Charles Spearin is an acclaimed musician and founding member of the bands Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene. He’s also the creative mastermind behind The Happiness Project, an album that melds samples of his neighbor’s voices with musical arrangements to dictate holistic, beautiful, and personal accounts of happiness. Despite having these musical accolades in his arsenal, it’s Charles’ serene character and gentle energy that rings the sweetest and stands most memorable. We sat down with him to discuss the inspiration behind his album, meditation, and his favorite comfort food sounds.
Hi Charles! Please introduce yourself to our readers!
Hi, my name’s Charles Spearin and in 2010, I released an album called The Happiness Project where I had conversations with my neighbours about happiness and created musical tracks based on the melody in their voices.
Looking through your career, I feel like we could root this interview in a million different projects for yours, but for the purpose of this conversation, we’re just going to fixate on this one album. So, tell us about the inspiration for The Happiness Project.
Of course. Well, in 2010 I had been spending lots of time at home. My kids were very little and I often played with them on the front porch of my house. Because of this, I would frequently see a lot of my neighbours and actually got to know them, and their voices, pretty well.
I would listen to them as they would sing to my babies, crack jokes, and tell me about their days. I just found each of them so unique. I wanted to explore that individuality, their colour, and untangle what made their sound melodic.
In each track, you asked your neighbors about happiness, paired their voices with an instrument, and fastened a musical arrangement inspired by their answers. What made you choose happiness as the root of this project?
Well, I wanted to root it in something that gave them space to get somewhat philosophical without having to get political or religious. I also wanted to keep the tone of our conversations neighborly. I didn’t want the discussions to feel heavy-handed or forced. Happiness seemed like a topic that would hit those sweet spots.
The pairings between your interviewees and instruments are so well blended and holistic. They perfectly deposit this fully formed image of each interviewee into a listener’s mind. How did you find the process of translating the interviews to music?
Well, I interviewed a certain amount of neighbours and had a certain amount of instruments at my disposal so in part I delegated instruments via a process of elimination, however, composing the melodies was more intuitive.
When I would listen back to the interviews I would listen to their words but I would also listen to the melody in their voices. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, I noticed that each person would begin to sing when they got to their thesis. I decided to zoom in on this section because it had this natural melody woven throughout it and then just dedicate a rhythm, key, and beat to each one.
When you were featured on the 11th podcast, you mentioned that your father lived without sight for much of his life. How did living alongside someone who has such a specific experience of sound influence your own awareness?
Well, my dad lost most of his vision in adulthood and when I was around ten he became legally blind. As a kid, I would often find him sitting in the backyard just listening to the world. I think he really enjoyed hearing the wind in the trees because he could sense that it was above his head and this sensation gave him an awareness of space, you know? I would often join him. It was pretty special.
You see, when you actually sit back and listen to the world you begin to notice how much it has for you to hear. It’s like when you look at a painting. At first glance, you might just see a landscape but when you look closer, you notice all the different colors, textures, and strokes that make up a particular landscape. If you close your eyes, you can hear all the colors of the world and feel how rich they are and I’m not sure you get that experience unless you actively listen. Living alongside my dad taught me that.
I also read in a previous interview that your father was a Buddhist. The kind of practice that you’re just describing rings true to those taught in Buddhism, right?
Yes, definitely. My father actually passed away at the beginning of July, but he had been a very, very dedicated Buddhist throughout his life. It wasn’t just a hobby for him. When his vision became very bad he turned to meditation and it became a big part of him, a huge part of his person. In turn, it became a big part of me.
And what does meditation look like to you?
To me, meditation is a process of noticing how your attention moves from one thing to the next. It’s a way of noticing what you’re paying attention to if that makes sense. There is a whole cornucopia of things that you can fixate your attention upon, however, what it does land on decides who you are in a sense. It shows the world what you are choosing to focus on, push away, or find attractive.
In Buddhism, there is a formula for suffering, but there isn’t actually an equivalent recipe for happiness. Having completed an album where you dissected so many people’s opinions and experiences of happiness, do you feel like you have one?
Well, I suppose this was the question I was throwing at my neighbours. Personally, I like to think that happiness is innate, that it isn’t a something to achieve, but rather a foundation that everything is built on.
However, in Buddhism, you’re right, there are lots of formulas. One in particular that springs to mind is called The Three Poisons which is about prejudice. This formula identifies the three poisons as passion, aggression, and ignorance.
As humans, we move through these three stages, or poisons, all of the time. It’s these feelings that steal our attention away from the smaller details and tempt us into viewing the world through a pick-and-choose lens. By indulging in this way, we ignore so much and become unhappy, but if we consciously rest in the moment and allow our attention to intuitively jump from one thing to the next, we can discover life in real time. We can take it all in bit by bit.
This teaching sort of plays into the analogy I used earlier about a painting. When someone is painting a scenery they can’t just ignore parts of the landscape they don’t like. They have to appreciate everything. In meditation, you’re basically looking at every single tiny moment that happens in life and noticing the quality of each without judgment. The idea that happiness is innate just means that there is so much richness to be found in life if you truly observe it, without prejudice and with total awareness, in a real way.
You made the Happiness Project in 2010 which means that the album is celebrating its 13th birthday this year! It also means that it has probably become a sort of audio time capsule of your street at a particular moment in time. Has it become more sentimental to you as time has passed?
Yeah definitely. I didn’t realize that at the time but it’s truly this audio snapshot from a particular moment in our street’s history. For example, my daughter was three when I created the album. She’s now leaving for university the day after tomorrow. I mean, that’s crazy.
Today, some of the neighbours who are featured on the album have moved somewhere else, others have passed away, and then a collection of them have barely changed at all, but I enjoy how the album is this audio portrait of us together at a very certain time. The longer time passes, the more special that portrait is going to become.
I usually finish these interviews by asking guests to identify their favorite sounds, but I thought that since your project had such a focus on voices I would ask you to share your favorite voice too. So Charles, who owns your favorite voice?
Well, my father’s voice was really special. It was almost like he had some sort of built-in subwoofer. You could feel his voice in your back, not in a bellowing way, but in a gentle way. It had this amazing undertone that hugged you wholly. You would hear him in your ears but then you would feel it too. It was comforting. I’m going to miss that for sure.
And to finish, what is your favorite sound?
Well, the more I work with music the more I realize that every sound is made up of other sounds, you know? No sound is solitary. However, even still, there are certainly comfort food sounds, sounds that just make you smile.
I remember when I was a kid and my Mom would come upstairs and my sister and I and would hear her put her hand on the top banister. Her wedding ring would do this special little tap-tap-tap on the post. There was always a comfort to hearing that sound because it meant our Mom was coming, you know? I think that could be my favorite sound. I haven’t heard that one in a while.
interview by Alice O’Brien, for Bear Radio