Published Nov 20, 2018A member of Vancouver indie rock band Destroyer and Toronto pop outfit DIANA, and a go-to session performer for acts like Fucked Up and the War On Drugs, Joseph Shabason has built a career on an unmistakable capacity to pour velvet tenor sax lines over all means of music.
But with a new solo project under his own name, he's stepping out of the commercial comfort zone of pop and rock to pursue a "dense chordal texture" palette he's unlocked with tape delays and looping systems, bending and stretching his instrument's dynamic familiarity into more obscure dimensions in the process.
Combining a loose, melodic minimalism with the influences of jazz and ambient music, in 2017, the project bore a contemplative debut called Aytche, but despite warm reception from fans and critics alike, Shabason practically dismisses the album for what he identifies as a "lack of vision."
"When I hear that album, I hear a lot of me trying to copy people who I really love," he tells Exclaim! "People like Gigi Masin and Jon Hassell. I wore my influences on my sleeve."
It wasn't until he'd completed the album that he realized why the material resonated with him so much. Shabason and his wife had watched his professor father-in-law's mind decline due to Parkinson's disease, and then his mother was diagnosed with the degenerative illness. The compositions across Aytche reflected that deterioration, while the album's only verbalization came from an archival recording of a man discussing the trauma his father experienced as a Holocaust survivor and his eventual suicide on "Westmeath." A video connected the track with a character's decision to end his own life in the face of incurable illness.
"None of the songs [on Aytche] were overtly about [degenerative illness], but it became really clear to me later on, after I sort of assembled the songs, that it was such a huge part of my life at the time, in some form or another. I think it really seeped into what I was doing, and I tried to talk about it with the videos that I made afterward for the songs."
In a roundabout way, Shabason had found a new voice and an outlet for struggles in his personal life, and he was ultimately able to welcome its success as permission to say more.
"You know, I make instrumental ambient jazz, so it's not like I'm moving tonnes of units, but it was nice to see that people dug it, even just a little bit. That was really encouraging. And I think I got really jazzed and I was like, man, no — there's stuff here that I want to say and I've got this idea that I'm trying to keep going."
On new album Anne, Shabason offers another Hassellian dispatch, specifically addressing emotions related to his mother's struggles with Parkinson's disease, this time with contributions from Gigi Masin himself, as well as Toronto-based Hassell collaborator Hugh Marsh. Like Aytche, the subject isn't immediately apparent in the music or the interview clips ("I just feel like if it was so overt like that, it would just be the most heavy-handed weird album where you're just like, 'Fuck, this sucks. This is way too heavy,'" he offers), but this time, the record was consciously constructed with the subject at the front of mind, and an artist statement positions it accordingly.
So when listeners hear Anne Shabason professing her desires to hide her "imperfections" over chiming crickets and a delicate synth line on "Forest Run," they might project a patient struggling with deteriorating motor skills or other symptoms, but her son is dealing in more subtle emotional territory, and they're actually listening to a mother answering for intergenerational grief.
Shabason says he wanted to use the record to relieve unresolved tension.
"There were just some aspects of my mother's illness and the way she handled it and ways that she could hear herself that I always found really hard to deal with. So [this record] kind of gave us a platform to talk about that."
Shabason's mother deals with the root of those preoccupations more explicitly on tracks like "Deep Dark Divide" and "Fred and Lil," where she measures her upbringing against her children's.
"You grew up with the feeling that you were worthy. You were worthy of that support. I don't think that I grew up with that feeling," she mulls over a bubbly synth arpeggio on "Deep Dark Divide." "I think I grew up with the feeling that as long as I didn't bother [my parents] I was okay."
"Hearing her talk about her parents, which I knew a bit about, but not a tonne about, hearing her open up about that, it was beautiful and sad and gave me way more perspective about what she went through and how she got to the place that she did," Shabason reflects. Careful but wholehearted music that bridges the space between familial sorrow and reconciliation, Anne is a frequently unsettling record, but Shabason finds purpose and healing in the unraveling.
"It's a weird thing to talk about, because I think so much of the time when people around you are sick, the overwhelming emotion is, like, you feel bad for them and you want to be there for them and love them, but when someone around you is sick, it often puts a tremendous burden on the people in their life who are the caregivers," Shabason reflects. "In the end, I feel like I let go of a lot of the shit that I was holding onto before. It was good. I felt like I worked through some things making this album."
Anne is out now via Western Vinyl.