Murray A. Lightburn

Murray Lightburn could have made Hear Me Out, his second solo record, truly solo. He knew the songs he’d written weren’t for The Dears. He had fully fleshed-out demos. And he’d made his debut effort, 2013’s limited-edition Mass:Light, utterly alone.

“I definitely went back and forth about the concept being ‘Murray played everything on this record,’” Lightburn says. “But then I thought, ‘That’s probably not what Nat King Cole would have done.”

If such an analogy is unexpected, well…so is Hear Me Out. It’s a lush, romantic strings-and-soul record, unabashedly inspired by ‘50s crooners, ‘60s girl groups, Muscle Shoals, and Motown. From the shimmering “Belleville Blues” to the gospel slow jam “I Give Up” to the Shindig!-worthy burner “To The Top,” Hear Me Out is made up of ten fragile, unforgettably gorgeous pop songs about family, adult relationships and what you might call non-toxic masculinity.

“Guys that look like me, sensitive love songs isn’t something I see a lot of these days,” says Murray. Hear Me Out is as striking and ambitious as anything Lightburn has ever written for The Dears, but also nothing like the Dears.

Lightburn originally composed the album in a creative rush during what he calls a “turbulent summer of 2016.” That period, in between the release of The Dears’ Times Infinity Volume 1 and Times Infinity Volume 2, was a bit of a crossroads for Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak, both as bandmates and life partners.

“I can’t speak for Natalia, but I think we were both maybe needing to see a guidance counselor,” Lightburn says. “We made The Dears our everything…I wouldn’t say it hasn’t paid off, because it has, clearly. But that can’t be the only thing that defines us, you know?”

“This album is about grown-up stuff,” he says. “Having kids, having to sustain careers and sustain relationships, finding that thing that keeps you together in the midst of other circumstances that could tear you apart. The reason why the album’s called Hear Me Out, is it’s not only about expressing yourself, but listening too. Being able to communicate in a relationship is utterly crucial, if you’re gonna survive anything.”

“I’ve got your back, and you’ve got me,” he sings on the title track.

Initially, Lightburn intended to continue in the experimental, electro-leaning vein of Mass:Light, a futuristic “pop opera” that has only ever been released on limited-edition vinyl. But as he began to write what became the last song on the record, “When They See Me,” just on a guitar, embracing the music of his childhood — Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Ray Charles — seemed right, especially since it’s also the music that he still loves best today.

He wrote and demoed the whole thing immediately, sketching out the vibe and sound and instrumental elements…but then it was time to rejoin Yanchak and the Dears on tour in 2017. Along the way, he was also “bringing home the bacon” with other work, including production for Hawksley Workman, the World Provider and Stars, as well as music for the video game We Happy Few.

Finally, in the summer of 2018, Lightburn went into Montreal’s hotel2Tango studio with producer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen, Godspeed You! Black Emperor!). That alone was something new. “In the Dears, I turn all the knobs and push all the faders and move all the microphones around,” he says. “On this record I turned not one knob, and pushed not one fader. I just performed. It was the best experience ever.”

Lightburn does play all over the record, including guitar, mellotron, and “Tubular Bells.” But the lead players are Montreal jazz guitarist Steve Raegele, joined by bassist Remi-Jean Leblanc and The Dears’ drummer Jeff Luciani, who is a regular in the Toronto free jazz scene. “It’s like a whole community of jazzbos – or as the British say, ‘jazzers!,’” cracks Lightburn, who was raised by one (his father William played the saxophone). “They’re not steeped in indie-rock. They have this touch that’s very different, and super-polished. There’s no bad chops going on in there.”

Hear Me Out also reunites Lightburn with the four-piece string section from the two Times Infinity records (François PilonMadeleine Messier, Ligia Paquin and Sheila Hannigan), as well as flautist Brigitte Mayes, a key player on No Cities Left, among other Dears records, and singers Catherine McCandless (Young Galaxy) and Ariel Engle (La Force/Broken Social Scene).

Having such a crack band helped Lightburn fulfill his fantasy, where “you just arrive at the studio and the musicians would be waiting with sheets of music in front of them ready to play, and you would just sing the song,” he says. “That’s kind of what we did.” In fact, he and Bilerman had blocked out 55 hours of studio time, but only wound up needing two days for the basics. That was also different from The Dears, where “we might literally spend days on a sound or riffs that might exist on a song for for 15 seconds.”

“There’s no guitar solos at all, and very few instrumental passages. It’s just singing on top of songs,” Lightburn says. “So I guess it’s my first real singer-songwriter record. I’d like to think of myself as a singer-songwriter, because that’s what I’ve been doing for most of my life.”

Of course, “singer-songwriter” can describe anyone from Nick Cave to Serge Gainsbourg to Kathleen Edwards. And, says Lightburn, “I was listening to a lot of Gordon Lightfoot before I made this record too.”

But as loud as the Dears can be, and as lush as Hear Me Out is, it’s always about the songs for Lightburn. “Songwriting is something that I really regard as holy and sacred, and at the heart of everything I do,” he says. “It comes down to how I write, which is either alone at the piano or alone behind the guitar. There’s got to be a song. At the end of the day, no matter what I’m doing, it can still be boiled down and distilled to just a person strumming and singing their songs.”

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