Forty minutes from Halifax by car, one dirt road forks into another. To the right stand two single-storey buildings. Scurvy the cat sits beside the over- flowing ashtray on the front deck of the first. Inside, the cramped space feels too small for the four people it currently houses. The living room, maybe 12 feet by 14, is dominated by a soundboard that sits in the window overlooking the second building, a few metres downslope. A mattress spills out from a closet opposite the window. This is the mothership.
Back outside, the only sound is that of a hesitant tune being picked out on a piano from within the second building. Scurvy dances across the snow, seeking shelter from the cold wind blowing over the hill. From the porch, he leans heavily against a door and it opens to reveal one large room. There are instruments and recording equipment everywhere, and a couple of double mattresses fill the far corner. Two small space heaters and much conversation do little to warm the room, but it’s comfortable in an old shoe kind of way. There are no pretensions about this place. Across the road, away from the water and up the hill, lives the woman who owns these two buildings and the land they occupy. Her sheep, Dolly, lives in a barn Jason Ball helped build. Welcome to Nervous System Studio.
Today, Jason Ball is perhaps best known as jball, the one-man force behind Hopeful Monster, 2002’s best new local artist. His self-titled debut album, named 2002’s best local album, was released last fall to much critical acclaim, with the exception, perhaps, of the one critic who de-scribed his sound as the merging of Ryan Adams and a clown rodeo. (Ball seems unsure of whether to be insulted by this or not: “There are a couple of country sort of songs on the record and I think he kind of gravitated towards that and then everything else was, like, clown rodeo-sounding. May-be he was kind of bemoaning that direction.”)
It’s been described as an album “drenched in all sorts of chamber-pop reference points,” with loads of harmonies à la Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, that “skitters through many different styles”—from Baroque chamber-pop to new wave electro-pop to Burt Bacharach-ian piano-pop to space-pop and back again. More to the point, it’s an absurdly textured pop album that demands many listens. And in a sense, it’s the perfect reflection of its engaging creator.
Ask Ball a simple question, and you’re likely to get a 10-minute response. A walk along the shore below the studio on a gray winter day yields an hour of tape, the constant chatter broken only in the moments Ball stops to consider the cottage cheese-like pancakes of ice below his feet. Over the phone a day later, he concedes his verbosity may be a side effect of his current situation. “It’s isolating out here, socially and culturally,” he says. “I just never leave the house. I see the same two people for months on end, unless there’s someone out recording, and you know when you spend all your time with the same people, you find you’ve covered all that stuff—your history, your philosophies. You forget what you think about certain things. And then someone else comes into the picture and you’re suddenly reminded of all this stuff you used to talk about.”
Those same two people Ball sees for months on end are girlfriend Catherine Phillips and longtime musical partner Paul Aucoin, currently of The Sadies. Two years ago, after a five-year run in Toronto, Ball and Aucoin moved back to Nova Scotia to open Nervous System and begin work on a couple of projects—recording Hopeful Monster and Aucoin’s solo project, The Hylozoists. (As Ball puts it: “Between the two of us, we’ve got pretty much every instrument covered, except strings and horns. But we’ve got a pool of people we can call up for that.”)
Six months later, the recording finished, Ball flew off to find Catherine, a native of Ontario who was living in Taiwan at the time and with whom he’d been exchanging “steamy e-mails.” He returned a short while later with Catherine in hand. Brenndan McGuire was eventually called in to help out with the mixing, and a year-and-a-half from the laying of the first track, Hopeful Monster was on the shelves.
Ball was born in February of 1973, the second of three kids, and grew up not five miles from where he now lives. His mom is a French immersion school teacher currently on sabbatical and touring the States in a caravan with his dad, a former computer programmer and systems analyst who worked for IBM in the ’60s. Ball credits his rural upbringing, and his first girlfriend, with giving him more of an open approach to music than he might have otherwise had.
“I didn’t go to see rock bands when I was in my teens like kids from the city did,” he says. “There wasn’t really a scene beyond me in my bedroom, playing records, and I probably ended up with a wider taste in music because of it.”
And the girlfriend? “She lived in this idyllic setting in the middle of nowhere, and she was really into Russian literature. So I started studying Russian.” Ball pauses. “And then she was into poetry,” he continues, a hint of smile in his voice, “so I started writing poetry. And it was then that I recognized it.... I mean, I’ve been playing music as long as I can remember, since I was four, you know, and maybe not well, mind you, but always by ear and intuition, and I started to think ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ For a while I thought ‘I’ll devote myself and become a concert pianist.’ But then I couldn’t get through a single piece. So I gave up on that and decided to write pop songs.”
Ball joined forces with childhood friend Jason MacIsaac (The Heavy Blinkers) to form his first band, Holden Wheeling, “right after Sloan and Eric’s Trip got signed and everybody thought they were going to get a record deal.” Melissa Andrew on bass and Aucoin on drums rounded out the quartet. He spent three years at King’s College, only to give up a year short of his degree. (“Too much delayed gratification,” says Ball of the experience. “I read a lot of medieval literature and I identified with it. And I studied poetry in as many shapes as I could fit in. But I just wanted something that would inform my art.”)
In 1995, Aucoin enrolled in the music program at the University of Toronto. MacIsaac and Ball decided to tag along, with MacIsaac returning to Halifax only four months later. Ball and Aucoin stuck it out another five years, playing together as the Spoondaisies and later the instrumental Living Water Assembly, which eventually morphed into the Hylozoists. Late in the Toronto days, Ball was recruited to the ever-changing By Divine Right line-up.
This past November marked Hopeful Monster’s first trip to a Halifax stage. It carried much buzz with it, and boasted a line-up of some of the city’s best, not to mention busiest, musicians: Ball on keyboards, guitar and vocals; Greg Fry (The Heavy Blinkers) on drums; Andy Patil (El Torpedo) on bass; Dave Christensen (Johnny Favourite) on organ and flute; Dale Murray (The Guthries) on guitar and pedal steel; and Damien Moynihan on vibes and vocals.
With a couple of videos waiting for release and thoughts of touring in mind, it’s clear Ball knows whatever steps he takes next could be crucial to the band’s success. But with Aucoin out touring so much with The Sadies, and Catherine having to commute to Halifax for work, it’s also clear his time in Seabright may be drawing to an end. “I don’t think I want to spend another winter here,” he says, weighing the words carefully. “I feel like I sit down to write stuff and nothing has happened to me since last March, except that I joined a DVD club, so what the hell am I going to write about?”
Like with any Hopeful Monster song, listen carefully. In the very same breath, Jason Ball will lead you somewhere unexpected, his wonder at the possibilities palpable, contagious.
“The whole medium-is-the-message concept is really striking to me, that most of what you’re saying is determined by the language you’re saying it in,” he says. “And I’m so interested in formal structures. I’m not sure what that says about me. Maybe I missed my calling. Maybe I should have been a post-modernist.” He pauses. “But you know, for the first time ever I’ve almost got all the pieces in place. It’d be a shame to bust out without taking advantage of it.” —Jessica Linzey