Happiness is one of the few emotions people will easily share without a second thought. It could be a memory of happiness lost or found, gained or squandered, or even their personal philosophical interpretation of what it is to be truly happy.
In the summer of 2007 Charles Spearin, one of the founding members of Do Make Say Think and a frequent collaborator with the Broken Social Scene collective, invited his neighbours over to record their thoughts on happiness. From the recordings Spearin assembled The Happiness Project, a concept album that explores the depths of the emotion by mixing brief melodic samples from his conversations with matching instruments.
“I would interview my neighbours and just basically let the conversation go wherever it went. I tried to steer it towards something meaningful,” explained Spearin. “Happiness is an easy one because people have a certain philosophy of what happiness is.”
The beauty of The Happiness Project comes with each of the neighbours’ personal revelations. Spearin scoured the interviews for a moment of meaning and melody. The way in which we speak is of particular interest to Spearin as he breaks down the samples to brief melodic clips that can almost double as an instrument.
The album’s opener, “Mrs. Morris,” features a neighbour that believes “happiness is love.” Each repetition of the line is accompanied by the bleat of tenor saxophone in a matching tone. In certain moments the pitch of the sax carries the conversation, in others the words that roll from the mouth of Mrs. Morris become the sax. The interview with Mrs. Morris proved to be the most surprising for Spearin.
“She just stepped right in and started speaking in poetry, which was amazing. I didn’t know her very well until I invited her over for the interview,” Spearin said. “She is a remarkable woman and I’ve grown to appreciate her more and more.”
Spearin originally planned to record an album much different from The Happiness Project. After buying a hand held voice recorder, Spearin went out and tried to “steal conversations” at parks, grocery stores, and out on the street. The idea fell through as Spearin admitted he “felt like a spy” and the background noise took away from the quality of the recordings. The setting of the album then became Spearin’s downtown Toronto neighbourhood.
“I happen to live in an interesting neighbourhood. It’s very multicultural and I know my neighbours pretty well. It just started to be more and more precious the more I thought about it,” Spearin said. “I travel a lot and the more I travel the more I see how lucky it is to be in a neighbourhood like this.”
The neighbours featured on the album have listened to the final version and, for the most part, like it. But Spearin admitted “some of the didn’t quite get it at first.” It was only after the first performance that the group gained a “better appreciation.” Spearin still regularly talks with his neighbours, even Vanessa, a deaf woman who explained the feeling of hearing for the first time after receiving an ear implant, who now lives in Los Angeles.
Notably lacking from the album’s tracks is Spearin’s own interpretation of happiness. After a few moments of deliberation Spearin shared his thoughts.
“I think happiness is… in surprise. If you put aside your prejudices or your habits of the world and you open up your ears and eyes to look at things in a fresh way then you’re satisfying a certain natural hunger for inspiration. I guess you can say that the album itself is my answer.”
The Happiness Project will be preformed Nov. 25 & 26 at Sala Rossa.