As a songwriter of some note and acclaim, Patrick Ballantyne is always looking for unique ways of challenging himself to get better at his craft. For a good portion of 2016 and into early 2017, the Toronto-based singer/songwriter chose to write record and release one new single a month for an entire year.
At the end of the process, Ballantyne and his producer Matt Connell of Northwood Records decided to pull them all together into one package. The result is the startlingly diverse, yet eminently memorable new solo album, Calendar, which will be released in physical and digital form on Nov. 24.
“The songs we were putting out once a month were really done by the seat of our pants. It was more difficult than I was expecting it to be to actually write record, mix, master and put some artwork together and then release it up to iTunes and places like that. It was a really great exercise and really kept me focussed, but because they came and went so quickly it was hard to promote a song and then release another one almost literally seconds later. So the thought was let’s gather them together, using a bit more of a critical ear, and see whether we can clean them up a bit,” said Ballantyne, whose day job is as a lawyer and head of a government regulatory agency.
“I cleaned up a few parts that bothered me, but the real challenge was that some of those songs were recorded live off the floor with my friends and collaborators from Windsor the Oh Chays, and then some of it was recorded by me in my basement. So sonically, there was a fairly wide variance on how they sounded. Trying to get them more or less in the same ballpark was a bit of a challenge. I worked with a great engineer, Mark Plancke at the Sharktank in Windsor, but in terms of the finished product, Matt Connell really brought it all together. I think he did a great job working to cement it all together.”
Ballantyne’s career has not only been defined by the successful collaborations he has made with a host of artists representing a real cross-section of genres, from the blues-reggae stylings of Big Sugar, to the Celtic tinged country sounds of Tim Chiasson, to the sultry pop sweetness of Meredith Shaw, but also by demonstrating a similarly amazing versatility on his own projects.
Calendar is his third album, following on the heels of 2014’s Days of Rain and his 2008 self-titled debut, and manages to retain a uniformity of tone throughout, even when Ballantyne himself travels down myriad musical rabbit holes.
“Sonically, in most respects, each song is a fair bit different from the next. One has a very eastern sounding instrumentation, whereas the next one is sort of a goofy country pastiche while the song Mirror Mirror is sort a of Bob Dylan-y folk song. I don’t hear any particularly common theme except lyrically it all sounds like me. I don’t know how to describe my lyric writing, but that’s probably what holds it all together for the most part. I write words a certain way and probably phrase things a certain way and people pick that up from one song to the next,” the Windsor-born Ballantyne explained.
“In terms of the style, it’s all over the map – perhaps to my detriment. It really is a reflection of the styles that I enjoy writing and it’s not even a conscious effort. I could not sit down and say, ‘I am going to write a country song. I am then going to write a folk song.’ I don’t know enough about the idiosyncratic elements that go into those individual styles to be able to say I can, for instance just sit down and write a country song. It’s just that this is what I write, this is what I sound like, and I am not deliberately trying to show a range of styles. It is a sincere reflection of the kind of music I enjoy writing and recording.
“This is me as an artist; this is what I enjoy listening to and writing and recording and when I put the songs out there I hope people like them. Most of the stuff is written with an acoustic guitar and I am sort of singing or humming along. But once I get to the exercise of recording it in the studio and deciding on the arrangements and instrumentation the song can go down a totally different direction. On Calendar the song Fore the Harvest Comes, it didn’t start of being eastern influenced, it was very much a straightforward strummy acoustic guitar song. But I started messing around in the studio with some loops here and there and all of a sudden it turned into something quite different.”
Part of the reason for the diversity in Ballantyne’s songwriting could be chalked up to the fact that his biggest early musical influence – and one that carries through to this day – is The Beatles. Especially from Rubber Soul onwards through to Let It Be and Abbey Road, the Fab Four were known as much for their genre defying experimentation as for their magical melodies.
“I remember seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show as a three year old and it was all Beatles all the time from then on even to today. That does come across in my own writing. The Beatles influence is very strong and it would be very hard for me to suppress it. Think about what it does to a young brain and you’re listening to their Revolver album and it goes from Yellow Submarine to She Said She Said. It’s an absolutely total left turn, but both are absolutely legitimate and well written and well executed songs and that was huge to me. Even just listening to the radio as a little kid in the 1960s you could hear so many varieties of songs, one after the other,” he said.
One of the album’s strongest and most poignant tracks on Calendar and one that alludes to Ballantyne’s musical upbringing is the lovely My Excellent Boy.
“It is very much a reflection of certain songwriter influences, from Brian Wilson to Paul McCartney – and there’s even a deliberate reference to Strawberry Fields in there – as well as David Bowie and Harry Nilsson. Those are some of the writers that I have admired the most over the years. I really tried to reflect that in that particular song and I am quite happy with how it turned out,” he said.
“The title, oddly enough, comes from a Facebook post from my friend Blair Packham from The Jitters. He posted something one day out of the blue where he was talking about his son and he said, my excellent boy Owen did something or other really cool. I loved the sound of that phrase ‘my excellent boy.’ And I just ran with that title and the song turned into what it is, which is essentially me as a kid and all the things I loved and grew up with.
“There’s a line in there about staring out the window waiting for my mom to come home and I can actually picture myself in the back of the house looking out the window waiting for my mom to come home, so that was a very true line. And I am talking about helping Jesus on Sunday, and that’s because I was an altar boy when I was a kid, and how I listened to the Beatles and when I picked up a guitar the first thing I did was try to write my own music. I put two chords together and the first thing I did was try to put my own song together. And that’s really the Lennon/McCartney influence.”
Ballantyne said he only spends about 10 per cent of his life involved in music, with his day job taking up the bulk of his productive time. But the limited schedule hasn’t stopped him from collaborating as often as he can with other songwriters, nor in working on his own material. He also tries to get out and perform as often as he can in Southern Ontario.
“The music is something that I have to do because it’s in me. If I could spend 100 per cent of my time on it I would. But you make decisions in your life over the years. That said, I am very fortunate that I have been able to do as much as I have. I still co-write with a variety of artists, I was recently a featured songwriter at the Canadian Country Music Association convention in Saskatoon this year, which was a real thrill for me – a real sense of accomplishment and recognition. So I am out there, I am certainly doing it to the best of my ability,” he said.
For more information on Ballantyne, upcoming tour dates and Calendar, visit www.patrickballantyne.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.