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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Dumb Like A Fox

Craig Silliphant
Published Thursday March 19, 05:09 pm
Shaun Mason keeps on giving folk music a good name

Photo Credit: Patrick Shmidt

 DUMB ANGEL

Saturday 28

Amigos

He may be a guy with a guitar, singing songs that echo with melancholy, but Shaun Mason, a.k.a. Dumb Angel, has a sound that stands well apart from what you’d think of when you hear that description. I’ve known Mason for many years, following his career from local bands like Watercolour Movement and Blood Music through to his first days recording in the bedroom as Dumb Angel, to the creation of a full band for his last album and his latest effort, Broken Glass.

The first thing I bring up when we chat is a blurb from his press kit which was written by a mutual friend, Chris Laramee from Shooting Guns. It can be paraphrased as saying that that Mason is giving folk rock a good name, breathing life into a sound that’s been “nearly kicked to death by an endless parade of indie-chancers and miserablists.” It’s not untrue, though it’s a more strongly worded sentiment than I’m used to hearing from the soft-spoken, thoughtful Mason.

People lump you into that box if you’re a male with an acoustic guitar standing there singing,” he says. “Automatically you’re a sad bastard, a miserablist, an indie-chancer. A lot of that music personally doesn’t appeal to me to begin with. I’d like to think that what we do, especially with the new album, goes beyond that. Beyond CBC Radio3, beyond Mumford and Sons, all that stuff, you know? That’s what I’m going for. Who am I to say that I’m actually going beyond that? But I’m doing my best. If Chris sees that, then maybe I’m doing something right.”

Broken Glass builds on the sonic foundations of what came before, taking Dumb Angel to further heights. It’s definitely not “wallowing sad bastard” music, but it does wade into melancholy. It’s much more three-dimensional than those one-note miserablists, even uplifting and bursting with elation in certain ways, with lush soundscapes and arrangements that take every advantage of dynamics.

Writing a song is very multi-faceted,” says Mason. “There’s joy and there’s sadness. People fixate on one emotion, but life’s complicated. Feelings are complicated, and I try to recognize all of them and be honest. Life sucks sometimes. Life’s awesome sometimes. You’ve gotta take both into consideration. I try to do that with my music. I don’t think it always comes across; people sometimes tell me my music’s depressing, but I disagree. There’s more to it than the melancholy, for sure.”

Mason moved from Saskatoon to Montréal in 2009 to take his Master’s in Library Studies at McGill, which took him two years, and he then eked out a living in Montréal for another couple of years. While there, he recorded his last album, Eight Moments of Spring, with Jace Lasek of The Besnard Lakes — which was the first time he took the more sparse, ethereal Dumb Angel sound to a full band set-up.

“The actual studio experience was a huge learning curve,” Mason says, “a really good experience to do that whole professional studio thing, which doesn’t really happen in Saskatchewan that often. To experience that was awesome, [and] very eye-opening in a lot of ways.”

Even more eye-opening was the music scene in Montréal; not only was it a much bigger pond than Mason was used to, but it’s a scene as diverse and divided as the province of Québec itself.

Montréal and Québec is a weird place,” he says. “There’s more of a music industry there, for sure. It’s a weird meeting of two worlds with the Québécois industry, which is a crazy world. There’s a ton of money, a ton of support. It’s its own sort of hermetically sealed industry — if you’re a successful Québécois musician you never have to leave the province. You can be incredibly successful, rich, and famous, just by touring Québec.

So I experienced some of that, you know, playing with Québécois musicians. [And it] was shocking; it’s just such a clash of cultures. Then there’s the Anglophones that are in Montréal trying to make a go of it, so there’s these two worlds — god knows where I fit in. I went out there for school, essentially, and just kept writing songs. I played with people, but I never fit into either world.”

Eventually, Mason was offered a job in his chosen field in northern Saskatchewan, which pulled him back to the prairie. And a year after that he was back in Saskatoon, working on Broken Glass, recording with SJ Kardash and a new band. Adapting his music for a full complement was challenging at times — there’s not a lot of templates for the sound Mason hears in his head, so sculpting the songs into shape proved difficult at times.

“The band has changed and gone through a few incarnations, even since starting the recording,” he says. “We had rehearsals for the record, then the recording process, which ended up being a little long-winded. It got a little ambitious. We started the record as a trio. One of those members is gone, but we replaced him and added three more, so we’ve got six people now.”

Now the fun part will be performing the songs live, as the band readies themselves to head out on a tour of Ontario and Québec in early April. Performing the tracks is similar to arranging and recording them: with so much going on in deceptively simple ways, it takes a little more effort.

“[There’s] more of us singing harmonies, and there’s the pedal steel,” says Mason. “It’s all about subtlety and dynamics — dynamics that don’t immediately present themselves. The songs are kind of repetitive and hypnotic. You gotta really focus in, practice the harmonies. There’s a lot of instrumentation to bring into consideration. But I think it works.”

Dumb Angel has come a long way since it was simply Mason’s solo project, swelling in tone and membership, and even being based in two parts of the country. There’s no shame in working on the business and PR side of things to get your music heard, but an indie-chancer could be typified by measuring the success of their Kickstarter campaigns and YouTube hits instead of actually sitting down and focusing on writing and practicing good, true music. As Laramee noted, Mason is the antithesis of this — he’s quietly and thoughtfully wandering down his musical path, far from wearing out his welcome.

Right now I’m measuring success by the fact that I’ve got so many people on board,” he laughs. “Six members, and everybody is really stoked to be a part of it. We’re going on a big tour coming up, which takes a team effort, but everybody has really been behind that as well. If we can keep what we have going, for me, that’s a great success — to get not only my band members interested, but to get the audiences interested too. And to play, to keep doing what we do.”

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