Register Thursday | October 1 | 2020

Perfection Will Break Your Heart

The Stills’ lead singer gets writer’s block too

By the time you read this, the band I write and sing for, the Stills, will have completed its second album. It’ll be a happy moment: another impossible deadline gets its feet cemented and chucked off the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. But even after labouring over the album for months to the detriment of almost everything else in my life, I won’t be free of it. I’ll still see the unexplored possibilities: the melodies and chord progressions, the ideas and words and the infinite ways they might have all come together. I know that I should just accept the fact that the project is over, but I can’t stop second-guessing. I always seem stuck in a rut of over-analysis.

It wasn’t like this at the outset. Dave Hamelin is the Stills’ other primary songwriter and, in the early days—when we were twenty-year-old kids living with our folks and going to school on their dime—he and I shared a four-track recorder. “You’re a weird kid,” he said to me, “do some weirdo shit on the machine.” Provoked, that’s what I did. Who cared if the songs were half-finished and that the lyrics made little sense to anyone but me and my friends? We had inspiration to burn and, trading the machine back and forth, we created a world that was rife with magic and potential.

But something changed between those four-track experiments and the recording of the Stills’s debut album, Logic Will Break Your Heart. Soon after we assembled the full band (guitarist Greg Paquet and bassist Oliver Crowe), I began to take a cripplingly perfectionist approach to writing. You could blame it on our band’s mounting profile. It raised the stakes and, with them, my own expectations. For his part, Dave was still spewing out songs—great, silly, charming songs that were completely unaffected by self-criticism and worry. As you can imagine, my attempts to craft flawless songs limited my output dramatically. Dave and I had agreed that we’d each have an equal amount of songs on the album. I scrambled to match my friend’s productivity. In the end, he wrote nine songs; I wrote three.

Two years stretched between the release of Logic Will Break Your Heart and the completion of this second album. Two long years to contribute in equal measure to the rest of the band, if not satisfy my pride in my own talent. Caught up with touring, however, I stopped writing altogether. Everyone was eager to work on my new material, but I had scarcely anything to show them. In the two months before heading back into the studio—two months of banging my head against walls, of squeezing blood from turnips, of analyzing, intellectualizing and searching hard for the smallest of sparks—I had only one song ready. Thank God Dave came to rehearsal armed with his bundle of tunes, or we might have been quite screwed.

Several artists I respect are notorious for losing their creative mojo. Brian Wilson freaked out after hearing the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” pleading with God to be presented with such genius. (Forget about how he reacted to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.) Miles Davis didn’t touch his trumpet once between 1975 and 1980. The Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine—both these bands went through periods of severe inspirational drought.

Most musicians I know—many of whom I’ve met in the past two years through touring and contacts—have felt similarly trapped under the weight of their aspirations. Yet, despite the pressure, they still manage to produce great music. Broken Social Scene, Sam Roberts, Metric, the Dears have all had to cope with the anxiety of repeating high achievements, yet I don’t notice any shortage of inspired material by them. Which isn’t to say that they don’t agonize about creating, because everyone does to varying degrees (except Ryan Adams who, apparently, has qualms about creating too much). But I doubt any of these guys find themselves sitting on the curb outside the studio, after all the deadlines have been blown, clawing their eyes out to get the last two fucking lines of a song they’ve had twenty-four months to finish—with mere hours to go before the vocals have to be recorded. Take it from me: at these times, the oven seems like a cozy place to rest your head.

In the end, I actually accomplished what I set out to do: I contributed more songs than on the last record. A whopping three and a half instead of three. But this is no salve, at least not to me. My friends say I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. And perhaps I have a bit of relaxing to do before my worries can subside and the billions of things I actually have to say can find their way out. I can run off to the Grenadines where I’ll “let go and just be,” on white silky beaches lapped by transparent turquoise waters beside my palapa-roofed little home. Or smoke cigarettes at the end of a giant wharf pier overlooking the ocean in England. Or drive across the American desert in a convertible with Scott Walker’s Scott 4—his last great album before his muse shut the door on him—blaring on the stereo.