When birds fly south: David Usher finds New York

“My favorite artist is Leonard Cohen and I don’t know if he was miserable when he wrote all those greats songs or not. It depends on what misery is,” says David Usher. “He was this traveling poet that lived in all these crazy places. That’s part of the tact. He lived in great places during great things and for me that’s inspiring.”

- Dara Hakimzadeh
Photos by Jenn Austin

posted April 9, 2007

When birds fly south: David Usher finds New York
     For David Usher, to wander the globe and explore different cultures in their own space and time is not, as others may perceive, a displaced life; rather, he believes that this type of worldly exposure helps him find himself and his inner artist.

     “It’s been a big influence on my life, being multi-ethnic and traveling a lot and seeing different places,” explains the British-born singer/songwriter before his performance at Zaphod Beeblebrox in Ottawa, Canada.

     Although born in Oxford, England, Usher spent his childhood in Malaysia, California, and Thailand before his parents settled in Kingston, Ontario. In the early 1990s, Usher finished a degree in political science at Simon Fraser University and joined the band Moist, which went on to gain a multi-platinum following.

     Many things have changed for Usher since then: he made three albums with Moist, has released four solo albums on major and small record labels, got married and became a father. He also recently moved to Manhattan and released “Strange Birds” this past March through MapleMusic Recordings/Universal Music Canada. It’s an album he says was inspired by New York and the idea of trying to find your voice in a city with a million other people screaming in it.

     “In this society, I think by this time you’d think we’d be moving towards more acceptance of people who have different ideas, but that’s not the way society is moving at all. Most of my records are about that, and the places I live tend to be hotbeds for those things, where they interact,” he says.

     “My favorite artist is Leonard Cohen and I don’t know if he was miserable when he wrote all those greats songs or not. It depends on what misery is,” Usher continues. “He was this traveling poet that lived in all these crazy places. That’s part of the tact. He lived in great places during great things and for me that’s inspiring.

     “That’s a good mantic vision of what the artist is supposed to do. It’s like a moveable feast,” says Usher.

     “It’s much less about trying to stay Canadian or whatever that means,” he says, reflecting on his dual citizenship as a Brit and Canadian now nurturing a family in America. “It’s much more about being Canadian because that’s where I grew up, but I want to experience the world. That’s my job as an artist – experience things, live in interesting places. And right now America is a very crazy and interesting place to live, especially New York.”

     And Usher is not without wit when discussing travel. He says that he derives inspiration from places with a lot of action.

     “I moved to Montreal during the Referendum,” he explains. “People use to ask me: ‘Why the hell are you moving to Montreal during the Referendum?’ But to me that’s interesting. Right now, America – despite being dysfunctional – is very interesting.” David Usher

     Usher says he’s not about to guess where he’ll end up next, although he’s been looking for a summer home back in Montreal.

     “We’ve moved so much. But Coco is in school now so it’s a bit harder,” he says with a smile as he refers to his daughter.

     “As single people, we’re very selfish. At least I was,” he explains, before discussing the song “Brilliant.” “You’re focused on your work, your dinner or wine or politics, whatever the hell it is. And when you have kids it changes the focus of what is important – their interests become more important than your own interests. It’s metaphoric.

     “It’s the idea that having kids amps up everything you read or see. Everything is exemplified because every story becomes personal to you because every kid could be your kid,” he adds.

     Usher admits that watching the television and thinking about the world his daughter is growing up in has changed his perspective.

     “For me, the understanding of current events or watching the television becomes much more real, whereas before it might have had some kind of reality but it was definitely a foggy reality,” he says.

     Another aspect of Usher’s personality is deeply imbedded in campaigns for charities, such as WarChild, Fashion Cares, Make Poverty History and Amnesty International. For Amnesty International’s “Make Some Noise” campaign, Usher covered John Lennon’s “Watching The Wheels,” a track available for download. An album for the campaign is set for release in June and features R.E.M., Jack Johnson and Postal Service.

     “Sometimes you’ll reflect on those things: ‘Does it make a difference or not? Should I be doing this or shouldn’t I be doing this?’ These days I take way less time thinking about it,” he says about donating his time and voice to a cause. “I don’t worry. It’s like the Angelina Jolie thing – people debate her motives. It doesn’t really matter. I think that’s bullshit. She’s an individual, she’s doing things that are positive and she doesn’t have to spend her time doing them, but she is. Good for her.”

     As for his hopes for “Strange Birds” – created with drummer Chris Taylor-Munro, ex-Moist keyboardist Kevin Young, bassist Julie Galios and guitarist Jonathan Gallivan – Usher says he doesn’t have huge expectations despite the release cracking the Canadian Top 20.

     “I’ve been in this business long enough that I don’t really come in with hopes. I hope it does well but beyond that statement I don’t know. I don’t have sales targets. I hope it generates enough interest that people keep coming to shows and I can keep playing,” he candidly says. “It’s a cyclical thing. Making records is like making movies. You wonder why there are so many bad movies coming out? Because it’s fucking hard to make them, it’s hard to put all the pieces of the puzzle together so that something that starts here ends up here in a final thing and it works for whatever magical reason.

     “You know you were in the right frame of mind when you chose that guitar line or that vocal. There are a million reasons why it can’t work, and when it does it’s great,” he adds.

     Two prime examples of Usher finding the right note to hit were his 2003 song “Black Black Heart,” which used a sample of Sous Dome Epais (the flower duet) from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé opera, as well as a song from 2005 called ‘Love Will Save The Day,’ for which he used snippets of Gloria Steinem’s “Address To The Women of America” speech. Both songs reached #1 in Canada. “I’m probably proud of things that people don’t notice,” he says, specifically references those songs.

     In terms of the new album, Usher says he likes the “little weird things.”

     “[I enjoy] putting lines or words that wouldn’t naturally make it into pop songs into what are essentially pop songs,” he explains. “For me, lines like, ‘it’s the end of days for moderates but thinking people are thinking still’ aren’t necessary lines you’d find. Those are the little tiny things that make me go ‘that’s interesting.’”