by Kurt Brighton
“Oh, cool! A Curious George doll!” exclaims Dears frontman Murray Lightburn. “I’ve been wanting one of these for my kid for ages.” He pauses. “Sorry about that—I got sidetracked. I’m in a pharmacy right now in Winnipeg.”
These are not exactly the first words you expect to hear from a charismatic crooner who leads Canadian sextet The Dears, a band who’ve amassed a mantel full of awards over the past two years. But Lightburn’s really not all that different from other newlywed fathers his age, except that he and his wife, Dears keyboardist Natalia Yanchak, spend most of their time on the road with their 13-month-old daughter and the rest of their band.
“It works out really great for both me and my wife,” he says. “We love it, because we’re always together. It’s not always glorious in every way, but I’m feeling a lot more fulfilled in my life, that’s for sure.”
You’d never gather that from listening to the band’s darkly despondent brand of confessional pop. Lightburn and a loose-knit group of friends—Yanchak, drummer George Donoso III, bassist Martin Pelland, keyboardist Valerie Jodoin-Keaton and guitarist Patrick Krief—came together in Montreal in 1995 and steadily attracted a cult-like following. Lightburn’s warm, mellifluous croon and choice of subject matter have led more than a few critics to dub him, horrifically, the “black Morrissey.”
Lightburn does seem to almost reflexively write from the point of view of the outcast, but he does so with a stoicism that suggests this is simply his fate, without whining or wallowing in self-pity. And as much as the band evoke The Smiths, they have more expansive roots in Leonard Cohen’s brooding but affectionate candor, early-’90s Jesus and Mary Chain, the lounge stylings of Costeau, the soul pop of Roxy Music and even Paris cabarets of the 1930s.
The band’s most recent release, Gang of Losers, is full of the introspection and clever self-deprecation that can be found on any of their previous three studio albums, but this time around there’s an undeniable energy and lightheartedness to the proceedings.
Even so, Lightburn can’t resist inserting some heavier lyrics on some of Losers’ more hopeful, upbeat tunes. Take album opener “Ticket to Immortality,” which sounds initially like a soaring song of hope—the chorus is “The world is really gonna love you.” But Lightburn adds, “I’ll hang out with all the pariahs / Everyone is almost done with me.”
Elsewhere, the attention-getting track “Whites-Only Party” contains tongue-in-cheek references to white liberal guilt and ancient racial fears: “We ain’t here to steal your women / Well, at least that wasn’t the plan,” Lightburn sings. But again, despite the baiting, biting theme, what Lightburn is really talking about is the insider-vs.-outsider dynamic.
“Well, I think the thing about that song is that, on the surface, most people are going to want to talk about the literal subject matter,” he explains. “When in the context of the record, it’s just another example, or another parable that is just representative of that exclusivity that people hope to overcome. I write from that context because I’m writing that story about the whites-only party and trying to get into it. It’s meant to be funny, but I think a lot of people feel there’s a party they’re not allowed into, and they don’t know why they’re not allowed in.”
The subject of race relations is still a complex and volatile issue, but Lightburn manages to bring some levity to the discussion. “Race, of course, is going to be on a lot of white folks’ minds, because they’re feeling guilty for all of their sins,” he says, then breaks into laughter. “Not like I haven’t committed any...but the Michael Richards thing was fascinating. I’m a huge Seinfeld fan. Anytime it’s on in syndication, I watch it. Now I’ve created a new joke out of it: if you want to call somebody ‘washed up,’ you just say, ‘He’s probably out doing standup comedy, getting heckled by a couple of black guys.’ ”
That sense of humor can render Losers—for all its dark moments and existential longing—downright cheerful at times, which has some listeners suggesting that Lightburn has lightened up as a result of tying the knot, a notion he quickly deflects.
“Those are just things that happen in your everyday life,” he points out. “If you got married, do you see it affecting your job? It’s the same thing. I have to avoid worlds colliding all the time, just because I’m traveling this way with my family and the band. But as long as I keep the worlds from colliding, I don’t see why it should have such an effect on the art that we make. Especially since it only happened to me. It’s not like everyone in the band went out and got married.”
Lightburn and Yanchak’s marriage only formalized what had been a 10-year relationship. If anything, being married seems to add to the sense of genuineness that Lightburn projects, both in his lyrics and his speech. While some people prefer to think of him as a modern-day Rimbaud pining away by candlelight in a stone chamber somewhere, he’s really just someone who seeks the truth in the words he speaks and sings.
That honesty carries over to his relationship with his fans. Lightburn and his bandmates regularly contribute to online blogs and journals on both TheDears.org as well as the act’s MySpace page. Yanchak’s entries, ruminating on the architecture, people and gut-level feel of various cities to which the band travels, are especially engaging and personal. But that sense of approachability can also get the musicians more than they bargained for.
“I’m finding it a bit of a tightrope, because people misconstrue the blogs and the journal entries sometimes,” Lightburn notes. “You’ve just got to be careful what you say sometimes, because people use that shit against you. In the past, we’ve done journal entries and people are able to comment after them, and we’ll get a bunch of people saying, ‘Oh, quit whining. You have a great life, blah blah blah.’ And it’s just like, ‘You don’t know my life, you fucking twat.’ That’s the thing that’s really irritating about the blogs sometimes. People just say really nasty things sometimes, and unfounded things.”
In spite of the occasional crank spewing virtual venom, Lightburn is grateful. “I feel very fortunate and lucky to do what I do,” says. “And to be able to do it the way I’m doing it.”
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