justin small

Justin Small reflects on releasing a new song every week for a year

We talked to the Do Make Say Think composer about how he kept up his self-inflicted pace for the last calendar year.

- Jun 1, 2016

It started as an experiment. For one year, Justin Small of Do Make Say Think would release a new song, fully mixed and mastered and complete with original album art, every Monday, for one dollar a week. Who knew if Small or his fans thought he would make it, but it's one year later and Justin Small has put out 53 original compositions. That's just over 5 hours of music.

That's a prolific output by any means, but especially so when you consider his main gig in Do Make Say Think, the influential Canadian post-rock band that, let's say, takes its time. Keeping his pace has done more than eat up most of his spare moments between taking care of his daughter and composing film scores with his writing partner Ohad Benchetrit. It's taught him patience, forgiveness, perseverance, problem solving, and given him a weird new taste for dance music (more on that later).

While the most rewarded have been his "couple hundred or so" subscribers, who he says he's become more conscious of and close to than his usual fans, he's also been putting his songs on Bandcamp as collections of "seasons" and is toying with the idea of an abridged physical release.

The attitude that I had at the beginning was, "I'm just going to be me and write for me." But then, I saw that I had a decent amount of people had subscribed and I was overcome with a sense of responsibility to that.

Justin Small
Listening through is a treasure trove of experimentation within boundaries — Small never abandons his gift for tension and release dynamics — and also an audio diary of a year in the life of a Toronto father.

Small just released his final composition, which we're streaming exclusively below. In honour of his year-long accomplishment, we caught up with him to talk post-mortem: what he learned about music, about himself, about his fans, and what kind of impact it might have on the next Do Make album, which is now his main priority.

Chart Attack: Congratulations on completing this project. A year later, has it turned out the way that you expected it to? 

Justin Small: You know what, it has, and it's been amazing. It's given me a lot of chance to become disciplined and learn a lot about myself, the recording process, and making engaging music as best as I can. With the timeline of the project being each week, if I failed with something I had to just deal with it. I wasn't able to go, "okay, I don't like this song so I'll just pick this other song that I wrote a year ago." I had to rectify what my issue was, and if I didn't rectify it, I had to be at peace with it, which is a hard thing to learn, especially when doing art.

Does that mean that some of the weeks you weren't as happy with, but you still put them out? Is it like that Lorne Michaels quote about Saturday Night Live, you know, "we don't go on because we're ready, we go on because it's 11:30"? 

There's very few, if I can recall over the year, that I put out on the Monday that I was disappointed in, and if I looked back at them now, I probably wouldn't remember what it was that disappointing me. It's an in-the-moment sort of thing, silly stuff, like "I wish I had a better guitar tone here" or "I didn't like the way this chord changed" but, you know, that's what it is. It lives as it is, and you need to have forgiveness for that and for yourself.

I think it's something that I need to learn in life in general, so it's helped me to practice that. You need peace and understanding. I have a daughter, so patience and forgiveness are key. Also, we're currently mixing the next Do Make Say Think record and we need to have patience and forgiveness to do that, too.

Are you planning to revisit any of these for the Do Make Say Think record? 

Well, the one thing it has helped immensely in is the film score work that I do as my normal job with Ohad [Benchetrit] from the band. It actually helped a ton with that because you need to be constantly inventing and writing new music. That moves pretty fast. They need their music. You have a timeline, you can't just take three years to write a record like we did with Do Make Say Think. This was excellent training for that.

Every week that passed I would forget what it was that I put down and every once and I would go back and listen to what I'd done so far and I'd be constantly surprised, like, "oh, yeah, week 30, that was great!" Or, the week that my uncle died, there's that song, great, you know? A lot happened in one year, and these are kind of little benchmarks.

This was almost like an old-school patronage model, like your subscribers were financing you on an ongoing basis. Did you think of it like you were writing for those people? 

Yeah, totally. When I first started I was like, "who's going to join this thing?" It was all about trying to get the word out. The attitude that I had at the beginning was, "I'm just going to be me and write for me," and this is just going to work this way. But then, I saw that I had a decent amount of people had subscribed and I was overcome with a sense of responsibility to that. It's funny, because there was a handful of people that I knew really well, like family members and friends, and then just a ton of total strangers.

It's sort of like you're talking to them directly with your music.

Yeah. Those emails that I'd sent out to the people on the subscription list would always have a little... my wife calls them "diary entries." You know, just explaining the song and almost confessing about how I was feeling that week, which gave it sort of a personal angle, I thought.

Sometimes they were topical. You could almost go back and tell the time of year based on what you wrote. 

That was sort of accidental, the timely stuff. This week's song, for example, is sort of a dedication to Kathryn Borel. I didn't expect that to come out of me. I saw her press conference at City Hall and was so moved by it and her particular courage and integrity. The piece that I was writing, I had already started a little guitar motif, and was just going to work with that, like, "this is what I'm going to think about when I'm writing this song." When I started I just thought, "I'm just going to write pretty music." People can like it or not like it.

Nowadays, you kind of have to get creative if you want to make a career as a musician. Was this a solution to that? 

The experiment was actually seeing if it generated income, which I would say was a minor victory in that I had, at the most, 215 subscribers I think at one time. It always floated between 170 to a hundred and something... I don't know, I never totally paid attention to how many people were coming in and I didn't use the income as stuff to buy groceries with. I think for somebody who's a little more established, or has a brand associated with their name, might be able to have a better go at that financially. Like, say, if Hayden did something like this. He's known for him, people like him for his voice and songwriting, he might be able to make a go of it.

For me it was good because I forgot about the income part of it, but when I took stock of the PayPal account I was like, "wow, I have some money it here, it doesn't look bad." I just ended up purchasing more equipment for myself to make music. It helped me to achieve a few things, especially with a wish list, like, "ahh, I really want these reverb and delay plugins so I can make cool noises." Before I'd have to hum and haw whether I had the money to do those soft of things, and this helped build my tools and skill set. But, the most valuable thing I got out this wasn't money. I had to learn and problem solve each week and learn to be happy with my output really quickly.

justin small

Was it ever hard to keep up that schedule? Did you have any weeks where you thought you weren't going to make it?

There was only one week, and I documented it. I gave a piece of music to a friend to remix while my family went on vacation in the winter time because there was just no way that I would be able to do it. We were in Costa Rica travelling with my daughter, so, I mean, it's not like I could have taken a little recorder with me. That was the only time.

The other couple of times, Ohad and I had been pretty busy with film score stuff. I'd get to the studio at ten o'clock, leave at four or five, and you'd just been writing music all day long. You'd do that five days a week. There were some weeks where I got home and I was like, "aw man, I don't want to write any more music, I just want to sit on the couch." There's a couple of drone pieces that I did that were a little more easy going in terms of skill level. I knew I could achieve something worthwhile and I would be equally proud of with a lower effort level, but those were very few.

It's like exercising in a weird way. You don't want to do it, but after you do, you feel great. I really didn't want to make any more music, and then I would start and before I knew it it was 3:30 in the morning and I'd be like, "I need to go to bed, my daughter gets up pretty soon."

You talked about it as your chance to be more eclectic, getting to experiment with all these styles and genres. Did you end up getting to do that? Writing stuff that you wouldn't expect yourself to do?

In the end... not really. [laughs] Anybody who knows me well, or even peripherally, knows that I'm an unapologetic fan of grindcore music. I long threatened that this is my chance to write a grindcore song. But, you know, it almost seemed that the further I got into it, the more curated the sound started to become. I wanted to honour that. There's a part of me that also wanted to do a moody jazz thing, because I love that kind of music too. I attempted it one time and quickly abandoned it by Tuesday to write another song. It seemed disingenuous, like I was taking the concept for granted.

Now, to that end, there were surprising that happened that I wouldn't have thought of as a sound that I would have done, and that was a more electronic based sound. We found an old Roland 303 at the studio, it was all busted up, and I took it home. Sure enough, by Wednesday I'm knee-deep into something that sound like a Daft Punk song. I'm like, "what?" I had so much fun doing that. It surprised me that, A) I could make that music and B) make that music and not be embarrassed by it, and C) want to make more of it.

Since this project is ending, and we need something more to do, we might write an electronic dance record. Why not? I don't know if there's a title for "worst dance record ever," but who knows? [laughs]

Do you have a favourite?

You know, I have a couple, and there's a couple electronic songs that were exciting and I'm proud of. There's also a series of songs that I wasn't sure I was going to do, but then once I started I got really into it. There's also a bunch of these really colourful drones and atmosphere pieces, that, surprisingly are a lot more difficult than you'd think to make.

Looking back, do you look at it as a success?

Yeah, totally. I'm so glad I did it. There's so many ideas that I say I'm going to do as a creative person and I never do them. You know, like, "I'm going to do this giant painting" and now there's a half-finished canvas stuck in my closet. "I'm going to get a super group together, we're going to play Sting covers and we're going to be called Stang." [laughs]

It was just something that I had thought of, I did the research on, and now I've done it. It makes me happy to know that I made it all the way to the end.

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