Hearsay #18 / 1998 / Email interview with Neil and Ewen 

"In the Canadian entertainment industry, six degrees of separation can be played as a sex game"

At the critical hour of 3am way back in summer 1993, an insomniac zine editor settled down to watch the ever-viewable Canadian music programme New Music (then broadcast on ITV in the graveyard slot). When Meryn Cadell materialised for interview on screen, she stole the show (which, until then, had been shamelessly hogged by the presenter's quite startling hair). Trenchant and funny, Meryn's blasts of spoken-word, urban rhythms, discursive observation, Siberry-esque stately melody and Muscadet-dry wit have made her albums completely unique. As she says, 'I've always been the something-slash-something-slash-something person. I don't mind that, as long as one of them isn't poet and one of them isn't comedian.' Heroically resisting the temptation to call this feature 'Meryn Cadell: Poet, Comedian', we're nevertheless honoured to be running a conversation with one of Hearsay's long-time favourite recording artistes. The fact we only became aware of her song-based latest release - 6 Blocks (Handsome Boy) - over a year after its Canadian release just makes these next three pages all the more prized.

HEARSAY: How do you answer the charge that 'the spoken word is dead and Meryn Cadell killed it'?
I'm wondering where you heard this?... from Handsome Boy? [Yes—handsome eds.] Because yes, it was an expression of mine around the time of the release of 6 Blocks. I made a record, two records actually, with a large proportion of text on them. I'm not saying I was an absolute maverick. Text and performance of text has been around a lot longer than any of the buildings in which we live. HOWEVER: something called the 'spoken word movement' came along— 'MOVEMENT'! Gadzooks! What politics will they espouse? Will there be an uprising? Eck—hardly. Just a feeding frenzy at the A&R signing table for the next hour and half, and then the gates will be locked again, and the whole thing will be wrecked and have a bad reputation ever-after. Bitter? I'm not bitter. Just sad. Quantity does not equal quality and poetry slams, as far as I can tell, do not equal anything.

How do you feel 6 Blocks is a progression from your previous work? How did a more song-based (and therefore more conventional) approach to making records affect your use of sounds and musical styles? Is the music as important as the words for the first time...?
Yes, the music is as important as the words for the first time. I mean, the environment in which the words, or 'story' unfolded, was always very important, but it wasn't necessarily always 'music'—and, more succinctly, it didn't necessarily come from me. This was the first time I wrote almost everything for almost all the songs. I was pleased, at the demo stage, to hear everything on tape that I had heard in my head. That's the payoff for taking the plunge and thinking, 'Hell, if I know exactly what I want this to sound like, instead of translating it to another set of ears and hands, why not try my hand at it all myself?' the end, I wish we had deviated a little more from the demos as we went into the studio proper, but living is learning. I'll know for the next time. (Does that mean there'll be a next time, Meryn?) Hmm, I thought I'd decided not to make any more records. (So does talking about the process bring out your excitement to go at it all again sometime?) uuuh, yes, frankly.

Thanks for dragging Mary Margaret O'Hara out of semi­-retirement to appear on 6 Blocks. How was she to work with? And did you enjoy collaborating with people like Ben Mink and Rheostatics' Martin Tielli?
Collaborations have been a big part of my work. Sometimes what someone else brings to a work makes the focus sharper than it ever would have been on its own. I really enjoyed working with both Martin Tielli and Ben Mink. Both work intensely and intuitively, and surprise me every time with the depth of their hearing. What they hear inside a song, and play with their fingers and strings until that sound crystallizes outside their bodies —defines for me true artistry.

Working with MMO'H was a great pleasure for me. I, of course, adore her music. She and I lived on the same street for a while, and spent several Martini-soaked evenings here and there. So, when I was making this record, I decided to ask her if she'd bring her voice to a few tracks. What did she bring to the record? Well, to the session, she brought her incredible humour and perception and generosity; to the record she brought her trademark voice filled with beauty, pain and exploration.

We've read that 6 Blocks is a themed record centred around an urban community yet it's more common to think of city life in terms of alienation and loneliness... do you have faith in the notion of community?
Do I ever. Yes I certainly do believe in community. I'm currently reading Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She is a wise woman, who talks about urban planning, but all for the purpose of having people interact in each other's lives. I am most comfortable in super-urban settings, and find my moments of peace and community from within that chaos. I have also chosen to live in uniquely multi-faceted neighbourhoods, which are not known specifically for one particular kind of house or business, nor for one specific group of people. This means, for me, the
West Village here in New York, and the incomparable Kensington Market in Toronto.

The notion of community was forever sullied for us in the UK when at the height of neo-liberalism, Thatcher proclaimed 'there is no such thing as society, merely a collection of individuals.'
That echoes, unfortunately, a familiar American sentiment here—that is to say that people do not have a responsibility to each other; rather they must have commitment to themselves, to pursue their dreams in any way possible. THIS, my friends, will/could be the downfall of our world and of 'society'; NOT some old changing of family values or single-parent families, or queer strangers in leather on a float in the middle of the road for a single afternoon in June... Gay Pride Week is here, can you tell? Editorials abound about how if the computers don't kill 'us', the loosening of morals will... Actually, I'm sure some New Yorker, or anyone for that matter, could take issue with that statement, and they would be right— editorials that specifically say that do not exist to my knowledge. But I've just been at a web site which is a millennium-survivalist thing, taking on new allure in light of the Year 2000 computer problem. I get the creeps when I read about these communities 'starting over' and doing things the way that
America should have in the first place. Though the promotional material—pushing plots of land—doesn't specifically say so, we can bet our combat boots that an interracial lesbian couple who also wanted to get back to the land would probably not be embraced at Heritage Farms and its ilk.

How do the communities of NYC and Toronto compare, both in terms of the artistic milieu and the people you run into in the corner store?
The communities in NYC are more diverse, I think both because of its density and because of its long history of being a mecca for anyone who had a dream, had a talent, wanted to come to '
America', or felt different and were looking for other people like themselves. So both who I run into at the store and the artistic community are more diverse, and at the same time, all more in sync, if that makes any sense. (not that I explained it or anything; I thought you might just know what I meant.) (if you've spent time in both Toronto and New York, you probably do know what I mean.)

Do you tend to hang out with people who do the same as you for a living?
I guess I do, by default. People who create for a living, have a relatively peripatetic lifestyle, are hot shit but generally just think they're shit.... those are my people.

Tell us about your time at art school. What were the most important things you learned there?

Well, maybe they come in second.

[sidebar: This is Who I Am. It is Friday at 6:56pm. It is an immeasurable number of degrees outside. I am on my second Bohemia beer. On my internal CD player is Junkyard by the Birthday Party, which was the most important thing I learned prior to art school. I think it made me ready to GO to art school. The jewel-case sits off to my right, beyond my glass. Included in the art are the lyrics; I have never read them. I know this album by mnemonic heart!! I do not want that to change. I am not far off, certainly in spirit. Beside that jewel case is Mary Woronov's Swimming Underground, an angry, cruel, fucking beautiful memoir/novel of coming alive via speed in New York from 1965 until she crashed. I recommend it highly.]

When I started art school, I was sort of a split-personality. I reflect what's around me, sometimes much more than I should. It acclimatises me and puts others at ease, but occasionally makes me lose thread of who I am. Such was the case around the time I began art school. In school, I became aware of this 'rigorous' discipline; this 'discourse'; this 'art-making'. I'm not mocking it, really; I'm more mocking my reaction to it. I saw it as a club I had to be equally 'rigorous' and 'serious' to enter. I made shit-boring work (except in a Psychology and Art class where I could just be Little Miss Research-and-Divulgence) and thought for sure at my final critique of that first year I would be asked not to return. In my usual defensive mode, I thought, fuck them, I won't even attend my own critique. I took none of my heavily-planned work and instead dubbed, one after the other, some of my little autobiographical, rhythmic video explorations. They were basically me fucking around with the camera, sound, my body and my words. I pre-taped a head-and-shoulders statement to the panel, wheeled a monitor on a Meryn-height cart just inside the door, stood behind the cart with my head-as-monitor, and fidgeted while the taped-me looked around the room and talked about how much she didn't really care about what anybody thought of the work, and that I would be down the hall if anyone wanted to speak to me after. I left the room and closed the door. After all my little videotapes had played, someone came and got me. They had loved the 'performance' and wondered why I hadn't applied for a scholarship. In California parlance, I was like, 'HUH?'

Do you feel there's mutual support among Canadian artists? There seems to be more interaction among, say, musicians, writers and filmmakers than you get over here. Do you feel any kind of kinship with people like Atom Egoyan, Barbara Gowdy, Patricia Rozema et al?
The truth is that although
Canada is not small, art-makers-by-trade, whatever the hell that means, are a relatively small number. The Six Degrees of Separation game, in Canadian entertainment can be used as a sex game. You know? I'm fewer than six sleeps away from all the people you've listed above. Ooooooooh, but maybe I shouldn't speak for all of Canada. Maybe that's just me.

[A few days later, continuing with questions. Now in the internal cd player: Jimmy Scott's All The Way. Book just read: Caleb Carr's excellent The Alienist; now diving into Manhattan, When I Was Young by Mary Cantwell.]

Tell us about the film script you've written. Here at Hearsay we're all big fans of Bruce McDonald's Highway 61 [readers, that's the insane film in which Don McKellar drives all the way down titular road pursued by Satan with coffin strapped to car roof. It's usually on C4 at 3AM , funnily enough]...
I presume you mention Highway 61 because you've heard that Bruce is producing. He is no longer in that role—he tried a couple of things, and is off on other projects now. Attention, capable film producers!! I have this great story which touches everyone who has heard it. It's about love, it's about loss, it's about Sex and Drugs and Gladys Knight! It's about Victorian architecture! It's about time it found its way to the screen!! It really is a project dear to my heart. And now, the very end of the 20th century, is the perfect time for it to be realized. I may do it as a radio play if all else fails—a lot of the action unfolds via words. It realty does have a connection to Victorian houses; I learned so much in the research for the script. It's a story that kind of unfolds and unfolds as it's told (which is the challenge of bringing it to the screen) so I can't tell you much of the plot; it works as a kind of a memory piece. It's centred almost exclusively on one character, who in my little version of the future will be played by Martha Plimpton.

Laurie Anderson says her role as an artist is really like that of a spy. Given all the character sketches in your work do you identify with that idea? Do you feel you like a professional voyeur?
Today I was standing in line to get a last-minute ticket for John Leguizamo's Freak which closes this weekend. I heard the group of young people in front of me talk about being from
Toronto, and I found myself ducking my head. It was the most remarkable feeling. I had not realized how fully I have anonymity in this city, how much I had lost that in Toronto, and how much I relish it because it is necessary to my functioning - I think as a person as well as an artist (not like I can split one from the other). Yes, I love to observe and listen, and you can't do that when people are saying, 'Hey—aren't you — ?'

I had an interesting experience last weekend—Gay Pride Day in
New York. I ate breakfast at a restaurant on Christopher Street. I was by myself, which is one of my favourite places to be, but I was also witness to perhaps the largest parade I had ever seen. Oh yes, the Pride parade on the street did go right by the window, and was lots of fun, but I'm referring to the other parade—the constant, never-ending incredible flow of humanity along the sidewalk. Without turning my head, I calculate I saw 7,000 people pass across my field of vision, on the little strip of sidewalk in front of the restaurant. And I did not know a single person on sight, and not a single person knew me. As someone who used to have Toronto drag queens lean off of floats to kiss me, this new sensation was beyond words.

Your career spans many media—how did you establish yourself as a multi-media artist and how did you explain to curious or bemused folk what it was you wanted to do?
I only do what feels exactly right (including shut up when it's time, although that may not be immediately apparent in this interview), and I never tell people what I'm planning. Whatever I'm doing, I feel my way until it seems I've arrived at the point where it's right. The moment you describe something instead of just doing it or showing it, I think you place limits, and stunt its potential. (Also, if things don't turn out the way you planned, no one's the wiser!)

How limiting do you find the song form as a means of expression compared with more freeform ways of writing?
The song can be limiting, although I think I've frequently stretched it all over the place. It's more a question, I suppose, of what a 'song' is. Radio-friendly pop music has, of course, many constraints, and despite some noble efforts is most suited to 'I love you, yeah, yeah, yeah' and 'How do I live without you?' (which by the way is a grammatically incorrect song, but who am I to quibble with all those Grammies and Oscars and kudos?)

Does art have boundaries?
The Supreme Court seems to think so. And they've decided that some prevailing notion of 'decency' shall determine what those boundaries are. Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.

What's the worst job you ever had and how did you survive it?
I've had some doozies. One that stands out is, in the early days of ATMs, when customers picked up the phone beside the machine to ask how to work the machine or why they couldn't get any money, I was the helpful, ever-cheerful person on the other end. 'Instabank Centre, Meryn speaking, can I help you?' How I survived it was by spending every spare moment writing. I have quite a few pieces, including a couple from my first record, scrawled out on the white paper that we used in the account-updating machine.

Is time long or is it wide?
Good one. It is definitely long, not wide, otherwise I'd have nothing to write about. Wide to me suggests accessibility; possibility... and in my experience, the saddest, hardest thing in life is dealing with the fact that time is one long subway tunnel. And once you leave the train, everyone else barrels along helplessly without you. Death, especially young, untimely death, makes that all too apparent.

Do you like muffins?
Bagel girl all the way.

What do you consider beautiful?
I consider beautiful what others consider ugly. I find beauty in it specifically because others have shunned it, been afraid of it, stared. This applies to many things in life, not the least of which, obviously, is people. The most beautiful face in the world to me is the one which is relaxed, defiant; previously hurt, now freed.

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