Although veteran jazz musician Mike Rud has lived in New York City and all over Canada, Montreal is his chosen home and he regularly plays the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill. For his new album, Notes on Montréal, he wrote and arranged songs inspired by literature set in Montreal, including Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute, Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. There are also ditties about diners and alleyways. The CD was funded through Indiegogo and includes cover artwork by local painter Mark Lang, an eight-piece ensemble (including a string quartet) and vocals by Sienna Dahlen, who met Rud when they both studied music at McGill. On November 19th, Mike and his band will perform at the Quebec Writers’ Federation 15th Anniversary Literary Awards Gala. I caught up with him recently to find out more about how Montreal inspires his music.
How did Notes on Montréal come about?
Years ago for a course at McGill, I wrote a piece for vocals and string quartet as a class assignment. Sienna, the vocalist on Notes on Montréal, sang it for me. For years after that, I was haunted by her voice, especially in that format. I moved back to Montreal after living in Vancouver and Ottawa, and was reading literature set in my neighbourhood. I loved the sense of place in material like Richler and Roy. So I began reading a lot more of that literature, and the idea developed itself from there.
What’s the reaction been so far?
Excellent. I’ve always performed as a jazz guitarist. So I typically play in places where people aren’t expecting a lot of story and lyric-driven music. But people love these things. All over Canada, when I’ve played and sung one or two of these songs in my normal night, they’ve been a standout in the show. When I ran an Indiegogo campaign to fund the CD, people from other cities where I’d performed were quick to support the full project.
Cover Art for Notes on Montréal (courtesy of Mike Rud)
You wrote the songs, why not sing them for the album?
I do enjoy singing them, and I may yet do some kind of vocal version of my own, but Sienna has an uncommon power to bring out the meaning of a song with tremendous directness and clarity. The ham in me loves to perform my tunes. The songwriter in me wanted a real serious singer to do the heavy lifting, so it would be done right.
How did you choose the books you based the songs on?
I didn’t want to make it some kind of book report. I asked around, read up a bit. For some books, only a general theme was all I worked off of, for example, Parc La Fontaine was inspired by Tremblay’s The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant but the connection was that this park functions as a hub in many different lives. That’s as specific as the song gets in its relation to the text.
Where are your favourite Montreal diners?
Haha! Well let’s see, the ones that made it into the tune Ode to Dusty’s were the now-extinct Dusty’s, Beauty’s, Bagel etc., Binerie Mont-Royal, St. Henri’s Greenspot, Blanche Neige on Côte-des-Neiges and Mile End’s Nouveau Palais. It all depends on my mood. That list could easily have been three times longer. I can’t play that tune without people telling me which ones I left out. I love it as a conversation starter. People here take brunch very seriously.
What do you like most about Montreal?
I think it’s the architecture. Mile after mile of variations on the themes of staircases, turrets, spires. I’ve lived all over Canada, and every place had its charms, for sure, but the buildings here really give me a feeling I have trouble articulating. The balconies, and especially the back alleys really get to me. The final tune on the CD is called The Alley’s Where to Start. The alleys are amazing to me. So much life in them.
How does Montreal inspire your music?
Through nostalgia and memory. My first visits here were in high school. It was so different from other places I’d lived. I’ll never forget that. There are a lot of ghosts here, in literature, in history, and in art. When I came back to live here in ‘96 after a bit of time in New York, I read Cohen’s first two novels, and was transported by how he captured the place.
Where do you see Notes on Montréal taking you?
Notes on Montréal features a string quartet along with the full rhythm section and vocals. Touring such a large ensemble will be a challenge, but I’m up for it! As for where Notes on Montréal takes me, in order to get it done I had to regard the CD as an end in itself. Of course career-wise, you always hope something leads to more interest in your abilities and your output. But for now, it’s one foot in front of the other. That starts with the CD release party at Matina’s Cafe near Parc and Bernard in the Mile End, on Nov. 30th!
You can purchase Notes on Montreal here