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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Patrick Watson's Traveling Chamber Pop

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Although the modern chamber pop composer has a relatively small field to play on, the competition is fierce. Artists such as Owen Pallett, Joanna Newsom, Jónsi, Grizzly Bear, Andrew Bird and Efterklang intrigue audiences not only with mere sounds, but also with sheer musical chops and spectacle, replacing typical pop instruments with a swirl of strings, trumpets and other instrumentation.

Montreal, Quebec, resident Patrick Watson holds his own on that playing field with his inspired arrangements and love of the visual, honing in on cinema as much as he does musical composition.

"I've always loved cinema," Watson explains over the phone on a busy Chicago street, hours away from another show on a packed tour for his latest album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard.

In addition to his own music, on which he sings and plays piano and harmonium, Watson has composed scores for films, including the 2011 Israeli film The Flood [Mabul]. Most recently, he has been working on a 3-D, stop-motion film about an astronaut.

"It's very much like The Dark Crystal," he says with a laugh. That cinematic appeal and scope travel easily and elegantly into Watson's music for his band.

"That kind of tone is always part of our sound," he explains. "There's an element of surrealism. Impressionism is a huge influence. Film, too. It's fiction, but it's really not. It's half out, but still very real."

Watson's matching of music with the visual extends far and continues to grow. "I realized that I'm not a very good interactive-media kind of person, 'tweeting' and all that. I wanted to find something to share with people that was more of my own and about people we meet on the road. We've met so many interesting people and hung out in their backyards," Watson explains of his newest cinematic project, which involves videos revolving around the people his band has met while on tour. "The thing you really remember is the people you meet; that long-lasting effect is fun to share with people."

And although Watson admits that the life of a touring musician suits him quite well—"My favorite part of touring is not knowing where I'm at," he admits—he owes a lot to his hometown of Montreal.

"It's a pretty amazing place because we have grants for musicians and it's not too expensive. People talk about the 'Montreal kind of thing.' ... It's a friendly music scene where we all know each other, even though the bands have gotten bigger," he says, in reference to bands such as Arcade Fire, Islands and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. "It feels as though the music business is not completely here. And, in that respect, Montreal is a little like an island. It's like a half-European, half-American city, too, because of the French-speaking population. It doesn't have a lot of English or international labels that have made it big here. There's no business model because we're so sheltered; there are more original concepts because we don't really know any better.

"If you go to New York, you're surrounded by bands all over the place," he adds. "There's a much different type of pressure. You aren't working 15 different jobs, which isn't a good or a bad thing; it's just different."

Watson's movement toward music was a very natural one, born out of early influences. "I sang in a choir, and piano came on my own, after," he explains. "My parents used to bring us to church on Sunday, and this guy asked me, 'Do you want to sing in a choir?' I liked to play piano in the middle of the night a lot, all by myself. Music slowly took over my life without even thinking about it, and when I was 18 I had to decide whether I wanted to be a musician or not. It was already kind of my life, so I started to go to school [Vanier College] just to learn other instruments so I could communicate with other musicians and learn to write arrangements."

That schooling, he says, helped make him not only a more proficient musician, but also a more innovative one. "I can write string arrangements and horn arrangements and all that, but so many instruments can do crazy things and make percussive sounds that one would normally not think of," he says. "Writing string arrangements, you realize that a lot of people don't really know what a violin can do."

Patrick Watson opens for Keane at the Pabst Theater on Saturday, June 23, at 7 p.m.