It's not often you'll hear a story about label interference making a record better, so let's marvel at Hey Rosetta!'s Second Sight.
The band was twice short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize and has been nominated for a Juno Award - the Canadian equivalent of the a Grammy - and Second Sight has been warmly received. SputnikMusic.com described it as "a collection of profoundly beautiful and well-arranged songs that I'm sure will stand the test of time."
Yet the story of its creation shows some of the opportunity inherent in a little adversity.
The Canadian septet had finished recording the album's 11 songs, and the band's label liked it, but ... the staff felt it needed a single, something to launch it. Singer/guitarist/pianist/songwriter Tim Baker - in a recent phone interview promoting the band's April 24 Communion Tour gig at Rozz-Tox - said he disagreed.
"We thought we had a great record, and we had to go back in" to the studio, he said of the band's frustration. Hey Rosetta! assented because they also wanted to make the album as commercially viable as possible, "to get it out to people."
But writing to grab people's attention is difficult, and something that was foreign to Baker as a songwriter. "I'd never written a single before," he said. "We'd gotten this far just playing our sprawling tunes and touring all the time. If we were going to try to get something on the radio, then I really wanted it to be moving and really mean something to me. And hopefully be one of those songs that isn't just skin-deep, kind of asinine music. ... A song that actually reaches past and does something to you. ...
"We took it as a challenge ... trying to write something short and catchy but meaningful. ... I think we got it, but it was a trial for sure."
The resulting song is "Kintsukuroi," which draws its name from the Japanese art of repairing pottery using precious metals to highlight rather than hide the damage. That technique is shown on the album's cover, and it provided Baker a perfect conceptual companion for the romantic relationship he was trying to write about - something destroyed that is reassembled, emerging differently beautiful.
"If you go through that [break-up] process ... very respectfully, then you end up feeling closer than you ever did," Baker said. "I thought it [kintsukuroi] worked just enough, a new way of seeing this broken thing."
The pottery-repair hook, he added, came from his yoga instructor, and it allowed him to finish the song. "I didn't really have the glue to hold it together, so to speak," he said with a laugh.
The song succeeds because despite its brightness and purpose, the title metaphor is thoughtful yet completely fitting, and kintsukuroi also resonates with the album's title and primary theme - the idea of looking at things anew. So although the band resisted adding a new song, it ended up rounding out the whole amazingly well.
Hey Rosetta! has been aptly described as a cross between Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire, although its richly airy style feels organic to the band. And one would never know it from listening to the confident record, but the issue of a single was just the final challenge for the group.
On its previous three full-lengths, Baker said, the band went into recording satisfied with arrangements and tried to nail them in the studio. On Second Sight, however, Hey Rosetta! chose producer Marcus Paquin, who pushed the band to fine-tune them even more. Paquin, for example, suggested turning the chorus of "Gold Teeth" into a bridge - a major structural and tonal change.
"We had them as we thought we wanted them," Baker said. But listening to outside advice - whether from a producer or record-company executives - can pay dividends. "Maybe you find something that's interesting, that you can use in that song or somewhere else."
Hey Rosetta! will perform at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; RozzTox.com) on Friday, April 24. The 8 p.m. all-ages show also features Kevin Garrett and The Bones of J.R. Jones, and tickets are $8 in advance and $13 the day of the show.
For more information on Hey Rosetta!, visit HeyRosetta.com.