Shawn Brown’s The Screaming Life: Ian Thornley

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Photo Credit: Nikki Ormerod

Big Wreck’s 1997 debut album in Loving Memory Of… was one of the most confounding, compelling and astonishing rock records of the era.

Loaded with odd time signatures and ear crushing guitar crunch, the album featured memorable cuts like “The Oaf,” “Blown Wide Open,” and “That Song.” While the band seamlessly weaved progressive elements with alt-rock savagery, the biggest revelation of the whole record cycle was front man Ian Thornely’s voice. Part Cornell, part Buckley, Thornley’s distinct vocals drove “The Oaf” to the top ten singles charts in both the U.S. and Canada.

2001’s The Pleasure and the Greed was followed by a long hiatus for the Canadian outfit. In the meantime Thornley formed the eponymous band Thornley and further added to his mythical status in Canada. Happily for us at SE (and rock fans around the world), in 2011 Thornley re-launched Big Wreck and released the incendiary Albatross LP. 2014’s Ghosts solidified Big Wreck’s return and saw them back melting faces from British Columbia to Newfoundland.

While there are rumblings that Big Wreck will soon return with yet another record, it turns out that Ian Thornley had some unfinished business to handle first – a solo record. And not just any solo record mind you; this LP is likely to be the best record you’ll hear all year. No playlist needed, just let it ride!

Secrets by Ian Fletcher Thornley exceeds any and all expectations.

The album features modest instrumentation, with Thornley playing and singing along with Big Wreck bassist Dave McMillan and Blue Rodeo drummer Glenn Milchem and it was produced by the one and only Mark Howard (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Daniel Lanois, The Tragically Hip). It features a bevy of highly emotional tracks that show colors of Thornley’s playing and singing that have never been captured at any point in his storied career. Make no mistake–Ian Thornley is truly one of the great guitarists, but his songwriting and singing on this record is nothing short of astonishing. Gorgeous melodies one after the other, whether it be “Frozen Pond,” “Feel,” “Stay,” or “Elouise,” Thornley finds the perfect balance of his powers and delivers a sonic suckerpunch that will remind you records can still be made by actual people.

We here at Stereo Embers find ourselves (once again!) euphoric that Ian Thornley made time to chat with us about the process of making Secrets, Mark Knopfler, and when we might see him stateside.

Stereo Embers: First off, congratulations on Secrets. It’s tremendously exciting to hear you exploring different areas of your playing, writing and singing with this level of emotion. What can you tell us about the decision to release a solo album? Why now?

Ian Thornley: Basically…it was something that I have wanted to do for a long time. The timing was right with Big Wreck having a few months off the road, and everyone’s schedule working out, that actually made this project finally come to be.

SE: Were you meaning to make such a personal, stripped down record?


IT: Yes, definitely. I am going through a big change personally which opened up a lot of doors emotionally, and allowed me to really explore this avenue of songwriting. It was definitely a leap of faith and way outside my comfort zone, and a totally different way of recording an album than what I am used to. I just wanted to try something different and needed to lay myself out there emotionally while doing it.

SE: Had you been stockpiling songs over the years for a project like this or were these songs all written in anticipation of making this specific record?

IT: A bit of both actually…some songs on there had been written for years, where others were written specifically for the release. There was music on there that I have been saving for the right time to put it out. Some music I wrote specifically for this “Mark Howard” type of treatment.

SE: Did you have a process for discerning which song ideas would be best for Secrets versus the next Big Wreck release?

IT: Some of the songs could clearly benefit more from the treatment used on Secrets and some could have been dressed up one way to be a Big Wreck song, or gone the other way to be a song on Secrets. It was clear with some songs that they only had one good way to treat them. For example, “Albatross” could be dressed up for Big Wreck or could have turned around and been treated for something like Secrets, whereas something like “I Digress” could really only be a Big Wreck tune. The colours are different, the canvas is different.

SE: How did you go about deciding that Mark Howard would be the right guy to helm this project?

IT: We had spoken about doing a project together about 5 years ago and back then I thought that I wanted to keep it more in the vein of something like a Chris Whitley type of album; more of a stripped down acoustic album with the added production value. Mark had worked on some of my favourite records of all times so I jumped at the opportunity of working with him. Then the reformation of Big Wreck happened and it got put on hold, but the opportunity popped up again and it went from being an acoustic record to this ‘Mark Howard’ method of production. There is a thing he does that no one else can do–it’s often imitated, but no one can really do what he does… and that’s the thing that I wanted.

SE: Glenn Milchem (Blue Rodeo) and Dave McMillan (Big Wreck) are stellar on this record. Its tricky playing and recording as a trio – how did you know these guys were the right guys?

IT: I definitely knew Dave’s style from playing with him in Big Wreck and know he can cover a lot of ground musically with very little instruction – I don’t need to give him a million parts of what I am working on for him to know where to take it. He is a quick study and extremely talented, so that was an obvious choice for me. Glenn was a friend of a friend and also suggested by management, and when we got into a room together it gelled really quickly and it became obvious that he made a great fit for this project both musically and as a person. I just needed to get everyone in a room and make sure everyone knew the direction it was going and could get the vibe, which they both did right away.

SE: Overall, how was the process of making this record different for you? In the arranging and recording of these songs, was it difficult to not keep adding part after part?

IT: Yes it was definitely difficult. It makes you rethink your parts for sure, because it’s not something you can just add on too much to without losing the effect. The whole process took 12 days and it was about getting the parts down and the performance down and making sure the vibe was right on each approach. We would move instruments around and mics around and see if we could do it properly as we went on, and since Mark mixes as he records, when it was done it was really done.

SE: You’ve talked in the past about certain songs on your records that are so emotionally evocative for you that playing them live is challenging – are there any songs on this new solo record that fall into that category?

IT: Quite a few actually…it’s still so close to the bone and it’s not like a lot of the subject matter in the songs has lent a lot of space for me to breathe in between the events and the recording of the songs themselves, and even until now. A lot has changed much for me so it’s still pretty raw, still an open wound that hasn’t scabbed over. It should be interesting to see how it feels live.

SE: You’ve been really open about your love of the guitar sounds of players like Mark Knopfler and JJ Cale–what did you notice about the guitar sound choices that you made on this record?

IT: With some of the songs I was following Mark’s direction when it came to the sound and the approach and then for other songs it was really just whatever guitar was in my hand at the time. I definitely was pulling from some of my favourite musical influences in some obvious places and some were conscious, some were subconscious; the ones that were conscious choices I think are clear, and you can attach a name to. Other songs and guitar parts were just what happened and fit at the time. Elouise was originally written on piano and when we were rehearsing this initially we decided to try it with a guitar. We thought it was neat and it worked with the vibe so we ran with it. That is definitely Mark’s wheelhouse; he has a big trick bag when it comes to atmospheric stuff and knows what works.

SE: You decided to include a re-arranged version of the Big Wreck classic “Blown Wide Open” (which is tremendous)–had you been thinking about doing that for a while?

IT: It was born from doing acoustic performances at radio and other promo events, and I recorded an acoustic version with Colin Cripps that had a bit of vibe a while back, and then got in with Mark and turned it into something that totally fit the vibe of this record. The outro on this version was written during the recording process on the fly.

SE: You’ve been quoted as saying that Secrets definitely sounds like a Canadian record–how so?

IT: Honestly I can’t really put my finger on exactly why, but it definitely has to do with the approach and the organic feeling of it, as well as the vibe we had going in the cottage studio. I’m not sure if it just sounds like that to me or maybe other Canadians too… it’s a hard thing to pinpoint exactly why.

SE: Is there any hope that we will see you touring in the U.S. anytime soon? If not, who do we need to speak to about that?

IT: Hopefully! You need to contact your local promoters at venues and tell them to book me!