Jordon Zadorozny, the mastermind behind Blinker The Star, has this theory on the success of grunge. He says that if Kurt Cobain had written "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in E, a key common to lots of heavy metal and hard rock of the day, the movement that occupied American pop consciousness for as long as it did would never have started with Nirvana. "I played [that song] in E," says Zadorozny. "And it doesn't work. It sounds like the Scorpions." But since the song was performed and recorded in F, it did work. Why? F is sad. It has a melancholic touch to it. And it's not what one would expect to hear on commercial radio. Fans were taken by the song's "alternativeness."
Zadorozny's understanding of how music is constructed and what notes and keys mean beyond their sonorities has helped him and his accompanying band, Kellii Scott on drums and Pete Frolander on bass, craft one of the best pop records of the year so far. August Everywhere (DreamWorks) has all the things that make up intelligent radio-pop. Many of the songs are melodic piano-based rockers with the occasional half-electronic drumbeat or amped-up guitar line or string section slipped in as accent. These songs call to mind, in some moments, the undeniable sing-along-ability of show tunes as they also, at other times, remind you of the music of Hall & Oates or Rufus Wainwright, genius piano-based pop song composers more in love with melody, delivery and feel than underlying meaning, theme or political intent.
But no matter how attractive August Everywhere seems and is, it's clearly the work of a young buck. The mop-topped brunette who looks more like the kid next to you in chemistry class than the guy on MTV, Zadorozny is still learning.
Growing up in Pembroke, Ontario, where his parents owned and operated a musical instrument store, Zadorozny was always surrounded by music. His father, Peter Dawson ("Dawson" as his stage name), is still a bluegrass performer, and his mother, Carol Zadorozny, is a violinist and music scholar. Zadorozny's younger brother Corey also is a musician. His band is opening up for Blinker The Star on its current tour.
In Pembroke, live music would always find its way from the store into the Zadorozny household. Every September the family would host musicians for the town's annual fiddler competition, one of the biggest in North America. Impromptu jams would most always take place in the Zadorozny living room, among other places.
These late-summer/early-fall jamborees may have helped make Zadorozny the artist he is today, a sentimental spinster who can churn out highly emotional material, always syrupy sweet but never maudlin. Zadorozny has explained that August Everywhere is the result of his being able to "smell Sunday night at seven o'clock" during the fall. The songs on the record bear this out.
Beginning with a brooding foot-step beat and a simple two-chord rhythm, "September Already" seems like an elegy from the start. The refrain, which comes on quickly, is heavy and fast. A sinister tempo and attitude switch. But it only lasts a few seconds before the song becomes what it seems to have been intended to be: a musical journal entry. As Zadorozny sings in his strong voice, "Everybody's telling me their which way to go," soft strings in the background reveal the song's wrenching core. The longing and desperation in the lyrics, the vocal melody, the subtle guitar work and the shifty drums are palpable. Listening to this song is like looking at a photograph of a lost love.
It's all poignant and sad as hell.
"I really don't know where it comes from," says Zadorozny of moody songwriting. "It's something I try not to think of for fear of jinxing it." He laughs. "On one hand, I'm just channeling my love for that kind of music. And I'm also channeling emotions I don't want to deal with on a day-to-day basis. I don't want to be sad and gloomy. I want to get up and be happy.
"If I didn't have [songwriting], I'd probably be a real gloomy person." He laughs again. "I'm glad I have it."
Trailing along with his parents across Canada and upstate New York when he was younger, Zadorozny got a good first-hand feel for performance and what it meant. Music as a lifestyle didn't seem as mythical to him as it might have seemed to someone else his age. For Zadorozny, going into the music biz was going into warm and fuzzy terrain.
His first taste of any sort of stardom came in the early 1990s when, after graduating from Champlain Senior High School in 1991 and moving to Montreal to study English at Concordia College, Zadorozny met soon-to-be-Hole-bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur and joined her band, Tinker.
Since everything Tinker wrote required the input of every band member, which didn't jibe with Zadorozny, who had his own muses to satisfy, the Tinker guitarist would drive back to Pembroke on weekends and record what would soon be the first Blinker The Star record, Blinker The Star, (on A&M's imprint, Treat and Release) in 1995.
After eventually moving to Los Angeles and meeting with producer Ken Andrews, Zadorozny released A Bourgeois Kitten (A&M) the next year. Andrews has produced both Kitten and August.
Relocating from the realness of suburbanesque Canada to the surreality of downtown Los Angeles affected Zadorozny's songwriting in appreciable ways. In fact, Blinker The Star's sound before the move (which is still temporary, since Zadorozny also maintains his home at home in Pembroke) was more dissonant and punkish than it is now. Zadorozny thinks the two are connected.
On "Below the Sliding Doors," a wonderfully dreary if not obscure paean to the armpit of America (L.A.), Zadorozny captures the beautifully ugly, smoggy silver tint that colors all of Los Angeles when he sings the chorus, "We walk under the clouds of a sunny day ... Be safe below the sliding doors of a modern sham." The way he sings the first two words of each line emphatically and in the higher registers ("Weeeeeeee wahhhhhlk") then follows up quickly with the rest of the phrase ("under the clouds of a sunny day-yay-eeeeee") makes the song unforgettable. A tasty shift in tone like this would make even Elton John envious.
Sometimes working against melody also has its rewards. On "Right Kind of Girl," one of the record's best tracks for its loud, angry yet still operatic qualities, Zadorozny, who assumes the personality of a schoolgirl for the sake of the song, shouts, "Down this golden road / There is something that I must unload / I'm not a schoolgirl / I am just a Siamese cat with wings." In the background, cymbals crash repeatedly, strings add dramatic counterpoint to the flow of his yell, and a single acoustic guitar chord is strummed over and over again. This is one of the few instances in popular music when antimelodic noise is actually warranted. When you look at what the song's about, a young woman's revealing her innermost secrets to a boy she has just met because she has been waiting so long to show someone her true self, all the racket makes sense. And the lyrics, too.
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The grotesqueness of some of Zadorozny's lyrics might come from his hearing Grimm's Fairy Tales as a child. His grandmother, Nanny, who moved to Pembroke when Zadorozny was about ten years old, would often take the train up to visit. She'd bring turn-of-the-century books of fairy tales with her and would read to Zadorozny, who had learned to read when he was three, and his younger brother. Nanny, Zadorozny remembers, was "very measured in her delivery." After any dramatic reading, Zadorozny recalls having had "very vivid nightmares with Humpty Dumpty eating me up." Incorporating the grotesque into his lyrics as an adult couldn't have been a conscious decision.
"Songs like ['Right Kind of Girl'] just happen," he says. "There was no thought to it. The same chords are there from the first time I wrote it. And the same lyrics. Songs like that are one in ten.
"I only just started thinking about [the influence of Grimm's Fairy Tales] more recently. I look back and go, 'Jesus, where'd that come from?' And I realized it might have been from those stories."
Whatever lyrics he writes, Zadorozny sometimes tends to get too lyrical. Too poetic. But no matter how abstract or convoluted Zadorozny's words get, how many times a point of view shifts in a song or how many metaphors get tangled into one another, there's always a concreteness of feeling that makes the point Zadorozny's words can't. It's unfortunate such accessible music, which seems to have a direct connection to that part of every person's brain that conjures up melancholia and daydreams, isn't made more accessible by the lyrics. If Zadorozny could only summon the humanity of a Bruce Springsteen or a Donald Fagen, whose songs (most memorably with Steely Dan) are so filled with solid detail they could be sonic documentaries, he would be much more than a critical success.