With his new album Big Intruder, Jordan Klassen is straddling the fence between Neil Young and Sufjan Stevens. His magnetic falsetto floats and coils as a steady vioa hum rings out over the bouncing synths and folk guitars – with lyrics that are an intricate blend of wit and wisdom.
Released last Friday (9/22), Big Intruder is Klassen’s attempt to reckon with the singer/songwriter genre and to create an album that sounds unlike much of his previous work. The new record is pared-down and less serious but despite all the stylistic changes, Big Intruder is still very much a Jordan Klassen album. We sat down with the Vancouver-based musician to discuss growing up, commitment, and his new work in this All Things Go extended interview.
Tell me a little bit about how you started playing music and what it was like growing up in Vancouver.
I grew up in a really creative, musical family. I always knew that I wanted to make things and when I was a teenager I chose music and started playing in bands. It was a very stereotypical way of getting into music. I played in church growing up and I just figured out it was really the only thing that I like doing so I slowly transitioned into making it a full time job.
You said you have a creative family. What do they all do?
My mother was a songwriter and she played church music. My brother is an actor here in Vancouver and (at least when I was growing up) my sister was really into dance.
Would I have seen your brother in anything?
Pretty small stuff. You know that show The Man in the High Castle? He’s got a really small role in that.
Based on Big Intruder’s opening song, I’d say you’re a Neil Young fan. Who are your other musical influences?
For this record particularly, I really chose my influences. I dove into the singer-songwriter [genre] because I really hate that label of “singer-songwriter”. I [decided] to make a singer-songwriter album and listen to a lot of singer-songwriters. I love Nick Drake and Sufjan Stevens. I love Nina Simone and Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen. These are all kind of classic but those are a few.
In my mind, the problem with the singer-songwriter genre is that it ranges from Bob Dylan to that annoying kid playing acoustic guitar in the hallway of your college dorm.
Exactly. People associate it with coffee shops and shitty Jack Johnson-type stuff. I think it’s funny because the term actually comes from a lot of amazing musicians like Harry Nilsson who totally pushed the envelope and did a lot of crazy stuff. I wanted to re-explore it.
You have a lot of strings in your music. Do you play any type of viol?
No but I have a really good pal who is a cellist. He’s written a lot with me and has played in my band. He and his brother are renowned here. They’re The Brothers Chan and they do all my strings for me.
Do they write their own string parts or do you write the string parts yourself?
I write all the stuff using MIDI and then they come in and I print the sheet music and they play it.
On top of all that–since you write all the string parts–are you consciously thinking of specific contrapuntal movements or are you just using the strings more as a way to color your music?
I think I’m using the strings as a color. I really love organic instruments and strings are just so unique in the way that they can sustain. It’s the most like a synth out of all the organic instruments. They work so well as a color.
When you perform–you just mentioned synths–do the Brothers Chan come on tour with you or do you use synthesizers when you play your music live?
Well this new record is pretty different than anything I’ve done. I’m going to be touring it for the first time in a couple weeks. [I’ll be performing with] a 3-piece [band] which consists of a bassist, a drummer and me. I have toured with Brian Chan in the past and I’d love to have strings but it’s more expensive.
Why did you choose to sing exclusively in falsetto? Do you not like your regular voice or is it a stylistic decision?
No, I like my regular voice. I think [my falsetto] is just something I’ve practiced and I think it’s a strength of mine. I also think falsetto sounds very vulnerable to me because you can’t really use the same muscles you use to control your regular voice. [Because of this], I want to go there when I’m trying to lay it all out. I also think I made the conscious choice to sing softer on this record because I wanted to do something different and falsetto is kind of a natural place to go if you’re trying to sing quietly.
Did you study music in school?
No. I just played in a band after high school and tried to figure out what I wanted to go to school for. I think I was probably a wuss too and was kind of afraid of actually choosing something. I think I’m also a little bit afraid–and it’s an unfounded fear–that knowing too much about music will make it lose its magic or something. So no, I’ve only played in bands. I’ve never been to post-secondary [school]. I know a lot of theory but none of it was formally taught.
Other than the stylistic differences between this album and your other work, what’s the statement you’re trying to make to the people who are going to be listening to it and stealing it online?
A theme that was really resonating with me when I was writing [the record] was a pushback against the cultural idea of commitment being a prison. [I wanted to say] that committing to something and saying “this is what I’m going to do and I’m going to stick to it, even if it doesn’t feel good” is actually a thing that brings a lot of freedom and joy. That’s kind of what the records about. I got married last year. I spent years terrified of marriage and commitment and kind of [began] realizing it’s not what I’ve been told it is for my whole life. It’s not like tying on a ball and chain. It’s allowed me to feel more like myself than I thought I could. That’s what the record is about. It’s about being a grown-up.
What have you got coming up with regard to touring?
I’m actually leaving for Hamburg on the 20th and I’m going to be gone for six weeks. There’s this big festival there called Reeperbahn that I’m heading to. Then I’m playing with this band Husky from Australia for five weeks through all of Germany. I’ve actually toured Germany a lot and it’s kind of become a home base for a lot of my tours.
Is there anything you would want to tell your fans if you were talking to them right now instead of me?
One of the things [I’d like to say] is that this [record] is a departure for me. I’m looking forward to seeing [the fans’] response but I’m also scared because the music I used to make was a lot more cinematic and serious. This is a little more light-hearted and bandy. So I guess I want to say, “hey guys, give it a chance.”
Look for Jorda Klassen’s latest record, Big Intruder, out now.