“James Finnerty started the night with his calm, quiet wit and heart-hurting hopeful lyrics and masterful guitar.” – Risa Dickens, Indyish
Click on here to listen the mp3 of “Vermont Song”. Interview below.
|Vermont Song – Lyrics
Two birds fly overhead
Balloons waving to the cars
From a room in a hotel
Little bug, are you listening?
From a room in a hotel
From a room in a hotel
Music & Lyrics by James Finnerty
Q. What are your musical roots?
A. I was 12 years old when I bought my first guitar and taught myself how to play. I did have a few lessons with a guitar teacher, Stuart Cameron, who was the son of a famous folk musician, John Allan Cameron. That was my first exposure to acoustic music and folk music. I was more interested in playing rock and roll, so I immediately said, show me some Led Zeppelin songs, show me Guns and Roses. I went off on my own for about seven years, got myself a book on chords, started listening to music and learning by ear.
On my mom’s side of the family, my grandfather, back when they lived in the south of Italy on a farm, he used to get together with a couple of guys, an Italian instrumental trio. He played the mandolin with a guitarist and an accordionist. I’ve seen a picture of them wearing their Sunday best, sitting up on the top of a hill, nothing but countryside surrounding them, with their instruments. I guess there is some kind of link back, but there is no one in my immediate family who is into music. I had this instinct that I wanted to play and taught myself, but seven or eight years later, I realized that I had a wall and I couldn’t really advance with my music because I wasn’t studying theory, I wasn’t practicing technique of any kind, I was just learning songs. A friend of mine, with whom I had done a musical (I used to do theatre), was a guitarist and played in pit orchestra for a show called Assassins, a Stephen Sondheim play. His name was Aaron Brock. I studied theory and technique with him for about a year. He re-introduced me to the guitar from a whole other different angle. I started taking more interest and taking it more seriously, practicing several hours a day to improve my technical skills.
Q. When did you start performing?
A. I was working as an actor, doing theatre, singing in musicals. I played guitar in musicals. I had done a few amateur productions where I played in the orchestra. When I was fourteen, I started playing at regular open mike on Sundays at the local bar in my hometown, which is Markham (Ontario). I got exposure playing out there and one summer we went around and did shows in bars in Toronto. That didn’t last very long, the guy was an older and he wanted to make real money. We were making money but not enough for him, he wanted to buy a car, regular income. I kept playing, doing shows and here and there, there would be an opportunity to bring my guitar, a coffee house, play at a house party, a show. I kept writing with other musicians, jam sessions in my house, trying to figure out how to play different styles of music. I played with a jazz guy for a little while and he showed me some interesting jazz music.
Q. What would you call your music?
A. It’s acoustic. I’ve grown to the point where I can say that I really enjoy playing acoustic music. There is something about the resonance of sound creating sound, experiencing how those frequencies resonate with people, how they come back at you, how you are creating a sonic experience. Overtones, something that I have been recently getting more interested in listening to avant garde music, Jim O’rourke, John Fahey, acoustic players playing for a sonic experience. They are melodious, creating harmonies, and these overtones pop up, because they are paying close attention to what is happening to the sound.
Q. Do you want to play with other musicians?
A. Yes. The idea of playing with a band is always tempting, to get a whole big thing going on, but you lose the dynamic, the sensitivity and the intimacy and I am about creating an intimate experience and wanting to share something sensitive or sensory with my audience. I love it when I can look out in the audience and see people with their eyes closed. I have had people come up to me after the show and say they had a good experience, relaxing, meditative experience. And that’s what I try to get in my music, I want it to be healing, I want it to be something that makes people happy, that opens up people’s senses. These are the things that I look for in music. I am on a path to continue learning about music and learning about myself and about my instrument, the body is part of my instrument because I am a singer but the guitar is an extension of my body. The more I can learn about that and watch players who are also involved in that same kind of thing. That’s inspiring to me.
Q. What is your relationship and history with environmental issues?
A. I grew up in Markham, Ontario, just northeast of Toronto. York Region, a major region of the surrounding area, Markham is right on the border with Scarborough, the north part of Toronto. Twenty years ago there was a population of 15,000 thousand people. It was all farms. When I was a little kid there was nothing but fields and fields, white picket fences, farmhouses way out in the distance, giant farms surrounding us. Within 20 years, the population had increased to about half a million. It was hit with mass suburban sprawl. We lived in a house that was bordering a huge cornfield. I remember there were signs that started going up for this development. These contractors were plugging away, getting the farmers to break and sell their land. The local farmers resisted for years. It was a good ten years, the story was going around, the developers are trying to get the land but the farmers are staying strong. A hospital went up, in that same area. Someone sold the land and said, that’s worthwhile, they are going to build a hospital. That was the beginning of the end. The farmers starting selling out to the big developers and they built this god-awful suburban sprawl overtop this beautiful natural environment. The next phase of that was the highway, a toll highway, the ETR, Express Toll Route, which started in the heart of Markham and had designs to expand this as far east and west as possible. The problem with that was the road went through precious, sensitive environments. The population increased rapidly and houses popped up out of nowhere. The air pollution became noticeable, something that we never noticed. We are in a small town and there’s air pollution from carbon monoxide, from the cars. Traffic. My mom works a five minute drive from where we live and now it takes here half an hour to get to work because she has to sit in traffic. At eighteen, I started noticing and questioning these things. At the time, I started building a relationship with nature, going out camping, three day hikes with a friend, a wilderness guide, who showed me about preserving nature, being able to incorporate yourself with nature, to be a part of nature without destroying it. He led the “Leave no Trace” philosophy when we went camping and we would, we would do everything barebones, just our backpacks and take all our garbage with us. It didn’t make any sense to me that these natural environments are being destroyed.
Q. What else did you do about the environmental issue?
A. Started writing letters to the government. Wrote a letter to Jean Chrétien, my M.P, became a member of Green Peace. Starting doing letter campaigns to corporations. I got involved in the push against GMO. This was back in 1999 and it was Vandana Shiva, who was one of the scientists, the advisor on this group of anti-GMO crusaders and they would send out daily newsletters and reports, just writings on the subject. But Vandana caught my attention because she was bringing all this scientific information, about how the mineral content in food was being lost. How there had been studies in the last ten years when they discovered that GMO’s were introduced into the food stream without our knowledge. Scientists were checking it out, what is this going to do to people? They started seeing an increase in allergies. In 1990 when I started reading these newsletters, it was until a major news article came out in the papers about Loblaws, when they tried for mandatory labeling and Loblaws was one of the first company to blatantly reject it and started to put stickers over top of the labels and lobbied the government and said this is going to kill business and the government conceded and decided not to make it a mandatory law.
Q. Do you think your music with your lyrics can affect attitudes to social issues?
A. I think so. I don’t do it intentionally. I don’t have an agenda to try to change people’s mind or force them to think a certain way. I believe that if you live a certain lifestyle, believe in something and write truthfully about it, it is going to resonate with people. The things I believe in are part of who I am, part of my politics, part of my development as a young adult. If I speak openly and honestly and write about things that mean something to me, that’s what I am looking for when I am writing. I am going to incorporate something that will bring out a type of emotion, and if that resonates with the listener, yeah, I think there is a possibility that someone will think about it and look into it.
Whatever we put out there, people are going to listen to it, or hear it or read it and it is going to affect them in some way. I understand that’s a part of the process.
As to the issue of environment, everyone is talking about it, there are so many musicians who are involved in ecological issues. I don’t want to pigeon hole myself, but I live my lifestyle a certain way. I guess the response to someone who says, everyone else is talking about environment, so you’re just another one of those people is that I am not just talking about it. I don’t own a car. I drive my bike around the city. I eat organic foods. I support local farmers. I cause ruckuses often as possible when I see people idling their cars. Talking about environment can come across as a cliché, but I do notice there is a lot of change that is happening in people’s attitudes. I think letter writing is important. At times I think is, anyone even reading these letters, but I still have to do it. There is something that drives me to sit down and write a letter to a corporation or to a politician that I have a gripe because of something that is so blatantly obvious.
There is a big shift in the financial arena, a push for ecological products and businesses. Socially responsible mutual funds. Individuals investing in big corporations who are known polluters or irresponsible corporations because they know if they put their money into it, as a shareholder they have a say as to what that corporation does. That’s really promising. North America is becoming more prosperous and money talks. A movement of people who are concerned, a grass-roots movement, the most recent, the G8 summit that happened, there was mass mobilization in Germany. The politicians ignored them because they don’t have status.
Q. What made you choose “Vermont Song” as the MP3 to include on this site?
A. I was sitting outside the hotel room on a beautiful morning and there is backdrop of green, lush trees. It’s juxtaposed with a giant highway. I am watching the mountains, it’s peaceful and as the morning progresses, the traffic increased on the road and all these cars are driving by and got me thinking about where I came from, a beautiful quiet farm town and within ten years, the population, the traffic, the development increased to a point where it became an overpopulated, gross, awful place. I left Markham because of that. I didn’t want to be part of that environment. If I am going to live in this kind of environment, I am going to go into the city and I moved into the west end of Toronto, the craziest kind of environment.
It made me realize that it is everywhere. It’s not just in my little farm town, It’s in all these little farm towns where this development is happening. I say in the song, the mountains are moving away from the people on the road. That’s how I feel, nature is becoming more and more distant from the mass of people who are constantly running, chasing after whatever it is they are chasing. They are forgetting about nature. Nature is less and less a presence in people’s life. That’s the end of it. The end for human survival. If we detach ourselves from nature, we are finished. It is impossible to survive as a species without a direct link back to nature. Everything comes from the earth.
People are paving over farmland, precious good soil that could be used to feed people and then they import food. That’s a clear omen for me.
Q. How has living in Montreal influenced your music or your approach to social issues?
A. Incredibly. Montreal is amazing for that. The music scene is so vibrant and accepting with many types of musicians. Most inspiring for me is seeing the independent music scene developing and seeing where it is going and where it’s coming from. For instance, the guys who started Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Started up the Hotel de Tango recording space up on Waverly near Van Horne. Which was just a law space they moved into and started doing shows. They were making such great music that it became world renown and did a lot of touring, did very well for themselves. They split up and went their own ways, but one of the guys now runs a couple of venues, Sala Rosa and Casa del Popolo. Every year they do the Sony festival which highlights independent music, independent labels, people who are consciously going in the other direction, trying to do something new.
Living here has given me more of a creative perspective in approaching social issues. For the longest time I was just reading about what was going on, observing, writing the odd letter. But I realized that a big part of making change, addressing social issues, was being active. Being in Montreal made me realize that the most effective thing for me to do was being active, independently doing my own thing. I started making my own recordings and started learning about recording, getting a better ear for what I wanted to hear. There is a big push in the financial sector where money is making the change. I’m like everyone else, I need to make a living. This is my work and if I can be successful in my work, people will see, this is someone who is doing their own thing. This goes back to Godspeed. They did it all by themselves. They are fiercely anti-corporate. None of the albums they made are linked up to any corporate label or distribution system. There is a label here in Montreal called Constellation Records, they are responsible for the distribution. There is an audience for that, people want to see a change, they want to be part of that independent spirit.
Q. If you could choose any musician to jam with, who would you choose?
A. Radioheads, Tom York who is the lead singer and guitarist and he writes all the lyrics as well. He is British. The research that I did in the late 1990’s about genetically modified organisms, what was going on with the World Trade Organization. There were links from the Radiohead website. York put up this page with a bunch of dots, and each dot would take you to a different page. One page would be on Holistic medicine, another on anti-GMO, another page about globalization, another on World Trade Organization, organizations that are trying to deconstruct these big terrorist groups.
The band is a rock and roll band. Not really in the same vibe as I am doing but I was influenced by what they did and how they did it. They are a bit of a contraction because they are working in the mainstream music industry, they are assigned to EMI. But they don’t do advertising as much as other bands. In the beginning stages they went off the radar and went underground and used the internet to promote their gigs.
Joni Mitchell, she would be cool to jam with.
Q. If Harper wanted to jam with you, would you let him?
A. Sure. Does he play? It would be interesting to see what kind of instrument he would play. I am assuming it would be a kazoo. I would play with him if we could do it outdoors, in the middle of a field, with bare feet. I would give him shit though.
Q. Has your theatre experience had any bearing on your music experience?
A. I learned a lot about performance and I had amazing experiences with other performers. I started doing community theatre, doing musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar, Assassins, Sweeny Todd. Not too fluffy. I got an offer to do the Sound of Music, which I turned down. I decided not to do musicals as a career, my heart wasn’t in it and I wanted to do something more down to earth, more narrative. I started to do straight theatre, one act plays. I did a production of Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare. Stuff I could be myself in, that I didn’t have to worry about being a character. In Troilus and Cressida, (as him) he is cursing his opponents and the director said to me, okay, just choose something you hate. And I remembered the Coca-Cola incident that happened in Massachusetts. Around 1998, the state of Massachusetts banned Coca-Cola machines in all their public facilities, fire stations, recreation centers, because Coca-Cola was doing business with the Burmese government, selling their products in Burma and getting rich with this dictatorship. Massachusetts wanted to make a statement, let’s ban the use of coke machines. Coke went and sued the state of Massachusetts. The state of Massachusetts lost and the Supreme court told them they had to put the machines back. That angered me because it’s such a denial of free expression. It’s saying, no you have to conform, it’s a threat, instead of saying you should think twice about dealing with a dictatorship government who are persecuting people.
The theatre is similar to what I am doing now, telling stories, communicating with an audience, allowing them into an intimate experience that they can share, so that they can leave the performance space slightly different than when they went in.
Q. What is your creative process and where do you want to go with it?
A. I am doing everything on my own. I’m writing my music, I’m recording, performing, promoting it. A solo guy. Ultimately I realized that I need to reach out and collaborate with other people, whether it’s on a musical level or helping put shows together for me. The creative process has always been a natural thing for me. When I write a song, I sit down and put my mind to it, I try not to censor myself. Sometimes the words come first and sometimes the melody. I try a chord progression and I’ll start humming over top of it and creating words as I am playing. I don’t have one method. When I hear about a different process that is interesting to me, I try to incorporate it. Like the jazz musicians, there’s a guy named Kenny Werner, who wrote a book called Effortless Mastery, and it’s all about being free as possible, not only your creative process but when you are practicing. His philosophy is out of that practice will come creativity if you allow it, if you don’t pigeon hole yourself to think, oh, this is a routine to play my scales and I have to do this and that’s the practice and now I am going to be creative and I have my process for being creative. No, it’s all one thing. I try to tap into that.
Q. Do you want to add anything?
A. These ecological issues are becoming more prominent in the media, people are talking a lot about it. But there is not a lot going on as far as what people are doing. It would be great to walk out my front door and see less traffic and see more people riding bikes. It would be great seeing more people supporting local farms and eating organic food and boycotting the mainstream agriculture business, the automotive business, the oil business. We can live without these things, we can find a better way. To see people actually doing that, and the transition from the discussion to the action. That’s the next step.