Andrew McPherson has been dismantling and reassembling his inner and artistic life.
As he mends from a break-up that hollowed him, he is finding the guts to make music that is fearless, forceful, and all about the art.
McPherson, 54, is a two-time Juno award nominated producer and musician, and the front-man for the highly danceable world electronica assemble Eccodek. He is about to release his fourth solo album, Bardo, an eclectic, searching, quite existential, often experimental, painful and piercing collection of songs.
A man of a good height and good looks, quick with a laugh, a smile and a kindness, McPherson was gifted with the sort of deep speaking voice that earns you a living.
For over 20 years that voice has been his money-maker as a voice actor. He hires out his speech for everything from instructional video narration to radio and television voice-overs and advertisements.
He has never had to earn money from music, and so he has let himself do what he wanted to do. Now, he wants to do a more meaningful and authentic kind of music, or disintegrate trying.
In a recent interview in his backyard studio in Guelph – a tidy space outfitted will all the equipment a musician would ever need to explore the depths of their prog rock soul – McPherson spoke of the ongoing process of dismantling and discovery in his life, and about Bardo, the musical canvas for his inner search and discovery.
The word “Bardo” quite handily expresses the stage of life he is in. He explained that it’s a Tibetan word that means an intermediate or transitional state, in-between and liminal.
“It just feels like the idea of being an artist feels way more important to me than anything else,” he said. His very busy voice career, his “cash cow,” allows him to focus his artistic work on the exigencies of the art, and not as a means of livelihood. He gets to be creative and collaborative without chasing wolves from the door.
“My life has been completely disassembled in the last couple of years,” he said. “And I’m asking, what is valuable to me now? What am I investing in, and what am I waiting for?”
At some critical point in any artist’s life, he said, it becomes necessary to question the authenticity of their expression.
“When I stick myself out there and say, here’s my new canvas, my film or my poem, how much of myself did I put into this thing, and is it really a snapshot of me?” he reflected.
He has found that many artists he knows are asking themselves the same questions, and some are even questioning whether they want to continue to do what they’re doing.
Bardo is in a potent blend of rock, folk, ambient and art pop elements. It’s pierced through, built up, and given wings by players like Jeff Bird, Kevin Breit, and Morgan Doctor. It’s 11 songs that sift through, question, and microscopically examine the challenge of being a human being in the right now. McPherson’s baritone gift takes the listener on this varied road-trip of life.
What is the purpose of the work? Will it make a difference? Will anyone love it? These are the tough questions artists are asking themselves, he said.
McPherson has watched with admiration, laced with shades of jealousy, as some artist friends courageously dove off the cliff into the unknown creative depths below.
“And I’m like, why can’t I just make that choice?” he pondered. “And, yes, I have pushed myself creatively before. But there is a bar that is continually being pushed by my fellow artists, by my heroes.”
David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, was a gut-wrenching inspiration for McPherson. The fact that the extraordinary album was made when Bowie was at death’s door left McPherson with no excuse not to push himself harder.
“I feel emboldened,” he said. “Through a lot of self investigation and dismantling of who I am, I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that people really respond to risk taking. It inspires them, gives them permission.”
During the recording of Bardo a consensus was reached among the musicians not to be gentle in the approach, and to embrace and go for the heart of the artistic side of the songs.
McPherson said the end of his relationship with Guelph singer, songwriter and harpist Shannon Kingsbury, the pain and difficulty of that experience, is metaphorically infused throughout the words of the songs on the album.
The value and nature of human connections – with family members, close friends, or a life partner - is a consistent theme throughout. In all of those connections, one needs to allow the other to be as screwed up and complicated as they are, he said. That is not easy.
And just as his hero David Bowie explored the wavering edge and mysterious depths of morality, McPherson has also plunged into those depths in Bardo.
A release party for the album is set for Thursday, April 13 at the eBar, 41 Quebec St., from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. McPherson will sing the songs of Bardo, and his band of gifted players will accompany. There will also be musical guests. Admission is $20.
The cover art for the album is a compelling and pensive black and white shot of the artist, as though he is searching for an answer, frustrated in his search, or tired of trying. It is the perfect image for his in-between, transitional state of his mind.