“I never intended to be a performer,” says Chad VanGaalen. “I was more interested in keeping an aural journal—it was quite embarrassing to imagine anyone beyond my friends and family hearing it.”
The Calgary-based artist is now in a position quite contrary to his original plan. Recently signed to indie-rock beacon label Sub Pop, a small sample of his vast catalogue of self-recorded music—entitled Infiniheart—has been re-released to an overwhelmingly accepting public. As a result, VanGaalen has become a folk hero of sorts, a roots-level maverick whose method of musical creation has given validity to thousands of unheard voices left stranded on dust-covered four-track recorders. Although the rustic intrigue of his story may still be gaining him more attention than his actual ability, with several albums of unheard material waiting for release, it will only be a matter of time before his music takes centre stage.
VanGaalen started writing music at the age of 14. Taking his first steps on his mother’s classical guitar, he was quickly absorbed by the potential of creating music. Not content just to write, he soon set out to find a way to capture the sounds he was creating.
“I had two boom boxes with tape decks and built-in condenser mics,” says VanGaalen. “I would record the guitar and vocals together on the first deck, then play it back and record myself doing hand claps or harmonies on the second deck.”
After working in this primitive form of multi-tracking long enough to solidify his interest in the process, he eventually sought out other methods of recording.
“My best friend’s brother was in a band, and they had a four-track,” he says “He recommended I get one if I was serious about multi-tracking.” It was at this time that VanGaalen’s collection of recordings started to swell. Already performing around Calgary as a busker, he released a series of self-produced albums of his work. Between the airplay the CDs gained at campus radio stations and internet praise from fans, word began to spread.
VanGaalen was soon approached by art school classmate Ian Russell, who had grown interested in the songwriter’s prolific output. Russell asked VanGaalen to retool some songs for release on his newly created Flemish Eye Records, together the two began to piece together what would eventually become the track listing for Infiniheart.
While the album’s origins may lead the listener to expect a collection of songs in various states of disarray, the music is actually cohesive, well-developed and skillfully performed. The album proves itself well beyond the diamond-in-the-rough appeal its backstory provides. Each track is unique in its sound and content, with VanGaalen’s strong songwriting thriving through its use of surrealistic imagery and off-kilter arrangements.
The album’s initial pressing was released in 2003 to an eager audience. The sprawling network of support VanGaalen had gathered was quick to continue to push the disc to new listeners. This gradual expansion of the songwriter’s notoriety continued at ground level until “my friends in different countries were hearing my songs in record stores.”
With the album finding a particular swell of support in America, it wasn’t long before labels started to search out the Canadian artist. With particular interest coming from both Secretly Canadian and Sub Pop, VanGaalen eventually decided on the latter.
“I was puzzled that someone thought it would fly,” he says.
Now, with a business plan involved in songs that had originally been created for an audience of one, he has had to adjust to the new pressures put on his music. “It has made me more self-loathing. Having people critique my songs all the time is strange, but everyone at Sub Pop is a sweetheart and a friend, so I’m learning not to give a shit.”
Now living in Sackville, New Brunswick, doing an artistic residence to work on his animation—he’s taking a break from recording—VanGaalen seems excited about his music’s future on these new terms. Still, despite changes to everything about the way his music is delivered, VanGaalen is determined to stay true to how he produces it.
“I have no real desire to work in a formal studio,” he says. “Recording the songs at home is the best part for me.”
Chad VanGaalen w/Ted Leo + Pharmacists, north of America and The Hot Springs, October 13 at The Marquee Club, 2037 Gottingen, 9pm.