David Clayton-Thomas Releases Studio Album ‘Canadiana’ Paying Tribute To Rush, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen

David Clayton-Thomas, the endlessly prolific singer, Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame, and Canada’s Walk Of Fame inductee will release ‘Canadiana’ (ILS Group/Universal) on Friday, October 13th.

In this fresh collection of interpretations, David’s grasp of pop, jazz, and blues is second to none, with sparkling interpretations of songs Rush, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and more.

Working again with producer George Koller, David sings some of Canada’s best-loved songs, carving out the melodies and the memories of the decades, with his soulful voice at the helm. “George’s musicality and his gentle leadership, his organizational skills and his incredible bass playing were essential to the success of this very complex project,” David says.

“To pay tribute to the songs of Canada’s most well-loved songwriters was a task I did not take lightly. To give each song its own identity while honouring the intent of the writer would be challenging. The contributions of Canadian writers to popular music is enormous. We began with a list of over 100 songs. Our hardest job was determining which of the great songs on this long list NOT to record.”

The star-studded guests on ‘Canadiana’ include Grammy Award winning drummer Larnell Lewis of Snarky Puppy, and includes duets with Laila Biali and Genevieve Marentette, alongside the brilliant jazz playing by Guido Basso and Russ Little. One highlight of many are the cutting edge string arrangements by Aaron Davis framing Shauna Rolston’s moving cello obligato on Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Angel’ and Laila’s pure angelic voice on Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now.’

David is perhaps one of the best-suited singers to record “Ophelia” by The Band as he considers the group one of his contemporaries. David states, “I’ve known The Band since we played the same bars when they were The Hawks. I consider them to be the greatest rock and roll band ever. I wanted to pay tribute to my old friend, Levon Helm. I knew him well and he was a helluva nice guy.”

David didn’t want to simply cover these tunes. He took daring and satisfying liberties when it served the song, giving it a fresh new sound, and was thrilled with the in-the-moment contemporary takes in the studio. “Who knew how a Neil Young song would sound as a reggae? A Lightfoot song with a funky Memphis groove or a Rush anthem played Afro-Cuban? We had a ball recording this album and I hope that comes through in the music. I hope it brings a smile to the faces of all the songwriters represented here.”

David continues, “The songwriters are what this album is all about. Canada has produced some of the most prolific and influential songwriters in the world. The true poet laureates of Canadian culture. From the stark imagery of a Leonard Cohen lyric to the simple Newfoundland honesty of a Ron Hynes tune, our songwriters in so many ways define our identity as a nation. As we approach our county’s 150th birthday I hope this album brings a glow of pride to every Canadian. Our country has contributed mightily to the arts and particularly to the art of songwriting.

“It was a joy to pay homage to these gifted songwriters who have given so much to music lovers around the world.”

‘Canadiana’ track list:
1. Ophelia (The Band)
2. Angel (Sarah McLachlan)
3. Sonny’s Dream (Ron Hynes)
4. Early Morning Rain (Gordon Lightfoot)
5. Far Away Places (written by Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney)
6. Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)
7. Heart Of Gold (Neil Young)
8. Up Where We Belong (written by Buffy Sainte-Marie)
9. Suzanne (Leonard Cohen)
10. I’ll Never Smile Again (written by Ruth Lowe)
11. Spinning Wheel (Blood, Sweat & Tears)
12. Closer To The Heart (Rush)
13. Something To Talk About (written by Shirley Eikhard)

DAVID CLAYTON-THOMAS and the making of ‘CANADIANA’ in his own words:

Ophelia (The Band)
I’ve known “The Band” since we played the same bars when they were “The Hawks”. I consider them to be the greatest rock and roll band ever. Although The Band’s version featured a horn section, we wanted to take Ophelia back to the sound of the Hawks as I first heard them at Le Coq D’or on Yonge Street in1964. Piano, organ, guitar, bass and drums. For drums we chose Lowell Whitty, a Levon Helm fan, who plays very much like him. He gave the song that unmistakable Levon groove. Although it’s a Robbie Robertson composition, I always considered this to be Levon’s signature song and I wanted to pay tribute to my old friend. I knew him well and he was a helluva nice guy. This vocal was easy – first take, live in the studio and never changed. I know this song by heart, saw them play it live dozens of times. I sing this song in the shower.

Angel (Sarah McLachlan)
Sarah’s song really moved me having spent many years on the road in “cold dark hotel rooms” myself. We needed a way to build on the song and give it its own sound without losing the naked honesty of Sarah’s original solo piano version. The answer came in the form of a collaboration with two people. My dear friend, Shauna Rolston, Canada’s premier concert cellist. Fiery and inventive with incredible technique Shauna is indeed a national treasure. Aaron Davis, a brilliant, cutting edge string arranger. Shauna’s emotional cello obbligato and Aaron’s avant-garde strings provide the perfect setting for this interpretation of Sarah’s powerful lyric dealing with drug abuse and the lonely isolation of the artist when the show is done.

Sonny’s Dream (Ron Hynes)
I’ve always wanted to record a Ron Hynes song but there were so many to choose from. He was known as “the man of a thousand songs”. But this one had a personal meaning to me. Not only was “Sonny” my nickname as a kid, but I knew all too well the feeling of coming from a small town and dreaming big dreams and being told by everyone that you’d never amount to anything because no-one from Willowdale ever had. Eric St Laurent’s beautiful acoustic guitar work and the soulful harmonica of Roly Platt give this track the down-home Newfoundland feel that was the hallmark of a Ron Hynes song. Add to that the rich vocal harmonies of Omar Lunan and the Levy sisters and the track was complete. Ron Hynes had a knack for crafting the most intimate, deeply personal stories with deceptively simple lyrics that touched the heart of everyone.

Early Morning Rain (Gordon Lightfoot)
No collection of Canadian songs would be complete without Lightfoot. I hope Gord will forgive me for turning his song inside out, changing the order of the verses to give the song a fresh new narrative. The story begins with a man alone at the airport without the price of a ticket and ends with “Hear the mighty engines roar” as the plane takes off without him. We also chose to give to song a funky “Memphis” sound with Lou Pomanti playing Wurlitzer piano and Hammond B3. Quite different from Gord’s folksy acoustic guitar original but played with total respect for this iconic songwriter.

Far Away Places (written by Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney)
We felt it was important to give this album a historic sweep encompassing the long tradition of Canadian songwriters. We researched many different versions of this song from Perry Como to Sam Cooke and they all were done as slow ballads with lush string arrangements. We opted for a hard-swinging jazz waltz, relying on Ted Quinlan’s traditional jazz guitar style and Guido Basso’s elegant flugelhorn to give the song a feel never before heard on previous renditions.

Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)
Joni Mitchell’s “flow of consciousness” lyrics have always touched me, going back to our days of playing the coffee houses in Toronto’s Yorkville district. I adored Joni from afar. She was this incredibly beautiful, blonde folk princess with her acoustic guitar, delicate lyrics and diaphanous gowns while I was a leather-jacketed punk, who played telecaster in a brutally loud rock & roll band. She totally ignored me, ha! In later years we had both gravitated toward the jazz world and had many mutual friends. Jaco Pastorius and Don Alias played with Blood, Sweat & Tears and later with Joni Mitchell. In 2007 we were both inducted into The Songwriters Hall Of Fame, we hung out backstage and I must confess I still have a crush on Joni Mitchell. When conceptualizing the string arrangement with Aaron Davis, he observed that on the first half of the verses, the lyrics were light and whimsical and very feminine in nature and on the second half the words became more masculine. A perfect setting for a “boy girl” duet. Laila Biali’s angelic voice on the first half of the verses contrasts perfectly with my more cynical, world weary readings on the second half. Then we join forces for a true duet on the choruses and it all comes together. Aaron Davis’ daring string arrangement makes this one of the most ambitious tracks on the album.

Heart Of Gold (Neil Young)
Neil Young is another artist who shared the Yorkville-era with me. We both left Toronto around the same time. Neil for California where he teamed up with Stephen Stills and company to form CSNY and me for New York where I joined Blood, Sweat & Tears. I have loved reggae music for years. In the 70’s I produced a Jamaican band in Toronto called “Ishan People”. When George Koller and I chose this classic Neil Young tune for the album we were looking for a “sound”. Something different from Neil’s original recording.
One day, just jamming on my Martin in my living room with George and Eric, I fell into a reggae groove and it made everyone smile… it just felt right. So that’s the way it went. When we got to the studio we brought in Grammy Award winning drummer Larnell Lewis (Snarky Puppy) and the track came to life. Lou Pomanti’s B3 and Eric St Laurent’s guitar put the final touches on this funky reggae track. My experience with Ishan People had taught me how to speak a little Jamaican patois and you’ll hear a taste of that at the end of the song. A totally fun track.

Up Where We Belong (written by Buffy Sainte-Marie)
Originally recorded by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes for the soundtrack of “An Officer And A Gentlemen” This Buffy Sainte Marie song is one of the great boy girl duets of all time. Genevieve “Gigi” Marentette had already recorded a duet with me on the Combo album, “The Glory Of Love”, and she is a dear friend and I knew we sang well together. Her sexy, soulful, Detroit sound goes well with my R&B influenced vocal style… we share the same roots. We decided to “go big” with this arrangement and I asked Lou Pomanti to write a powerful big band horn chart that would really lift the singers over the top. He did, and “Gigi” and I responded, live in the studio, face to face the way a great duet must be recorded.
It’s a daunting task to follow two of the best singers in the business singing a song that they made internationally famous but Gigi and I felt that if we approached the song with our own voices and gave the track it’s own personality we could pull it off… We did.

Suzanne (Leonard Cohen)
What more can be said about the lyrics of Leonard Cohen? His genius for stark imagery exemplifies what makes the Canadian writer unique. Highly literate and impressionistic, he is indeed the poet laureate of Canadian songwriters. The challenge of interpreting a Leonard Cohen song is one of bringing an understated reading to a deeply emotional lyric. No-one does it better than Cohen with that voice that sounds like it comes from the bottom of a well and lyrics that tug at your heart. Less is more with a Cohen song. A simple acoustic guitar track by Eric St Laurent with a little help from the Levy Sisters on the choruses was all we needed to bring this one home.

I’ll Never Smile Again (written by Ruth Lowe)
This is Frank Sinatra’s favourite song. Written in the 1940’s by Toronto’s Ruth Lowe. Sinatra’s rendition with The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra is a classic. We wanted to evoke the spirit of the 40’s and went very retro with this track. Featuring The Willows, three girls whose specialty is recreating those beautiful Andrew Sisters style vocals. Hall Of Famer, Russ Little’s trombone adds the perfect Dorsey touch and the mood is set.

Spinning Wheel (Blood, Sweat & Tears)
It had been suggested by the record company that I should include one of my own songs in this collection. “Spinning Wheel” was an obvious choice. Inducted into The Canadian Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame in 2007 and recorded by dozens of other artists over the years and earning a Grammy as Song Of the Year in 1970. Co-producer George Koller and I discussed many ways to make this track special, including scaling it down to a bare bones jazz trio. We finally agreed that “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. I had heard many big bands interpret the song – Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, so we beefed up the horn section and expanded Fred Lipsius’s original four horn chart to six horns. His brilliant horn arrangement has become integral to the composition as has Lew Soloff’s fiery trumpet solo. As a tribute to my late friend, I asked Jason Logue to transcribe Lew’s solo note for note. He said “Are you kidding… Transcribe it… I know that solo by heart, it’s one of the first trumpet solos I ever learned”. Add to that Koller’s cheeky bass solo and Lou Pomanti’s Monkish piano voicings and we had a different sounding Spinning Wheel without losing the spirit of the original.

Closer To The Heart (Rush)
I have always been a huge Rush fan. They are completely unique in the history of Rock & Roll. Progressive and creative, always intensely musical. Geddy Lee singing Neal Peart’s lyrics can’t be topped so we had to find a new approach. I noticed that Alex Lifeson’s guitar line with a little rhythmic shift could become a great salsa piano line. So I called on Cuban piano giant Hilario Duran to write a chart and as long as we were going Cuban bring in musicians who were born to this music. The result is a crazy twist on a Rush song. Hilario’s piano and the intricate percussion tracks played as only native Cubans can, along with Elmer Ferrer’s electric guitar make this one of the most exciting tracks on the album. I know Geddy and the boys will love this interpretation.

Something To Talk About (written by Shirley Eikhard)
Bonnie Raitt is one my favourite blues singers. Her “bottleneck” guitar and soulful vocals never fail to impress me. I didn’t know there was Canadian connection until one day in the studio I ran into singer Debbie Fleming and I learned that Bonnie’s biggest hit had been penned by Shirley Eikhard from Sackville New Brunswick. I listened to Shirley’s original recording of the song and it was virtually identical to Bonnie’s Grammy Award winning hit. Bonnie had the good sense NOT to mess with perfection so we followed suit. We stuck pretty close to Shirley’s original but replaced Bonnie’s inimitable slide guitar with blues harp virtuoso Roly Platt. Omar Lunan and the Levy sisters did a great job with the backing vocals and Lou Pomanti’s B3 work is outstanding throughout. A great, fun, funky, R&B romp to close out the album.