In the winter of 2008, for two night’s running, Daniel Wesley mounted the stage before a sold out crowd at Vancouver’s 1000 capacity Commodore Ballroom. The venerable concert hall has seen its share of local artists, but Wesley’s extraordinary two-night stand was something different; a grass roots event without precedent, based on the cyclonic success of an independently produced, windswept reggae-bomb called "Ooo Ohh". The most requested song of the year on powerhouse local radio king 99. 3 The Fox, "Ooo Ohh" is and always will be and solid-gold, no-shit, genuine phenomenon - the kind of thing that very, very occasionally cuts through all known conventions based on nothing more than it’s own mojo. Same goes for Sing + Dance, the breezy full-length it came from.
“I don’t see it as the last song I’m ever gonna write that people are gonna like,” Wesley offers, some 18 months later. The soft-spoken 27 year-old singer-songerwriter tends to have a Zen-like disposition at the best of times, but with his recently completed new album - Wesley’s first with 604 Records – his composure is entirely justified. The self-titled album is a quantum leap for the industrious young artist, who found himself vacating the producer’s chair for the first time in a stridently DIY, three-album career.
Dave Genn took over the knob-twiddling on the new album, but the increasingly acclaimed producer wasn’t the only luxury Wesley could finally afford. “We were in the studio for five months,” he says, his tone suggesting that he still barely believes it. “On previous recordings we haven’t had more than five days to record the whole album, and with very small budgets. So that was a big part of the picture.”
Genn also threw some particularly tasty keyboard parts into the mix, bringing Wesley’s inimitably hummable songs to a nice boil on numbers like the dubwise and Space-Echo drenched “Something That You Do”, which arrives on a relaxed and bassy fade-in that’ll remind more seasoned listeners of the Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”.
“Something That You Do” is the most explicitly Caribbean sounding of the 12 originals. Determined to “not place myself in a hole I can’t get out of,” Wesley - along with bassist Darren Parris bass, and drummer Tim Proznick - turned up the pop for numbers like “Drunk and Stoned”, and “It’ll Be You”.
Wesley sees the latter as “the whole classic pop love song, about a girl that you love and you’re just telling her how much she means to you.” The former, meanwhile, offers a bridge between Wesley then and Wesley now. The singer happily confesses that “Drunk and Stoned” is lightweight in conception if not execution, but there’s no ignoring the force magnifying effect of a gang vocal that enters the picture at the two-and-a-half minute mark. “I’m probably gonna make ‘Drunk and Stoned’ beer coasters,” Wesley chuckles. “I think people in Alberta would buy that.”
“Diggy” is even more mesmerizing – like ‘Drunk and Stoned’, it feels determinedly frivolous at first. Then you notice the directness of the hook, the buttery groove, the decisiveness of Paris’ bass pattern, and a vocal beefiness that Wesley has never achieved before. Equally, a sax break takes the band to places unknown.
Wesley reports that “Diggy” came together on a beach in Costa Rica, after the sedative effects of a sunset barbecue, surrounded by friends. “I just started singing, ‘Diggy diggy dig dig…’,” he laughs. “I don’t know why. People do stupid things sometimes. But my friends started singing it, and it seemed to turn into a song after that.”
As a constitutionally unpretentious man, Wesley claims that “it’s kinda weird talking deep about songs you wrote, because they’re just songs. People can and should take them for what they are…,” but there is, of course, more to it than that. It’s worth remembering that beneath its face-hugging hookiness, "Ooo Ohh" was a song about sexual abuse, while Wesley cops to an ongoing theme of escape in his music. If pressed further, he’ll open up about the fear and loathing that informs the remarkable “Pilgrimage”, with its take on the gang wars that have turned Wesley’s hometown into a shooting gallery. “What’s happening today,” he says, “it weighs heavy on some people. The last six or seven months have been pretty scary around here. ‘Pilgrimage’ is a pretty big statement that I wasn’t trying to make, but the song makes it. And I think it can pertain to anywhere in the world, where those kinds of things are happening.”
On a strictly musical scale, “Pilgrimage” might be the most darkly expressive three minutes Wesley has yet committed to tape, with a universe of suggestion between its disco vibe, fuzzy riff, and a general increase in pace that eventually drops the listener into an evocative middle eight unlike anything else in the Wesley songbook.
It’s the perfect bookend to “Drunk and Stoned”, and gives shape to the overall sense that this album is designed to open new vistas for a talent that’s only just beginning to find itself. Fittingly, and like any natural born music-maker, Wesley appears to treat life and work as an indivisible thing, subject to the same rules, and the same core philosophy.
“I want to have a career like Neil Young, or Tom Petty, or Dylan, “ he asserts. “They could always surprise people. But your heart’s gotta be in it. Everyone wants excitement in their lives, and there’s nothing exciting about having no new experiences. That’s the whole idea – pushing to see what else you can do.”