Patrick Watson

La Force

Thursday, October 12, 2023
Doors: 7pm | Show: 8pm
$30 to $42

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This is the biography of Patrick Watson (based on things he told me.) Once there was a boy named Patrick Watson who was born on a military base in the Mojave Desert. His father rode around in planes carrying bombs, waiting for a command to drop them that never came. He was the baby in a family of five, which would include a future figure skater, an engineer and an air force pilot, but he was seven years younger than his next older sibling. The trouble with being born this late into a family is they have all already gone mad, and they are engaged in domestic dramas, chasing each other around with knives. He was left to make too many assumptions about love and life on his own, and he still has the philosophy of a wise beyond their years wide-eyed child. The family moved to Hudson Quebec when Patrick was four. He was asked by an old gentleman by the name of Frank Cobatt to sing in the church choir. Perhaps they met in the cough drop section of the local grocery store. And Patrick sang in the church and his little boy’s pretty, melancholic voice broke everyone’s heart. And the choir director had him sing at the foot of a grave at a funeral. Because there is something in his voice that captures all the lovely things in life we can only hold onto temporarily and how their transience is what makes them wonderful. Patrick started playing piano when he was a child, of course. The piano used to belong to a boy named Gordon. The boy would appear as a ghost and teach Patrick how to play in the middle of the night. Even if Patrick played at three in the morning, his mother never interrupted these vital lessons. He showed me the photo of Gordon who looked, more or less, like a terrifying psychopath with tuberculosis who probably slit his whole family’s throats while they were sleeping. But I did not say so. Patrick says he became a singer by accident. He thought he would compose scores for others to play, which seems like an odd thing to say because he is so clearly sprinkled with the pixie dust that causes a person to be transfixing on stage. And it’s now hard to imagine Montreal without the soundtrack of his songs. But he met the artist Brigitte Henry who was taking surreal underwater photographs of people in their clothes to make a book. This seemed like very important business to Patrick, so he made music for her exhibition. They performed the show at the porno movie theatre Cinema L’Amour. It was sold out. Brigitte Henry still designs some of his album covers, including this one. Patrick likes to hang on to people. He met his first guitar player Simon Angell playing guitar on the small streets of Hudson. In his first jazz class at college he walked in and Robbie Kuster and Mishka Stein were both sitting there. It was as though they were all waiting for each other. They would play together for the next twenty years.
XO SKELETON is the supple, steady, uncanny new album by La Force: a mixture of haunted pop and hot-blooded R&B that glistens at the meeting-point between life, death and love. “In dreams, the dead and living are the same,” Ariel Engle sings on “october,” her voice shimmering. “Maybe that’s why I’m better in the dark.” “The theme of the album revealed itself in the making,” Engle told me. The title track found its seed in a telephone call between the singer and her life-insurance broker—everyday banalities on the periphery of death. “At one point she said, ‘God forbid you should die,’” Engle recalled. “I was gobsmacked. And a bit hot-tempered. And I said those lines—‘Well, there’s one thing guaranteed: no god or goddess is going to keep me alive.’” The finality of death? The protection that another person’s love can or cannot bestow? These are heady questions. But more than that they are body questions, matters of breath and flesh and pulse, which is the stuff at the centre of all of La Force’s music—beginning on her 2018 debut and also outward, into Engle’s electrifying work with Broken Social Scene, Big Red Machine, Efrim Menuck, Safia Nolin, and AroarA, her duo with her husband, Andrew Whiteman. La Force’s voice is stunning—somehow luscious and also wise—but so is her point of view—steady, sensitive, physical. With this LP, Engle originally intended to make a dance record. She worked on cigar-box guitar, piano; she visited NYC for a few days in studio with pros. But everything felt rushed, or forced—and of course the veil of COVID descended over everything—so her music-making shifted home. “It was such an intensely interior time,” she said. Engle’s old friend, co-producer Warren Spicer (Plants and Animals), would come over around “toast o’clock” and they’d work in her basement until lunch, allowing songs to unfold at heartbeat pace, unhurried. This would continue off-and-on for two whole years—a process deeply affected by the place where it took place. “I grew up in this house,” she said. “It’s where my dad died. It’s where I got married. It’s both completely dead and completely alive.” And also itself a kind of exoskeleton—a structure at the threshold between La Force’s inner and outer worlds. Engle says she has been “unhealthily obsessed” with death since she was a child. “For years I couldn’t look at a night sky because I couldn’t contemplate eternity.” XO SKELETON is therefore a kind of reckoning: a coming-to-terms with the oblivion that bookends a life, but also the “gooey centre” of love, loss, touch, and memory. The skeleton inside of each of us, that symbol of death, is also literally the thing that animates us—which brings us alive. And our bodies, which offer up all the scars and bruises of our years, also carry the intangible: desire, tenderness, judgment. These nine extraordinary songs are human-scale and intimate, with chord changes like the shifting of limbs, saxophones and processed strings that travel with a vascular ripple. Listen to “how do you love a man,” with its nimble bass and swooning groove, and a title that winks at the beyond. This isn’t some corny love song—its fuller title would be “how do you love a man (Who Doesn’t Know That You Love Him).” Engle asks us how we love the dead; and what to make of this one-way loving, where we have only the memory of reciprocation. “condition of us,” the opening track, is the portrait of a different kind of adoration—the cloak of kisses, the “XO SKELETON,” provided by a love-affair that’s long-term, messy, fervent and profound. It was the product of “Song A Day,” an invitation-only songwriters’ circle organized by engineer Phil Weinrobe during the depths of COVID malaise. Across three 10-day sessions, Engle created a new song every 24 hours, holding herself accountable alongside friends and luminaries like Leslie Feist, Maggie Rogers, Beck, and Big Thief’s Buck Meek. She wrote “condition of us” alone on GarageBand, tilting like a weathervane. “ouroboros” came out of the same sessions, inspired by the poetry of Ariana Reines, whereas “zipolite” was the fruit of a beautiful dream: Engle was back in the town of Zipolite, in Mexico’s Oaxaca province, a place she had not visited since her teens. Her father was there too, as he had been on that first visit. Picture two bodies on the beach, the sea churning, as he tells her, “I’m OK.” Throughout these 35 minutes, La Force’s music is electric + vivid, and also tactile + grimy—a sound that enfolds influences as disparate as Tirzah, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Jazmine Sullivan, the Cocteau Twins, Mica Levi, Tricky w/ Marina Topley-Bird, and even Joni Mitchell’s “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.” XO SKELETON bends and turns with its every shift of pulse—mournful, searching, turned on. Like a body, you might say. Or the memory of one.