Dallas Green talks about City and Colour’s third record Little Hell, why his writing style is so personal, how connecting with music changes as you grow older, and his constant battling with self-doubt.
I’m a little interested about your background. Obviously, your two projects have very different styles of music. Growing up, was there one you were more attracted to, or were you always interested in both?
I guess I was always interested in both. I always liked playing guitar loud, but at a young age I started learning how to sing, too. That’s when I found out I was a big fan of melody as well. I learned how to play guitar on an acoustic guitar. That’s what I took lessons on when I was 8 years old or whatever. I listen to a lot of different types of music and I think I always have. It makes my brain come up with different kinds of ideas.
Did you start singing once you picked up the guitar? How did that develop?
Yeah, I think it started happening when I first started learning how to play my favorite songs on guitar, when I would listen to a song and figure it out by ear. Once I started getting kind of good at that, then I would learn how to sing it, too. I would sit and play and sing along, so singing kind of came from that.
So you picked up everything on your own?
I took guitar lessons for maybe two years. I was 8 years old, so I really didn’t like it, probably because I was young and it was like going to school after going to school. So once I got a little grasp of it on my own, I convinced my parents to let me stop taking lessons and just taught myself.
I think you started City and Colour a little bit after Alexisonfire got going. At the beginning of the City and Colour stage, did you have this kind of longevity in mind?
The thing is a lot of people just assume City and Colour started after Alexis because I put out that record, but before Alexis started I was playing shows by myself, and putting out early demos and selling songs that were just me and a guitar. It’s just no one knew and no one listened [laughs].
So once Alexisonfire started, kids started finding out about all those old songs. That’s when I ended up putting out the actual first City and Colour record. I always assumed at some point I would try and sit down with my guitar and write some songs. I just didn’t assume I’d be doing them at the same time and have people be as interested as they have, putting out records for both.
This album definitely has a little bit of a different feel than your other two. What were some of your goals and aspirations for the writing and recording of this one?
The thing with City and Colour so far is I’ve never really had a chance to sit and make a record. Most people will take time away from touring to sit and write and record, whereas I’ve had to write songs while I’ve been on tour with Alexisonfire in between records. You know what I mean? I put my last City and Colour record out three years ago, but in that time I put out two Alexisonfire records and toured for both. I just write the songs, and then when it came time for me, it was like, “Oh, geez, I’ve got 12 to 13 songs. I think I can make a record of these.”
Alexis stopped touring at the end of December last year, so I decided to go into the studio the next month and record all the songs I had. Now, here we are. It’s weird. It’s not like I went into a room for a month and was like, “I’m going to write a City and Colour album.” It’s just I wrote some songs. I’m always writing songs. That’s what I do. I play my guitar all the time. Once I have enough for a record, that’s what ultimately becomes the record.
It seems that every artist who starts out with just an acoustic guitar always eventually gets to the point where they want to incorporate other elements, whether that be more of a full-band sound or whatever. What are your thoughts on that and how do you walk the line between the two?
I think it all depends on the idea. Certain songs to me sound OK with just a guitar and a voice, but then there’s other songs that I wrote and when I demoed them at my house I would hear different things, whether it be rhythm or extra instruments. I didn’t want to suppress those or put them to the side just because people have a preconceived notion of what a City and Colour song should sound like. Really, there isn’t one. It’s whatever I want it to sound like.
Your lyrics have traditionally always been melancholy, especially on the last record, and you kind of address that on this record with “The Grand Optimist” where you say you’re pessimistic like your mother. Is that something that is easier for you to put out when you’re writing, and how much of that is the music talking versus real life?
It’s just my real life. The way I absolutely write songs is about things that affect me and my life. It’s the only way I really know how to write. I’ve tried to write other songs, like character-based songs or observational songs. A lot of times, it just doesn’t work, so I end up writing about myself.
I don’t feel the need to write a song about how happy the sunshine makes me, or how nice it is to sit outside on a patio and have a beer. I don’t want to write about things like that that make me happy. When I’m feeling melancholic or feeling down about something, that’s when I feel the need to write.
I found the last song on the album particularly interesting because I think it’s one of the more hopeful songs you’ve done, and it’s fittingly titled “Hope for Now.” There’s a line on there that really stuck out to me where you go, “How can I instill such hope but be left with none of my own? What if I could just sing one song and it might save somebody’s life?” Can you talk a little bit about how you wrote that song?
That song is basically about how no matter what, I just don’t have that much faith in myself. No matter how many people tell me how my music has helped them or gotten them through some tough times in their lives, no matter how many records I sell or whatever, I still have this battle with myself of whether or not what I’m doing is good enough. I don’t know even who I’m really battling with. Is it good enough for me or good enough for everyone else? I don’t know.
That song is sort of the epitome of what I feel inside. I guess the end is that there are times, when I’m singing at least, where I do feel good about the whole thing, and that’s the thing. To think that people have told me that some of my songs have saved them, but I still struggle unwaveringly with that sense of worry. It’s really weird and a hard thing to get past.
That’s an interesting dichotomy there.
Yeah, but I think what I’ve realized is that’s just kind of the way I work. Always second guessing myself is the way I strive to always get better. I feel like if you become complacent and settle into that, “Oh yeah, I guess I am pretty good. People like me,” then maybe you won’t have that fine line to deal with to decipher whether or not what you’re doing is good and always try to work harder to make it the best it can be. That’s the way I am. I’m 30 years old now and I don’t see it getting any different. I’ve learned to live with it.
In addition to “The Grand Optimist,” there’s a couple other songs that you wrote about your family. What is it like to write with that aspect in mind?
Like I said, I write about things that are happening in my life. In the last few years, my sister was going through some pretty tough stuff. I wasn’t really around to help deal with it, just because I was on tour so much at the time. The way I deal with things is by writing, so that was the way I tried to deal with not being there.
That was my way of trying to help, I guess, was by writing this song. It was like a message to her. I still think that I wrote it in a relatable enough way. I think that other people can listen to that song and draw from their own experiences, and maybe it will help them as well.
It seems when you’ve been doing interviews about this record, you’ve been talking about how one of the big themes is from the title, Little Hell, where it’s about the valleys and tribulations you go through. Is that what this record is mostly about?
Yeah, I think so. At first when I had just written the song “Little Hell,” I didn’t think it was going to be the album title. I didn’t really necessarily think about how it can translate itself to the rest of the songs and into how I feel about life. Once I started really thinking about it and making the record, there was a lot of stuff that went into it that was really frustrating and defeating at times. I started thinking Little Hell was more apparent because that’s how I feel.
Life is all about those things and the little hells, whether or not you present them to yourself or they’re thrust upon you. It’s all about how you deal with that that makes you a better person or makes you who you are. Like I said earlier, going outside in the sunshine is nice, but it’s all about going through the shit that makes you who you are.
When you’re writing is it more natural for the music or the lyrics to come out, or does it not really matter?
For me, lyrics take a really long time. It usually starts with just chords and melodies. I get that together first, and then I start singing lines and decide what the song’s going to be about. I guess because most of my songs tend to be about personal situations, or at least things in my own life, that’s why I feel like they take a while because I have to find the best way to describe what I’m feeling.
Writing a song from an observational point of view, you can draw from a lot of different things and maybe piece together a song, whereas I don’t really do that. I’m not one of these people who is constantly writing in a book, and then you just take the lines you need to make your song.
I remember reading this thing about how Bob Dylan would have pages and pages and pages of verses for songs, and he would have to decide which ones he was going to leave out. I can’t imagine getting to that point where I would have that many lyrics to have to pick from. I’m like, “God, just let me come up three verses.”
You have a little making of documentary that people can watch online, and there was a thing at the end of that which I thought was really interesting. You were saying that people who sometimes don’t like an artist’s new record that is different is more so because they’ve changed in their own life, so it doesn’t resonate with them, rather than due to the artist changing. I was wondering if you can talk more about that and if there are any bands for you as a listener where that has happened.
I think that definitely there’s a lot of times where a band you like puts out a new record that you don’t like. I think a lot of people forget to take into account how much they’ve changed as well. Obviously, my new record is different than my last two, but at its core it’s still me writing the songs. I think it’s a general progression from the first record to now. There will be people who don’t like my new record solely because it’s not a record full of me playing songs on an acoustic guitar.
The other thing, too, is that you forget that some records you invest so much emotionally into them. They’re such a big part of your life at that moment in time. Years later, when you’ve moved on from that stage and that band has moved on, they put out a record that just doesn’t connect with you the same. I think people should be a little bit more open-minded. When a record comes out you don’t like, just be like, “Yeah, I’m not into it.”
There’s tons of bands when I was a kid that I listened to that I was in love with, like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Those two bands when I was 12, 13, 14 years old, those to me were the end of the world when it came to music. I still love the first, earlier records, but I stopped buying Pearl Jam records after Vitalogy. They’ve put out six, seven, eight records since then. I still think they’re a great band, but I don’t listen to them anymore. I don’t blame them. I would never say, “Oh, that record’s not as good as Vs. or their first record.” I just say, “They’ve moved on. I’ve moved on.”
Also on this album you recorded to tape, which I understand was a rather trying experience at times. Can you talk about what that process was like?
Well, first of all, I’m very impatient, which definitely does not lend itself to recording on tape. Also, we used a really old tape machine that hadn’t been used in probably eight or 10 years, so it was a little dusty, to say the least. That led to a little bit more of the frustration.
The reason I did want to do it, though, was because a) I had never done one, and b) I wanted to see if I could hear the difference. You always hear people talk about how much warmer it sounds and how much more real it sounds. I thought the songs I had written lent themselves to that sound and I wanted to see if I could hear that difference. I think it does.
After going through this process would you be open to recording on tape again, or would you want to go back to the digital ways?
No, I’d love to. I’d love to do it again. I think I just needed to do it once because all the records I had made in the past were Pro Tools. If something goes wrong, you just shut down the computer and reload. You do a hard restart.
With tape, you have to sit there and switch the reel or switch the record card. I think I just needed to do it once to understand the full process of how it works. I’m so happy with the outcome that I think I would definitely do it again.
Earlier this year you had that two-song collaboration with Shad, which was pretty well received. Do you have any plans to work with him again or any more collaborations in the works?
As of right now, we don’t. We had such a blast doing that that if it ever presents itself again, I think we would do more songs like that. As far as other collaborations, I’m not sure as of right now, just because my main focus is on this record. I mean, it’s not even out yet. Once I get it out there and let people hear it, then after that I’ll be thinking about other stuff.
The cover art for this album is pretty interesting, and I believe I heard it is of some flower fields in Holland. How did you end up with that idea?
Honestly, I just saw a photo. I think it was in an in-flight magazine. We were flying somewhere in Europe last year. Yeah, I think it was last November. I saw it, and I thought to myself immediately, “I want that to be the cover of my record.” That was before I even came up with the title or anything.
It was so visually striking that I thought it would make a really great album cover. Then I Googled it and I was torn between the idea of what photo to use, and then I thought, “Why not have my friend paint it because then it would almost look like a piece of art?” Now I like that it’s this beautiful row of colors to contradict the title Little Hell. When you think of Little Hell, you don’t think of beautiful colors at all.
Over the last several years you’ve been able to get acclimated to the U.S. music scene now. What are the similarities and differences between the music over here and what you grew up with in Canada?
It’s not that much different, other than there’s just more of it down here. There’s tons of bands that I can mention that I grew up listening to in Canada that you probably would never have heard of. Back then, it was a lot harder for bands to make it other places, especially without the Internet and stuff. That’s definitely helped out a lot.
There was a really great alternative, early ‘90s music scene in Canada. I was lucky enough to be a good age to be a part of it. Nowadays, if you think about it, a lot of the most popular music is Canadian. It’s weird. Arcade Fire, Drake, Justin Bieber…
…Nickelback. We’ve got some good stuff, we’ve got some bad stuff, but it all seems to be No. 1. It’s really weird.
Real quick, what do you have planned for the rest of the year?
Most of the summer is pretty much all doing festivals. We’re doing Sasquatch this week. Then we’re doing Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, and then some cool festivals up in Canada. We have these really neat folk festivals all throughout the country, so we’re going to do a bunch of those. I’m going to England to do T in the Park and Hop Farm, a bunch of festivals like that. In the fall is when I’m going to start actually doing headlining touring for the record, so I’m excited about that.
Very cool. I think I read somewhere you’re also working on Alexis’ next record as well.
Yeah, that’s kind of on the backburner. This is where my head is right now, and the record’s not even out yet. Everyone’s just kind of doing their own thing as of right now.