Monastic Love Songs continues the tradition that David has established over the course of five albums with Red River Dialect: using a song cycle to articulate a relationship with inner and outer landscapes, inspired by the Taoist approach of observing the movement of the heavens in order to understand the cosmos within, and vice versa. The joyful closing track Inner Smile was initially written as a poem of thanks to his Tai Chi teacher Hollis and takes its name from a Taoist practice. The songs were written during the final weeks of a nine-month retreat at Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia where David took ordination as a Buddhist monk.
The album title is sincere, with a little tongue-in-cheek. The songs mostly explore human relationships within the community, with outliers: Gone Beyond shimmers with cosmic devotion, in Rhododendron a reverie grows from the shadow of a flower. Steadfast concerns the love to be found beyond the urge to like and be liked, when you can’t avoid that difficult person. Leonard Cohen, on his six
years living in a monastery: “You know, there’s a Zen saying: ‘Like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another.'"
David considers this album to be a follow up to 2015’s Tender Gold and Gentle Blue. The cover of that LP featured an image of him on top of Skellig Michael, in the years before the island was made famous as the home of the Jedi. He considers the visit to that abandoned Celtic monastic site to be one of the influences that stirred up his motivation. Skeleton Key speaks of what was given up to go, and what he was giving up to leave, referencing the Tibetan concept of the ‘bardo of becoming’.
The album came about through a series of fortunate encounters. David’s friend Tom Relleen visited him at the Abbey in May 2019, mentioning a postponed plan to visit the Hotel2Tango. A spark was sown: this studio had long figured in David’s imagination. Many of the releases on Constellation Records, which he had become a die-hard fan of in his teens, were recorded there. Tom contributed some Buchla synthesiser to the opener New Safe, which concerns healing in emptiness and light.
In May David was given permission by the senior monastics to acquire a guitar, which was swiftly baptised as “Malibu Barbie”. Having let the identity of being a songwriter loosen up, not playing an instrument in six months, he was unsure what would happen. In the single hour he was permitted to practice each day, songs began to cascade. The first, Purple Gold, concerns a reacquaintance with first love.
David wrote to the Hotel2Tango asking if they had any days available in mid-July?
Engineer and studio co-owner Howard Bilerman replied that they did, and a date was set. Did Howard know any local drummers or bass players who might do a session? He did, too many to choose from, what kind of style? David decided to ask for his ideal: did Thierry from Godspeed ever do sessions? Howard sent him the demos. Thierry was up for it. On the day he went deep into the cover of traditional song Rosemary Lane, his double bass singing on this and on Circus Wagon.
David asked if there were any local drummers he would recommend? Thierry said “many, what style?” David tried his luck again, “two of my favourite drummers are Thor Harris and Jim White.” Thierry said let’s invite them. Thor, having met David a decade earlier, flew from Austin to Montreal for that July day in the studio. Nine months of watching thoughts come and go in meditation helped David recognise this as an opportunity to practice enjoying the day without expectations.
He is, however, grateful that this album came out the way it did, channelling some of what it was like to live those nine months in a monastery overlooking the Gulf of St Lawrence, frozen and flowing.
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