Musician Jim Guthrie: Art as Pleasure, Art as Practical

Interview with Canadian Musician Jim Guthrie to get to know his uprising and struggles through a career in the contemporary music industry

By Lisa Sookraj, Staff Writer

These days fewer and fewer artists are lucky enough to make a living off their passion. Not in the way expected at any rate. Artists must often open themselves up to freelancing and exploring unexpected avenues using their enthusiasm and skills. Many start off in the service industry or work menial office jobs to support themselves while figuring things out. What has now become the “ideal situation” for an artist is less romantic and more realistic than in the past. It has changed from pursuing artistic endeavours full-time to making time for it.

Canadian musician Jim Guthrie has been wise when it comes to turning musical talent into a living, balancing new projects outside of his area of expertise with keeping it real via solo and band endeavours. There is much to be learned from this musician as an artist who has maintained his indie integrity, while embracing other opportunities that have broadened his experience and skill set.

There is a lot to be learned from how Guthrie has evolved as an artist, from humble folk simplicity to electronic experimentation and diversity. A nice guy from Guelph, Ontario, Guthrie “started out” releasing a self-produced series of cassette tapes in 1995, then albums on his successful record label Three Gut Records. His third album, Now, More than Ever, was nominated for a Juno. And he’s collaborated with many other musicians, having been a member of Islands, Royal City and Human Highway, and having worked with Noah23 and recently, Sarah Harmer.

Beyond this realm, he’s taken on a wide range of projects, including film and documentary soundtracks (When We Were Boys, My Window), music for commercials, and recently, the score for the popular iOS app – Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcrey, an EP/videogame.

Tell us a bit about your roots. When did you get into making music?

I think my roots are super humble. No one in my family played music and I didn’t really have any friends that played when I first started either. I’ve always had a good ear though. I remember being over at a friend’s house when I was somewhere between 7-10 years old and his family had an old, out of tune piano. A simple melody was playing on TV and I picked out a few of the notes and echoed the phrase on the piano.

My friend seemed stunned and he asked, “How did you do that?” It was the first time I realized that I heard music differently but never thought I was too special. I never took lessons but it wasn’t until years later that I would start trying to write songs. I didn’t actually buy my first guitar until I was 17 or 18.

I also learned how to play a handful of instruments when I really got into home recording because I didn’t have many others to play with. I was one of those “bedroom 4-trackers” for the longest time and I taught myself a great deal about how to arrange a song just by trying to emulate my fave bands at the time.

Who has supported and advised you throughout your career?

No one in particular has advised me throughout my career. I’ve always been pretty self-sufficient. It was mostly a close group of friends that encouraged me to “write another song” and it was because of that support that I felt I had another song in me.

Tell us about your first ‘big break’ and successive projects – how have you evolved and what has shaped you?

My first big break was probably getting props from Patti Schmidt on CBC’s Brave New Waves back in 1999 for my self-released CD A Thousand Songs, which she played a lot. It was my first real taste of national exposure. I was also reviewed in Exclaim magazine around the same time. I wasn’t on a label but I mailed it around in Canada and people got behind me. I then joined forces with other friends from Guelph to form Three Gut Records and we all moved to Toronto by 2001.

I’m not actually sure I’d call these “breaks” though. I’ve been making music a long time and it’s been a very slow and organic evolution. It’s all a labour of love and I’m a workaholic. I’ve always tried to challenge myself and be pretty fearless when it comes to new musical projects. Like, I’ve now done music for albums, film, TV, video games, ads, websites etc. I’ve been a lead singer and a backup singer. A drummer and a bass player.

I’ve written a lot of music and toured and played in folk bands, pop bands, hardcore bands and all kinds of other stuff. It’s all music and I’ve always learned the most when working outside of my comfort zone. I guess the goal is to be okay with feeling uncomfortable or something.

What strategies did you use in all these endeavours?

I honestly have no business strategies. I either say yes or no to something depending on how much I like the project and how much time I have. I’ve always been a pretty hard worker and a little lucky I guess. I’ve mostly done business with friends and tried to keep the biz side of things simple. It’s all about building a community of friends and artists and the rest will take care of itself if you work hard.

There was also a moment when I had to let go of the indie rock fantasy of having a big selling record and touring the world. Too many people get stuck in how they think they will or should be successful. It almost never happens the way you think it will and you have to be open to new ideas and trust you’ll be yourself at every turn.

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