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‘I have a giant Canadian chip on my shoulder:’ Dallas Green discusses Nashville, Neil Young and his new City and Colour record

Andrea Warner

It’s been almost 10 years exactly since Dallas Green released his City and Colour debut, Sometimes. For fans of his punk band Alexisonfire, City and Colour was a marked departure, all unraveled heart and singer-songwriter confessions breaking free from acoustic strings.

Like his childhood hero, Neil Young, and another Canadian who inspired him as a teen, Joel Plaskett, Green needed more than one musical outlet and City and Colour proved the perfect complement to Alexisonfire.

If I Should Go Before You, the band's sixth album (due Oct. 9), finds Green still exploring the darkest corners, letting in little bits of light with every lyric and poetic fragment. But this is a much more robust City and Colour than we've ever heard before, with Green joined by his touring band in studio. Think a flock flying in full formation, rather than the solitary figure of bird versus sky. It's a thrilling twist on City and Colour's sound, perhaps partly inspired by Green's other side project, You+Me, his folk collaboration with Pink, and it's easy to understand why Green is particularly proud of this record.

CBC Music spoke with Green about relocating to Nashville, Canadian identity, Neil Young and self-indulgence.

Thanks for taking the time to do this. Talking about yourself over and over is weird, right?

Yeah, no, I hate it. I’m not saying I’m not interested to do this, but it’s not in my nature to want to or get excited to — I’m not Kanye West, I don’t like talking about myself that much.

Did you imagine that at the 10-year mark you’d still be so excited and invested in City and Colour, or did you see it as a one-off in the beginning?

I hoped to still feel excited and have the opportunity to make records, but I guess I’ve always been like that: I’ve always hoped, but never thought it would still continue. That’s with everything. After we made the first Alexis record, I thought, "oh, that was great, we got to go on tour. Oh? We get to do another one? Oh, cool." I could never have imagined, especially now thinking back to when we made the first record, that I’d still be doing it under this umbrella. I’m very thankful.

I get the sense that there’s a hope-for-the-best, prepare-for-the-worst attitude that carries you through things in life.

Absolutely. I’m a realist, I appreciate being happy and I appreciate people who live their life that way, but it’s not the way I am and I don’t think I’ll ever be that way. [Laughs] I like to say, "Have very low expectations, that way you’re never truly dissatisfied."

Fans feel very connected to you, like they know you and there’s an access to your inner thought process. But is there a bit of self-editing and self-censoring when you’re writing or do you just bleed it all out and hold nothing back?

When I was younger, that’s the way I started, I was just an open book. Especially when I was writing songs — like a lot of the songs on the first record, I wrote those when I was a teenager where you’re still just trying to figure out how to express these massive emotions that you’re learning how to feel. I was very, right away, like, this is how I’m feeling and I’m going to tell you about it. That resonated with people, somehow.

From that point on, I was like, well, I guess I’m going to keep doing it that way. Whether it was writing something about my family or writing something in my own life or just trying to observe other peoples’ lives and write about it. I didn’t necessarily feel like there was a need to self-edit and I still don’t today. As much as music is my job and writing songs is my job, I still use it to work through things in my life. Whether those are good moments or band moments.

Is it hard to get to a place where you’re not scared of exploring the dark stuff publicly?

No, I don’t think so. Most people think that way, whether they say it publicly or not. I write songs about the things I’m thinking when I’m alone — like, when you’re laying awake trying to fall asleep, whether you’re alone or whether the person is next to you, but they’re asleep, too, I know the thoughts that go through my head and I’d like to think that everybody else is having those, like, "What am I doing?" When I say I like working things out, that’s what I like to write about. When I’m having a beer with my friends or laughing about something stupid, I really enjoy those moments as well, if not more, but I don’t feel the need to write about them.

Yeah, and it’s kind of hard to capture those fleeting moments of silliness in a song, too.

Yeah, and there are perfectly suited songs for that and there are perfectly suited people who write those songs, and that’s great, but it’s just not for me and I’ve never felt like writing about anything like that. And that’s OK. I like to look into the three things that are certain: obviously life, being alive, death, and love. Those are the three things everybody knows. Obviously everyone’s born, everyone dies and in between, mostly, you fall out of love or into love with someone or something. Those are the things I like to write about.

Let’s talk about some tracks on the record. My first thought about ‘Northern Blues’ was, of course, is this about spending time in Nashville and missing Canada, or am I completely off base?

No, it’s close to that. I have a giant, giant Canadian chip on my shoulder. I think a lot of that comes from touring around the world and seeing other peoples’ ideas or opinions about what they think Canada is. It also has a lot to do with that idea that you can’t be successful in Canada and you have to leave, and there’s a problem with Canadian people, too, where if you do become successful elsewhere, they turn their back on you.

It’s just this whole stigma wrapped around it and it’s ridiculous and it shouldn’t matter anyway. I’m very happy and proud to be Canadian, but I don’t necessarily feel like writing about that, so I took it and wrote about it like how I dwell — moving to Nashville, honestly, I think I truly found happiness for the first time, truly, in my life, by living there. It doesn’t have to do with the city and the country, necessarily, it’s the place and the spirit and the people around me. And as a Canadian, I started feeling guilty about that because it wasn’t in Canada. So that’s kind of what that song is about. Musically, it was going to just be me and my guitar. I wrote this stompy sort of, well, blues song, is the best way to put it, but after we finished pre-production, before we went into the studio, I was like, no, I want the band on it. So we re-wrote it into this bumping, kind of trance-y vibe and it just worked out really well, I think.

‘Woman’ is great and epic, nine-minutes long seems almost indulgent now when most songs are only 3 1/2 minutes if that. Did it feel like your rock star ’70s moment to just jam out?

Indulgent is the perfect word. The only thing you’re missing is the word self. Because that song is 100 per cent for me. It started out just a soundcheck jam and I never thought it would become anything and then I figured out a vocal line to go over it and then I was like, okay, this has to be something. We started playing it in my house and we had our 30-minute version of it, and I was like, okay, that’s great. It could be its own little thing, we could record it and put it out.

There’s this band Sleep that I really like and they’re a stoner metal band, they have a record called Jerusalem, which was one song, 40 minutes long, and they got dropped from their label and then had to re-release it under a different name. I love it. It’s one song and it’s an hour long and we could do that! We started recording in the studio and I was like, if we get this to 10 minutes, I’m putting it on the record. At that point, I didn’t think I was going to start the record with it. Once I sequenced it in my head, I though, okay, we’ll put it last, the big, epic closer, whatever, but I put it last and it just didn’t make any sense. But I tried it first and it seemed like a perfect intro to the record.

You’re coming to Vancouver to open for Neil Young on Oct. 5, how excited are you?

I don’t even know if exciting encapsulates it. Obviously he’s been a large part of my life. I’ve never met him, but musically I’ve been very inspired by him as a songwriter, but also his career. He does what he wants to, whether it’s by himself on the acoustic guitar or with his really loud band. I love doing both of those things and I’m lucky and thankful to do both of those things and people like him have allowed people like me to do that.

To be able to come and play a show and open for him, God, I can’t even necessarily describe the feeling. I saw Neil Young play when I was 12 years old at the Exhibition Stadium in Toronto and there’s not a bone in my body that would have ever imagined being able to share a stage with him. I even sang "Old Man" at the Junos in front of him and even then I didn’t meet him. [Laughs] Everyone else was too busy trying to meet him and I was like, I just sang his song in front of him, so even then I still felt like it was not even a possibility. It’s super cool to get asked to do that. But I kinda hope I still don’t meet him. I’ll play and sing my songs and that’ll be it.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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