After manning the mixing desk for dozens of records made at downtown Dartmouth’s New Scotland Yard recording studio, Thomas Stajcer takes off his audio engineer’s cap and steps up to the mic for his solo debut Will I Learn to Love Again?, and knocks it out of the park.
Knowing his work on records by Joel Plaskett, Mo Kenney and David Myles doesn’t prepare you for the sound of his own record, a layered and rich slice of Americana, with a vein of outlaw country, sung in a sonorous voice that’s as home with tearful confessions as it is indulging in wry storytelling.
Stajcer wasn’t born a honky tonk balladeer, he grew up outside Cambridge, Ont., playing in high school rock bands before studying studio production in Mississauga. He moved to Halifax in 2012 after ditching a butcher shop job in Kitchener, and started doing sound on Saturday nights at the Carleton for its weekend house band, the Carletones, a collection of local pros that brought him to Plaskett’s attention and a steady gig at New Scotland Yard.
“I could not find a more perfect setting for meto work for my livelihood than here,” says Stajcer, relaxing in the cork-lined bunker on Portland Street that was formerly cold
storage for Rideau Furs. “I spent some time travelling around Ontario, knocking on studio doors, seeing where I wanted to work, and the echelon of studio that I wanted to work at.
“Most of them are fairly clinical places that are akin to a hospital or something, I wouldn’t feel very comfortable working in them. So to work in a place like this, one giant room that’s a converted fur coat storage locker, I’m very grateful for the opportunity. I’ve found more like-minded people here than in Ontario, there seems to be more of a community vibe, maybe because it’s so isolated.”
Will I Learn to Love Again? gets its launch with a series of Maritime dates over the next two weeks, with P.E.I. shows at Mt. Stewart’s Trailside Cafe on Thursday and Sportsman’s in Charlottetown on Friday. On Tuesday, June 26, Stajcer is at the Townhouse in Antigonish, before returning to Halifax-area stages like the Carleton on Thursday, July 5 and Hubbards’ Trellis Cafe on Friday, July 6.
Like the tour, and journey that led Stajcer to Halifax — which also included a stint working in Belgium for several months — his path towards the rootsy side of country that fills Will I Learn to Love Again? was also a meandering one. Starting with an early interest in the music, life and legend of Johnny Cash, he eventually went down a YouTube rabbit hole of performances from the Man in Black’s late 1960s TV show, which featuredeverything from Bob Dylan’s first post-motorcycle crash appearance to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and the Monkees.
But it was a clip of Waylon Jennings singing Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? that piqued his interest, which led Stajcer to discover a world of authenticity and rebellion in the outlaw country movement, sandwichedbetween the classic era of Nudie-suited honky tonk and today’s ball cap and pickup truck vein.
“Waylon felt pretty rock and roll in attitude, and the lyrics struck me in a way that was getting at something I felt I could inhabit,” says Stajcer, who was further fueled by a Marty Stuart concert at Casino Nova Scotia for which recent New Scotland Yard inhabitant David Myles had a spare ticket.
“It kind of floored me, just the performance art of it. Marty had a Nudie suit, and everybody else had contrasting suits, and he had this amazing band with Harry Stinson drumming, Chris Scruggs playing bass and Kenny Vaughan playing guitar.
“Then Marty opens his voice, and I thought, ‘Holy crap, this is a country singer. He is good!’ Then
he started playing guitar, and that impressed me even more. But I also loved some of the humour behind it, and they sang gospel songs and Marty’s ’80s and ’90s country hits, and that variety was just really striking.”
Stajcer was further moved by Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, drawing on the same influences and giving the songs modern spin in terms of content, while his band members guitarist Jacob Strang and bassist Talon Beek brought their own encyclopedic knowledge of traditional country from growing up in rural New Brunswick.
“This is me learning as I’m going, trying to fit the themes that I’ve always thought about, and written about, into a context that is acceptable, and listenable,” says Stajcer.
“Although there’s a lot of weird stuff on the record too.”
There’s a lot of grit as well, as the record ends with a two-barrel country rock blast How LongCould I Wait? that bears echoes of early Ryan Adams. Stajcer likes his roots music with the edges intact, with a sense of humour and honesty at the same time, and he has no problem poking fun at himself on Sad Cowboy and Me and Willie.
“Hearing Waylon and Marty and Sturgill, they all have that sense of whimsy and that attitude that tells you they don’t care what people think,” he says. That’s what’s cool about country music to me, and it lets me write things that I wanna write, that pop music doesn’t let you write.”
While Stajcer enlisted Americana pros like theModern Grass’s Andrew Sneddon on dobro, steel guitar whiz Asa Brosius and violinists Anna Wedlock and Shannon Quinn, NewScotland Yard head honcho Plaskett was also there in spirit, co-writing the opener Love Me Now (Or Never Again) and Wildfires.
“We spent three hours on Love Me Now (Or Never Again), looking at what the song’s about, tearing it down, which elements work and which ones don’t, which lines don’t make sense, which ones could be better,” says Stajcer of the experience of working with Plaskett away from the mixing board.
“I’d rewritten the song three times already, to get it to the point where I thought it was good enough to show to Joel and hope he’d hear something in it. So that was eyeopening, and a huge learning opportunity for figuring out how to write a narrative and make sure that the song makes sense.”
For more on Stajcer and samples of Will I Learn to Love Again?, visit thomasstajcer.bandcamp. com.