Most singer/songwriters are lonely souls with only a stool, an acoustic guitar and a heart-worn sleeve. Not Jason Collett. Oh sure, the Broken Social Scene guitarist has his instrument and a stack of intimate tales to tell—but his new solo album, Idols of Exile, sounds more like a house party.
Since 2001, Collett has been considered the indispensable lynchpin of Toronto’s booming indie scene, thanks largely to his casual (and still occasional) star-studded songwriting night known as Radio Mondays. Of course, most of these tunesmiths — such as Hayden, Kathleen Edwards, Weakerthans and most of the Arts & Crafts family — weren't stars yet. But Collett's beloved community-building series solidified the Toronto indie movement that would soon take off worldwide and connected Collett with his future social scene.
Collett was asked to join Broken Social Scene after their breakthrough album You Forgot It In People, but he was a solo artist first and never stopped writing his own tunes. When pressed for influences for his more roots-based style, he cites Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Nick Lowe. "My stuff is based around songs and the Social Scene thing is based around busting songs wide open," he says. "My thing is more schooled."
But after putting his own music on the backburner—aside from 2003's internationally-acclaimed Motor Motel Love Songs (which was actually a compilation of earlier efforts)—Collett is ready to fulfill his promise with Idols of Exile, his proper Arts & Crafts debut.
"This is the first time anyone has ever given me any money to make a record," he says. "I wanted basically to have all my friends on it. That is the spirit of how things are created in our camp right now and I'm smart enough to know a renaissance when it's happening."
So friend, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Howie Beck took the producer's reigns while other pals stopping by to help out included Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning, Andrew Whiteman (Apostle of Hustle) and Charles Spearin (Do Make Say Think); Leslie Feist; Andrew Cash; Chris Brown; pedal steel player Bob Egan; violinist Julie Penner; Stars’ Evan Cranley and Amy Millan; and Metric's James Shaw and Emily Haines, the latter lending her inimitable vocals to the road-song duet "Hangover Days."
Jotted down on notepads while on tour the past two years, every song perfectly reflects Collett's rollercoaster life in a vital body of work that has drawn critical comparisons to Tom Petty and Paul Westerberg. His heartfelt music mixes the wide open spaces of alt-country and intimacy of acoustic folk with the densely-layered sad-eyed optimism of the best indie pop, most affectingly on the violin-boosted western epic "We All Lose One Another," the group jangle of "I'll Bring the Sun" and the Sparklehorse-frail ballad "Parry Sound." But as songs like like "Brownie Hawkeye" and "Almost Summer" make clear, the album was also an opportunity to exorcise his suburban demons.
Collett grew up in the town of Bramalea, a Toronto suburb so perfectly laid out that the streets were alphabetized (he lived in the "B" section), but which was nonetheless plagued by drugs, alcoholism and the highest housewife suicide rate in the country. He moved downtown because "there was life there," making ends meet through woodworking while hanging out with older musicians like Can-Roots icon Andrew Cash.
Collett briefly led the alt-country act Bird, with Cash and Hawksley Workman, managing a single, self-released record of his songs called Chrome Reflection. In 2001 he also independently released the much-loved Bitter Beauty LP, these two works holding the body of his Arts & Crafts Motor Motel Love Songs compilation.
It is on Idols of Exile that Collett has finally found the opportunity to fully back-up his respected reputation, revealing sublimely incisive songwriting gifts to the world while scrubbing that suburban past out of his system.
Collett's warm, familiar and often fragile vocals tackle stories set in basement apartments and high school dances, about drinking Southern Comfort behind the shopping mall and finding solace in a mix-tape.
But the thing is, this isn’t Collett's youth alone — we're all either carrying the scars or still making the wounds — and his personal self-reflection produced an album so precise and relatable as to almost make you miss drinking a mickey in the 7-11 parking lot and passing out, naked, on a neighbor's lawn. Almost.