I first heard Patrick Watson a few years ago on Pandora, an online radio station from the Music Genome Project that creates stations and plays music based on the user’s song/artist suggestions and responses to the songs they hear. After analyzing the attributes of other songs I liked, Pandora began to play a song that captured my attention: Wooden Arms; a slow, melancholy waltz with wispy vocals. After a few listens, during which I grew accustomed to the unique aesthetic, I gave it a “thumbs-up.” Not long after, Where the Wild Things Are (yes, based off the book) began to play. I had never heard anything like it. Driven by the quick repetition of a single note on the piano, the song merges in and out of thickets of pizzicato, eerie background vocals, electric guitar chords, and various booms and clacks and jangles. I was fascinated. Before long, I took the album (Wooden Arms) out on an inter-library loan. I listened to it constantly. I requested and received the album as a gift for my birthday, and it remains a favourite of mine to this day.
Patrick Watson, contrary to typical assumption, is not one man but actually a band centered around the eponymous lead singer. Watson’s high tenor and unaffected falsetto carries the lyrics through the lush soundscapes painted by Watson’s fellow musicians. While the complexity and creativity of the instrumental atmosphere might be one of the group’s trademarks, they don’t shy away from simplicity, either. One of the most poignant songs, The Great Escape, features only Watson’s voice with a simple piano accompaniment.
Avant-garde composer John Cage proposed that all sounds are musical. Patrick Watson certainly seems to apply this theory. One of the most fascinating elements in their music is the percussion, which often employs unlikely objects—including garbage lids and bottles— to create interesting sounds. (My mother and sisters sometimes think there is something wrong with the car if I play certain Patrick Watson songs during a drive.) The intro to Man Like You includes a guitar played with a couple of spoons, and Beijing features both a spinning bicycle wheel in the background and a tremendous “drum solo” by the talented percussionist, who has apparently added a number of pots and pans to his drum set.
I’m picky about the music I listen to. I can count on one hand the number of concerts I have attended, but Patrick Watson’s was by far the best. The Grand Rapids venue, a converted lecture hall called the Ladies Literary Club, was small and intimate. My friend and I hardly breathed as the band opened with Lighthouse: tiny lights hovered above the black stage, attached to the musicians’ hands to provide just enough light for them to play their instruments. Gradually the stage became illuminated as the lights flashed with the accents of the music. Throughout the set, the lighting and video components were tastefully used: the effects were not merely a spectacle, but complemented and enhanced the music. The female violinist stood unassuming in the back as she coaxed magic out of the strings, but the other four moved around sometimes between songs, switching instruments with casual ease. The drum set seemed to be ordinary, although on more than one occasion the drummer produced out of nowhere a handsaw and played it with a violin bow or mallet. On select songs, special microphones distorted or added reverb to Watson’s vocals. Watson himself is an eccentric performer, but charismatic: weaving his head, hopping between phrases, skewing his mouth, but always engaged with the music. One of the highlights of the evening was the performance of Into Giants: the band began as a simplified ensemble of voice, tambourine, and two acoustic guitars. They huddled around a single microphone, the vocalists taking turns leaning between the two guitarists to sing their alternating parts. By the end of the song, they had spread out again as the music progressed into an ebullient climax.
How to categorize the music of Patrick Watson? The assigned genres range from singer/songwriter and folk to art pop and indie rock, but you’ll have to decide for yourself. At the end of the concert in Grand Rapids, the members of the group came to the front for discussion and a questions and answer session. One of the main things they said they wanted to create at every concert was a musical experience, something that they hoped the audience would be able to enjoy along with them. As an audience member, I could say that I was captivated from the first note. As a listener at home, I can say the same thing. If Patrick Watson aims to provide a unique musical experience for the listener, it definitely delivers.