Drummer, percussionist, electronic musician and producer. There ain’t a whole that native Nova Scotian Joshua Van Tassel can’t do. When he is not busy performing alongside David Myles, Royal Wood or Selina Martin, Van Tassel has been quietly amassing an impressive catalogue of largely instrumental music. Music from his 2008 debut One Window and his EPs Nighttimer and Everyone Has it All have been featured on the Outdoor Life Network show Departures. Van Tassel’s excellent new self-titled album, released in September 2011 has, not surprisingly, received critical acclaim from the CBC, the Toronto Star, and influential Toronto weekly NOW magazine.
Van Tassel generously took the time to chat with The MusicNerd Chronicles in regards to his music, his work with others and the process of writing instrumental music, a path few people choose to walk down.
In my opinion, it takes a lot to keep a listener’s attention with instrumental music.I found your record to be a captivating listen but was wondering how do you have to approach the songwriting process? I am assuming it must be rather different from if you were putting vocals on top of the music.
Van Tassel: The main approach for when I started writing this record is that regardless of how full of sounds/ambiences/instruments the end recoding would end up being, I wanted to be able to play all of the songs as a duo, with myself on acoustic guitar. My main instrument is drums/percussion, but I have a huge love and respect for the intimacy and immediacy of acoustic guitars. The idea of blending some folk song elements with a more modern recording approach (sampling, effects, etc) was and is really appealing to me, and wanted to challenge myself to write some music that was more then just interesting sounds and a beat.
When it comes to vocals, there actually isn’t a whole lot of difference in the writing process for me. The two tunes on the album that have them ended up that way because I knew what the singers would come up with would not only be exactly what I wanted, but better then anything I could come up with. In both cases I brought the pieces essentially half finished to them, and we worked from there. Kate Rogers came over, listened to what I had done so far two or three times, wrote some lyrics down, and was ready to record. It was a really neat process to watch someone work so fast and come up with something I found so perfect for the vibe of the tune. With Josh Cockerill’s tune, it was a longer, more careful process. I sent Josh the music and he sat with it for a couple weeks trying out various lyrics and melodies til he found something that he felt really fit. He’a a really wonderful lyricist and thoughtful poet as well as being a great singer, so I knew that what he came up with would be something perfect.
Do you feel like you have a little more creative freedom in making instrumental music as opposed to music with vocals?
Van Tassel: I actually feel they’re both on an equal creative level for me. Generally the vocalists I’m working working with have fantastic imaginations and are really up for me sampling,looping or transforming their vocals parts into other sounds or ambiences. Working with a great singer is a real treat because there’s no instrument more expressive then human voice, and adding that timbre and vibe to the sonic pallette I’m drawing from is a great option to have.
How does your work with guys like David Myles influence your own work?
Van Tassel: David has been a really close friend for a while now, and has had a really positive influence over the music I make. He has such a finely tuned critical ear, and has been a bit of a sounding board for all the music I make. At the same time as I was recording my album, I was doing the drums and percussion for his latest record “Into the Sun”. What really blew me away about the songs on that album is the way David was able to give a nod to the Brazilian and African music he and I both love, but not sound like he was appropriating the music of another culture. The biggest thing he’s shown me is how to take inspiration and show your influences, but still sound unquestionably like yourself. Also, he’s got an insane work ethic and is always writing. It’s hard to keep up!!
How do you feel you have evolved in the time since your debut?
Van Tassel: I think there’s definitely some technical ways that I’ve gotten a lot better at music making. I’m lucky enough in my line of work to get to be around a lot of different musicians and engineers every day, so there’s always an opportunity to learn. I’m working on a couple different things right now, a project with an amazing singer and keyboardist Valery Gore, and another instrumental record where the focus will be fast, fairly upbeat songs rhythm heavy and no acoustic guitar. I still love the instrument and practice every day, but I feel like I need to try and re-invent what I do a little bit with each project from now on. In a weird way it’s nice to not really have a label or large fan base that expects me to make album that sounds a certain way; it gives total freedom to do something that challenges me to make sounds that I haven’t made before.
How successful have you been in licensing your songs? Do you feel that trying to sell instrumental material is a bit easier of a go?
Van Tassel: I’ve been moderately successful in terms of licensing and have gotten a few different things so far. I perhaps foolishly haven’t really pushed that end of my music yet, not because of not wanting to license it, but because at this point my solo career has to take a bit of a step back due to the commitments I have as a drummer/producer with other artists. I’m super lucky to work as a sideman with great artists, and it’s how I make my living.
In terms of if it is easier to licence instrumental music, it’s tough to say. I’ve had equal numbers of people looking for strictly instrumental music as for vocal music. I think it’s entirely dependant on the nature of the content they’re using it for, and there’s a number of factors involved in determining how full or busy sounding the music should be. I suppose it’s about how well the music supports and enhances what’s happening on the screen, and whether the images require lyrics or not.