Jonah Yano Talks "PORTRAIT OF A DOG" and Studio Spontaneity

Photos by Tianna Franks, courtesy of the artist.

Jonah Yano. Photo by Tianna Franks.

"Making records is kind of like taking a bucket of water, pouring it into the ocean, and then trying to watch the water rise," Jonah Yano explains towards the end of our conversation about his sophomore studio album. "You've done nothing and you've done everything at the same time and you're contributing to this canon of the history of music, and history in general, in a way that's irrelevant. But if you're watching the water get poured in, it's relevant. I don't know, it's this weird thing that is useless but useful."

The above metaphor is one among a pithy, poetic handful that the Hiroshima-born, Canada-based singer-songwriter offers over the course of the interview, and it's particularly fitting after bearing witness to his wistful, genre-fluid approach to confessional songcraft that began with his 2020 debut Souvenir. That body of work caught the attention of the likes of Gilles Peterson, Benji B, and the late Virgil Abloh, led to a slot as the opening act on a tour with Clairo last year, and saw the artist collaborate with several contributors, including a moving reunion with his father on the standout closer "Shoes".

Its follow-up, the 12-track PORTRAIT OF A DOG, was cut straight to tape with Toronto psych-jazz combo BADBADNOTGOOD behind the boards, who have frequently collaborated with Yano starting with a stretch of early singles. Their kaleidoscopic, all-analog approach to production proves to be a potent pairing with Yano's writing, who continues to contemplate such weighty subjects as expatriate identity and family dynamics.

Speaking over Zoom from his flat in Montreal's Little Italy, we discussed the production of the album, embracing imperfections outside the realm of high fidelity, the joys of studio improvisation, and allowing his collaborators to do the talking when words fail. PORTRAIT OF A DOG is out this week on Innovative Leisure, and is available on the artist's Bandcamp.

The official video for Jonah Yano's "always", made in collaboration with Nik Arthur & David May.

Family history, heritage, and interpersonal relationships are all recurring themes in your songwriting practice. On the other hand, when it comes to recording, you've often embraced the beauty of recordings outside the periphery of high fidelity in a way that almost feels like a depiction of memory. During production, how do you go about fusing together all these concepts that make up your songcraft sonically?

That's such a cool question. For the easiest way to sum all of the things I want to either discuss through song and express through music, the singular place I would go to most frequently to get those two things across in tandem is just acoustic guitar or piano and recording it by an equivalently simple means. I'm probably going to go for a very rudimentary approach to recording myself: it would be something as simple as a SM58 into a DI, or the Tascam 244 four-track that I used to make most of my demos—even a voice memo on my phone. I also have the Zoom H4N field recorder. I wouldn't go too far.

I'm not going to mic my guitar with two omnidirectional condenser mics. I keep it bare bones. I mostly write with a Yamaha parlor acoustic and it actually has a passive pickup in it as well—the DI signal isn't even that bad. A lot of the time I'll just DI it into my interface or Tascam, and that'll be the start of what I capture. And that's kind of the beginning of capturing what it is that I'm trying to capture. That's the very beginning.

We talked with Dijon not too long ago, and he spoke at length about beauty emerging from recordings that aren't necessarily high fidelity. It's my understanding that you sort of share the same ethos?

For sure. I think I definitely share that in the sense that it's so much more about the idea than it is about the way in which it's recorded. I know that for his record Absolutely, they used a lot of room mics and they recorded in a really boxy environment—I think it was in his apartment a lot of the time, but you would probably know better than me.

Philosophically speaking, it's important to capture what it is that's actually around you as opposed to trying to reduce your recording in an attempt to focus directly on the audio source, trying to subtract the white noise or machine noise. Bleed is really cool and accidents are some of the best moments in recording music. When something happens by accident, it feels like you've captured some kind of magic or something that you couldn't have otherwise procured.

I still do appreciate the more traditional styles of recording music and properly treated studios and going through the big board to tape—which is how this record was made—but I appreciate a whole album recorded on a cell phone just as much because I think that speaks more to the contemporary condition of being a recording artist. It's about accessibility and having the means to create high fidelity recordings, which most people do not have, including me. At home I can't necessarily make a hi-fi recording, so I don't try to. This idea of fidelity is built up upon a bunch of constructed myths about how clarity equals commercial quality. The only rules are the ones you set for yourself. Everything else is made up.

The official video for the title track on PORTRAIT OF A DOG, directed by Erin O'Connor, Matisse A-M, and Kostadin Kolev.

On that note, let's talk about Portrait Of A Dog: your frequent collaborators BADBADNOTGOOD produced it. You have plenty of history together already, but it's not often that you see an entire band behind the boards of a solo artist's work. Talk to me about your creative relationship and what your collective production strategies on this album looked like.

Like you said, our creative relationship spans a few years, and over our time recording and writing music together, I think we've developed a sort of creative language with one another—I know what they're looking for a lot of the time and they know what I'm looking for a lot of the time. We can communicate our ideas easily and constructively.

In terms of this record, one of the main things we had to negotiate with a lot was the fidelity of the record and how it was going to be recorded. A lot of our collaborative negotiations had to do with how things were going to be recorded, what gear we were going to use if gear mattered, if we were going to go to tape or do it digitally. A lot of these conversations defined how the record ended up sounding and how we ended up working together. The initial idea was to record the record in the drummer's (Alexander Sowinski) country house in Ontario. Obviously because of COVID, we couldn't do that, and he was about to have a baby, so he didn't want to over-complicate the situation.

Instead we ended up going to Marquee Sound to do it, which is in the east end of Toronto. It used to be in a proper studio, but the engineer who runs it, Braden Sauder, has actually just moved it to a garage at his house. He is just an engineering marvel. He's not just interested in gear, he's interested in recording as well in a way that's not annoying. I know that's a weird kind of vague thing to say, but I feel like for anybody who's ever been in different studio environments, engineers are some of the most insufferable people I've ever met in my entire life. (laughter)

It's true.

They're usually so jaded about who knows what, but this guy is truly so nice and smart and so talented at what he does. Anyways, he had the Midas TR04 console with most of the channel strips still intact—I think there was one that was broken—and we were going straight to an Ampex 1-inch tape machine. All of the BADBADNOTGOOD recordings on the record were done in the studio, live off the floor. The skeletons of the instrumentals were done all at once. There's a few overdubs for solos here and there, but almost all of it is done together in the same room.

There was one compressor we used, this Canadian made one from the sixties, I think a Pultec copy—so that's one part of the sound of the record, but other than that we didn't really compress anything. He also had a plate reverb in the hallway that was the size of a car.

You can definitely hear that plate verb throughout the record.

For sure, it's in every song. One of the cooler things we did in the studio was for the song "Quietly Entirely"—Braden had this 30-inch marching drum that he put in front of the kick drum, and then he placed a mic in the middle between the two drums and it created this crazy thud.

Anyways, gear is one thing, but I think what lends itself to the sound of the record most is the fact that we were in the room together. The sound is defined by all the bleed—the studio wasn't that big, so we were all no more than three feet from one another at any given time.

I'm glad you mention the band's close proximity in the studio because one aspect of this record's sequencing I found myself latching onto were the extended instrumentals. You give your contributors plenty of freedom and carte blanche to take solos. In any other hands it might feel like filler, but in the context of this record, it serves the same purpose as an Impulse jazz LP—it allows the tunes to breathe a little bit. What was the impetus for enabling extended exploration? I just imagine you as a vocalist are like Coltrane taking a five-minute break from playing "My Favorite Things"…

Yeah, and then McCoy Tyner just running through pentatonic solos. (laughter)

Yeah, exactly.

The best part of making music with other people is hearing what they have to say about it. Giving space for improvisation and solos in the recording process really let me know what they were feeling or what it is that they were trying to get across and giving space for them to do that. I had two years to figure out what I was going to say and by the time we recorded I already knew, and we had collectively created space for it, but during the ideation of the record, it was important to me that they'd be able to speak as well. When you play music with people who have dedicated their entire lives to an instrument and to a collective sound as a band, it would almost be a shame not to do that.

One of the coolest life experiences was just sitting in the room while those guys soloed and jammed on top of songs that I've written—hearing it in real life—but when we're playing them together, they're all of a sudden our songs. I can hear their contributions to this thing that I just did on my acoustic guitar and that is now an entire ensemble piece of music.

I do want to specifically point out the keys player we brought on for the recordings, Felix Fox. He's a young Toronto jazz guy, and until those recordings, we had never all played together before. He came and he just absolutely destroyed every single piano opportunity he took. He takes a two-and-a-half-minute solo on one of the songs. It's one of my favorite musical moments of anything I've ever made, and I'm not even playing on it. It would be an entirely different album without room for those solos and improvisations—not nearly as special.

Jonah Yano's "shoes", a collaboration with his father Tatsuya Muraoka.

On the subject of other people's contributions, the album also features Sea Oleena and Slauson Malone, two artists who similarly excel at blending songcraft and sonic abstraction. How did you come into contact with Charlotte and Jasper and how did those collaborations manifest themselves?

I met Jasper (Slauson Malone) in Los Angeles because we have some mutual friends, the BADBAD guys and also my manager Theo. I really admire his work, both as a musician and as a visual artist—not that those things are separate. We had recorded "In Sun, Out of Son", the song that he plays on, and I just really felt like there could be more acoustic guitar on it, like a lead line. I really loved his guitar playing, so I just reached out to him and asked if he'd play some acoustic guitar on it and he was more than happy to do it. When I saw him afterwards, we just sat and listened to the whole record together.

With Charlotte (Sea Oleena), I've actually known her since 2017. We met in Montreal when I was visiting, while I was still living in Toronto. I've been a fan of her music for a long time. She put out a really beautiful record in 2020 called Weaving a Basket—back to what I was saying earlier about fidelity, that's actually the record I was thinking of when I talked about a record recorded all by a cellphone. She recorded all of her guitar and vocals through her cellphone mic, and then her brother mixed it all. Have you heard that record?

Yeah. As a matter of fact, I have actually a very vivid memory of a performance of theirs from almost a decade ago. We were on a bill together at The Silent Barn, a space in Brooklyn that's no longer around. I vividly remember Charlotte rolling up to the gig. At the time she had a shaved head and the rig was nothing more than one Telecaster, a reverb pedal, and a delay pedal. The crowd was talking between sets and without any fanfare she just started—in under two minutes, everybody sits down, shuts up, and the whole room was completely transfixed. I'll never forget it. It was so cosmic and economical.

That makes so much sense. She's such an arresting person in that way. Just talking to her over a beer or something is like speaking to someone who commands the conversation—not in a dominant way, but the same way that you were describing this experience of her playing her music. I love her music so much and we've made little things here and there over the years. We have a bunch of little recordings or whatever, but nothing has ever become anything other than a jam. When the song came up, it just made absolute sense that the track was bookend with her doing her ambient vocal thing. It's kind of an emblem of my friendship with her.

With all the contributors, I think it wouldn't be the same kind of record without them. They kind of speak to what we were talking about earlier about fidelity and the myth of it all. BADBADNOTGOOD is very analog and board-to-tape, whereas Jasper is fully into MIDI and experimental recording techniques. Same with Charlotte, just through the cell phone and big washy reverb stuff. Blending those artists together on the same record was a cool idea for me just because it speaks to all sides of the recording process.

One of the standout tracks on this record to me is your take on the Vashti Bunyan tune "Glow Worms". You transform her sparse and bucolic ballad into this lush, borderline psychedelic full-band arrangement. How did that song enter your life; what prompted you to cover it; how did you happen upon that arrangement?

Honestly, a friend of mine just showed me that song four years ago and told me the whole story of Vashti Bunyan with the Caravan and Donovan and all that stuff. I had this idea to cover the song, but just with a muted piano at first. The demo started with Felix playing the lead line and the chords. When we brought the idea to the studio—I forget whose idea it was, maybe Alex—we came up with the idea to have someone else play the lead line for every section.

That's why it starts with the bass playing it, and then the keys, and then the guitar before it goes into a solo. I was honestly probably pretty against the solo at first, to be completely honest, and I was also probably against the idea of someone else taking the lead line every time because I really like the simplicity of the song. But during recording it grew on me, how the dynamics of this very simple song evolved. Turning that song into a psychedelic rock track at the end is kind of funny, I don't know. I've also never heard anyone cover that one as a band before…

Let alone any of her music—covers of her work are relegated to solo performers, more often than not.

True, it's mostly a sparse acoustic thing.

You just mentioned certain decisions growing on you. In a recent conversation with your friend Lauren Spear for The Creative Independent, when asked to compare the vulnerabilities of recording versus performance, you likened recording to standing in front of the mirror and changing your outfit several times before going out. It's a brilliant analogy. Was there a track on this record that took a lot of quick changes before getting it right? And would you walk me through the process of that?

There's a song on there, "So Sweet", that starts with a drum break and my grandparents talking. The original demo of that song is just nylon string guitar and that's honestly how I wanted it to be on the record as well, I didn't want any other aspects of the arrangements I just wanted it to be really soft. When we started jamming the song as a group, it became evident that it would be a much more interesting recording if it was high energy. At first I didn't see it that way, so we flushed out a few different versions of it in the studio jamming. We recorded it all and landed on one.

When you record something and you're not sure if you like it or don't like it, usually that means you don't really like it that much, but in this case, we decided to sit on it and move on to the next thing, come back tomorrow. We came back the next day and we were like, "You know what, that's not the one." So we had to sit there and untangle it again and re-jam it until something landed.

As one does.

We eventually landed on the arrangement we have on the record—it became super drum-heavy and one of the songs that has the most motion on the whole record—which is confusing, because it started as a song that was quiet and had absolutely no motion at all. I feel like that would be the track that went through the most changes from beginning to end. I feel like that's the one. I forgot that I even made that analogy!

Jonah Yano. Photo by Tianna Franks.

I'm going to throw another analogy of yours at you from a recent tweet: "Doing an album rollout is that long and awkward feeling when a family member asks you to sing a song at a family dinner". I'd love for you to elaborate—is it that you spend all this time privately fleshing out a personal body of work, and then there's this sudden vibe shift when the time comes to present it publicly?

You totally nailed it. I don't really know if I could say it better than you. You work on this thing intimately with yourself and the people who helped you make it, and then suddenly you're re-contextualizing. For me, at least my journal entries and this music that I've just been listening to by myself for all this time— now I feel like maybe it's a little bit different with the album rollout because no one asked you to sing. It's like you're just starting to sing for people and that's even worse, that's even more uncomfortable. So I think that's what I was trying to speak to in that analogy. That's so funny that you said that.

You've got to find your sources somewhere!

That's true. (laughter)

How much of the album did you play out on this recent tour with Clairo?

I think the set was like 80% the new record, which is funny because none of it was really out when the tour started. It was really fun—the band I brought out was a bunch of young jazz players, and similar to the recording process, I got to hear what they had to say every night about the music. It was really amazing. They really took the ball and ran with it.

How did you go about shifting the arrangements from the studio to stage?

The arrangements are pretty similar—the singing is sort of the head. After the singing happens is when the form of the songs kind of changed and we started getting into some more improvised moments—we kind of got into our pocket and created new moments in rehearsals or even during shows. We explored motifs in different ways, louder or quieter than their recordings. We didn't have a keys player or somebody on the strings, so we had to work around those elements and who was going to take responsibility for that. That was really fun to do. The string parts actually ended up being sax a lot of the time, which contributed a really cool sound. But generally speaking, we played a lot of the parts from the recordings and re-contextualize them with different instruments or energies, depending on the night or depending on the player.

Were there any instruments or gear or sort of approaches to production on this new record that you've never explored before?

I had never recorded straight to tape before. Any previous recordings before this album have all been inside. Mostly inside the box, moving shit around in Ableton, effecting things, editing things, comping, all that stuff. This record was a super cool learning process. I only made one other record other than this, but I didn't make it this way where we recorded all the songs beginning to end for the most part, but didn't look at them on a screen really—we did bounce into Pro Tools just so we had a copy of it, but there wasn't really any editing.

Everything was done to one-inch tape and then bounced out in a multitrack session so that we had stems for whoever was mixing it. That was really cool because I couldn't fuss over any sort of details. I just had to live with what was captured in the moment, which was really nice for me. It made me appreciate the value of the moment as opposed to valuing the perfect recording.

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