Islands' Nick Thorburn: 5 songs that changed my life

How Paul Simon, Bauhaus and more influenced the singer-songwriter's music.

How Paul Simon, Bauhaus and more influenced the singer-songwriter's music

Islands, the Canadian indie-rock band fronted by Nick Thorburn (second from left), will return with their first album in 5 years, Islomania, on June 11. (Courtesy of Hive Mind PR; graphic by CBC)

Nick Thorburn is a lucky musician. 

He had never suffered from writer's block for most of his career, which kickstarted in the early 2000s with his Montreal DIY pop band the Unicorns. But in 2016, upon releasing two albums simultaneously under his long-running act Islands — Taste and Should I Remain Here, At Sea? — something switched off. That valve of inspiration shut, and suddenly Thorburn was unsure of where to go next without a functioning creative compass. 

"After those two records, I was like, 'What do I do next?" he tells CBC Music. "Put out three records in a day? Four records? What's my next trick?" 

Thorburn's bag was empty. In fact, pulling out tricks was starting to put a strain on him. The idea of having to sell a narrative, or his music in general, sucked the joy of making music out of him. "In a perfect world, I'd be able to make songs and put out records, and it wouldn't need context, like what's the story behind this record," he explains. "I understand people have busy lives and a lot on their plate, and I'm just a tiny JPEG thumbnail so I need to sell the sizzle a bit, but I don't like doing that." 

In a poignant turn, Thorburn took this as a sign to retire Islands. After all, 2016 marked 10 years of making music with that band (for which he served as leader to a rotating cast of members over the years) and Thorburn says "it felt like a really clean decade of making music." 

For the next three to four years, Thorburn didn't write a single song. Instead, he exercised other parts of his creativity. He wrote scores, he acted, he released a collection of short comic strips, he even produced and sold a TV pilot. Slowly but surely, these projects started unlocking more ideas until one day, about a year ago, that valve burst wide open. Using a slightly different metaphor, Thorburn says, "It was like there was a heavy rain or something, and I didn't have enough buckets to collect all the water." 

What followed was 40 to 50 new songs in the span of just a couple of months. Thorburn wasn't sure what would happen to these melodies — would he sing them? Will this be an Islands record? — but he says he didn't feel like he had control over this outpour of music. "It was more like I was receiving it, in a way," he says, noting, "I know that sounds very precious, but that's the truth." Soon, he called up Islands players Adam Halferty (drums), Geordie Gordon (guitar) — and later, bassist Evan Gordon — and an Islands album started to take shape. 

Thorburn says that the end product, Islomania (out June 11), is the best Islands album he's ever made. Part of it is because this is the most time he's ever spent working on an Islands album compared to other releases, where there was a set schedule and pressure. On Islomania, that tension is gone and in its place is a sense of freedom, to have fun and to make something much more dynamic. Following grooves, rhythms and beats, songs on Islomania finds Thorburn loosening up and focusing on what matters most: the music. 

Sure, Thorburn inevitably has a five-year plan in the works, with more Islands albums coming down the pipeline, but he says having the water come flowing back feels good — like a much-needed reset. When Islands made its debut in 2006, they had a simple but perhaps lofty mantra: "Islands are forever." While Thorburn can't promise that his band will be around for eternity, he does promise one thing with Islomania: "It's a new era." 

To mark the release of Islomania, CBC Music asked Thorburn to look back at five songs that changed his life. Scroll down to read about the artists and songs that shaped him and inspired him to make music.

'Crazy Love, Vol. II,' Paul Simon 

"So this is probably a pretty cheugy reference — not to use too hip a word — but it's pretty obvious, I suppose. Most people my age growing up, [Paul Simon's album, Graceland] was just always in the car. I don't think I have a very unique experience with that. I was probably five or so when it came out and it was in the tape deck in my parents' little Datsun, and it just burned into my psyche at that age. It was just this early relationship that I had with music that could be emotional and it could move me, and make me feel sad, and nostalgic, and longing. It's bizarre, I had no idea what those feelings were. That song in particular, I can hear that song now, 35 years later or whatever, and still be transported back to that place and feel those feelings instantly. It was just so powerful for me and it just really made me think about the power of songwriting and songs, and how moving they can be. 

"[The song's themes] hit me in my late 20s, that's when it started to take on another dimension. I think I'm about to be the age that he was when he made this record so it's kind of funny to have gone through all that, with losing love, songs take on a deeper relevance. On the first Islands record and even the first Unicorns record, there were little moments of influence from Graceland and Paul Simon. I think what I admire about him, as a writer, is just his curiosity; looking for inspiration and other avenues that might not be so obvious. Just feeling like you're engaging with songwriting as though it's this external animal that you want to try to wrestle. You're kind of like a hunter." 

'All we Ever Wanted was Everything,' Bauhaus 

"So this would be high school. This was when I was absorbing music. I would listen to songs and really be affected by them. This was a period when I was starting to say, hey, not only do I love being a listener of music, I also wanted to maybe be an active participant. Like, I want to feel what it feels like to sing and to be creating these emotions instead of just receiving them. And this song, I just remember how much I loved to sing along to it. When I had the house to myself, I would just blast it at top volume and belt it out. It was just such a fun crooning song. When [Unicorns member Alden Penner] and I were still in high school, we started a band and, for me, this was kind of a reference point, like I wanted to be Peter Murphy. I kind of had a goth thing — obviously, I was barely pubescent so I don't think I could get quite as low as Murphy could, but it was so fun. I want to cover this song. I feel like, in recent years, bands have started to cover it, and it's funny to see because it felt so personal to me when I was a kid." 

'Iron Galaxy,' Cannibal Ox 

"I moved to Montreal (from B.C.) in 1999 and I was not used to the winters on the eastern side of the country. Montreal was so cold, and I would just walk to school — like an hour in the snow — and have my little Discman. Back in the day, you didn't have an iPod, you couldn't just shuffle around songs. You put your CD in and it was way too cold on these long walks to switch it so you put the record in and that's your soundtrack. And [Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein] was such a soundtrack for me, for that early period in Montreal when I was really broke and just walking through the bitter cold. It's such a strong mood that that record conveys. It was cold and harsh, and just really affected me. It's just an absolute classic record. As a youngster, I was into Maestro Fresh Wes, Dream Warriors — some good Canadian classics. When I moved to Montreal and became roommates with [Unicorns member Jamie Thompson], he hipped me to a lot of this stuff. He hipped me to Cannibal Ox, Antipop Consortium, Lootpack and Clouddead … those were all so tied to that period of time in my life. Jamie got me into that. Then years later, I moved to New York and bumped into [Cannibal Ox producer and now one-half of Run the Jewels, El-P] in a coffee shop that we both lived nearby, and we did some collaborating and struck up a friendship." 

'Heart Like a Wheel,' Kate and Anna McGarrigle 

"This was a song that I probably heard for the first time in 2008 or so, a few years before Kate McGarrigle passed. I always knew of them, and obviously [Kate's children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright], but when I heard the song, it kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. Obviously music is an emotional experience for everyone, but that song really rocked me. When I went through a relationship ending, I think this song was a good guide, a good reference point, for how to work through heartbreak and how to metabolize it. That song definitely influenced how I made [Islands' 2012 album] A Sleep & a Forgetting. There's an unsteadiness to it, it's very wobbly in a way and it's a very fragile feeling, and I wanted to, I guess, try to capture that when I was working on that record. It was a big reminder of how to write from a vulnerable place and how to be vulnerable, too."

'Johnny and Mary,' Robert Palmer

"I discovered this song probably five or six years ago; before writing and recording Taste. Someone played it for me and it was one of those things where I'm like, 'I'm an adult, how have I never heard this song?' It just blew me away, it is just such an amazing f--king song. All the words sound so good and it feels so good. What's emotional to me about that song is just the way the synth bass comes in. It's really something I strive for, which is to make songs that are upbeat and that you can dance to, but if you listen closer you can feel the melancholy. I love a song that can make you cry and make you dance, I think that's what I'm always trying to do. It's just kind of woven itself into my psychic catalogue. I'm always going to be influenced by that record. There are some real hits on that album, but this one is really special. I feel like it's one of my all-time favourite songs."


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