Scott Merritt

Scott Merrit
By CA Andrews-Leslie

Scott Merritt is one of Canada’s most intriguing music minds to come along in decades. In addition to his now-rare debut release Desperate Cosmetics, Merritt had four other strong albums on his highly eclectic music roster: Serious Interference produced by a young Dan Lanois [Peter Gabriel, U2] Gravity is Mutual produced by Roma Baran [Laurie Anderson] and Violet is Black, produced by Arthur Barrow, [Frank Zappa]. In addition to being a main contender with Jane Siberry on Canada’s Duke Street Merritt was also signed to US label, IRS and the star-maker machinery had Merritt marked for international fame, like it or not. He didn’t. The endless promo-grind of the music business was getting to him. It wasn’t just about creating his music anymore. It was everything else but .

Then Duke Street and IRS both closed down, leaving Merritt without a recording contract. That was it. He disappeared for 12 years. Time to re-evaluate. Time to spend some time with wife Sue and son John. Time to try something else. Merritt, created his own home studio and a promising career as a producer. Soon his producing credits graced the liner notes of fine home talents Fred J. Eaglesmith, The Grievous Angels, and Ian Tamblyn. Merritt was clearly inspired by his musical peers, and turned again to his own sound.

The result is Merritt’s fifth album The Detour Home. It’s been a long ride, with a few bumps and learning curves but loyal fans are thrilled that Merritt has finally come back to them. Scott Merritt was recently a guest host on CKMS FM’s CA FM where he took a musical detour of his very own.

CA- You have a wealth of musical talent on The Detour Home. How did you choose all these people to play.

Scott – I have this pathetic Rolodex in my mind that I roll constantly when I’m hearing music, even music that is already recorded. I roll through this mental list and I think of all the people that I have crossed paths with, and various projects in the last 15 or 20 years.
I see a name, and I hear their sound [Jeff Bird- Cowboy Junkies/ Bill Dillon- Robbie Robertson / Richard Bell – Bruce Cockburn are all on this Detour]. I hear their sound naturally as opposed to try to use people and ask them to play a certain way. I think this makes better records in general, so I use people for what they sound like naturally. This sounds simple but actually it is quite tricky.

CA: You are now a highly respected producer. How did this come about?

SM: I love to work with songwriters because I know all the curve balls that you feel when you’re the songwriter tracking stuff and I feel I can communicate easier with other artists because of that. I am not a big fan of records that sound like they are done by producers. There is the other thing, over the last 15, 20 years as songwriter, sometimes you get into corners , and I can help people if they get into these corners. A lot of times when people are recording they go through some point in the process where they say, what is wrong with this picture. I can’t see the horse for the trees. It’s much easier to stand outside of that, than outside of yourself.

CA: Let’s take one of the songs from Detour Home and climb inside it. How about Swallowing The Key. How very Houdini of you, except he didn’t swallow the key. Legend says his assistant passed it to him through a kiss.

SM: I like that angle on it. It ‘s not exclusively about that, but it is a part of it. There was thing that Houdini used to do, and yeah, it was passed by a kiss from his lovely assistant, but in this case he swallowed it. That’s funny.

CA: Kate Bush taught me that in her Dreaming song Houdini. I looked up the history of it.

SM: See kids. You can learn from rock and roll. But I will expand on the concept of Swallowing the Key, as we are still inside the song. Have you ever driven, and then .. you wake up. You wake up and say Holy Smokes; I’m in Copetown already. Sometimes there is this zone.

CA: You mean a trance that you go to, and then say .. Whoa.. where’d I just come from?

SM: Yes. If you’re lucky you can recount that, and a lot of Swallowing the Key was that.
I was imagining Houdini and whom he could possibly marry. That’s when I realized and I thought of Madame Toussaud. What a combination that would be. You worry for the kids but it was an interesting zone and I remember picturing the elephant coming up the street in Niagara Falls and them being on top, and then getting out and waving to the crowd. Then, there I was. whoops.. I ‘m in Dundas. Holy Smokes. It’s all about that zone.

CA: Are you aware that everyone gets very different interpretations of your songs all the time, in addition to the ones you mean when you write them?

SM: Yes, people go to very distinct places. I never think of these songs so much as riddles. I always think, I’ve really articulated this one in my own way. I think I am being clear, and then I hear from all kinds of people just how interpretative these songs are.

[Some of the selections Scott brought to CA FM were Bob Mould once of Australian band Husker Du and the late cartoon theme composer Esquavel. This gave a little more of a key to Scott’s own eclecticism]

CA: Who is Esquavel?

SM: Esquavel, who recently passed away, was from the early 60’s and he used to do the theme songs to The Flintstones, and The Jetsons, and all kinds of very early TV themes. He also has a composer’s side, and he composed really whacked out stuff, that in the past few years has been resurrected, now referred to as bachelor pad, or cocktail-lounge music. He was way beyond that in a lot of ways. He was before multi-track recording. So he would sit home at his piano and write these zany parts for voices, and chart out these really complicated arrangements and assemble 30-or-40 piece orchestras, steel guitars, horn section, rhythm section, percussionists and he played piano most of the time. He put together bizarre combinations of instruments and they would all have to play at the same time because there was no multi-tracking. To achieve that effect, he would occasionally occupy two different studios at the same time in Los Angeles. He would book two separate studios in two separate buildings with cables out on the road, and somehow he orchestrated two totally distinct organizations of musicians at the same time. A lot of his stuff is spooky to me. Esquavel was very famous for cartoon stuff, boys and girls.

CA: I went to your website and clicked on your journal and this is spooky in a cool way. You were talking about old cassettes that your Aunt Dot made, with your Gran playing harmonica.

SM: This is a quite a treasure chest, that I have borrowed from my Aunt Dot, who went through her attic on my behalf which is really something because she is almost blind. She had this habit, almost covert, about recording all this stuff that was going on in the 70’s in her hometown in South River; relatives gathering, telling stories and people playing music because there is a lot of music on this side of the family. So I have this huge collection of tapes I am listening to from all these relatives, most who are not with me anymore, but they are playing music and telling these wild stories of life in the far north at the turn of the century. It’s a real buzz, and I don’t know what I am going to do with it all because it is a beautiful thing.

CA: It reminds of the Detour Home song Beautiful Mess. What are you talking about in this song? I see you going through the attic amidst of tom of old memories. Are you a pack- rat?

SM: No, I am not a pack rat. At least, I don’t think I am. People might argue with you about that. I do find there is a current or charge to be experienced to objects from the past when you discover them again after a long time. Maybe you go to your grade school, look in the window and see the alphabet running right above the blackboard from side to side and you remember the first time for learning things. Beautiful Mess was really about how I have this weakness for discarded things and especially when they have this kind of significance. In the case of that song, I was mostly thinking about an old Westinghouse radio. This is a potent thing like the first time you hear rock and roll, maybe you were four years old, and you can blame that radio for it. James Brown and Jimi Hendrix flicked my switch for sure.

CA: Your career at times over the years has put you through the music industry ringer. What made you want to start again with your own work, and move back here to Canada.

SM: I worked in the shadows a bit in Violet and Black, and I was in Hollywood for a while doing all that stuff, and you realize that after a certain point, the only way to really do this is to live in the scene. Who really wants to live in Hollywood? I don’t really want to live that way. It ‘s an eye-popper for sure. So where do I live, and how do I want to see the world, and how do I want to pass this on to my kid. What would I want to leave him if I got in fiery wreck? I started to think about the things I loved instead of the things that I found curious because they were so dark. I came back to Canada, and re-located in Guelph, and set my own home studio The Cottage.

CA: What is The Detour Home, an aural sense memory; maybe tons and tons of glossy colour and black and white snap-shots; a whimsical family scrapbook?

SM: I think it’s the way memory works. You acquire something, and you are sure about it and its value, and then years later you see it as an image from a long time ago, where you re-experience something connected to it and that’s a desirable thing. For some reason I am attracted to that.

Brantford’s famous son has taken many journeys in his life of song and sound. Whatever creative path lays ahead for him as a producer, performer or song-wright, that irresistible Detour will always beckon Scott Merritt’s extraordinary powers of invention.