Print Edition: September 10, 2014
Coldwater Road, a folk band from Vancouver, released their first album, The Woods, this past August. The band’s singer and songwriter, Patrick Spencer, discussed his approaches to writing and performing in an interview with The Cascade on September 5.
Songwriters are often asked what comes first for them —the music or the lyrics. Spencer didn’t hesitate in his answer:
“For me, lyrics first. To get enough drive to work on a song — because it usually takes me quite a while to get it to the point where I like it — I have to start with the idea. I have to want to say something.” He clarified: “I’m more of a trained storyteller, not necessarily a trained musician. I’m just a self-taught musician.”
Spencer’s story-telling musical influences include Bob Dylan, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Ryan Adams, Counting Crows, and Vancouver’s own Dan Mangan. He says that, for him, Mangan especially is “a positive role-model for local musicians … He’s really shown that hard work and perseverance can really come through.”
Coldwater Road itself is a hard-working project, doing everything from playing on the train during Via Rail’s “Entertainment On Board” program to busking on Granville Island. The band consists of “three to five” members, which requires a certain adaptability on Spencer’s part.
“If we play a private show in someone’s backyard, it might make more sense for there to be just two of us … But, if we’re playing at a nightclub or somewhere where there’s a drinking crowd, and we need to bring a bit more energy, then we’ll try to bring out four or five of us.”
“It really helps me,” he said, “having the freedom [of a changeable line-up]; otherwise it would be too frustrating [coordinating practices and shows].”
As well as a fluctuating line-up, Spencer embraces the unpredictability of live audiences:
“I take comfort in the fact that I’ve rehearsed all the songs a lot … I know how my performance is at least going to start. But … you really never know what kind of interaction you’re going to get from people, so you really have to improvise the energy around you. In order to be successful at busking, you have to engage the people who are coming to watch you; otherwise, they will watch you for a little bit then leave.” He added that improvising with the crowd “keeps the music interesting.”
Coldwater Road’s music is folksy, but unmistakably contemporary; Spencer’s lyrics mention modern technology such as cellphones and Twitter as passingly as another songwriter might mention a bucket or a shovel.
“I notice how much I have to use it,” he said, “so I might as well embrace it.” He accepts, if somewhat begrudgingly, technology’s prevalence in modern life: “I hate how much time artists these days have to spend online. I get it, though. I’m not kicking and screaming against it … You have to kind of embrace it and accept it. If you don’t take advantage of these things, it’s maybe not good business.”
Spencer has no plans to stop writing songs (or stories), and is currently interested in writing about the outlaws of historic British Columbia. Coldwater Road will perform with the Doll Sisters on October 16th at the Railway Club in Vancouver. The Woods is available online at coldwaterroad.bandcamp.com.