Inspired, dark depictions of contemporary Vancouver underscore his defiant debut disc.
Jesse Waldman has released his masterful Mansion Full of Ghosts. Time will tell if this long-awaited debut album is truly the brilliant achievement it appears to be at first glance and a few initial cursory tours.
Count the decades in the making of Mansion Full of Ghosts, including four years in painstaking recording and production. The 16 tracks stand on their own—individual rooms, artfully designed and built, wave-like walls of sound, with no superfluous musical notes or words. But the work really stands out as a seamless, timeless collection and a meticulous concept album.
“It took as long as it takes to earn a university degree, and probably cost more,” reports Jesse Waldman with a short laugh. “I started with 20 songs and wrote at least 15 more during the process, which accounts for some of the time.”
From a journeyman’s lovingly created, solid, eclectic musical foundation, haunted dream-like characters and stories emerge and are linked with a jeweller’s eye for gems and settings: a “country mouse” who doesn’t care for big-city Small Talk in the “smiley plastic face” rat race of “shiny people and phony deadbeats” parades alongside A Ballerina from the East Coast.
Perhaps the most fully realized resident ghost is Lorraine. A dime-less high-school dropout from Mississauga who decides, “I’m goin’ it alone”. She “changed her clothes in a phone booth and rolled a smoke for the road. Her grubby hands were shaking / As the honest world was waking she flagged down trucks in high heels.” She ends up on a poster at a drop-in centre, disappeared without a trace with no helpful leads, a cold case indeed.
As always, the artist’s own story is an essential element. A cherished cassette of his grandmother singing a Yiddish folk song, and a guitar abandoned in the basement of his family home, helped fuel Waldman’s teenaged flight from the suburban sprawl of Thornhill, ON, to Toronto bar gigs. There he paid his dues, underage. In a succession of groups, including the grunge band Zygote (also Web, The Beefy Treats, and Phatty Phatty), Jesse stoked his own personal fire and began to perfect his impressive chops and accompaniment skills in finger-style, folk, country, blues, and pop genres.
“Every band needs a writer, and I became that guy, almost by default,” Waldman recalls of early days of a life-long obsession. Fine-tuned musical and other techniques and skills enabled the emergence of a very fine songwriter.
His website (jessewaldmanmusic.com/media) features four videos. The Rest of My Days he produced to launch the album, with raw archival family footage, charmingly illustrating a credo and promise, revealed in the album. The other three earlier examples demonstrate his laid-back, comfortable virtuosity on electric, acoustic, and resophonic guitar.
A cross-country adventure to the West Coast is pivotal and transformative in Waldman’s life, times, and recording debut. He’s been described as an “atmospheric folkie” and some new fans—outside his base in Toronto, Vancouver, and various stops in between—may wonder at his fully formed arrival.
He touched down and has stayed for 25 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in Canada, inside the bloated underbelly of the nation’s most expensive city, finding a welcome home in the scene along Commercial Drive. He is—and this is a compliment and high praise—a fixture on the Drive, as well as a highly accomplished veteran touring act.
“More than half of the people that my girl-friend and I know are living under the constant threat of renoviction and skyrocketing housing costs, holding on for dear life, by their fingernails,” Waldman reports, and includes ongoing closures and foreclosures of music venues he counts out until he ticks off both hands.
As beautiful Vancouver dreams devolve into a dystopian, hollowed-out nightmare for most people, pigeons are literally raising their young in nests of used needles and ambulances scream past empty storefronts and multimillion-dollar tear downs.
Jesse Waldman captures and thrives in the stark contrast. First sensing the growing need for rehearsal space, then recording space, he co-founded Redlight Sound Studios, where months of rehearsals and pre-production took place. He also studied the recording arts and sound design, and now is in demand, with a client roster that includes the CBC, Telus, The Knowledge Network, Bravo, and those he turns away.
He’s assembled an all-star cast of other “fixtures,” including angelic backup by Megan Alford and more voices, the tasteful piano of Tom Heukendorff, 21st-century pedal steel of Tom Hammel, and the harmonica of the legendary Monte, who passed away but lives on as one of many repeated musical and lyrical motifs.
Most notable is Marc L’Esperance (Ray Condo, Nomeansno, Petunia and the Vipers, Linda McCrae of Spirit of the West) whose diverse skills, longtime friendship, and musical partnership result in a well-deserved credit as co-producer.
Mansion Full of Ghosts excels at portraying post-modern Vancouver, equalling any art form, or artist, including the ubiquitous postcards and gritty, more realistic photography. Shopping carts roll down alleyways as skyrocketing numbers of homeless sleep in too many boarded doorways, with pleas for help on scraps of cardboard, near bank machines. Legendary beaches with flyin’ kites distract from a dangerous undertow of “barbed-wire streets / And all them lyin’ servants / In their parliamentary seats”.
Jessie Waldman’s Mansion Full of Ghosts is audio alchemy. Gold is transmuted into various forms—Klondike, fool’s, in occasional skies and rays. In Eastvan Blues he explains: “I got one foot in a sunbeam / I got one foot in the grave.” Just as the birds that grace the cover provide relief inside, hope rises from a bleak landscape. No matter where the listener is located, however they see and dream of their place in humanity’s uncertain future, this work shares an uncanny perspective, and rewards too numerous to list, and is an inspired keeper for ongoing enjoyment and exploration.