Very few Canadian musicians have had as fascinatingly diverse a career as Ken Tizzard. In over two decades as a professional musician, he has gone from plying his trade as the charismatic bassist in top Canadian rock bands The Watchmen and Thornley (he is featured on six gold and platinum records)
to then emerging as an eloquent roots-based singer/songwriter and guitarist with a prolific solo career.
Wearing his rock 'n roll hat, Ken has toured internationally, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and played such major venues as The Air Canada Centre. When he puts on his cowboy hat, Tizzard can be spotted performing his original material, solo or with a band, for a loyal and growing audience in pubs, clubs and concert halls across Canada.
His new album, No Dark No Light, is Tizzard's fifth solo studio record since his 2006 debut, Quiet Storey House...an Introduction. A work of real emotional and musical resonance, No Dark No Light is emerging as his strongest work to date. It continues Ken's pattern of never repeating himself stylistically, as its acoustic country meets folk ambience is in sharp contrast to his previous album, 2012's The Goodness of Bad Intent. Recorded with his trio Bad Intent, that album was built around the evocative sounds of the pedal steel and it featured more of a rock 'n roll vibe.
"In the past, I've battled a lot with trying to find a character or niche with my music," Tizzard explains. "Now I realize that maybe I'm a guy who doesn't do the same thing twice. Every record I've done has moved me in a different direction and onto a different career path. That's fine and it's fun!"
He views No Dark No Light as "the most cohesive record I've made. It almost feels like a concept record to me, and in the early stages I had songs sequenced in order that told a complete story." That approach was modified, but a thematic coherence remains.
As the poetic title suggests, these are songs born, in Tizzard's words, "during a very dark period for me. As I was writing the record, I went outside in the countryside one night, and I remember seeing so many stars. The darker it is, the more stars you can see, and that image stuck in my head. The darker I was getting at the time, the easier it was to craft these songs."
There is a soul-baring lyrical honesty to the material on No Dark No Light. The majority of the songs are focused upon his own emotions and experiences or those of close friends, but, in true folk music tradition, he also creates characters and stories. He takes those songs just as seriously, striving to imbue them with real authenticity. "I see those songs as research pieces," says Ken. "Rather like a method actor working on a role, I really immerse myself in those themes, searching to find the real story."
A prime example on No Dark No Light is "All Gone," an up-tempo number that grew out of Ken's reading about the life of notorious American serial killer Ed Gein (the inspiration for the Norman Bates character in Psycho). "I wasn't interested in telling his story, but I came up with a 14 year old girl from his small town, Plainfield, Wisconsin. She is leading a lovely life in a peaceful place, but when he is arrested and the national press invades, her whole life changes. Nothing is normal anymore."
A similar writing approach was used for "37 Bullets," Tizzard explains. "When I was touring with [East Coast folk great] Ron Hynes, we watched a TV marathon about Bonnie and Clyde, and I decided to write a song around that story.Their own tale has been told, but Ron once told me that often the most interesting story isn't about the main characters but the ones around them. I came up with a fictitious character, Alice. She was a 15 year old girl working in a coffee shop attached to a gas station, the site of one of Clyde's first solo robberies. She falls in love with him there, then spends her life following his story in the papers until his death."
Tizzard is equally adept at bringing the real-life stories of his friends to vivid life. "Mud On My Boots (Ode To Frank Meyers)" is a prime example, as the folk-style ballad relates the battle of an 86-year-old Trenton area farmer to save his land from (mis)appropriation. "When we recorded that song a year ago, I invited Frank into the studio. It turned out that he'd been in the building before, back when it was a church and he was 10. That was the first time he heard the song, and it brought him to tears."
That was just one of many emotional moments involved in the making of No Dark No Light. The hauntingly powerful "Pale Blue Sky" was written for Jesse Archer, a friend and fellow musician who was murdered. Tizzard recalls that "I sent the song to Jesse's parents, to check if it was O.K. to play it live or record it. They fell in love with the song, and I invited Jane, his mother, down for the recording." It is actually Jane Archer who sings on the track, and her bluesy wailing at one point will hit you hard.
Then there is "Fare Thee Well," a sweet and tender elegy written for another friend, Elly Kelly."She was an Acadian accordion player from this area, and I was close to her son. I wrote the song after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I asked her to play on the demo. That was the last time she ever played the accordion, and we kept her contribution on the record."
The songs on No Dark No Light drawn from the well of Tizzard's own emotions and life story are equally compelling. The complex dynamics and crisp finger-picking guitar of "Home" is reminiscent of Bruce Cockburn, and the song (already a live favourite) was inspired by Tizzard's visit to his former hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
"That was written after going there on my tour with Ron Hynes in 2014," says Ken. "I was amazed at how much the city was changing. At first I felt a sense of longing for the past and a sadness for how things were moving. This sentiment was quickly replaced by a sense of satisfaction and pleasure I have for my memories and the amazing place where I grew up."
Powerful emotions stirred by his return to St. John's are also explored on the album's dark closing cut, "The Devil." A sparse and haunting track evocative of early Dylan or Townes Van Zandt, it features a brush with the evil entity: "in the corner in the darkness you can see him walking."
After recording these songs in demo form in his Campbellford, Ontario, home studio, Ken fleshed them out with the assistance of JUNO Award-nominated producer/engineer Brent Bodrug (Alanis Morissette, Ron Sexsmith). Bodrug owns and operates the Sly-Fi Chapel recording studio in Trenton, Ontario, and, as Ken explains, the pair had collaborated earlier. "Brent had recorded our Live At The Acoustic Grill CD, and he told me he'd bought an old church and converted it into a studio. I checked it out, and we recorded a few extra tracks for Between The Lines [the 2010 CD by Ken Tizzard & The Variety Show Players] there. Brent and I really hit it off. He's a great guy, he has excellent equipment and it's a great room to record in."
The pair next worked together on last year's single, "Mud On My Boots," and then on the full album. Tizzard and Bodrug are credited as co-producers, though Ken notes "there is not a lot of production on the record. Brent is a very smart engineer and he knew exactly how to get the sounds I wanted. I trusted him to choose the direction in the mix, and everything was dead-on with what I would have done."
The core band on No Dark No Light comprised Tizzard on acoustic guitar, harmonica and vocals, bassist Ken Grant (a longtime musical comrade), multi-instrumentalist Luke Mercier (fiddle, mandolin and banjo), and drummer Mike Billard. Ken explains that "last summer we played pub shows as a trio, with myself, Mr. Grant and Luke. I really enjoyed that sound, and I wanted to capture that in the studio, with the addition of a drummer. I was really focused on not having electric instruments on there."
Every song was recorded three times, with the best take then used. "There are no drum edits on there, and we fixed just one bass note," says Tizzard. "Having whole takes on the record made so much sense, though it was something I'd become unaccustomed to doing, from working with producers who'd say 'leave that, we'll edit and fix it later." This highly organic recording process helps account for the intimate aural warmth of No Dark No Light.
The open-hearted lyricism of Tizzard's material means it has connected deeply with his audience. That was vividly reaffirmed recently when Ken sought their support in crowdfunding No Dark No Light. The results far exceeded his expectations, he explains. "In all honesty, it knocked my socks off. Aside from fuelling the record it helped me realize that what I'm doing has a significance. People would send notes with their pledges, saying 'you have to make this record.'" One fan's generous donation has allowed Tizzard to come up with a vinyl pressing of No Dark No Light, available in May.
Ken Tizzard still gets to flex his rock 'n roll muscles at the handful of gigs the still in-demand The Watchmen play every year ("we can still sell out large venues at the drop of a hat"). For instance, the band plays a big show in Winnipeg on March 20, just days before Ken kicks off his solo No Dark No Light tour at The Carleton in Halifax (March 26). Gigs have also been confirmed for St. John's, Cobourg and Campbellford, with the latter show (on June 19) at the Westben Festival Arts Theatre, a venue at which Ken has collaborated on some highly successful musical theatre productions.
Tizzard has now moved out of the dark and into the light, and his luminous music is ready to shine.