I recently had the great privilege of interviewing Skylar Bouchard, a singer-songwriter hailing from Winnipeg, Canada. With his unique take on modern, introspective, Western-style folk music, Skylar performs both solo and with his band Two Socks. With a debut EP due for release shortly and recent festival appearances in the US and Canada, Skylar talked about his life, music, inspirations and more. –
Interview with Davina Baynes.
SB: I’m right in the middle of the ‘fly over’ provinces of Canada. My dad used to say, ‘If your horse ran away you could watch it go for three days.’ Flat as a table here.
I was just doing a feature for the local international music festival here so I just finished my set.
DB: Are there people from all over the world who come?
SB: Yeah, Winnipeg is lucky enough to be… for some reason our festival is one of the most well-known in Canada, for folk music. It was at City Hall, so all the politicians and everybody having their lunch came out and sat. Singing for the bureaucrats.
DB: Casting your mind back, what are your earliest musical memories?
SB: My mom and I were probably driving – we used to have a big red van – and I remember the first time she let me sit in the passenger seat up front and we were singing The Bare Naked Ladies’ “If I had a Million Dollars”.
DB: How old would you have been then?
SB: I don’t know…when that song came out…maybe five or six years old.
DB: Are there any other things that really stick in your mind from when you were young, musically?
SB: Do you know what… when I was younger I didn’t even play. I remember getting taught in school and really not liking music class and music theory and all that stuff which I really regret now; I wish I took it more seriously, knowing that’s the way my life has gone. I’ve only been playing guitar for four years. In my younger days I didn’t even realise how much I loved it but I used to just get home after school (and I’d be the only one home) and I’d just turn on a record and just sing. You know those few records that you just sing front to back.
DB: As distinct from music classes at school which tended to be quite formal?
SB: Yeah. And I never wanted to play a xylophone. That stuff I wasn’t really into. (Nothing against xylophone players or percussionists).
Once I started learning guitar and really, really taking songwriting seriously I realised that that was what I wanted to do.
DB: That leads into my next question which is: when did you actually start making your own music and have you had formal lessons?
SB: I’ve done some workshops. I’ve never really took formal lessons but I started making music maybe six months after I learnt my first chords and those songs were terrible – as I guess everybody’s first songs are. That’s where I started out, about 3- 3 1/2 years ago just putting together two or three chord songs and then trying to refine them into something. And looking back I am so glad I didn’t release those…
DB: How old were you then and how old are you now?
SB: I’m turning 25 in November so I started learning when I was 21 but I was a singer in a couple of groups before that.
DB: I saw your YouTube video called Portage and Main, where you were talking about that you missed being in a band, when you moved, so you picked up your grandad’s guitar…was that right?
SB: Yes. My grandad is such a firecracker! He was a bootlegger in rural Manitoba and his house is pretty much a pawnshop so he gave me one of his old guitars that somebody had traded in for a bottle of whiskey or something… [both laugh…what a great story]. He’s a great man.
DB: You started to learn relatively late…compared with some people.
SB: Yeah. I like to think that I am a pretty quick study but we always play shows and I play with guys in my band that have been playing since they were 7-8 years old. They just learned to walk and talk and then started playing guitar, whereas I started pretty late.
DB: Which musicians do you particularly admire?
SB: I really love Ryan Adams. He’s amazing he’s probably the most contemporary artist that I take a lot of inspiration from. I really love Townes Van Zandt, early Bob Dylan (back in the acoustic days) and stuff like that, Dave Von Ronk. That New York scene in the early ‘60s had incredible folk music coming out of there… Joni Mitchell (she was from LA but…), Joan Baez.
DB: Therefore that whole era in particular, which I’m not totally surprised at, having listened to your songs, particularly the acoustic stuff you do.
SB: I think a lot of it has to do with the artists who really inspire me and then throughout our entire lives we all listen to the radio, we all have that Pop music influence whether we like to know it or not. We are all ingesting all of that good stuff too so I think that sort of has a part to play in my song formatting and how I go about making a song.
DB: Going back slightly to what we were talking about at the beginning: are there any family songs for your actual family that everybody sings to?
SB: You know what? I am the only one in my family who would sing in front of anybody. I haven’t even heard anybody in my family sing in the shower; it’s not their forté.
DB: So you are really unusual in that respect…
SB: Two generations back, I think, was the really musical generation and my parents never picked it up.
DB: It skipped a generation and you’re the one to, somehow, take it up.
SB: Yeah, exactly. I never thought that I was going to write songs or put my music out or anything like that but I started writing and I found it really cathartic. I found it almost like a therapy.
DB: You perform solo and you also perform with Two Socks…
SB: Yeah, Two Socks is my band.
DB: Can you tell me a little bit about the band, the members of it and what it’s like performing with them as distinct from when you are performing all on your own?
SB: When I’m by myself it’s a lot more vulnerable, the songs are a lot more downtempo than with Two Socks, so it’s more about the lyrics and the vocal melodies, whereas when we play with Two Socks we’re a pretty rambunctious roots group so we get people moving, we get people dancing (or we try to at least). That’s what Two Socks is, as opposed to when I play, I really want …the way I describe it is: at one of my solo shows, people sit and at a Two Socks show, people dance.
DB: Who are the rest of the members of your band?
SB: On lead guitar we have Daniel Simoes and he’s been my best friend for years. He’s one of the reasons that I am able to do what I do because he’s the guy in the band that’s been playing since he was just a youngster so when I decided that I wanted to start learning he was like, ‘Oh ok, great!’ And we spent three/four nights a week, he’d teach me a certain technique and then I’d practise it and [he’d] come over the next night, teach me something else. It became a labour of love because he wanted to be in a band but none of us really wanted to be in a band with people we didn’t know. So all of Two Socks…we are all High School friends. Alex Mackinnon, our bass player, he was a year younger than us in High School but we all went to the same parties. Gerald Bulera, our drummer, is another one of my life-long friends. So that makes it really fun!
Last night we actually did a little road trip to play at Dauphin’s Countryfest. The thing about Manitoba is that it’s not like the UK at all, for me to drive to the next town is about and hour and a half. Dauphin is four hours away and there’s no radio reception or anything for half of the trip so we were just in the car you know, shooting the shit, just laughing and that’s really what makes it fun. It’s that, if we weren’t getting together to rehearse and play music we’d probably just be getting together to laugh and drink beers!
DB: Do you think also in a band, when it’s people you know that well that it actually feels like a bit of a safe zone, when you are trying different things out musically?
SB: For sure! Our writing process as a band is that I’ll come up with a riff or Daniel will come up with a riff, and then I’ll improvise lyrically over top and sometimes it can get – like I said earlier, it’s very cathartic for me – so sometimes it is super, super vulnerable and professions of insecurity and all these things but I’m not afraid to say it in front of them because they are my three best friends.
DB: Since we have touched on this already: can you describe the process you go through when you are writing a song and what inspires your music?
SB: It’s hard to say. Some songs take five minutes and some songs I have been working on for four years now, so it’s hard to put a finger on it. That’s one of the things that I think, being creative, you have to try and be able to flex that muscle and not just wait for lightning to go in the bottle (as they say). You have to try and be able to flex that creative muscle and be able to sit down and say, ‘Ok, let’s write something.’ Earlier in my career I had a super hard time doing it, I still have a hard time doing it, but that’s one of the things I have been trying to do lately is, whether it’s good or bad, I write every day. Sometimes they stick and sometimes I crumple up the paper and I throw it out.
DB: Is there anything in particular that might inspire you to write? On top of ‘I must write because it is a proper job’ what are your sources of inspiration?
SB: It’s not a cliché but I guess it’d be girls in a lot of senses and like romance and I think that love is one of the most powerful things in human life. So there’s pretty much an infinite possibility to write about that but it’s also anything that really feels emotive to me, anything that makes me feel something – I try and write about that. So whether it’s unrequited love or losing a friend or something like that. For me it has to be powerful or else it’s not fun to sing. It’s hard to go on stage and really perform, for me at least, say like a silly song as hard as I can and really feel it because it’s just not what I’m into personally.
DB: When you are writing your music, what is it you are hoping that the people listening to it are going to get out of it? Or does that not really matter that much?
SB: You know what? I try not to think about it because I think that would start putting me out of what I do best which is (like we were talking about) the feeling and the emotion of it. If I start thinking about, ‘Oh what are my friends in the UK going to think about this song?’ That might take me out of it.
That’s an avenue that I’d like to explore eventually in my career: music licensing and getting some songs on commercials and stuff like that (that would be nice to pay the mortgage). But for now I just want to write songs that really mean stuff to me.
DB: We have mentioned this already in passing but are there any particular genres or eras of music you like and that influence your music?
SB: I really, really was into The Clash growing up! I was so into The Clash I think I spun “London Calling” on repeat for like three years and Joe Strummer helped me through puberty like nobody’s business! (God Bless the Man). Other than that it’s that mid-60s folk like Fleetwood Mac. Fleetwood Mac did a big number on me as far as like the band and the way we write songs. CCR (Creedance Clearwater Revival). Really classic rock radio. I worked a lot of manual labour jobs and being a carpenter and then being a landscaper and we’d just turn on the radio and listen all day, so you soak up all that good stuff and you learn how to write a catchy song whether you know that you are learning it or not. At the end of the day it’s like, ‘Yeah, I could write a catchy chorus. I’ve been ingesting catchy choruses all day.’
I think that a lot of classically trained players that I try and write with, because they know so much, they overthink. And I don’t have that…being the ignorant newbie that I am…I don’t have that problem to overthink; I don’t have the required materials. (Both laugh)
DB: How would you describe your music to anyone who’s never heard it before?
SB: That’s a tough question! I guess it would be: introspective, Western-style, folk singer-songwriter, style music. It’s really hard to say. The toughest question of every interview is: how would you describe your music? And personally, being self-deprecating as I usually am, I just say, ‘Really lonely, cowboy songs.’
DB: That’s not really a Canadian trait is it?
SB: What to brag about yourself? (Both laugh)
DB: Live music or studio work: which do you prefer?
SB: Live music, for sure. I live for that moment when I can see somebody dancing to a song that I have written or when somebody comes up to me after a show and they say, ‘You know, that one song that you sang or this one lyric that you sang, really connected with me and helped me through this time in my life.’ That’s probably the highest reward I have ever received, those comments.
DB: When you do work in a studio (and you have an EP coming out) what is that like and how is it different from when you do your live work?
SB: Well, it’s early morning, for one, instead of midnight. I try and do as much pre-production as I can before we get to the studio so then, when we get there, I know exactly what I want on the record. And then we start writing different parts or we bring some people in. I was so lucky to have some great people play on my EP. I am so excited to share with you.
DB: The EP is five tracks isn’t it?
SB: Yes, five tracks. 21 minutes of the loneliest cowboy songs you can find.
DB: One of your songs I really liked was “Hang Me High”, a nice depressing cowboy song (both laugh).
SB: That’s actually an old Dave Von Ronk track. I love singing that one but it’s not going to be the highlight of anybody’s Friday night. (Both laugh)
DB: Yes, maybe not exactly the thing to get everyone buzzing with good humour. Maybe crying into their beer? Can you tell me a bit about your videos on YouTube, because there are loads. How do you go about filming them?
SB: I just happened to meet my friend Brett Enquist, who does all of our videos and he’s amazing. We just happened to run into each other one day and we started talking and he said that he wanted to be a videographer and that’s really what he’s passionate about. He has his 9-5 but he likes putting videos out and he’s super good at it, so I said, ‘Well I’m working my 9-5 and I’m looking to get some videos made so how about we connect it?’ And the rest is history. We’ve been working together ever since and it’s so fun and he’s such a great guy.
What we do is we try and find a venue for it, like a good background, and then we get together – and he’s really into craft beer, so that’s a plus for me, he always brings some tasty beverages – and we just sit down and I’ll play twenty-thirty minutes and we’ll decide, ‘Ok. That song really hit and that song hit.’ And we’ll edit those together and send them off.
DB: I really liked the barn one, it’s so typically mid-West and also the different layers of people. What’s the best live gig you have ever been to?
SB: You’re going to ostracise me from my scene here if, I only pick one.
DB: You can say more than one.
SB: One I really love, they’re from Saskatoon here in Canada, In With The Old they are an amazing blue grass trio. Then there are my friends, Odder and the Otters and their guitar player: they make me want to practise. Other than that there are just so many good festivals that bring in so many good acts here in the summer. I got to see Ryan Adams a couple of years ago. The Head and The Heart put on a spectacular show. There are so many good shows going on.
DB: If you ever got the chance to appear on stage as a support act for another band or musician, who would you choose?
SB: One of the greatest shows I ever saw was Neil Young, who came back to Winnipeg after 25 years of not visiting us and he was amazing! If one day he called me up and said, ‘Skylar, I want you to open for me,’ I’d probably die on the spot (my heart would stop).
DB: I’m a big Neil Young fan and have been for a very long while.
SB: I don’t know how you couldn’t be.
DB: Musically and lyrically he is so unique. His voice is instantly recognisable.
SB: Yeah. You’ve got to love how those stories pop up of record labels saying, ‘How about you just stick to guitar Neil? We don’t want you singing on the record. How about you just stop and play guitar?’ (Both laugh) That guy probably got fired!
DB: Yeah, probably! It is like telling Dylan not to sing.
SB: Exactly! That’s another one. If Bob Dylan called me up and said, ‘Hey! I wanna play a show…’ [Note: this was said in a remarkable imitation of Bob Dylan speaking]. That was my ‘Bob Dylan’ by way. My heart would just stop.
DB: What an experience that would be!
SB: Yeah, but you know what? I’ve played every farmhouse, playhouse and outhouse in this city, and all the surrounding towns in Manitoba, so if anybody wants to hire me I’ll open your tour- that’s fine!
DB: We did mention it earlier but you are working on your new 5-track EP. Is that completed now?
SB: You know what, I’m sort of obsessing over it. My producer gave me the mixes and I said, ‘You know, give me a week, I’m going to listen to it on repeat and if I have some notes I’ll let you know.’ My car has a really good sound system so I’ve locked myself in there every night for the last couple of nights and I’ve been listening to it front-to-back a couple of times, making notes about what I want to change and then sleeping on it and seeing if I feel the same way the next day. So that’s been the object of my neuroses for the last little while.
DB: And the title is Tired Of The City, is that right?
SB: Yes it is.
DB: How come?
SB: It’s the title track. I wrote a song called “Tired Of The City” and I thought that the rest of the songs really fit into that because it really connects with my home town, Winnipeg. We have a really small town feel here but there is also a lot going on (you might hear the sirens going on in the background right now). It takes maybe 45 minutes to cross the entire city but we have, I think, about 800,000 people so it feels small but it’s not. It has really inspired a lot of that feeling of Western folk music but also with the contemporary urban edge to it. That’s where “Tired Of The City” really came from is just that wanting to run away from the city that I grew up in and then realising that when I’m gone I don’t mind it that bad.
DB: So you’ve got that track, which is the title track, and then you’ve got another track which is called “Montreal.”
SB: Yeah, “Montreal” will be in that release, for sure.
DB: What’s the meaning of that song? How did it come about?
SB: “Montreal” is really, really real for me. We have a French sector in town, called Saint Boniface, and I lived with someone special. My name being Bouchard I should speak French, it was my parents’ first language, but I never got it so that sort of ties into the chorus line which is, ‘I don’t speak French but I love Montreal.’ For me this means the same thing as about wanting to love but not rightly knowing the right way to go about it.
DB: That’s really interesting. So you have got those two tracks and then three in between?
SB: Yeah, so “From Me To You”, “Sore Hands”, and “Cherry Tree” are the other three.
DB: Is there anything that you would like to tell me about those tracks in particular?
SB: “From Me To You” was a letter that I wrote to myself when I was…I went through a really hard time in my life and I was feeling really low for a long time, for a really long time, and I remember waking up one day and all those feelings were gone and I just felt great for some random reason, I had no idea why, but I wasn’t questioning it. I just sat down and I wrote that song and I really wanted…the whole point of that song, to me, is just to know that when you are going through those hard times that they end and that good times are on the horizon.
DB: Life goes on…
SB: It’s all about when you are going through that time, or say you are having an anxiety attack or anything, just like… place your hand on your chest and know that, that heart beat’s been with you since you were born and what’s going on right now is not going to stop that.
DB: That’s a perfect message as well and I can see how a lot of people would connect with that.
SB: Why thank you.
DB: You have two more tracks as well?
SB: “Cherry Tree” is really about me contesting my inner moralities. Like how I want to be perfect all the time but, of course, no one can really be that way. “Sore Hands” is about my uncle, who passed away too young.
DB: Is that about his life or more…?
SB: It’s about his life and the reason – my interpretations of the reason – why he lived like he did. And everybody in my family says that I am a splitting image of him so I have always felt connected to him, in a way, even though I never really knew him as a man, to a man.
DB: You were quite young then, when he passed away?
SB: I was 11 years old. You know how, when you are young, you never really see the grown ups as people, they are authority. So I never really knew him, for him.
DB: So he was just a figure really.
SB: Yeah, and an intimidating one. He was an authoritative man. I think there is one line, which has sort of been passed down through the generations of the men in my family, which is, ‘Are you a man or are you a mouse?’
DB: And what’s your answer to that, normally? Squeak? (Both laugh)
SB: Exactly! I’ll just squeak and scurry off to the corner! (Both laugh)
DB: Again, that gives a better understanding of one of your inspirations for writing songs.
SB: Yeah, that’s the thing, is that I have a really hard time writing a truly jovial song. Like I’ve just started now that I’m trying to be able to (as we were saying earlier) flex that creative muscle, it is like, ‘Ok, well I can put together a happy-go-lucky track.’ But they don’t feel the same. You know, like when I perform them they don’t have that bite that I really like. I really like to sing and almost scream in a way that really releases the emotion that I am trying to share with the audience.
DB: I was thinking, sometimes a song can sound like it is jovial but actually, when you listen to the lyrics or maybe the punchline to the song, you suddenly realise that actually it sounded like it is really jovial and it is not!
SB: Yeah. You gave a listen to “Portage and Main”, the one in the barn there. Everyone loves to dance to that one and we have a heck of a time playing it live but if you take the lyrics apart it’s about…I was dating a girl and I was really into her and it just wasn’t reciprocated. But the chorus is ‘I just wanna feel the music’ so everyone is dancing and singing along but meanwhile it is like: I was really tormented by that.
DB: That makes the song ironic, in a way because the music contradicts what the lyrics are actually saying.
SB: Which reminds me almost of what we grew up in school with Blink-182 and pop punk and everything, it is all singing about anxiety and feeling depressed and stuff but it makes you want to dance, it makes you want to sing along.
DB: What are your plans? Obviously you have got this EP coming out: do you know when it is going to be released?
SB: I have a release date of late September. So I’m going to throw an a EP release party, here in Winnipeg and then I’m going to tour Ontario, down to a Toronto. We are going to make the road trip to Toronto, which is about three days driving from Winnipeg but we are going to do it!
DB: What are your plans for your future musically, once the EP is released?
SB: Yeah. Right after we do the release here in Winnipeg I am going to put it up online, send it off to campus stations across the country and then I’m touring Ontario and I’m hoping that some other things come up in the woodwork, as far as that goes. And then Two Socks will be in studio, producing our EP in that sense as well. Which is really fun because I get to write these slower, downtempo, introspective songs and then with Two Socks I get to get up there and just get raunchy and sing some songs about drinking and having fun.
DB: Is there a plan for how that EP is going to come together? Or is it still in early stages?
SB: We are still in pre-production. So right now, we know what songs we want to produce and then, as far as getting in the studio and do them, we are playing them all. We had rehearsal a couple of nights ago and we played this song that we have been playing for about a year and we just cut all the fat off it, just stripped it down to the bones and rewrote the whole thing and I think it sounds better than it ever has. But we have got to do that with all the songs and then, by the time we do that, we will just get in the studio and bam, we will just try and record them all in one take, if we can. Fingers crossed. Definitely it doesn’t work out that way, not my fault of course, it’s the other guys… (both laugh).
DB: What does music mean to you?
SB: Music…everything! Everything! It fills the gaps and the silence in all of our lives, I think. If somebody were to come up to me and to say, ‘I don’t like music,’ it is almost like saying, ‘I don’t like oxygen.’ To say like, ‘I don’t really like going to see live music,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t like to eat food.’ For me, you know, it is essential. It has always been super important to me so music is in my headphones when I get up and I brush my teeth and the last thing I do, is I take my headphones out and I go to bed. Whether I’m listening to demos, that me and the boys have made, or whether I’m listening to other people around the city who are making music and releasing it, or the lead singer of Wilco (he’s just released a new album, I was listening to that yesterday. That’s a great album as well). Music means the world to me. It’s my reason for getting out of bed in the morning and it’s my therapy, it’s my friend, my purpose.
DB: It’s funny because the other week I was reading that Shakespeare said to never trust anyone who says they don’t like music (paraphrasing of course). I can understand why people say they don’t like certain genres but…
SB: Of course. I understand that. I used to be into Metal, very briefly, but I don’t understand it any more. Not that the people who play it and the people who like it aren’t talented or don’t have good taste but I just don’t connect with it. I think everybody has those certain things they connect with in music and if not, I don’t know who you are. You might be a sociopath.
It’s like, sometimes you go to a show and you just cannot help move and dance and then you look over and somebody is stern and not having a good time.
DB: I’ve always thought, at a gig or musical theatre and looking at people, ‘How are you not moving?’ Personally, I cannot sit still.
SB: Me neither. I started playing a few years ago and everybody in my band at the time were saying, ‘Maybe you wouldn’t be so sloppy if you didn’t dance as much.’ It was like, ‘Well, that’s how I keep time! Of course I’m going to dance. We’re playing music, you know.’
But not everybody reacts that way. I have to shake my hips, if I’m feeling it, whereas I just played that show at City Hall and there was a man sitting in the front row and he was staring daggers at me the entire time- just like making very intense eye-contact, not moving, not tapping his toe- but at the end of the song he was clapping his arse off. So maybe we are looking but we are not seeing exactly what is going on. We pretend to be mind readers sometimes and pretend to know what is going on in these people’s lives, but they have just as complicated and intricate day-to-days as we do.
DB: Do you find people ever come up at the end of a gig to chat to you?
SB: They are my favourite people when they do. That’s one of the best things about music, I get to go all over the country and I get to connect with people who I would otherwise never get to talk to. People of all walks of life. People of all creeds and colours. It has really become an important part of my life. And I really love… if anybody reads this, and they get to see me play anywhere, I’d love for you to come and introduce yourself and we can chat about music and you can turn me on to one of your friends who plays, or artists that you really love and that would mean the world to me.
I would like to extend my thanks to Skylar for such a fun and informative interview and to Paula Courtney for the introduction, editing and the opportunity to conduct this interview. Thanks also to Wayne Barton for bringing Skylar’s music into our lives.
You can find Skylar on the links below:
[Update: since this interview Skylar has released the EP Tired Of The City and has been on a national tour]
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.