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John Wort Hannam releases new CD Brambles and Thorns

john worthannam

Fort Macleod singer-songwriter John Wort Hannam has released his new CD Brambles and Thorns.

The advice the experts give to any writer is to write about what you know.
Fort Macleod’s John Wort Hannam did just that with the songs on his new CD Brambles and Thorns, writing songs from personal experience and observations that touched his own heart.
Nothing At All, one of the songs on Wort Hannam’s fifth CD, was written for his grandparents on his mother’s side. Nothing At All details the descent into silence of one member of an aging couple, a man who returned from war, married his sweetheart and lived a full life until dementia set in.
“They both suffered from some sort of dementia or Alzheimer disease,” Wort Hannam said of his maternal grandparents. “I know that the last few times I saw them before they died they were very confused and reverted back to their earlier and even childhood years. Before my grandmother got sick she said the thing that was the hardest about watching her husband become ill was how he forgot the little things in the years they spent together.”
The song Beautiful Friend was written for Wort Hannam’s childhood friend Ken Rouleau, one of the first people the songwriter met when he immigrated from the Jersey Islands as a teenager with his parents. The two friends were inseparable as teenagers and stayed in touch even after the friend moved to B.C.
One day, Wort Hannam got a phone call from Rouleau with the sad news he had been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease as it is known, so-called for the famous New York Yankee whose career ended when he was diagnosed with the deadly disease.
“I don’t even like baseball,” Rouleau lamented in the kind of black humour that long-time friends can share.
Wort Hannam visited his friend as often as possible and wrote and played Beautiful Friend for him shortly before Rouleau’s death.
That’s the way it is for Wort Hannam, who closely observes daily life in the search for themes that infuse his roots music. The Juno Award nominee is always on the lookout for new material, taking it where he can find it. The songs come together over time, rather in a rush to produce the next CD.
“I don’t write songs specifically for an album. I just write songs, and in the grand scheme of things, not that many. I have musician friends that write 100 songs a year. One of them writes upward of 300 a year. I’m lucky if I write five a year. My approach is when I have 10 to 12 songs I record them. That’s why sometimes I put out a record every two years and sometimes there’s a three-year gap because I don’t have enough in the arsenal after two years.”
Something that was predetermined for Brambles and Thorns was to have Leeroy Stagger of Lethbridge as producer. Wort Hannam and Stagger knew of each other but only met by chance years ago when they were getting their vehicles serviced. The two formed a fast friendship and now work together on an annual Highway 3 Tour.
Stagger was a natural choice to produce Brambles and Thorns.
“We have become very good friends over the years with a relationship based mostly in the fact that we are both striving to do the same thing — write some decent songs before we leave this earth. Leeroy is a bit of a chameleon when it comes to music. Depending on his environment he can change. He can rock out when needed but he also writes some brilliant rootsy, lyrically driven songs when that’s called for. Leeroy wanted my record to highlight my lyrically driven songs. For him, and I, it is the most important thing. It was not about flashy playing and musicians showing off their licks although there are some great performances on the record. It was about portraying the song in the spirit in which it was written.”
Wort Hannam enlisted a group of polished musicians to record Brambles and Thorns, including Tyson Maiko on upright bass, Scott Duncan on fiddle and John Macarthur Ellis on guitars, mandolin, lapsteel, dobro, piano, and melodica, to record live off the floor.
Experience with his previous CDs, recorded in the studio except for Queen’s Hotel, which was done live off the floor, convinced Wort Hannam to use the latter process for Brambles and Thorns. Live off the floor, Wort Hannam explained, is a much more natural process than recording in a sound proof booth with each musician playing his part and then layering them together later.
“I love to play live and this is as close to getting that live sound without actually recording a live record in a venue. Also when you record in sound-proof booths it is very easy to digitally edit mistakes and clean the tracks up. When you are live off the floor there is going to be some bleed of instruments in each other’s microphones so it creates a nervous energy because you know that if you flub it’s going to wreck the take, so I think you play better.”
The decision to record live off the floor is a reflection of Wort Hannam’s ongoing evolution as a songwriter and musician since he gave up a full-time teaching job in 2001 to concentrate on his music.
I am becoming much more comfortable on the stage because I spend so many nights performing. I only spend a few days every couple of years in the studio so if I can make my studio experience more like my stage experience, where I feel so at ease, I think it makes a better record.”
“I also think that when you record live off the floor there are small imperfections such as the tempo speeding up or dragging slightly. The take is not going to be perfect and I like this. It’s real. Most of the music on the radio, Much Music or CMT these days has been so edited and pitch controlled to create perfection that it becomes more like a wax mannequin of a song. It looks just like the real thing but if you get up close and touch it, you realize it’s fake.”
Brambles and Thorns is being distributed by Borealis, the top folk and roots label in Canada.
“They really are a great fit for what I do. Borealis had approached me some years back but I had just begun working with a label out of Vancouver called Black Hen. I did two records with Black Hen so I decided to try something new and called Borealis and we both jumped on board the new record. With Borealis centered in Toronto I am hoping the label will give me more opportunities in Ontario and eastern Canada.”
That is a good idea, since the songs on Brambles and Thorns have their inspiration rooted in Canada, drawing on the landscape and its people. Songs such as Out Here.
I started writing (Out Here) in my head while driving on the highway that connects Claresholm to Barons. My family had friends with an old farmhouse and a bunch of old decrepit out buildings on that highway. The song was actually first written for a funeral of one of those folks and after the funeral the song sat for many years unsung. I re-tweaked it a few years ago so I could start singing it again because I liked the very rural Alberta images that the song contained. It is a song I get a lot of comments about and it even won a little money in an Alberta song competition so I guess it has been a good song for me.”
Brambles and Thorns is receiving strong reviews as Wort Hannam travels and performs its 12 songs. That brings pleasure to the man who wrote it.
“I know an artist probably shouldn’t say this about their art but I love my new record. It is a record I have been trying to make for a few years. It is sparser with some nice open sections so everything can breathe. It is more traditional sounding without the drums. I also like to think I’m a better writer than I was last go-round.”