By: Lucy Sky –
M ost know him as the bass player for acclaimed Canadian indie rock band Metric. But Joshua Winstead is about to release his debut solo album, MMXX, on June 3rd via Royal Cut Records. The album features Winstead in his own space, and utilizing a variety of instruments to create a sound much different from what we’re used to with Metric.
Winstead dove into himself, with a desire to establish his own voice and put some of the more personal stuff out there through his own music. The album title, MMXX, has heavy meaning. The MM stands for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the double X’s represent love and death, which both great men experienced the lengths of both sides of.
In our new interview, Winstead details the transition from Metric to his own realm, overcoming some of his greatest fears, overcoming racism, and more.
MMXX is going to be your first solo album. How does it feel to be going back to singing? How do you feel about the way it turned out?
That’s really exciting actually. Going back into it has been a really exciting process. It was daunting at first, but then I was like what else am I going to do? I do this every day, so I might as well keep going, but trying to put a whole other project up in the air is a bit daunting. Really exciting [though], and I’m really happy with the way the album turned out. I got to take my time to do it, basically on my own, with nobody pressuring me to get it done or anything like that, besides myself. So I’m really happy with it actually.
Must be nice, not having that pressure like in the band when you have everybody at the same time.
I don’t know, it’s one of those things where pressure can be fun. Pressure can stimulate [you] to get things done. It wasn’t like I didn’t have pressure from myself, because I probably hold myself [to] too high standards. I could’ve kept working on it forever, because I’m a perfectionist of sorts. At one point you have to allow yourself to let go, but when you’re working with other people, that sometimes is a positive part. They help you [know], “okay [it’s] time to go, keep moving.” When someone has the fire under you, you have to make your decisions faster, it’s that commit, which can be good.
You said you were trying to establish your own voice and the album is a very lyrical one. How do you feel now that you’ve put all that very personal stuff into an album that is solely yours?
I feel great. I’m not afraid to express those types of emotions, or let people see my insides. That’s nothing that for some reason has ever bothered me, ever. So having it out there doesn’t really change the way I look at things, but I’m hoping it will change the way people look at me and hopefully they can change the way they look to the outside world a little bit.
You’ve released six albums with Metric and toured with them for years, and following the band’s recently concluded U.S. tour, you previewed music from your forthcoming album at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York. Were you at all nervous to get up on stage as a singer again and perform your solo work?
Absolutely! I was SO nervous before the Rockwood show and I’ll be completely nervous before the Toronto show coming up on the 30th. It’s not a paralyzing nervousness, because I’ve been on stage most of my life, it’s more of a nervousness that I want it to go well. That I’m excited, because I’m happy about it. It’s one of those things, like when you’re rooting for your favourite team, you’re not really nervous, but you’re excited because you want them to win. That’s kind of what I feel like, I really care about what I’m doing. I want it to go well, I want to put on a great show, I want it to be beautiful, and I want it to sound great. That’s the excitement, that I get the chance to do it. Which is really awesome.
I still get excited for Metric’s shows, but I don’t get nervous anymore. It’s just a bit different, the framework is in place, the machine is deeply in place, and I have three people who I’ve relied on and worked with for a long time. We have a good relationship like that, so the nervousness is different.
It becomes like a second nature after you’ve done that for so long, with the same people I’m sure.
Absolutely, absolutely. Second nature and something that you’ve done a lot of times. You can look to the past, and confidently, we’ve played shows for a long time, so I can step forward and think okay, in most cases this is going to be really good again. The inertia of the past keeps you going, but I’m excited.
While a lot of the songs are to do with love and death, there’s a lot of deep political components as well. The album’s title is a nod towards what Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. did for us. What do the sacrifices those two men made for all of us mean to you, personally?
To me personally, beyond what’s obvious, the things they’ve done about civil rights and just awareness, to me, it’s that they showed that you can live a life that’s dedicated to others. To me it’s almost like they went too far, and people… I don’t mean to say that they went too far in what they did… but they really gave all of their life for it, up until dying for their cause.
To me, that just inspires at least do a third of what they did. At least be brave enough to speak about what you truly care about and be brave enough to stand for that positivity, fighting for things we take for granted. I’ve watched change through my parents life and my own life and those things… those things were hard fought. It’s inspiring, I hope to reflect that and [I] feel like this is what I can do. [I] try to be positive, to help inspire others, not just be cynical for the point of being cool.
I’ve always found it interesting too, because in their impact, it’s nice that it helps them live on in the people they’ve inspired and do what they can now.
Absolutely. That’s exactly why I believe that the idea in other people’s actions are fruitful and that you can live on. Basically everyone’s ideas are living through us all the time, it’s just not as often that you see the impact of one person. All are based off of each others ideas. The way we think, the way we act, and how we treat each other becomes the social norm in a sense. You become used to it. So what I’m trying to say, is that the social norm can actually change, we can still become kinder, more generous, more thoughtful, and [be more] open towards other people. People we don’t know, or who we used to be afraid of if we’re xenaphobic or something.
It’s very much a domino effect, it just depends on who’s at the beginning of it.
Absolutely, that’s perfect. But then, being a domino, you could easily step out of the way if it’s in the path of negativity. You could just step out of the way and not continue it on yourself, or you can push another domino down that just needs a hug or something. (laughs) To over simplify it.
Growing up, you had to figure out how to deal with racism from both ends of the spectrum, but also what it means to have both heritages in your blood. How would you describe that experience and how it shaped you as a person and musician?
It was great, it was a great experience. I wish more people could have it. I was raised by two amazing, loving parents, who were just fantastic. Both completely open and great people, it was a blessing. Not all of those trials and tribulations were the most fun. I can’t say that growing up and having certain things happen… certain occasions to feel odd and unwelcome. I can’t say they were fun, but then, relating them back to my family and the way things have worked, they were great, because I don’t have any judgements against… I don’t care what race, what religion, what sexuality. That’s not to me what defines people. That’s a blessing from my childhood and my parents. Growing up mixed already, I was like “oh, we’re not all the same, but we are the same in a sense. The depth of what we are is the same.”
There really only is one race, we’re all human. Just because our pigmentation is different really shouldn’t make us any different.
Yeah and I like to break it down. This gets a bit spacey, but I have a biology and chemistry degree [from] before I was doing music. We could break it down to races, but we could also break it down to everything that’s alive. What I’m hoping to do, is as you transition in your mind that we’re all the same type of people, let’s treat each other good, then you could be like “you know what? Animals also deserve to be treated well and the planet deserves to be treated well.” So I just think it’s that progression of… for example, when the civil rights leaders were fighting for their rights, they first started with equal rights for one type of race, then they were like “oh no, you know what, it’s not that. It’s race and sex.” Then it’s not just race and sex, it’s human rights, and those evolutions are very important. Now I think we can move on to animal rights and earth rights. It’s actually being fought right now in the courts. A group of teenagers are suing the US Government and President Obama for the rights of future children that are not even born, concerning the environmental damage. I [thought] that’s really interesting, I say go for it.
Many young men and women struggle with these things every day, and as much as we’d like to think some day it’ll go away, it’s still very present in modern day society. What would you say to someone struggling to come to terms with racism and everything surrounding it?
I guess that’s the same thing you do to come to terms with everything good and bad. Maybe just take the struggle out of it. It might not be fun, but you’ll learn something from it. Try to be strong and learn from it. It’s not an easy thing, it’s one of those things that I’d love to say [to] just ignore it, or it’s going to get better, [but] I think it’s going to take quite a long time to get better. As long as you realize it’s just someone else’s judgement against you, that doesn’t really matter, you don’t have to take it into your heart, or in your mind. If someone is being physical, you might have to avoid the falling stone, avoid the rock, but it doesn’t mean it absorbs those things as your own thoughts and degrades your own self worth. It’s mostly just keep your own self worth and move forward, don’t worry about those [people].
I find it goes for a lot of things too. People will pick on you, not only for the color of your skin, but because of the music you like, or the clothes that you wear.
Anything. Humans are great at that. We’ll pick on you for anything.
MMXX is about love and overcoming fears. Would you say that the album being a solo project reflects on that at all? Your love for singing and maybe overcoming a fear of putting yourself out there as a solo artist?
100 per cent! You’re getting it 100 per cent, that’s exactly correct. Like when I was like, “okay, should I do this?” You have to get over your fears of if people judge you, that’s part of it. Would you tell a child to stop singing because they sounded bad? No, because you’re happy that the child is singing, and it’s the same thing for an adult. If you’re happy doing something like that, move forward. But it was really all of those moments you overcome your fears. “Am I good enough? Can I write a good enough song? Okay, this song is okay. Am I good enough to record it? Oh, am I good enough to play it live?” It doesn’t matter man, just do it, and the more you do it, you tend to get more confident in it. I mean, I had a lot of confidence going into it, so it wasn’t super fear based, but those fears have to be overcome at some point in life.
For everyone really.
Yeah, it wasn’t like I was afraid the whole time. I was very excited, but there’s little hills in the landscape sometimes that you have to climb.
You recently did a cross-Canada tour with Death Cab For Cutie. How did that tour come about, and what was it like touring with them?
That was fantastic. It was even more fun than I expected. It was coming off the heels of a full US tour with this other band called Joy Wave and we had a really great tour and a really good show set up. The live show, we had spent some good time and energy, producing a really nice light rig and stage show. As we were planning for our Canadian tour, we thought about doing a bigger one for a bit more people in Canada. We had the idea of trying to team up with someone who could do some really nice, large shows with us, so we could also amp up the size of our stage show, which we were having a really great time building.
We reached out to who was available at the time and we have mutual friends between Stars and Death Cab For Cutie, and they did a little bit of a liaison in there. Then [we] realized we had a lot of friends in common and that it was going to be a really nice show. Musically, it was really nice as well. We ended up having another group that we’re close with, this band Leisure Cruise, open up as the first of three and it was a wonderful experience. We had done the US tour right before that and that one had gone really well too, so we were kind of nervous about “can it actually keep going? A whole tour of both countries,” and it was great. They’re a great band too.
Going through both must have been interesting.
Because Jimmy and Emily are from Toronto and most of our operation is working out of there, it’s definitely like a home team advantage in Canada, which is fun to have. It’s a lot of fun.
Would you say because Toronto was where the beginning was, is crazier with fans?
I would say that’s what happens. Jimmy and Emily grew up there, we spent a lot of time there, and then we moved the studio there, so me and Jules spent a lot of time there. I think people are happy that we got to do the things we do and they come out to support and share in it, because they really helped make it happen. If it wasn’t for really good shows in Toronto, knowing that you can come back and survive because of things like that, gives you the ability to go out and push a little further. So I would say there’s a bit of pride there. But also, because we did a lot of things in Los Angeles and New York, I feel like we get similar receptions. Not as gigantic, but America is definitely a bit more concentrated anyway.
There’s a lot more artists that come out of there too. I find with Canadians, we pride ourselves in the artists that really make it out there and make it through the US, because it’s hard. We get type casted.
Yeah, I’m really happy that I didn’t end up just being in a US band. It’s really been eye opening and fun. I’m just as often in Canada as I am in the US now.
There was a slew of different instruments used in the creation of the record, including piano, guitar, bass, synthesizers, harmonium, trumpet, drums and of course your vocal chords. Aside from some live drums, you wrote and recorded all of that yourself. What was it like going completely into your own element after so many years of working on a team?
Really, really fun. (laughs) It also tends to make you a better musician, which is then really fun to bring back to the group as well. I’m figuring out a piano line, or a drum part… I wrote all the drum stuff as well, it was all written by me, but I can’t play as well as I want to on drums, to record in the amount of time I needed. Just getting into those instruments is really great, really fun, and really educating as well. I had a fantastic time doing it.
It’s kind of going out of the box too, because like you said, it becomes like a second nature. Getting up there, playing bass, being in Metric and in that box. Then you get to go out and create your own baby.
Yeah, it was really fun, I’m really appreciative that I got to do it. I plan to do it again and again. (laughs)
Metric has a large and very loyal fan base that has been around for over a decade. I’m sure those fans are highly anticipating hearing what your solo sound will be. How would you describe it to an impatiently waiting fan?
I would describe it as a mix between folk, soul, [and] R&B, with an edge of rock, or something like that. It’s definitely got a folk and soul feeling to it.
Now that you’ve released an album on your own, do you think there will be more to come?
Absolutely. Even if not one person listens to this album and nobody was even asking for a second one, there would absolutely still be a second one, (laughs) and a third one. Even if I never gave it to someone, I love writing music. It’s a great way to spend your days, it’s wonderful. When I have free time, I love sitting down with instruments, hearing what they have to say and what I want to say with them. I love it, I’ve been attracted to it my whole life. There’s definitely no way I’ll stop doing it.
Even getting to share it with the world. I can’t even imagine how gratifying that must be, with something that you love so much. Being able to do it every day and having people receive it the way that they have.
I haven’t really heard much back yet, because it’s just getting into the world, but it feels great on the Metric side. It feels really positive, it’s really rewarding and you definitely feel lucky and blessed. I hope it’s received well on the solo album, because that’s one thing… you don’t put something out to hope that people don’t care. You have to be like “well, if they don’t, I’m still going to move forward.” You can’t be devastated. But you have to admit that you like when someone says you look nice today. It’s nice, compliments feel good. So I hope people enjoy it, it’s a lot different from Metric. I think it’s very good, I’m proud of it.
Of course you produce it for yourself, you make the music for yourself, but you put it out there for other people to see it and hopefully like it as much as you liked making it.
Yeah, there’s no denying that ego goes into it and I think that’s a healthy part of it, to enjoy peoples reactions to it and hope that they like it.
It’s always scary putting something out there, especially when you care about it so much and have such a love for it and maybe getting a response that someone thinks it sucks.
Exactly, that’s the thing when you care about something, the danger comes in. “I could be hurt, oh no.” (laughs)
The Pay-What-You-Want, 11-track album is available here: joshuawinstead.com.