Songwriting For Dallas Green’s City and Colour is a Personal and Vulnerable Expression

Multi-platinum and acclaimed singer, songwriter and performer Dallas Green is bringing City and Colour on the road and will hit Southwestern Ontario for one show at Caesars Windsor this month on Nov. 20.

City and Colour is undeniably one of the biggest groundswell stories to emerge from Canada with popular hits such as “The Girl”, “Sleeping Sickness” and “Save Your Scissors”. Over the course of five studio albums, Green has compiled a canon ripe with songs born of adoration.

City and Colour’s last studio album If I Should Go Before You debuted at #1 in Canada.
Ahead of the tour’s start, Dallas checked in with 519 for a deep discussion about songwriting and inspiration.

Last month A Pill for Loneliness came out. It’s continued your streak of number one albums. What are the secrets of making a great City and Colour album that would both please yourself as well as your fans?
I’ve always just sort of made records the way, I think I’ve made them the same way every time. Some I change and I try new things out here and there. Try to write better and sing better. That’s also just sort of a personal pressure I put on myself. I don’t really think about pressure from outside opinions because I’ve never done that.

I’ve remained an independent artist this whole time in order to have creative control over what I do. I just try to get it to a place where I feel good about it. Where I can smile and say, “Yes, that’s good.” Then I just put it out and hope that somebody else will listen to it and sort of pick up what I’m putting down in a way.

Can you take us through how you go about writing and recording the albums? Because like you said, you have creative control over it.
I just write. I just sort of don’t pick up a guitar and try to write a song every day. I’m just not wired that way. I play a lot. I think about writing a lot. I think if I wrote as much as I thought about writing, I would probably have twice as many songs.

The process is just sort of, maybe I’ll be reading a book, or watching TV, or just out and about on tour and something strikes me. I’ll write a word down in my book or on my phone. The same thing is with when I’m playing guitar. If I come up with a melody that I think is okay, I’ll just sort of put it down in my phone, record it, then just sort of slowly work on it.

I don’t think that I ever sat down and just written a song in one day. That really rarely happens for me. Then when I record, it’s just that every time I’ve recorded has been a little bit different just based on making it with different people, in different studios, and different times in my life.

The recording is just sort of, I demo everything by myself. I play all the instruments on the demos myself and just try to get a framework of what I think a song, sort of where I want it to head, what direction I want it to head in. Then I go into the studio and invite some of my friends over, and we just start hacking away at it.

There seems to be a restless spirit kind of floating around on the new album. Are you still a restless soul?
I think so. I’ve never really been a calm-minded person. My mind is always kind of racing and thinking. Like I said, I think about stuff as opposed to just working through it. If I did as much as I thought about doing, then maybe I’d be a little less restless.
I don’t know. I’ve just always used music as a way to get out of that head space. Then you just try to make it in a relatable enough way that somebody else can listen to it, and take what they need from it.

When you were approaching the idea of doing A Pill for Loneliness, was there a vision in mind?
No. When I started, I had a group of songs. I don’t think I even had all of them written yet when I started recording. It was just my two friends that I made the record with, they just kind of said, let’s start recording your new songs.

I usually, when I’ve made records before, I would have a batch of songs and go in and record for a couple of weeks and then be done. This time it was just sort of no real deadline or idea of what was happening. Just sort of a, let’s just start recording these new songs I have and see where they take us. Then after a year of kind of going in every couple of weeks here and there, we ended up with this.

Where did the album’s name come from?
I was just reading and watching the news a lot when I was finishing up the record. I saw a segment on the news about how scientists are trying to invent a pill for loneliness because they believe that it’s a worse epidemic than obesity. We’re living in the loneliest era of human civilization on record.

I just found it very disheartening and sort of just found it kind of sad that this is the world we live in where we’re just trying to make a pill to make everybody’s problems go away. Then I just thought to myself that music to me has always been a pill for loneliness. It’s always been a place that I can go to whether to listen to songs, or write, and sing them.
You feel a little bit less alone. I think there’s a difference between feeling lonely and being alone because you can be surrounded by your family and friends and still feel lonely. Music has just been that for me, and I know it is that for other people. That’s why I called the record that.

Your songs are usually very melancholic and sometimes dark. There must be more than just a sad guy behind these songs, right?
People just sort of take the misconception that that’s the way I am at all times. But it’s just what I like to write about. It’s what I use to get myself out of those moments. That’s what I mean when I say I write songs to help myself. Then I hope that they can help somebody else after that.

When I’m happy and say out with my friends at a basketball game, or I’m at the bar drinking beers, I don’t feel like writing songs about that whatsoever. I just have no interest in writing about those feelings because those feelings are great, and they’re in the moment, and I’m feeling them. But when something’s weighing on me or I am observing something that I feel distraught about, then I use writing songs to get myself out of it.

When I was looking over your studio album covers, you don’t appear on them very often. One just has a silhouette from the sides. The Hurry and the Harm was probably the closest of having your full face exposed. Even then half of it was obscure circles. Do you not like your face on album covers?
Not really. I’ve never really did. I mean it’s even the same reason I didn’t call the thing Dallas Green because I’m just not that comfortable. To me, it doesn’t have to be about me. It’s more about the music. That’s sort of how I’ve always wanted it to be is just about the songs. I guess I just don’t have that much of an interest in having my face plastered all over the place, I guess.

As we were talking about songs being very therapeutic for you, has any one individual song been more therapeutic than others?
Sure, certain ones are a little bit more personal than others. Sometimes, occasionally songs will just come to me. I’ll get a good melody going. There’ll be a line somewhere that just sort of, I can write a song. Just from, I guess the nature of being a songwriter for this long. I can separate myself a little bit from them.

But I mean a lot of them are just tied directly to things in my own life, for instance, a song like O’Sister or Little Hell. That’s about my sister, about our relationship, my relationship with her. People will ask me, “Well, what’s that song about? I’m like, “It’s about my sister.”

I know that people have told me that they’ve listened to that song and it’s helped them. You don’t have to listen to that and relate to it because you have a sister. It can be just about any person that you know that struggled. It’s sort of just about that. I wrote that song for myself to help me deal with this thing I was going through. Then the hope is that somebody can hear it and do the same thing with it.

I want to go over a couple of your songs on the new album, such as Astronaut and Strangers, they come across very real and very emotional. I have to ask. Relationships, they do connect really well with audiences. Would you say they’re harder to write because they sound very personal?
Sometimes, I think just because I’ve been writing that way for so long, it’s not any harder than it is for me. I don’t mean that just because of the nature of the music. The nature of what I’m singing about. I just have a hard time being satisfied with what I’ve written down.

Maybe that has to do with the fact that most of the songs have a personal connotation to them, so I’m afraid to write the wrong thing down because I want to make sure that I’m doing it justice. But I’m not too worried about being too vulnerable or personal because I’ve just always been that way. That’s just how I write. I know some people don’t like my music because of that, but I’m not concerned about that at all.

This is what I do and how I do it. I think, I’ve met a lot of people over the years too, which is nice that they have never said they don’t know how to express their own feelings. They have a hard time. There’s a lot of men, right?

A lot of big scary, tattooed men I think could feel like they can cry talking to me because I have tattoos. They don’t feel as vulnerable, but I kind of just always tell them, just because you’re a man, its okay to express your feelings. It doesn’t make you a pussy, I guess what I’m trying to say to these big goofballs.

I want to talk about Strangers. It’s one of your highest-charting rock singles. When you were writing it or recording it, and when it was all finished, could you tell it was going to be something special?
No, not really. I never think that way. I don’t think about music in terms of a chart, or numbers, or anything like that. Maybe that might sound cliché, but I really don’t. I mean, I have a couple of people in my life that have been around me forever that helped me put the music out and get it out there, but I never think about that.

I just think about trying to make a song that I think is good. I’m just not built that way to think about charts. I know people that want it and try their hardest to get there and do that. Same thing with awards and all that stuff, but to me that just has nothing to do with music. It really doesn’t…

People turn it into a competition just because it’s a business model. I understand that side of it. I play the game just enough so that I can keep doing what I want to do with my friends and write good music that I think is okay. Hope that people take something from it.

There must be some craziness. After all, you’re also the vocalists of one of Canada’s largest bands. When I worked at Regina Exhibition, when you were there in the early 2000s and the noise complaints were incredible. Why is Alexisonfire so loud? 
Because it’s great. Anybody who’s played a guitar loud knows how fun it is to play a guitar loud. It’s the best… Simple answer.

And after all these years later, are you still as loud?
We’re very loud. I think we’re louder now.

Is it hard to switch between the two bands because the different energy in your two bands?
No, to me, it’s the same amount of energy. It’s just displaced differently. Being in a room filled with people who are screaming, and running around, and moshing. We’re really loud and all that stuff is one thing. But being in a room, standing by myself with an acoustic guitar and trying to get the room as quiet as possible is another. But, it’s still the same amount of energy. You just got to focus it differently.