One writer has said that Canada has failed "to recognize the genius in its own backyard" by virtually ignoring the talents of eccentric singer-songwriter Slim Twig (Max Turnbull). So does the guy feel underappreciated in his hometown?
"I think the Canadian industry on a mainstream indie sense is more conservative than my music," he admits via phone from Toronto. "I don't have the experience of living in an American city so maybe it's the same there. It's harder to break out when you don't stay in one place and allow people to finger you as the garage pop guy who makes music with fuzz guitars, and then doing that for three albums straight so that people get the idea. That's not the kind of artist I am. Kind of the blame is the fact that I am the kind of artist who switches it up. Circumstances have conspired against that too because Canada is a difficult place to tour because the cities are spread so few and far between, and there is a wall that keeps you from coming down to the States if you don't have an American label."
All that could potentially change now that Turnbull has signed to DFA, a respected electronic/dance label that has just reissued his orchestral self-produced art rock album, A Hound at the Hem, which came out in 2012. Featuring string arrangements by fellow Canuck Owen Pallett, it's a suite of narrative songs thematically inspired by Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. As a concept album, it can also be interpreted as a response to Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier's Histoire De Melody Nelson, another album inspired by Lolita.
"The concept is collage oriented," he says. "I'm taking the inspiration from the book Lolita. That story was something that inspired me. The word 'concept' album sounds pretentious, but I wanted to make an album where the songs formed a narrative instead of having songs about a girlfriend or not having a job or whatever. I wanted an album where there is some kind of narrative cohesion. Serge Gainsbourg made an album where he had taken inspiration from Lolita as well. It's a postmodern twist to make an album inspired by the book and by an album of music based on the book. I tried to collage those elements and make my own voice through that."
Turnbull's unique "voice" can be distinctly heard on the opening track, "Heavy Splendour," an ornate track that features quivering vocals and music that sounds like a cross between one of David Bowie's space oddities and a theatrical number by Kurt Weil. Owen Pallett's string arrangements provide a rich tapestry of instrumentation.
"He's a great person in the Canadian music scene," Turnbull says of Pallett. "He's really unique. He's classically trained but also experimental as well. He's community minded too. I wanted to stretch what I thought I was capable of as a musician and really challenge myself and wanted to do something with the narrative structure. I wanted to match the baroque quality of having these connections in the tunes. I had the idea of having an orchestral element. He was the first choice I had. I recorded the songs with him in mind and sent them to him. He was really open to it. He did an amazing job."
Technically, Turnbull's career started way back in 2005. But he didn't start legitimately releasing records until a few years ago.
"It's weird the way the Internet archives everything you've ever done," he says. "Literally, [2005's] Livestock Burn was the first thing I've ever done but it was literally something I burned to a CD-R. Yet, if you look at my discography, it looks like it's my first album. The only similarity is the name. Those are songs when I wrote when I was 14 or 15. Stuff that I consider the body of my career starts much later than that, maybe 2009 or 2010. It's an evolving thing. My earlier work is sample-based and trying to incorporate techniques from hip-hop and adding vocals that were not conventional. Since then, I've moved on to playing real instruments and composing songs and having more of an art rock approach."
He says his new album that's slated to come out later this year will veer off in yet another direction.
"It's just finished now and will come out in the next couple of months," he says. "It's a good situation for me. There's such a distinct divide between living in Canada and having an American label put out your album. It really gives you a heads up. I've only been on the label for a couple of months now. It's been great so far. They want to put out music that's particular and I'm happy to be part of that lineage."
He says the members of his four-piece backing band that he's bringing to town all play on the album, which he describes as "guitar-centric."
"I've always liked interesting songwriters who kind of transcend regular songwriting and do something new with it — people like David Bowie or Bryan Ferry or Nick Cave or Tom Waits," he says. "Those guys were important to me as people who can flip the script but still be approachable in their music. I just make music that's more of a slow burn and if people get turned on to me, hopefully they'll follow me longer than they would a buzz band where they might come to one concert and then forget about them."