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Eric Siblin reaches for a state of grace in words and music

The performance space at the Casa del Popolo on St. Laurent filled up quickly to standing-room-only overcapacity last month for a special premiere.

It was the launch, not just of a new CD, but of the book describing how it came to be.

Those who read his widely praised book The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, already know Eric Siblin for his love of music and talent as a meticulous researcher and engaging writer.

This story of how journalist Siblin morphed from rock critic at The Montreal Gazette, to fascination with Bach’s six incandescent Suites for solo cello, their creator and major interpreters put him on the map internationally as a true original in style and content.

With the launch of Songs from Studio Grace, we get to know Siblin as composer, guitarist and guiding spirit behind its fully-produced 12 songs. The book, Studio Grace, The Making of a Record (Anansi, 295 pp, $29.95) chronicles the arduous but fascinating year-long process that resulted in the CD.

In many ways the genesis of both books is similar: Studio Grace begins with Siblin at home in Montreal in the early 1970s acquiring a “cheap acoustic” guitar at age 12, and lessons from a teacher named Ted. A year later, he graduated to a $69 solid-body electric guitar that he could plug in to a stereo system, both the results of Bar Mitzvah gifts.

He then composed his first song and played in a couple of pickup bands. After an M.A. in history from Concordia, Siblin began a career in journalism that included work as a reporter with Canadian Press, rock critic at The Gazette, magazine writer and filmmaker.

What about the music? Though he continued to perform his songs for friends at parties, the mission to record a full album finally took shape. The book is a highly personal, immensely readable, occasionally funny, and sometimes gripping tale of the writer’s quest. His writing about music combined an artist’s sensitivity and musician’s’ familiarity with a mastery of words.

He meets old friends, and new ones, those with home or more sophisticated recording facilities, and the skills required to record, edit, mix, fine tune the music so his lyrics have maximum impact.

As the final cuts took shape, Siblin finds himself “ever so slightly elbowed out” of a starring role in his own project. The friends he drafts to produce the fully rich and professional sound he wants begin to dominate, at least as vocalists.

“I couldn’t have it both ways,” he observes in the book. “I couldn’t have those fabulous singers showcase my songs, and also have my own vocals ‘authentic’ and ‘unpretentious,’ as (recording engineer and Grammy-nominated musician Howard) Bilerman once called them, remain in the tunes.”

Justifiably proud of his original music and lyrics, Siblin confesses he continues to create because the artist within him can not be contained.

“Ideas would come to me while I played the guitar – emphasis on ‘play’ here – and some notion of a complete and worthy song would come to mind…The desire is simply there.”

In the end, Jo Simonetti, Rebecca Campbell, Michael Jerome Browne, Sheharah, Michael Leon, and Hayley Richman sing lead on nine songs, Siblin on two, plus one remix of Grace of Love.

The styles vary from rhythm and blues to blues and contemporary ballad, with lyrics that range from the highly personal to the historical. With so many different lead voices the album can sound like a compilation, even as many of the tunes have hooks that grab the listener and demand repeat spins. All the music is Siblin’s, who shares the credit on two songs.

How he engaged with the musicians and recording engineers to achieve his dream make for another great read.

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