In 2008 Niagara native Michael O’Connell released a collection of songs that he made in his apartment on College St. in Toronto on Whitewhale Records, which has subsequently taken him across the world and back on the back of 700,000 plays on Spotify.
The last time Culture Reject performed in St. Catharines was during the 2016 In The Soil Arts Festival, where he performed the engaging multi-media installation titled I Looked Everywhere for Your Poem.
Currently on tour in Europe and nearing the release of their latest album, O’Connell took the time to talk about his musical career thus far.
Where do you currently live and how does that play into your music?
I’m sharing my time between Toronto and Grey County. It plays deeply into my music. While in Toronto, as I have been doing for the past several years, I am part of a community arts initiative called Sketch. I work with and mentor young people living homeless or who are forced to navigate high stresses and barriers in the GTA. We make music together. We explore techniques in instrumentation, production, vocalizing, improvising and how to be a career musician. This exchange sharpens my own music practice regularly.
In Grey County I retreat into my studio and create new songs and bodies of work. I experiment with perimeters of time and space feel distant and distractions are few. I spend time looking at the horizon line on the water, swimming in it literally and figuratively. I feel I am making my best work as a result both musically and lyrically.
Can you tel me more about your In the Soil installation and what you wanted to accomplish with it?
Visual/Light Artist Dylin North and Culture Reject have collaborated on club tours in Montreal, Toronto, Guelph and Ottawa. As well as a music video. Collectively, we came to a place where we wanted to have more control over the quality of the installations (often with beautifully clunky analog gear with which Dylin is very innovative and for which he holds a high reverence…) and equally wanted there to be a participatory element for an audience that didn’t seem possible in traditional live venues. We wanted to realize the aesthetic, which is directly dependent on the music and lights influencing the other. In Rhizomes at In The Soil 2016 we created I Looked Everywhere For Your Poem. Along with Dylin’s regular magical light effects, he enticed people to use flashlights to write words and create imagery on glow in the dark panels that surrounded the band while we played. I think it was successful on several levels. With the audience, we created a magical little world of music and light where everyone had a role in what was happening.
We are collaborating with Dylin North again at the NAC on Nov 24 (our first time back since In The Soil 2016). But I don’t want to ruin the surprise…….
In general, what is it about playing music that you love? What keeps you in it?
This is a critical question. In short the love of creating, connecting and building community around the music keeps me/us in it.
But it is challenging….
The very digital tools that have democratized the process of recording music, that make it easy for kids in France, Iceland, Brazil and Baltimore to know the lyrics to my songs are the same technologies that prevent musicians from being remunerated for the actual music. People can pay 8$/month and enjoy my songs (and most of the world’s recorded musicians) instead of paying 8$ for an album. From a listener’s perspective the math is simple. Spotify. Apple Music. Woot. Woot. We can do our best to leverage the 700k streams we have on Spotify for sweet gigs at home or in far away places….but that’s not so easy.
So…. love is the driving force.
What can you tell me about your record? Where did you record it? What kind of themes were you exploring with the music? How did it all come together, and what do you want audiences to pick up from it?
Culture Reject has been busy over the past 16 months. In 2016 I did a solo tour of Europe to continue building our audience there. Based on the success of that tour I’m on a 14 show stint right now in France (it gets better and better).
In between we have created a monster of a record. Having the time and space in Grey County to record (as well as drums recorded by Marshall Bureau in Niagara), is a fortune for me and the band.
The album’s working title is This Is How We Built Out Home. It explores, among other themes – our colonial history and the awkward, and often resisted, process of decolonization, loving our individual selves, loving and supporting people living with addiction/mental health challenges, what living and housing is for people. This record explores family in its beautiful imperfectness.
I hope people take from the sounds and lyrics a sense of pause and a new capacity for self-reflection. Equally great would be some bad ass dance moves after a few listens.
Culture Reject perform at the Niagara Artist Centre on Nov. 24.