It’s early-ish on a snowy, frosty Tuesday morning.
And Mark Andrew Hamilton is sitting alone in a recording space at the National Music Centre’s Studio Bell.
He’s surrounded by a great deal of vintage gear, including keyboards and other equipment that has been utilized by some musical luminaries, including instruments or similar stuff that Bowie used for much of his career.
“And now it’s me,” Hamilton says and laughs.
The Calgary-bred musician known under the musical moniker of Woodpigeon is back in town for a 10-day artist residency at the brand, new, state-of-the-art Studio Bell.
And while the building itself is something of a new experience for the now-Montreal-based chamber popsmith, he’s not coming into it entirely cold and utterly out of his element.
“I’ve never been before,” he admits. “I mean, I’ve used all their stuff at (their former home) Cantos in the past, but that was always them turning a blind eye and giving us the keys to use it late at night.
“This is official. Everyone knows who I am. It’s weird.”
Well, him and some other collaborators that he’s brought with him. Hamilton is at the centre with New Pornographers member Kathryn Calder and her husband-producer Colin Stewart for a project called Frontperson.
The trio are part of the NMC’s early artist-in-residence program that has previously featured Canadian musicians such as Luke Doucet, Rococode and Quinsin Nachoff. They get the time, they get the space, they get the incredible collection of musical tools to make some magic happen.
In the case of Frontperson, it was the perfect opportunity to realize something that Hamilton and the West Coaster Calder had been talking about for some time — ever since he first met her at Stewart’s studio when he was recording the bed tracks for the 2016 Woodpigeon album Trouble in that Victoria locale.
“So I met her in her living room in her pyjamas, I think,” Hamilton says with a laugh.
The two kept in touch over the past year, kept the artistic embers burning, and when he was sent a link to the NMC’s call-out for musical pioneers in their new home, he and she hopped on the chance to make something happen.
“There’s a thing where you meet a musician and you always say, ‘Oh, we should do something together’ and some of those you don’t chase up because they fall out of your mind or they’re living in New York or something. But this one it just happened,” he says.
“And we have this amazing centre that brought us here and is giving us these amazing toys.”
And they’re putting all of them to good use. With Stewart at the helm, Hamilton and Calder are seeing the realization of a calendar’s worth of collaboration, the two writing together, sending ideas back and forth, whittling down more than a dozen songs to a more focussed nine that they’ll mould into something at Studio Bell that will become Frontperson.
“We’re making an album,” Hamilton says simply. “So, we’re in overdub land now. And it’s the craziest overdub land you can have because you don’t need to fake anything — it’s here.”
That, he says, is perhaps the biggest difficulty they’ve encountered — the fact that since he was last surreptitiously allowed access to the NMC’s toys back in 2011 or 2012 the collection has expanded greatlly and that the urge for exploration has needed to be reined in, mainly by Stewart.
“We’ve talked about the risk of too much — it’s the hardest thing,” Hamilton says. “Basically yesterday we spent almost the whole day narrowing things down we were going to use, went through loads and loads of keyboards and just found the six or seven that we could get the most out of.
“You could put 100 on any song, but that would be impossible to listen to,” he says and laughs, “only fun for us.”
That idea of “us” has been expanded, thanks to Hamilton’s local contacts/friendships, with the artist and his cohorts bringing in some guests to perform on the album-to-be including Ryan Bourne and Arran Fisher.
Hamilton says the entire process and experience has been “exciting for me,” with him relishing the opportunity to be part of something that’s greater than his whole. With Woodpigeon basically evolving into a solo project utilizing the skills of others to fulfill his vision — as opposed to how it began over a decade ago in this city, with him being the main man behind what was something of all-star collective and included artists such as Kenna Burima and Foon Yap — the idea of sharing the creativity and spotlight suits him well.
“There’s a gang feeling this time,” he says.
“I haven’t had a full-on music gang feeling in a long time, so it’s good … It’s so nice to have something that’s not 100 per cent your thing. It is 100 per cent my thing, like we’re both in this, but it’s nice to have somebody to talk about it with.”
And they’ll get their first real-time feedback to what they’ve come up with when they do a public workshop and perform a few songs Thursday afternoon at Studio Bell. They also, rumour has it, may be performing a surprise show later that night somewhere else.
As for what comes after that, well, Hamilton isn’t really sure. Calder has her own solo project and will be spending a great deal of the coming months touring the recently released New Pornographers album. Hamilton also, obviously, has his own Woodpigeon concerns.
They do, though, happen to plan on releasing the nine songs at some point, making Frontperson a very real concern in the Canadian music industry, whatever label or part of that industry wants to become an early adopter.
“We’re leaving that open. All that we’re worried about is making this record and we just want to make something great,” he says, before admitting he thinks that’s a very real possibility.
“I never want to be too self-congratulatory, but I feel it’s a lot easier to do this time because it’s Kathryn, too, so I can just bow in her direction.
“But I’m excited. And it’s only happening because of this place.”
Frontperson will do a public workshop Feb. 9 from 1 to 2 p.m. at Studio Bell. It’s free with paid admission into the building. For more information please go to studiobell.ca/whats-on.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on at Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He likes beer. Buy him one.