Dallas Green, under the simplified moniker City and Colour, is one of Canada's most lauded singer-songwriters. In the Juno Awards last year – Canada's equivalent of the Grammys – he won best songwriter. He previously won the award in 2009.
Green, 33, is in good company. Fellow Canadians to win in recent years include Arcade Fire, Feist, Sarah McLachlan and, this year, Leonard Cohen. Coincidentally, Green makes his Wellington debut the same night Cohen performs across town.
Accolades for Cohen's songwriting would surprise no one, but Green's recent achievements would have surprised many who first encountered him in the band Alexisonfire over a decade ago.
Formed in St Catharines, Ontario, near the United States border, Alexisonfire was a "post-hardcore" act. The genre has its roots in punk and '80s bands including Fugazi. The guiding principle was fast and loud. Thoughtful songwriting? Not so much. Green is well aware of the contrasts between Alexisonfire, which in recent years he juggled with City and Colour.
"Musically it's completely different," he says. "But mentally I approach songwriting for both bands in the same way. I always wanted to be the best I could with song – and to make myself happy first. Hopefully, that translates to the listener enjoying it as well.
"I think I'm an open-minded music listener. I listen to different kinds of music. In turn, if you are a songwriter as well, you are going to have interest in writing different styles of music and come up with different ideas.
"I like to refer to myself as 'a child of reference'. I grew up in an age where I had so many different styles of music to listen to and to take from. I didn't have to invent rock'n'roll in order to get into it. It was already there. The blues was already there. Hardcore was already there. Punk rock was there.
"I got to listen to everything and took what I liked."
What Green hasn't liked is what he sees in some music today: over-produced and over-processed. On his most recent album, last year's The Hurry and the Harm, he was conscious to avoid an over-produced sound. "For me, I want to sound as much like a human being on my records because I just so happen to be one," he says.
"I appreciate that it's not for everybody and I appreciate that certain styles of music deserve [a different] treatment. But for the songs that I'm writing and the style of music that I'm playing at the moment, it sounds best when it's as natural as possible.
"I want to sound like me singing so that when I sing live I can not only re-create it but I can hopefully out-do myself as opposed to digitally correcting myself and having no chance of ever sounding like that live. You see some people now and you have no idea if they are actually singing."
Few Kiwis would have heard of St Catharines, which has a similar population to Wellington's. Fewer would be aware of its music scene. Green says that being very close to big cities such as Boston and Toronto meant acts would come to town or play close by.
"I grew up seeing a lot of live music. It was kind of growing up on both sides of the border in a way. It's not a big city but big enough that there was a burgeoning music scene when I was a teenager and I got to see a lot of local bands.
"There was a platform for us to form a band and places for us to play. It was a good place. It had a small-town feel but close to big cities."
Green says Alexisonfire had no idea it would be popular. "We just wanted to go and play and have fun. If you had told us that we would have become as successful as we did we probably would have all socked you in the face. It didn't seem possible at the time."
In 2005 Alexisonfire won the Juno Award for new group. Green left the band last year after a farewell tour. One of the best songs on The Hurry and The Harm is Of Space and Time, which appears to allude to Green wanting to put the band behind him.
Peter Gabriel wrote his first hit Solsbury Hill after leaving Genesis and it's considered his swansong to his former band. So is Of Space and Time Green's Solsbury Hill?
"Absolutely," says Green.
"I started writing that song in the final days in the decision-making process that I was going to quit the band."
Green says he struggled to finish and record the song while in Alexisonfire and did so only after he publicly announced his departure. He now realises he could finish the song only once he said he was leaving.
Quite by accident, he saw his former band's first music video on television recently. "I thought when I saw myself singing 'I sound like a completely different person'. Yes, it was 10 years ago, but I like to get better. I think I've got better as a writer and as a singer and a guitar player.
"That should be the goal. You should be doing your best work as you move on."
City and Colour plays with his band comprising Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather), Dante Schwebel (Hacienda, Dan Auerbach), Doug MacGregor (The Constantines) and Matt Kelly at The Civic, Auckland December 16, St James Theatre, Wellington, on December 18.
- The Dominion Post