Wired Western: Calgary electronic music pioneer Tona Ohama gets personal with spoken-word record and covers of C&W classics My Electronic Country Album

Tona Ohama admits he hasn’t felt this nervous about releasing new music since his debut cassette nearly 40 years ago.

“I hope people will listen to it,” he tells theSCENE. “I normally don’t care much, but it feels like my entire life is on the line with this album.”

Ohama is referring to My Electronic Country Album, a startling project released last month that even his most diehard fans couldn’t have anticipated. Roughly half of the record is spoken word, with the 61-year-old electronic music artist revealing stories from his past that he’s kept secret for decades. Each story is followed by a country music classic — King of the Road, The Gambler, Wichita Lineman, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and others — performed entirely on synths; he connects themes in the lyrics to experiences drawn from his life, recontextualizing some of the genre’s best-known songs.

He admits what he shares on the record — and in this interview — is, “beyond my comfort zone after a lifetime of silence.”

On the album, Ohama reveals details of daily life on his family’s potato farm in Rainier, AB, where he built a studio and released a series of recordings in the 1980s, now hailed as classics of the minimal wave/retro electronic genre. He also talks about the wilderness years that followed: stories of drug addiction and rehab; of romance and recklessness; of being a high-roller and being homeless. And, yes, there’s a tale of a cheatin’ heart, too. 

“My reluctance to discuss personal details of my life prior to this album was simply to protect my son,” Ohama says of Tona Michael, now 28. “Particularly when he was a child, moreso when he was a teenager. I no longer need to do that.

“My wife Mia said I was very brave in this process. (His older sister) Natsuko, too. I’m proud of the work. Everyone can feel when a story is authentic.”

But that authenticity didn’t come easily or quickly. Ohama has worked on My Electronic Country Album for the past five years and, as recently as last July, he scrapped all of his music and vocal tracks, and started over.

“I thought it was going to be so easy at the beginning and — oh! — I was wrong,” Ohama says. “Because they were country songs, I wanted to (sing) them naturally. Very few tricks. No autotune. No voice doubling. It was really tough. And (the songs) are complicated … Those arrangements are not straight-forward. Ring of Fire: that’s not in 4/4 time. It’s really quite complex and yet it sounds like such a simple song.”

Ohama says the spoken-word segments took even more time to get right. 

“I spent a long, long time writing these stories out and then I tried reading them (out loud). It just sounded terrible,” he says.

He consulted Natsuko, an actress and voice teacher, who convinced him to memorize his stories like a script, then hone and rehearse them until they sounded natural. 

“A lot of these stories were ripped apart, word by word, over and over. Things were taken out, hundreds of times, literally. I rewrote and scrapped every word of this album that felt cloudy or mysterious. I was rehearsing them every day.”

Ohama points outs — with one exception — he chose the songs first, then attached stories to each. 

For Roger Miller’s King of the Road (“No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes …”), Ohama talks about losing it all in bankruptcy: he was homeless and searched sidewalks for cigarette butts to sate his tobacco habit.

Photos by Leah Hennel

For Kenny Rogers’s The Gambler (“Every hand’s a winner/ And every hand’s a loser/ And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep…”), he shares the time he feared his winning streak at the poker table would escalate into bloodshed.

And for the Charlie Daniels Band’s The Devil Went Down to Georgia (“The Devil bowed his head because he knew that he’d been beat…”), Ohama talks about a time in early 1992 when he and a friend capped two days of freebasing cocaine in his Chevy truck, speeding 160 km/h down the wrong side of the Trans-Canada Highway. On the pitch-black night. With no headlights on. For 13 kilometres. 

Ohama entered rehab two days later. 

“I like to think of that moment if I ever start to think my life is getting a little bit boring,” he quips.

For the final track recorded for the project, Ohama flipped his modus operandi. He started with a #MeToo story: in the early 1990s, when Ohama was in charge of sales for the farm, he spurned the sexual advances of a produce buyer for his biggest customer. 

“He did not take this rejection well,” Ohama says on the album. “In fact, he got so angry that he made it his mission to put me out of business. How do I know? Because he told me right to my face.”

The farming operation was struggling at the time and Ohama says an “evil masterstroke” by the buyer, “put the final nail in the coffin. We lost over 50 per cent of our business in the blink of an eye.” Within the year, the potato farm — once the biggest in Western Canada — was out of business after a half-century of operation.

“I didn’t know people could be that selfish and cruel,” says Ohama. “When people would tell me how bad the music business was, it was never as bad as the produce business.”

Deciding he’d finally share this story, Ohama then chose a song — and asked local singer-songwriter Janine Bracewell (MoFaux, Same Difference) to sing These Boots Are Made For Walkin’. 

“Every time I hear that song, I think of (that story),” he says. 

“It’s the most important story of my life. My mom and dad and uncles and aunts never knew (about the sexual advance) and all passed away blaming me completely for the failure of the business. My father never said one word to me after the farm closed down.” They were still estranged when Tona Sr. died in 2003 at age 90.

TheSCENE asks if My Electronic Country Album might be something of an olive branch to his father given Tona Sr. loved all things country and western, including most of the songs on the record. 

“I’ve forgiven my father,” Ohama says. “He’s definitely part of me and part of the record. There’s a hidden credit on the album, right before (closing track) The Dance. I just say: ‘I made this album for Tona.’ And that means for my son, it’s for my father, and it means for me. For all of us. It’s quietly in there. It’s important to know that hidden beneath my work is a connection between the generations.”

Nowadays Ohama lives a quiet life with his wife of six years in their East Village home that doubles as his recording space. “My life now? I’m happy,” he says. “It’s been a tough road to get here.”

When it’s pointed out, with My Electronic Country Album, he’s made his most candid and emotional album without writing a single song, Obama demurs briefly.

“I didn’t set out to do a memoir,” he says. “I was trying to do a country album. After the fact, I saw Randy Bachman doing that show where he was singing Guess Who songs and telling stories. And I saw Springsteen on Broadway. This is almost like that except these are not my songs.”

He pauses, then corrects himself.

“No, I took them. They’re my songs now. The stories make them my songs.”