Ayla Brook and The Sound Men: THE ART OF SHOWING UP

When I was thirteen years old, my Dad drove me from our hometown of Regina to the next neighbouring major city of Saskatoon.  Built into the itinerary of our father/son road trip was the excitement of visiting my brother Marek, and his friend and band mate, Ayla Brook.   I recall on a few occasions when Ayla had crashed at our home back in the early 1990s while touring with my brother. I still have a CD of their music during that era: “Uncle Alice” which was a free-spirited indie-folk composition – nostalgically prairie hip, friendly to the violin, and tuned in perfect fifths. 

Anyway, as I understood it, the intention of visiting Ayla with my Dad was of a generous nature: it was prearranged that Ayla would demo some new sampling gear for my impressionable trip hop obsessed adolescent self.  As we were nearing the turn of a new century and with the influence of my brother, I caught a signal of niche subcultures and genres such as trip hop, nu-jazz and indie-folk.  This random, unconventional visit with Ayla was a generous gesture from my father and presumably arranged in synch with my brother. Ayla was dabbling with record sampling and looping audio, which at that time was pretty much the coolest thing I had ever experienced in real physical space.  Maybe it still is. Formative nostalgia outdoes a lot of things for me, on principal.

There I was in Ayla’s spicy Saskatoon apartment in his studio space accompanied by my Dad who was quietly present and unbothered. I recall feeling mesmerized by Ayla’s ability to slow down a vinyl of someone’s voice on an old comedy release, manipulating some random phrase like “…and here we feel we need to observe carefully”, to sound more like “…and heeeerrrrwere we fee ee eel we newaud to obsaurrrrrrve careyyyy fullaaaaay”; commence loop.  It might not have been the most interesting, convenient or productive way for Ayla to spend a Saturday afternoon in 1998, to impress a thirteen year old with basic sample magic, but regardless he gracefully showed up for the experience, which in turn, helped onset my own path of music experimentation and cultural devotion in the years to come.

And as the century closed in, Ayla along with my brother went on to form AA Sound System:  an electro-roots folk trio partial to strong messages of rural sensibilities mixed with the modernization of electro-flare.  When two of the three gents of said trio moved away, Ayla remained in Edmonton writing songs, supporting local music and linking his talent with new musicians.  For a while he found his needed output with fellow musician and friend, Michael Park, working in a blues and rock project called Bombchan. The band made a splash in the scene with their 2013 EP “Do Me Right”, an ode to Alberta’s tapestry of earthy, brackish sound waves sprinkled on modern day urban wheat fields. 

Fast forward: while Bombchan slowly wound down in a seemingly innocuous manner, Ayla enlisted another grouping of individuals who collectively author the title of The Sound Men.  In 2016, they released their seminal album (“I Don’t Want to Hear”) Your Breakup Songs”, which earned an Edmonton music award. Between the time the record was recorded and released, this award was newly born, and when bestowed upon Ayla and The Sound Men, made the timing of the record, spritely birthed with earnest applause. Included in this new family of players are Brent Oliver on bass guitar, Sean Brewer on acoustic guitar, multi-instrumentalist Johnny Blerot on organ, piano, vocals and accordion, and Chris Sterwold providing drums and additional vocal reinforcements. Did I mention Ayla Brook? ….Dad humour never quite escapes me…and I am the father of two cats for over a decade now.

At the present time we can look to the band’s newly released follow-up effort on Fallen Tree Records, a collection of recordings titled Desolation SoundsThe title visually and imaginatively offers a pointed terrain, born of healthy geographic isolation to the prairies which is a stark contrast to the frenzied lifestyle performances of metroplexes such as exist in my place of residence, Toronto.  The title could simultaneously survey the inwardly and outwardly attuned island that is Ayla Brook’s song engine powered by new batteries via The Sound Men.

I’m of a mind that we all live within ourselves and we are responsible for our own sense of desolation, so it’s heartening when desolation works productively in the name of songs.  Thinking inwardly, the artist finds robust agency in his material and when shifting outwardly, shows up and offers the music community unflinching support and breath to local gigs. Ayla Brook is guilty of showing up as an operating musician and appreciative consumer of songs.

The first cut on the album titled Lift You Up, washes over the audience with just that quality and virtue of showing up.  The listener is transported to the enthusiasm and predictability of gig attendance and its accessory items.  Ayla sings: “The young ones with old guitars/ driving to the gig in girlfriend’s car”.  Are you there?  Can you smell the grape air fresher?  Is White Avenue passing by with rapid stillness?  When will the performance of self-satisfaction end between you and her?  Ayla is relaying a universal story that is also personal, and for that, we can worry a little less about the welfare of song hygiene when we climb or jump into our beds this evening.  To temper things a little more, a familiar sensibility of honest disclosure in the tune A Little More LightLife’s a party but parties have to end… We’re just starting I don’t mean to be dark. How was the drive? Did you find a place to park?”  I think if Ayla was a rapper, he would be guilty in that wheelhouse of “keeping it real” and the aforementioned song would earn an echoing mic drop.  Mic check one two, one two.

Recently I spoke to Ayla Brook on the phone, our first vocal interaction since 2006 during my last trip to Edmonton.  While discussing the origins of The Sound Men, Ayla referred to his band-mates numerous times as his “family”. This threw me off at first.  I had to ask him if he secretly created offspring without social media attention, which could be refreshing in an age of online, hyper-curated new parent/family lifestyle displays.  I was warmed by the understanding that Ayla was referencing The Sound Men; a genuine sense of community and humanity deepened with his description of how certain bonds and creativity were found and formed in the intentional pursuit of a project, or more specifically, even in a regularly hosted poker game held in his Edmonton home.  His “family” extends beyond the domestic setting of Edmonton with the outreach of Ontario’s Terra Lightfoot to produce and oversee the complexion of the album. The record is clear, and I speculate that Desolation Sounds feels at home with its own reflection – not overly produced nor stricken of its worthiness of close attention, and its realized arrival into its inevitable dissemination.

I will pause here and say that my primary goal in writing about music is not about waxing the illusion of musicology skills, nor to promote a specialized framework to understand music, ultimately of borrowed styles and processes.  Rather I write about music so I can listen to more of it, engage with musicians, a little for the “cool optics” because I am a person on the internet of a certain age, and most importantly, so that people show up for music. I choose to write about artists I show up for, which arguably colors me a biased writer, which I will unapologetically accept.  When I once operated an art gallery in Toronto, I chose art I was excited about. This turned out to be an effective and successful method because it allowed me to enthusiastically show up for each exhibition, honouring the hard work invested in such an endeavour.

For many years I’ve mythologized Ayla Brook as a Canadian troubadour, a differently earnest Gordon Lightfoot perhaps, supporting communities, initiating gatherings and collaborations, standing up for the everywoman musician, writing strong songs, and probably some “blue jeans” stuff as well.  Ayla is a true Canadian songwriter – a sincere prairie contemporary. Much like the cover artwork on the AA Sound System releases and Desolation Sounds, Ayla and his sound family offer us a handmade sketch of the romantically charged celebration of songs woven by devoted songwriters and culture servers.  Case and pointillism: When Ayla disclosed to me about working a job outside of music at the post-office, he framed that reality with the statement: “Oh great, yes, real life – finally stuff to write about”.  

Songs.  We hold space for them.  May we all show up for songs as songs show up for us.  Desolation Sounds gifts listeners a universal human connection to desolation, if not by way of our varied geographical lottery results, then by our subjective islands that allow fleeting glimpses into our lone internal landscapes.  You know, those places where things like songs begin their journey outward intending to show up for those who make their existence possible by simply receiving their offer? Hard and dedicated workers they are – those songs and their makers.  Thanks, Ayla. Thanks Soundmen. 

Keep showing up.

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