As the bass player in Metric, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Winstead has contributed mightily to that dynamic band’s six albums, and toured worldwide. This June, he issued his debut solo album, MMXX, which he wrote, performed, and produced by himself, and released on his own indie label, Royal Cut.
On Oct. 28, Winstead brings what’s been called his “mesmerizing, sincere, uplifting soulful pop” to National Sawdust for a live outing with chamber-ensemble instrumentation. To mark the occasion, we asked him who he’d most like to be interviewed by. In response, Winstead tagged a handful of friends and colleagues – Metric bandmate Emily Haines; Adam Wills (Bear in Heaven); Justin Peroff (Broken Social Scene); and Sebastien Grainger (Death from Above 1979) – tasking them all with grilling him on aspects of MMXX and other pressing subjects.
EMILY HAINES (METRIC): You recorded some of MMXX while we were out on the road this year, and you had a pretty sweet portable recording set up in the back lounge of our tour bus. Did you find it tough to juggle both writing/recording and rocking people’s faces off every night? Or did having a creative outlet outside of Metric help combat the fucking monotony of downtime on tour?
JOSHUA WINSTEAD: Surprisingly, it was actually very easy to switch back and forth between the Metric world and my solo work. I actually think it made my playing during the Metric shows even better. I was constantly surrounded by music, no downtime only music.
I like that your album is so different than anything we’ve recorded together! Lyrically you are disarmingly genuine and unguarded on themes of love in particular. How did it feel to switch over to the soul side? And how did it feel to play so many of the instruments yourself & self-produce? This is many questions in one, and for that I apologize, but this is what you get when you’re the lead singer, man, so deal with it.
I found it quite refreshing to step in the soul-singing side of myself. Part of creating and writing this album is facing things that can be quite unnerving and that raise internal fears. So facing those challenges both in writing personal music and taking responsibility for all the writing, playing, recording, and producing was a great moment of growth for me.
There is a political component to this album, which sometimes I worry people are missing because, you know, often we think we are listening but we’re not really hearing. Can you describe the larger message you are channeling through these songs?
The larger message in the album is that we can and need to try and achieve our own personal growth, via facing our fears – those fears that stop us from being the best person we can be, those fears that stop us from truly loving both ourselves and those around us. I would say it isn’t so much a political element as an element based on the need for human emotional evolution. Hopefully while people listen, even if they are not fully “listening” some of the ideas will seep in.
I get that vibe that your album reflects overcoming fears. What was your biggest fear while you were making it?
The biggest fear I had to overcome in making this album was that I was worthy of the effort it took to produce the project. That I was worth the time, energy and money it required.
ADAM WILLS (BEAR IN HEAVEN): I know you’ve been a musician most of your life, playing in lots of different bands, but this was your first solo record if I’m not mistaken. I imagine a lot of these ideas, themes, and melodies might have been a long time coming, but the lyrical content feels fresh to your life in the present, which has me wondering when and where were these songs born? This is my first solo album. While some of the songs are older, the majority were written more recently. I wanted to make sure the content wasn’t all older songs, so I would feel fresh and excited about the album itself. I also try to address timeless issues in my music, so hopefully my lyrics will stand true longer than I will remain standing. The songs were written all over the world, any place I can sit with an instrument I will write.
I’m curious about inspiration, ritual, and practice. When it comes to songwriting, do you have any, or do you write when the moment comes?
Inspiration, ritual, and practice all come into play when I write. Inspiration is easy to understand: You get an idea and try to fulfill that idea. Ritual is very important to me – that is, making sure you spend time with your instrument exploring and enjoying the act of playing or writing music as much as possible. Practice for me is something I use quite a lot. The newer songs on the album were all written on piano. Playing the piano is new for me; I’ve been a guitarist for many years. Since I am new to the piano, I would try and take time to practice, pushing my skill level higher. One thing that always happens is as I am practicing is new songs tend to flood my head, and I have to control the urge to follow the song. Once I have practiced enough to satisfy my own personal requirements, I let myself explore the songs that have been trying to distract me.
Is there a feeling you get that tells you, “This is it, the song is done”? Or do you work until it can’t be worked anymore? What’s the ratio of sweating through a long demo process vs. instinct?
That feeling for when a song is done is different for almost every song; it also depends on if you are trying to record or just write. Some songs end up writing themselves, and other require the blood, sweat, and tears!
So many musicians seem inspired by the loss of love or the longing for it, though your music seems so inspired by being loved and reciprocation. It’s refreshing to hear. Do you think falling in love was the driving force to sit down and press “record”? Or were the motives more musical? Maybe what I want to know is, how do you see those forces intersecting?
Falling in love was fantastic, but it wasn’t the driving force in making this album. I put out the album because of my need to make music. While both losing and finding love are great inspiration for writing, I try not to write from any one place in particular. I try to use the dynamic between the two as the tension and the basis for my lyrics.
From bass player to bass player, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned stepping up to the front of the stage, the front of the mix, and putting your name on an album cover? What was the biggest surprise?
Stepping to the front both in terms of the recording and live is definitely a big change. The aspect I recognized most was the vulnerability of being the voice and face. Having your lyrics, writing, and the sound of your voice scrutinized and judged is far more personal. The biggest surprise was that I can handle it. Not only handle it, but thrive under that pressure and scrutiny.
I’ve yet to attend a show at National Sawdust, though I know the space well through seeing photos online and through word-of-mouth. It’s a beautiful place, and I know set and setting are everything to a performance. Is there anything about the space you’re planning on utilizing that’s different than other venues?
You are absolutely correct, National Sawdust is a very special venue, and I intend to utilize every aspect of the space. First of all, it was built with acoustic music in mind, so I have replaced all of the parts of the album that were played with a synthesizer with an ensemble: violins, cello, bassoon, clarinet, and French horn. With this musical lineup I felt I could cover the dynamics on the album. There is also the personnel of the venue – the team they have working there is outstanding, and I have been working with many of them to create what will be a beautiful experience.
JUSTIN PEROFF (BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE): Some musicians can create anywhere, while others require very specific specifications. What is the ideal environment for your creative process? I actually take pride in the fact that I can create in any environment. I love the idea of new places, people, new obstacles, new environments.
Your album is beautiful. I personally feel it was a long time coming. What was the emotional and creative journey to finally make 2016 the year to release your first solo record?
I had several opportunities to make my first solo album, and in all honesty I was too afraid. I made the noisy garage band album Best Friends in Love by Bang Lime just to avoid putting out the personal music I was writing at the time. While the Bang Lime album was personal and shared the same lyrical basis, those lyrics were hiding behind loud guitars and rock drums. It took facing my own insecurities to make this album.
I’m a huge fan of your Bang Lime project. The listener experience is the polar opposite to MMXX. This demonstrates how dynamic you are as a songwriter. Think we’ll get another album out of the two of you?
I know this might sound arrogant, but I would have to agree with you. I like to write many different styles of music; that might be because I truly love many different kinds of music. If you can hear music inside, then you can get it outside – it only takes time and effort. If I have the time, I will definitely make another Bang Lime album.
How different – if at all – are your live shows with Metric, now that you’ve been performing as a solo artist?
I think I have become a better overall musician by making this album and putting on solo shows. My understanding and technique have grown far more than I would have imagined. My playing is more confident, and has the benefit of a new viewpoint.
SEBASTIEN GRAINGER (DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979): Do you put ketchup on mac’n’cheese?
Absolutely not! I may not be rich, but I’m classy!
Cut or uncut? (Apocalypse Now)
Cut. I find the Directors Cut or the uncut version bloated and unnecessary. And even a bit sexist.
When’s the last time you injured your best friend whilst violating a sacred martial arts code?
Vancouver, BC, 2006. But as you are well aware, he hurt himself, and I didn’t even touch him!