Landlocked Desert Sessions
Calgary Alt-Folk Ensemble Ship Shape Subrock the Boat
We’ve all thought about which albums we’d bring along with us to a desert island, but Calgary artist Arran Fisher, guitarist of the now-defunct rock band The Summerlad, unleashed his own musical leanings on a self-imposed exile in the Persian Gulf.
“It was one of those things,” says the singer-songwriter on the formation of his new alt-folk-tinged quintet, Ship Shape. “I was living in Qatar off and on for a period of two years. Being out there you’re basically listening to one of two things: either you get the frilliest American pop, or you get Arabic pop, mainly out of Egypt. That’s the kind of stuff you run into on a daily basis.”
Finding himself immersed in an environment that offered little in terms of musical repast, Fisher was able to focus on his own latent creativity. In the process, he discovered his oasis of solitude to be an unexpected wellspring of natural artistic inspiration.
“I decided that maybe I should make good use of my time and start a regime of songwriting. I took it seriously, like a job, writing almost every weekday. It became an exercise in output. I didn’t have the idea to form a band when I got back; the point of the exercise was to write without critiquing. Out of that period came the 37 songs which I wrote and recorded as demos in Qatar and brought back to Canada with me.”
The next logical course of action was to assemble a group of players capable of bringing his solo desert sessions to life. Fisher enjoyed witnessing the band’s development as he brought on bassist Joel Tobman, drummer Scott Moffat, former Summerlad guitarist Sean Grier and lap steel player Brent Crosson. According to the persuasive bandleader, he convinced Crosson to put a steel guitar across his knees for the first time, with glowing results.
“Usually you find the band and then come up with the sound and the material, but this time it worked the other way around,” Fisher says. “I had to ask myself, ‘Who can come at this project with the right attitude?’ I knew that a collective-sound would evolve out of the right mix of personalities. One practice, we went down to the basement to work on the ‘Ballad of Rikyu and Hideyoshi.’ To my surprise we killed it in half an hour. I thought, ‘This is perfect.’ I didn’t have to say anything.”
The band’s forthcoming full-length debut, Please Ask Before Stealing, will be released via Acoustikitty, a production company Fisher founded six years ago. The experience he gained writing, performing and mapping out recordings for The Summerlad and other projects allowed him to craft a highly listenable album.
“Please Ask Before Stealing deals with some pretty strange topics. We touch on western music and other thematic elements that lend a certain drama and tension to the content, like a Sergio Leone soundtrack. As with The Summerlad’s songbook, we have a lot of atmosphere and texture; some of our songs have an almost dirgey quality to them. They’re a little dark, but not beyond hope. There’s always a ray of sunshine in there; plenty of heart and love to bring balance to our world.”
Another way in which Fisher brings serenity and focus to his life is through his practise of the Japanese martial art Aikido. An acolyte of Zen Buddhism, he incorporates seated meditation exercises into his musical discipline, with ear-pleasing results. Blending mediation, music and martial arts, Arran has tapped into a self-perpetuating continuum of creativity and reflection. Initially spurred into action by temporary geographic isolation, he has found a path to smooth sailing in the midst of a heaving cultural tempest.
Dedicated to the memory of his departed mentor, Yasuhisa Inaba Shihan, Ship Shape’s LP release is more than an anthology of tunes written while overseas. For Fisher, it’s a passport to a homecoming of divine proportions.
Originally published December 6, 2012 in FFWD Magazine