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20 Questions With Jeff Gay

The singer-songwriter talks Pop Tarts, pickup trucks, Tropicalia and lots more.

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Jeff Gay is no starry-eyed romantic. Despite the title of his recent album Stargazer, the disc finds the Nova Scotia folk-rocker eyeing the darker sides of love and romance. Today, the veteran singer-songwriter eyes my ridiculous questions. He might really be seeing stars by the end of that.

 


 

Introduce yourself: Name, age (feel free to lie), home base, other details you’d like to share (height, weight, identifying marks, astrology sign, your choice).
Jeffrey Matthew Gay. Sometimes I will write Jeffrey Marvin Gay ‘cuz it sounds so cool to me. I’m 41. I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I still have strong ties to Dartmouth. 6’2”. Let’s say 220 lbs. but probably less atm. There’s a small patch on my face where a beard refuses to grow, below my left ear. That discourages me from becoming the mountain man I am internally. Cancer. Always thought the opening line from Joni’s Little Green said it perfectly: “Born with the moon in Cancer.” I was born on July 22, the end date for that astrological sign. I have never met a Pop Tart I didn’t like.

What is your musical origin story?
One of my earliest musical memories was being at a babysitter’s place when I was very young, and hearing Phil Collins’ version of You Can’t Hurry Love by The Supremes on the radio. I remember not only loving the song, but also being fascinated by the radio and the sound itself. It was obviously a memorable moment, whereas I can’t really remember destroying my father’s record collection from overplaying and general rough-housing. The evidence, however, was hard to dispute. I do remember taking Mom’s original copy of Sgt. Pepper’s and playing Frisbee with it in my grandparent’s basement. What can I say? I really was a dumb kid.

What do we need to know about your latest project?
Stargazer really is my double album. When I first discussed the project with Jeff Macdonald, the man who recorded with me, and mixed/mastered the album, I told him to listen to the sound of Exile on Main Street. I knew that I wanted a more pumped-up record than my previous release (Cuban Rum on Hungry Records), but I was still trying to capture a wide-open sound with the ramshackle spirit of a true double album. We recorded 21 songs, and even editing it down to 16 songs to fit on a single CD, I thought: Yeah! This still feels like a real double album to me! So SCORE! Like, I don’t deny that it has its peaks and valleys — representing the times we do things for ourselves vs. the times we are trying to appeal to as many listeners as possible. I feel like all of those things are on this album, and its hard to imagine it sounding any different than it does right now. It’s sort of like when in a Clash documentary Strummer talks about Sandinista!, a triple album, and he’s so confident when he says that he wouldn’t change a note about it. Now, I know it takes the world’s most dedicated Clash fan to make it all the way through Sandinista!, but then again, I do know exactly what he’s talking about now that I have a double album fantasy of my own. And I really feel that when it came down to crunch time, I was able to write a couple of songs in XOXO and When I Saw Her that made it more palatable as a whole. So now that I got all this off my chest with the double out of the way, I feel more free to focus on single album thoughts, as in more 40-45 minute shots instead that are more easy to digest. I can really picture myself doing a very folky album consisting of mostly fingerpicked guitars, for instance, like something by John Martyn or Duncan Browne. I just acquired a really sweet Guild M-20 that is perfect for that Nick Drake type of thing. Plus I really need to get an album done with my band, which I hope will have a more Raw Power type of vibe. I am really inspired by Daniel Romano, because that guy seems to have a new album every two or three months. I so wish that was me.

What truly sets you apart from other artists?
I think I’m probably older than most of them.

What will I learn or how will my life improve by listening to your music?
On Oct. 5, 1975, the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times ran an article by Henry Edwards entitled: If There Hadn’t Been a Bruce Springsteen, Then the Critics Would Have Made Him Up. As a bit of history, the early ’70s saw the arrival of dozens of incredible songwriters that we all know, but as the decade progressed the critics began to wonder who the next Bob Dylan or Neil Young would be; in other words, who would be the artist that would contribute to rock’s evolution and take it in a new direction? Fast forward to 2020, and singer-songwriters seem to be a dime a dozen, critics seemingly have given up the idea that rock can still change the world. Nevertheless, I can say from my own experience that rock still has healing power which is sadly neglected in these COVID times. Now I’m not saying that I am the artist that the world would’ve made up had I not existed; I am saying that, if given the opportunity, I can take you inside a new musical world that is shaped by music from all over the world, and with words that aim to make you think.

Tell us about the first song you wrote and / or the first gig you played and what you got paid.
I was a soprano opera singer for a few years before I hit my teens. When my voice began to change from up to down, my parents bought me a cheap electric guitar and I started to jam with some friends. The first title I remember writing was a “brilliant” (not at all, LOL) three-chord masterpiece with probably the most stereotypical rock title in history: The River. Then, when we were about thirteen, we had adopted the name Blueprint and I had a tape that has apparently disappeared that included a song called Blueprint Blues, which I believe was the first song I had a hand in writing that got recorded. I remember it sounded a lot like the Peter Gunn Theme. We changed the name to Vivid like the Living Colour album title, until we realized it was the name of a pornographic video company. The next name we took on was Bark, and our first gig actually happened at the old all-ages venue Café Ole on Barrington Street. Kurt Cobain had just died, and the venue was packed for its tribute to Nirvana, and so the show and our band received some press in The Chronicle Herald. If my math is correct, we were no older than 14 at the time, and if we made $100, we would’ve retired right there and then.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you gave?
The worst/strangest performances I remember were back in the days when I used to do dinner theatre. I began working there when I was about 20, and after having four or five run of shows under my belt, I felt very much like I was spinning my wheels. I remember being on the stage with other things happening around me and just starring into space, wondering what I was doing with my life. Then I noticed that the audience would be laughing at me, and that the other actors on stage were getting mad at me, because by drifting off with a fixed expression on my face, I was drawing attention away from the scene. It was just a mess, but after awhile I realized that I wasn’t really getting anything out of this type of performance other than a paycheque.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you’ve seen another artist give?
Neil Young & Crazy Horse on the Broken Arrow tour in the mid-1990s. Me and some friends camped out all the night in front of the Sobey’s in Cole Harbour for tickets. Back in the days when one would camp out for tickets — even that makes me nostalgic. Saw Neil a couple of times later and it was always really great (especially when I saw him with Ben Keith on their last tour together), but this show with Crazy Horse was particularly mind-blowing. I must say that I was also really into Van Morrison when he played with his spectacular band at the Metro Centre — those two concerts are pretty much neck and neck as my favourites. I would say that one of the most memorable, and surprising, performances I happened to catch was Yo La Tengo on the There’s a Riot Goin’ On tour when I saw them at The Phoenix in Toronto in 2018. I left that show a way bigger fan of that band than when I started. Watching that trio perform actually inspired me to do a long jamming track with interweaving spacey guitars like Ira’s on the song Bad Advice, which is on the third side of Stargazer. I also borrowed the idea of adding an organ to certain parts of Bad Advice as a nod to what YLT does on their song Double Dare.

What do you want to be doing in 10 years?
I’m really hoping that in my 40s, I can increase my artistic output. I had four cassette releases when I was in my teens, but I really only had one album come out when I was in my 20s, and two while I was in my 30s. Here I am at 41, and I just released this double album — so let’s call that two as well for my 40s. So maybe if I can get say another five or six more out in my 40s, I would have really increased my productivity! I have the songs and I would rather they not spoil or go to waste — they deserve a home. If I do all of this the right way, maybe I can retire in 10 years and just listen to classical music in an old folk’s home for the rest of my days.

What living or dead artists would you collaborate with if you could?
When I was younger, I dreamed of joining my favorite bands. Like, something happens to Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull and somehow the remaining bandmembers want to continue on with a new singer. I would have to brush up on my flute playing, obviously, but this kind of thing would really be my thing. Playing Thick as a Brick or Passion Play from beginning to end on a tour — WOW! That would be so cool to me, especially if Martin Barre was on guitar. He really was my hero growing up. Another scenario: if all of the members of The Band were still alive, for instance, I would love to jam with those guys. Even Robbie. Maybe we could stage an intervention for him. And I’d love to jam with Van Morrison as well … but his current anti-mask, anti-lockdown phase is just a bridge too far.

What artist or style of music do you love that would surprise people?
I’m not sure if it is a surprise but I really collect a lot of Brazilian music on vinyl. My focus is on the slightly obscure psych stuff from the late 60s, especially from the big four of the Tropicalia movement: Caetano Veloso; Gilberto Gil; Gal Costa; and Os Mutantes. Also love the dreamier rock sounds from the ’70s via Milton Nascimento and co. Jorge Ben is the man. Also Chico Buarque and Tom Ze. I could go on and on. I also love Jobim, Baden Powell and Vinicius, Joao, Elis and Astrud. And Nara Leao’s Dez Anos Depois, AKA The Bible of Bossa — I have an original copy of that double album, probably my most prized possession!

What are your favourite songs / albums / artists right now?
Right now, I am loving Donovan’s Open Road. That album has such a great vibe, loose acoustic jams with great songs. Roy Harper’s Stormcock also intrigues me — would love to find a vinyl copy of that one. Also really loving The Groundhogs — their Thank Christ for the Bomb from 1970, and Split from 1971 are constantly in the rotation. Lead singer and songwriter Tony McPhee is a very profound lyricist, and his guitar playing is just out of sight. Another guitarist that really inspires me is Ollie Halsall from the band Patto. My mom remembered me mention an original copy that was in Select Sounds in Bedford a couple of years ago, and lo and behold, it was under the Xmas tree for me that year! I nearly died. Now I search for their second LP, Hold Your Fire. Also me and my friend Ronok are on a deep dive through Prince’s output, and I recently found a mint cassette copy of The Family album from 1985, the one that features the original version of Nothing Compares 2 U. I digitized that record and me and Ronok agree that that was very sweet record which really fits in with the rest of his classic Parade period stuff.

How about some other favourites: Authors, movies, painters, you name it
My favorite author is Gustave Flaubert. I go through long stretches where I just get fixated on one of his novels — and because they are so rich in details, you don’t need to start at any particular spot; you can just pick up Sentimental Education or Salammbô from anywhere and just be transported to another world. I am definitely a big movie fan. I love Girlfriends from 1978 — I talk about it any chance I get. It is about a photographer and her relationships with men and women in her life — it’s very funny and very real, and almost completely unsung. I’ve also been really thinking a lot about the work of Elaine May. Her first comedy, A New Leaf from 1971, has long been a favorite of mine, but I’ve also been getting into her much more difficult Mikey and Nicky from 1976. That movie stars John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, and while it feels like a continuation of their collaboration in the film Husbands from 1970, the Elaine May movie feels less awkward but just as probing, confessional, and confrontational. I like movies that you get stuck on, that you can watch over and over and still get more out of them. Anyway, I have many favorite directors: Truffaut, Altman, Pontecorvo, Rivette, Jean Eustache, Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Welles, Costa-Gavras, Chris Marker. This is another subject that I can just ramble on and on about!

Who would you be starstruck to meet?
If I met Napoleon, I would be starstruck. It would be very surprising to meet Napoleon, but I suppose anything is possible!

What’s your favourite joke?
I know that my least favourite joke is Donald Trump.

What do you drive and why?
I never learned to drive! I live next door to my place of work, so I don’t really need to drive. If I did drive, however, I would almost definitely have a Ford pickup truck. Then I would make sure to install a cassette player and I would have a tape that just played Bob Seger’s Like A Rock, and I would just do loops around the neighbourhood blasting that song.

What superpower do you want and how would you use it?
If I had a superpower, I would have ears that could live forever. When it finally came time to die, I would stick some earbuds in and hopefully technology will be advanced far enough by that point that I could mind control all of music history. I could spend the rest of time checking out everything I’d missed during my lifetime. I can’t picture ever getting bored if I had that superpower

What skills — useful or useless — do you have outside of music?
I sort of deal with this skill in my song Hard to Make a Sale. But unlike that song, I actually think it is really easy to make a sale! I think that being able to sell something like a guitar, or a car, is an actual skill. And I don’t pretend to know everything about what I sell, I’m actually kind of proud of that. I really feel that the more important thing about selling what I sell is making sure the buyer is satisfied with what they get. As long as you support the purchaser, you really are doing a better job than the majority of the people who sell, and who are really more concerned about that moment of making the sale. My job makes it really easy to be casual, and to be accommodating to my clients, so perhaps I would have a different tact if I was somewhere else — but the fact that making a sale seems easy to me is a skill I would say I have acquired.

What do you collect?
Records. Tapes. CDs. 8 tracks. Guitars. Keyboards. Melodicas. Harps. Sundry percussion items. Amps. Speakers. Cabinets. Banjos, mandos, etc. Recording tools like interfaces, preamps, compressors. Guitar effects pedals. Stereo equipment. Boxes of old lyrics. Raptors memorabilia. Rock and Rap posters. Movie posters. Atari 2600 games. NES and Super NES games. Genesis games. DVDs. VHS. Books. Sheet music. Old Economist magazines. Sweaters. Band T-shirts. Copious amounts of cables. Robots. Plants.

If I had a potluck, what would you bring?
As Duke Ellington says: It Ain’t Got That Swing If There’s No Chicken Wing.

Tell us about your current and/or former pets.
We used to have a dog named Chelsea. She was a good girl. Peed on everything though. I don’t have any pets because there is a rule in the apartment I live in. I would love to have a cat. I feel like I could easily morph into a cat person.

If you could have any other job besides music, what would it be and why?
I would really love to have a record store, but it seems like there are plenty of them in the Halifax area at the moment. I would also love to work airport security, but only if I could be one of the featured guys on Border Security.

What’s the best advice and/or worst advice you were ever given?
I only listen to the bad advice (sorry, too easy… it’s a line from one of my songs).

Watch XOXO above, listen to Stargazer below, and keep up with Jeff Gay via his website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.