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The crooning majestics of Patrick Watson

May 7, 2009 |  3:13 pm

The Canadian's voice becomes an instrument on his latest album, which is one part cabaret pop, one part impressionistic string arrangements.

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Start with the voice. It's the first thing you'll notice and the last thing you'll forget.

The Montreal-based composer and bandleader Patrick Watson produces the kind of vocals that warble and soar and entreat. Musically, his most obvious ancestor would be the crooning majestics of Jeff Buckley, but Watson's latest album, "Wooden Arms," out now on Secret City, shows there's more to his sound than just a pretty voice.

Combining cabaret pop with string arrangements and a playbook cribbed from Carl Stalling, the composer behind Looney Tunes soundtracks, "Wooden Arms" wraps a series of impressionist vignettes into a quick-seeming 45-minute session perfect for late nights and lonely bus rides.

"We wanted to bring back a more instrumental feel to the record," says Watson. "I like the fact that the vocals aren't all over the place on this one. I didn't have a thousand things to say. It was more about noticing precise little things."

"Wooden Arms" is still recognizably a Watson effort, but he's succeeded in employing the dynamic range of his voice more as an instrument of its own. It's the difference between a singer and a song-crafter. And it's a difference that Watson has learned to wear quite well.

In September 2007, Watson and his band shocked musical tastemakers when they took home Canada's Polaris Music Prize for their second album, "Close to Paradise," topping better-known acts such as Arcade Fire and Feist.

The triumph brought with it a $20,000 check. "We put that money straight into fixing the tour van we turned over," Watson explains. In winter 2006, the band's rental van had hit an ice patch near Fargo, N.D. No one was hurt, but there were insurance complications. "We took the Snowbank Exit," he says with a laugh.

Unlike some projects bearing their frontman's namesake, Watson's rhythm section should not be considered mere session players. Watson, guitarist Simon Angell, bass player Mishka Stein and drummer Robbie Kuster all met while studying music at Vanier College in Montreal. And yes, Watson's ensemble met in an ensemble music class.

"A lot of our sound was developed during shows that we played between 2 and 4 in the morning," he says.

Watson remembers the band's improvisatory gigs at Montreal's Café Sarajevo, which has featured all kinds of musical acts, from gypsy to jazz to torch singers, since its inception in 1993. "There were just people there to drink and we would play in the background, very much like a house band."

Despite that unassuming claim, Café Sarajevo co-owner Lilianka Sunjar remembers Watson well. "He always had a following," she says. "He reminded me a little bit of Rufus Wainwright" -- a fellow Canadian who played the late-night sessions before setting off into the big time.

"There's no music business in Montreal," Watson says, "so there were never any formulas we had to follow." He acknowledges that the boom of Canadian rock over the last decade is a direct result of a disconnection from company towns like New York. "The thing about Canada in general is that, in a lot of ways, we haven't really written our own page yet. There's a lot of history here. We had a real blank page to build our musical identity on."

Along the way, Watson played supporting act for a rainbow of big names such as John Cale, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. This list also included James Brown, for whom Watson opened a handful of bizarrely scheduled European dates in summer 2005.

"Seven thousand people and a solo piano as the opening act!" he exclaims. "I was worried that it would be just brutal. A whole audience expecting funk and I was going to play solo piano and sing." All turned out for the best, though, and Watson walked away with a lesson in how to keep a crowd entertained, even with the barest of instrumentation.

Watson plays the Hotel Café in Hollywood Friday, as part of a monthlong tour. It's a short one by Watson's standards. Even though downtime between the band's 2008 tour and the recording of "Wooden Arms" was virtually nonexistent, Watson was eager to get back on the road.

"We're better at performing live," he says. "That's our strength. I love the small venues. It's a different type of show. For sure, we can't bring a string quartet to the Hotel Café stage, but it's good because then we can open things up. We don't have to stick as precisely to the arrangements." At this, Watson laughs. "Generally, our chemistry's better when it's just the four of us onstage."

--George Ducker

Photo credit: Brigitte Henry

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