These days, Patrick Watson's aspirations can fit, more or less, on the head of a pin
"I want to give people goosebumps," he says. "That’s the law of this record – to make something really touching, using whatever tools that allow you to do that."
There’s something guileless about that philosophy, and it’s a guilelessness reflected in Adventures in Your Own Backyard, Watson’s forthcoming LP. After three celebrated albums and one Polaris Prize, Watson has once again collaborated with the same exquisite band (bassist Mishka Stein, drummer Robbie Kuster, guitarist Simon Angell) and once again recorded 40-something minutes of sprawling, gorgeous chamber-pop. This time the album was made at home, in a loft in the Plateau. This time Watson could change his son’s diapers "and then go back to work" next door. This time the group could take its time, waiting for the "magic takes" instead of writing and recording in what Stein calls "binges."
But Patrick Watson is not an act that’s striving to prove or reinvent itself. Evolution is subtle, personal and perhaps even private. "I’m not going to make an amazing hip-hop record, with gangsta lyrics or something," Watson says. "And even if I did, it would still feel like…"
"It would still feel like Pat," says Kuster.
Adventures in Your Own Backyard certainly feels like Pat. There are piano, marimba, majestic brass. There are Brad Barr’s guitar, Joe Grass’ pedal steel, Colin Stetson’s flute and clarinet. These songs are boisterous and pretty, alive and roaming, fairytales with Watson’s skimming falsetto. "We wanted to make something that was a bit more grounded, less airy," Watson says. "Still kind of dreamy but with its feet on the ground."
This also feels like the sound of a band. The same quartet have been together for a decade, and although they have given up trying to represent this on the album spine (there is no mention of the Wooden Arms here), they still describe the project as a group effort. "When people say ‘Patrick Watson’ I don’t think of me," Watson says. "I think of an entity. Not just the musicians but the lighting designer, the sound guy…"
"People can think what they want," Kuster suggests with a shrug. "There was a time when my ego was struggling, but I’m pretty much done with that."
It’s impossible to imagine someone making Adventures in Your Own Backyard on his own. A song like Strange Crooked Road relies as much on its echoing guitar hook as its skittering percussion, or the sublimated lyrics of Québécois true-crime. The harmonies swim in reverb, the arrangements diverge, the band altogether fades out.
Other songs are simpler. Noisy Sunday, the album’s best track, came out of a practice take, a dusty accident. Words in the Fire began around a Baie-Comeau campfire. The Quiet Crowd was imagined, Watson says, in his building’s little elevator. "Everyone’s too quiet," he remembers, "and you can hear their screaming thoughts."
Yet despite the record’s title, Adventures in Your Own Backyard is not a collection of Montreal vignettes. These stories owe as much to the band’s years on the road as they do to Watson’s run-ins on St-Laurent, where guys yell at him, "Hey, Beethoven!" "When you get home [from tour]," he says, "you get to digest what you’ve eaten and let it change you."
And so, gradual as it may be, perhaps a transformation is yet in store. "I do feel that this is the end of a chapter for me," Watson says to a surprised glance from Kuster. "A graceful way to end a sound that we’ve been building over ten years."
It’s springtime in Montreal and the band is due to play a sold-out three-night residency at the Corona Theatre. Who knows what could blow in on the wind, make goosebumps.
At Corona Theatre
April 15 to 17 (sold out)
At Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier