City and Colour's Dallas Green on Being a Workaholic, Music as Therapy and New Album 'A Pill for Loneliness'
Published Sep 24, 2019For someone who brings comfort to so many, Dallas Green sure is good at being sad.
From the visceral hardcore of Alexisonfire to the wistful balladry of City and Colour to the heartfelt duets of You+Me, all of Green's disparate works are linked by his powerful, husky tenor and his desperate, melancholic lyrics, tinged with confusion and pleas to fix a broken world, or at least to try and take care of it. It's a mindset that's vital to his ability to keep churning out beloved music at such a steady clip, having released ten full-length studio albums between the three projects from 2002 to 2015, with no weak link in the bunch.
"I'm not really good at the idea of writing party music," Green says. "And I don't mean that as a shot, because I love that kind of music. But when I write, it's when I'm thinking about something that's heavy or weighing on me. When I'm having a wonderful time, I'm not thinking about writing a song about that.
"Maybe I should, but that's just not how I work."
If a more ebullient version of Green is on the horizon, it's not coming soon. A Pill for Loneliness, City and Colour's sixth studio record — and Green's first studio full-length since 2015 — continues to take the once-acoustic folk project into loftier, more atmospheric territory. It's heavily influenced by shoegaze, continuing Green's forays into every corner of guitar music, atop which Green crafts vivid imagery about the isolation and terror that have gripped our modern world.
"Studies have proven that we're living in the loneliest era in the history of human civilization," says Green. "When you think about humans and their first tribal nature, it was to work together, to be together. If somebody fell sick or got lost from the group, they would die because they'd have all these needs and wouldn't be able to meet them because they'd be alone.
"Fast forward to nowadays: You can sit in your room and order food to your house and chat with your friends online and have fake relationships. And you don't have to do anything with anyone else if you don't want to."
It's why he called the album A Pill for Loneliness, named after a proposed treatment being developed at the University of Chicago, one that Green discovered when watching the news, near the end of working on the album. Thinking about his own preoccupation with isolation led him to an understanding of how he'd been able to cope over the years.
"The pill for loneliness has always been music," says Green. "I think there are so many people who can say that too."
If there was a time Green needed such a treatment, it was about 11 years ago, when both City and Colour and Alexisonfire were at peak activity, competing for Green's attention. "I was doing Alexis and City and Colour full-time at the same time, and I should've been the happiest guy in the world," he recalls.
"Here I was, in two bands, and they were both doing incredibly well, but I'd left my brain and my body no time at all for myself. That year, maybe 2008 into 2009, was one of the hardest years of my life, because I couldn't really experience any of what was happening. Too much was happening, sort of like a 'be careful what you wish for' scenario. That's ultimately what made me decide I had to leave [Alexisonfire], because it was killing me to do both, and I knew I wanted to do one more than the other. It was more just creatively than anything else."
Leaving Alexisonfire didn't made Green any less busy — not in the years that immediately followed, when he released two albums as City and Colour and one with pop star P!nk as You+Me, and not in the years since City and Colour's If I Should Go Before You was released, in October 2015. Though Green decided not to book any more tours or studio time after touring If I Should Go until September 2017, the months that followed found him starting a record label, compiling a City and Colour live album, and producing Ben Rogers' album Wildfire, not to mention writing and recording new material for Alexisonfire — the band's first in a decade — and You+Me.
"I gave myself a year off, but I did more work than I've ever done," Green admits. "I realized that when I say 'take a break,' that's not really in the cards for me. My brain doesn't work that way, so I took a break from touring 200 days a year, but still bopped around working on stuff."
The songs that would comprise A Pill for Loneliness were already in the works, and had been since shortly after If I Should Go Before You was released. Just over a month later, on the night of November 13, 2015, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris, including one at a sold-out Eagles of Death Metal concert, which killed 90 people. Green was in Seattle at the time, but his heart was in Paris — his friend, Julian Dorio, was playing drums for Eagles of Death Metal.
Dorio and the rest of the band survived, but a shaken Green went back to where he was staying and wrote "Mountain of Madness," A Pill for Loneliness's twanging, heartfelt centrepiece. "Please forgive me for asking, but there must be a better way around," pleads Green atop a bed of thumping drums, wailing guitars and atmospheric synths, the latest weapon in Green's cache of affect, which elevate the choruses to the heights promised by the song's title.
"The world's fucked," says Green now of the song's origins. "And then I kept writing — every song I wrote kept being like 'The world's fucked.' So I kinda stopped writing songs for a bit, because I was like, 'maybe I'll just wait it out, I won't just write a bunch of songs about my observations about the state of whatever's going on.'" With Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the resurgence of white supremacy into mainstream politics, the tumult — and the tunes — kept on coming, born, as always, from dark times.
As strenuous as the constant cycles of recording and touring may be, they've proven beneficial for Green and his well-being, a necessary change of pace from the solitary conditions under which he writes.
"It's become something that's so isolated — when I'm sitting in a room writing a song and demoing and all by myself. I don't have to do it alone, I don't have to finish it alone, I can finish it with my friends and then it's like a group effort. If I invite some other people, it will be a lot easier to do and a lot more fun," he says.
If it weren't for his collaborators, Green may never have even started recording A Pill for Loneliness, let alone finished it. Though he'd written several songs that ended up on the record over the preceding years, 2018 ambled onward with no plans to record. That changed when he was in Nashville, overseeing the mixing of Ben Rogers' Wildfire at the studio of engineer Jacquire King, who had mixed If I Should Go Before You.
"One night, Jacquire and my friend Karl [Bareham], who helps produce and engineer a lot of my stuff, they were chatting and said, 'Let's start recording your new songs.' And I was like, 'No! I'm not prepared to, I'm not even interested in doing that.'"
You can guess what happened next.
"When we had that conversation to start recording, I put my trust in them, whereas usually, I would be very, very, very sceptical of that and quite a control maven. I think it was just knowing that none of us wanted to end up with something we didn't like."
It was different from any recording he'd ever done since he started with Alexisonfire in 2001, which led to consecutive cycles of recording and touring — between all of Green's different projects — until 2017. "Usually, I'd have written a bunch of songs and recorded for two weeks and gone back out on tour," he says. "I'd never really had the time to just experiment and make a real studio record, which I've wanted to do at least once."
For the first time, Green laboured over a record in fits and starts across several months' worth of sessions in Nashville and Toronto. Instead of stressing out about the process, Green kept busy with other projects, including getting back to the studio with Alexisonfire for the first time in nearly a decade.
Though Alexisonfire went on hiatus around 2012, spurred in part by Green's departure, the band re-emerged in 2015 for a reunion tour, which turned into a sporadic stream of shows and smaller tours. Now, the band are fully intact and back for good, albeit in a part-time capacity. Today, Alexisonfire thrive on an irregular schedule, giving members the freedom to explore other pursuits, including scoring movies, firefighting and barbering.
"I think we've found our way back to one another in a way where we can use it as therapy," says Green. "We've got it to the point where there's almost no pressure or stress on us, it's just this ball of energy and fun."
Alexisonfire and City and Colour once vied for Green's focus. Now he cites the former's recent spate of activity as being instrumental to moving A Pill for Loneliness forward, especially when he got frustrated by the piecemeal way it was made, with no tour on the horizon as a deadline.
"When you put it away for a bit and then you come back to it, there is that tendency to get caught [up in] 'Let's redo everything.' But I think the time we spent on it, and having distance from it for months at a time was actually beneficial," says Green.
By stretching out the process, Green has crafted the most expansive, sprawling album of his career, with added time to tinker meticulously on elements like bullet microphones and ambient synthesizers, the inclusion of which would've been impossible with Green's typical recording routine.
"We really wanted to explore lots of different vibes and sounds than what would normally come out of a two-week session with the band," says Green. "I realized that most of the songs were quite dark in a way, lyrically. I wanted to try to wrap them in these dreamy, beautiful blankets of pretty sounds to juxtapose [with] what the lyrical content was all about."
The mood may not be anything new for Green, but the sonic evolution continues his battle-tested approach of serving the song, no matter what. It reflects his commitment to his music as a way of expressing his feelings, especially the more negative ones.
It's the reason why, when asked if he would take a pill for loneliness, he replies, "No," without hesitation. "Because I write songs when I feel lonely."
To hear more from our conversation with Dallas Green, listen to his episode of the Exclaim! Podcast.