’d blow the P.A. all the time. We had a good run where there was one of every three shows the audience would get a good bathroom break. It’s always good to have a singalong or two you can pull out of your back pocket in the event you blow out a few amps.”
While not exactly intended to be a collection of sing-a-long songs, Thornley’s new album SECRETS – 13 deeply-emotional tracks rich in haunting melodies, sonic textures and stripped down production – has fans and critics alike singing Thornley’s praises. On its release October 30th, the album debuted at #1 on the Rock Albums charts on iTunes, #9 overall on Canadian iTunes and an equally impressive #23 on the overall US album sales charts. While racking up sales numbers wasn’t his prime motivation for delivering such a raw glimpse into his emotional state, Thornley says he’s allowed himself some small satisfaction knowing the album’s success is the result of fans embracing the solo work.
“It’s not a huge thing but in the end it’s kind of a sweet vindication or a pat on the back, especially with a record like this that’s so different and so personal to me. It’s kind of precious. I never saw it as something that was going to be thrown into the ‘big machine and big money and this one’s going straight to the top’ kind of thing. I never had any of those aspirations with this record. It’s just a beautiful little statement. Those aren’t radio numbers, its people putting down their hard earned cash for your art. So it’s not lost on me certainly. I try not to focus too much on those kinds of things.”
Thornley’s emotional focus is clearly evident on the album, with the songs weaving an insightful tapestry that reflect a dark period in the singer’s life. The tracks were mixed and recorded in a whirlwind 12-day session in a remote Northern Ontario cottage and produced by Mark Howard, a Hamilton native whose credits including The Tragically Hip, Lucinda Williams and working alongside Daniel Lanois on seminal works by Bob Dylan, Neil Young and U2. With the recording of SECRETS happening just after the studio sessions that produced Big Wreck’s last album, Ghosts, Thornley had to challenge himself to relinquish control to producer Howard.
“The process was very different with this record. I didn’t go through it with a fine tooth comb like I would a Big Wreck album. I’m pretty meticulous with that kind of thing almost in an OCD kind of way. It’s a sort of perfectionism; I like everything to be a certain way. But with this record it was completely different. We did it in just 12 days up at a cottage. And with Mark Howard and the way he works, he wants to capture the moment. He wants to capture the performance. When it feels right it is right. It was not necessarily difficult but it was something I definitely had to let go of, like a leap of faith. I had to try to turn that part of my brain off and go with the flow a little more. And I’m really happy with the results. When I listen to the record now it feels like I’m back at that cottage.”
Not editing out the flaws and subtle imperfections that were captured during the recording – things like pages turning at the beginning of a song or the sound of a stool moving – enhances the album’s intimate vibe, something that makes listening to the songs on SECRETS a more personal experience. Given the subject matter Thornley’s exploring on songs like “How Long,” the meditative ‘Feel,’ the compellingly hushed ‘Just To Know I Can,’ and the breezy ‘On My Way,’ the album is surprisingly hopeful. Despite the darkness that inspired this solo project, Thornley says he still finds it easier to write when he’s happy.
“A lot of writers say they need to be in a dark place, in the midst of a struggle to get the good stuff. I remember reading a Tom Petty interview that resonated with me. He said ‘when I’m down I don’t want to write.’ And I agreed with him. If I’m in a happy place, I can easily go to those dark places. I have a big Rolodex of bad memories and things that I’ve gone through, things that I can draw on to write about. But I think that sort of process of writing the song is a lot easier to when you’re in a good place, when you’re looking forward instead of back. You have better perspective on what you’re doing. When I’m really down I’m looking to music as an escape, a therapy. Music’s like a warm bath to me. I just need to be in it. That can be a relief or a complete indulgence in what I’m going through.”
As a performer who understands the pressures associated with the business, Thornley has a unique perspective into the dark places that singer Scott Weiland may have travelled to during his mercurial dance with fame. Weiland had recently opened up for Thornley in Barrie, and has some frank comments on the former singer’s recent death.
“I just felt what a shame, you know? We was such a captivating front man. When that guy was on, no one could touch him, certainly in this generation. He was in a league of his own. My first thought was what a shame and what a waste. Then I kind of got pissed off, because somebody around him – you can’t help somebody that can’t be helped – but somebody could have put the foot down. Somebody could have said ‘man we’re not doing this unless you get help.’ We did a show in Boston when he was doing his solo album with Daniel Lanois and that was the night he actually got busted in New York. I remember thinking to myself, okay, that will turn him around. It didn’t. It’s a tragic loss.”
Thornley’s tour for SECRETS brings him to the intimate setting of Molson Canadian Studio Theatre at Hamilton Place December 15th, the perfect place to hear the new songs. While he’s still getting used to the songs and his tour bandmates, Thornley says it’s not his own music that’s fueling his pre-show jitters these days.
“I’m having a really good time playing these tunes. I’ve got some nerves going, there’s no muscle memory going on here. But I think the biggest fear for me is we’re throwing a cover tune into the set. The fear is forgetting the words. I think nine times out of ten, when we’re doing a cover tune I’m going to flub the words.”