Jesse Waldman

Jesse Waldman an inspired voice from Vancouver’s dark side

by Bruce Mason

Jesse Waldman’s long-awaited record debut was decades in the making, including four years of painstaking recording and production. The brilliant concept album, Mansion Full of Ghosts, stands out for not only capturing life in contemporary Vancouver, but for also giving voice and hope to all those who struggle in the dystopian, hollowed-out nightmare into which Canada’s most expensive city has devolved.

“I started with 20 songs and wrote at least 15 more, which accounts for some of the time,” reports Waldman. “More than half of the people that my girlfriend and I know here live under constant threat of renoviction and skyrocketing housing costs, holding on for dear life, with fingernails. I’m just back from playing gigs in Toronto, my old stomping grounds, and it was outstanding. In Kensington Market, on Queen, College and Bloor Streets, there is a vibrant, supportive arts scene, a stark contrast to the corporate, cookie-cutter culture that Vancouver is becoming.”

The 16 tracks on Mansion Full of Ghosts are individual rooms, artfully designed and built, with wave-like walls of sound, without any superfluous musical notes or words. From a journeyman’s lovingly created, solid, eclectic musical foundation, haunted dream-like characters emerge, linked with a jeweller’s eye for gems and settings. A “country mouse” doesn’t care for big-city small talk in the “smiley plastic face rat race of shiny people and phony deadbeats.” Others include “A Ballerina From the East Coast.”

Perhaps the most fully realized is “Lorraine.” A dime-less high-school dropout from Mississauga decides, “I’m goin’ it alone… changed her clothes in a phone booth and rolled a smoke for the road. Her grubby hands were shaking/As the honest world was waking she flagged down trucks in high heels.” She ends up on a poster at a drop-in centre, disappeared without a trace with no helpful leads. A cold case indeed.

Waldman’s own story is essential to fully appreciating Mansion Full of Ghosts. A cherished cassette of his grandmother singing a Yiddish folk song and a guitar abandoned in the basement of his family home helped fuel his teenaged flight from the suburban sprawl of Thornhill, Ontario. He paid his dues, underage, in Toronto bar gigs, through a succession of groups, including the grunge band Zygote, Web, The Beefy Treats and Phatty Phatty, perfecting his impressive chops and accompaniment skills in finger-style folk, country, blues and pop genres.

“Every band needs a writer and I became that guy, almost by default,” Waldman recalls. Fine-tuned musical and other skills enabled his emergence as a very fine songwriter. His website (jessewaldmanmusic.com/media) features four videos. “The Rest of My Days,” produced to launch the album, includes raw archival family footage, charmingly illustrating a credo and promise revealed in the album. The other three earlier examples demonstrate his laid-back, comfortable virtuosity on electric, acoustic and resophonic guitar.

A cross-country adventure to the West Coast was pivotal and transformative. After touching down, he has stayed for 25 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in Canada. Home is Hastings St. and Commercial Drive where he is – and this is a compliment – a “fixture on the Drive,” as well as a highly accomplished national touring act.

Sensing the growing need for rehearsal space, then recording space, he co-founded Redlight Sound Studios, where months of rehearsals and pre-production for his debut took place. He also studied the recording arts and sound design and he is now in demand, with a busy client roster, including the CBC, Telus, The Knowledge Network and Bravo.

Waldman assembled an all-star cast of other “fixtures,” most notably Marc L’Esperance, whose diverse skills, longtime friendship and musical partnership resulted in a well-deserved credit as co-producer. Jesse excels at portraying post-modern Vancouver where shopping carts roll down alleyways as skyrocketing numbers of homeless sleep in too-many boarded doorways, with pleas for help on scraps of cardboard, in front of ATM’s and… “all them lyin’ servants in their parliamentary seats.”

Mansion Full of Ghosts is audio alchemy. Gold is transmuted into various forms – Klondike gold, fools’ gold – with its colour depicted in occasional skies and rays. In “Eastvan Blues,” he writes and sings, “I got one foot in a sunbeam/I got one foot in the grave.” The album is highly recommended, especially for those down-and-out in Vancouver.

I asked him to share his expertise from 25 years on both sides of the studio glass. “Tips for Up-And-Coming Artists Headed Into a Studio” is a one-page, seven-point checklist to avoid common problems and pitfalls in making the best, most-natural recording of roots music. Email brucemason@shaw.ca and I will reply with a copy.

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