Interview: A Stroll With Crooked Forest

Catching up with Crooked Forest after a whirlwind year.

It’s been a little over a year since Crooked Forest debuted their first 3-song EP, A Quiet Place To Scream, and they haven’t slowed down much since, with 2 10-song EP’s and 1 5-song EP, plus a slew of singles all while navigating the treacherous terrain of the online live-streaming world.

Now that the leaves have fallen, we caught up with CF for a casual stroll down memory lane and to find out what’s to come next as we wind along the trails.

Let’s go back to July 2020 with the release of A Quiet Place To Scream. Looking back at it now, how do you feel about that record being the one to introduce yourself to the world?

CF: Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag for me. I don’t think a lot of people really understood what that record was supposed to be about.

How do you mean?

CF: When I first set out to track a record at home, the initial plan was to create a full-length 10 song record. But once I got going, I realized how badly I wanted my first full-length to be tracked professionally, so I changed the scope of the project quite a bit. Instead of, “what are 10 songs I can use to introduce myself to the world” it became, “if I was still only 17 years old and using my recording software for the first time with just 1 microphone, what would that record sound like? And how can I summarize what the full-length will sound like in just 3 songs”.

Given your background as a professional audio engineer in the Canadian music industry, it must have been difficult to scale back the production so much.

CF: It was. I was constantly fighting with myself about it, knowing that the record I was about to put out wasn’t going to be the same quality I knew I could do with better gear, better plug-ins, more microphones and so on. And that made me nervous to share it with anyone I knew, because I thought they’d think I’d somehow regressed, becoming a really shitty engineer.

But you went ahead with it anyways. Why?

CF: To me, it was really important to have down on record that “initial CF sound”, that “young girl in her bedroom” record. I first started writing songs at 12 or 13 (I was writing lyrics before I got my first guitar), and even when I got my first digital recorder when I was in high school after saving up from my part-time jobs, the plan then was always to record some demos in my house.

And there was a second part to all of this, too, that developed sometime during the initial pre-production process. Because I’d spent so much time working not only for professional recording studios, but for music production schools, too, I wanted to show other young musicians and engineers what you could accomplish on very little money. Because these days, I think there’s way too much emphasis on having the best, newest gear, and not enough on, “well, have you got a great song yet?”

The reality is anyone can make a pro-record if they have the cash. But can you write and record one yourself?

How much did A Quiet Place To Scream cost to make, all in?

CF: That’s a bit of a tough question. From my perspective, it didn’t cost much at all, but I was also using some equipment I’d had for years. I’ll break down the full cost for ya.

I already had a Mac Mini (2012) with Pro Tools 10 from my prior engineering days; back then, this would have set you back say, $1500 for the mini, and $700 or so for the Pro Tools because I had a faculty discount while working for Metalworks Institute, my former college.

I also already had a duel DI box, about $150.

I used my Gibson Les Paul Custom, which back in 2008 set me back just under $1000.

My bass is a custom too I bought from a friend, that one cost about $700 then.

I didn’t use any amplifiers on AQP2S, just plug-ins. But I did buy my Fender Mustang GTx40 during this time which I used to demo out ideas so I’ll include that in the breakdown here; It cost about $200.

I did pick up a Audio-Technica 2020 for vocals, which was $150 or so. Plus a pop-filter, about $30.

I also used my old Sennheiser HD280 headphones from back in like, 2009, which back then were about $150.

And of course, I needed a new interface for this project (I had sold a lot of my old gear over the years when I had money problems), so I went with the Apollo Twin Duo, which I bought a floor-model of so it was cheaper, it was $1080.

So, for me, when I made this record I only technically spent about $1480 to make this record.

But if you add up the cost of all of those things, it actually cost about $5660, we’ll round it up to $5700CAD.

Of course, you don’t need a Les Paul Custom or a custom bass to track what I did, so you could save a lot of money right there, too by going with a cheaper guitar. But it’s hard to save money on all the other stuff. That said, my old Focusrite 8-channel interface was only about $400, and it sounded wicked, I miss that thing a lot.

So really that was the goal, to just see how little you could spend the make the record?

CF: Sort of, yeah. It was also just more of a personal challenge, too. Again, I know full well what I’m capable of doing with 8 hours at Metalworks Studios for example. But I’d never produced a record from scratch where I was also playing and performing every part of it. Just getting into midi-drumming itself was its own learning curve and definitely makes you appreciate having a real drummer and drumset in the room.

So why didn’t you ask friends to work on this record with you. Surely you know lots of players?

CF: I do but again, it was a bit of a personal challenge. Partially set onto me by me, but also because we were in the middle of battling COVID-19 and the directive was to stay home and stay only with your immediate family as much as possible.

Since I was going through a divorce and my ex worked out of the house, this meant I had a lot of time to spend alone working on this and getting it the way I would’ve wanted it to sound when I was a teenager.

And the plan was always to re-record a lot of this stuff anyways. They’re all just demos, but again, I wanted to produce everything myself just to see that I could do it, to test my own limitations, and also so that when I was ready to bring it to players I had a pretty clear idea of what I needed them to do. It’s difficult sometimes explaining to a drummer what kind of tom fill you want in a section, without you yourself being a drummer. It’s a lot easier to say, “here, listen to this, can you do something like that?”

Looking back and listening back to that record now, how do you feel about it?

CF: Overall, I feel really good about it. I learned a lot about myself as a guitar player and as a songwriter during the making of it. Those songs all went through several changes, sounding like completely different genres at times, and that was a lot of fun to do.

What would you say is one part of the record you’re most disappointed in that you wish you could go back and fix?

CF: The vocals, for me, are the hardest part to listen back to. But I had only really just started singing and feeling like I was “getting it” when it came to singing back in February 2020 when I started writing those songs. So, I’m disappointed, because I know now I can do a lot better, but that was the other reason I wanted to release this record in this way; All of my favourite bands started making records when they were young and their voices were still pretty rough and undefined at those stages. This is mine. I like that I can listen back to it now and say, “hey, yeah, I’ve actually gotten a little better at singing, cool”. I didn’t use any auto-tune or anything on this record and I don’t really intend to ever use it unless it’s for a vocal effect, so I’m hoping over time I’ll continue to hear myself improve and that’ll show up on all the records.

Speaking of that, you’ve actually released a few more records since AQP2S already. Can you tell us a bit about that?

CF: Absolutely. Once I had all the gear I needed to make one record, and I was still stuck at home spending most of my time by myself, I found myself with a whole bunch of unfinished songs that didn’t make the 3-song AQP2S cut. Like I said before, that record was initially going to be a 10-song record; I actually had over 20 written before I started whittling it down. So instead, I decided to work on all the others and release them whenever I felt like it. This was mostly to keep showing people what kind of music I was looking to create. Since I didn’t have a band, I knew I’d need some sample work to show people and this seemed like the best way to do that.

So I released “Tape Deck” which is a 10-song EP of demos that almost made the cut. And I released a couple stand-alone singles that didn’t quite fit anywhere else, “Over Before It Stars” and “Enough”. Because the other thing that was going through my mind at this time was that I wanted to pitch my music to different producers, and I have different producers in mind depending on the song or the album, so I was trying to tailor those records to those people, too.

Crooked Forest- “Enough”

Then when I moved out of my King City house where those records were made, I was officially living back in my childhood home where I first learned to play music, so for nostalgic reasons if nothing else, I wanted to make a couple records there, too. That’s what ended up becoming “Roots” and random demo singles like “Asleep/Dead”.

And then when I moved to Barrie in March 2021, at that point I had gotten into this whole “I wanna make a record everywhere I live” sort of literally make historic record of my life in those moments, I made “Stumped/Stoop’d” and some other one-offs.

All of these records tell their own story and serve their own purpose, so there’s reasons behind why they’re tracked this way, but I feel like I’m already getting a little too word-y about it here.

We can definitely talk more about those records in depth another time. Let’s talk a bit about producers. You’ve worked with a lot of top tier talent including David Bottrill, Brian Moncarz, and so many others on your credit role, so who was it you had in mind to work with on these projects?

CF: It’d be great to work with those guys for sure, but they definitely cater to a bit of a niche that I’m not so sure I fall into. Like, I’d never approach David to work with me on something like “Pressure Cooker”, I’d have to be going through some sort of like, industrial or arena-rock phase or something. And if I ever did like a “Our Lady Peace” or “Tragically Hip” type record, I’d maybe approach Brian for mixing it, but that’s not really what I’m doing these days because I don’t have a band yet and I’d want to do something live-off-the-floor.

Instead, first and foremost the main producer I’ve always wanted to work with and is largely the reason I got into producing records at all is Greig Nori. That would be the ultimate experience for sure and I think he’d be the best fit for a lot of my pop-punk/punk-rock stuff which is the bulk of what I do.

But when I chose the final 3-songs for AQP2S, I was having a bit of a “It’s The End Of The World” complex with everything going on with COVID and my life in general, and my thought process then was, “Okay, but if you could literally only work with 1 person on this record, and you only get 1 shot at it, who do you choose?” So that’s a tougher question to answer but for a lot of reasons, those 3 songs were specifically geared towards trying to land Jim Adkins to produce this record (not the record that was released, rather, the re-recording, and subsequent full length record).

We’ve seen your covers, we know you’re a big fan. But aside from being a fan why do you say specifically those 3 songs were geared towards that goal?

CF: Before I started writing music again I was listening to a lot fo Jimmy Eat World when I moved to King City. Specifically I was running “Surviving” almost on repeat and it was making me really want to take another shot at the whole music thing (I’d taken a long hiatus for.. several reasons).

This record was in a lot of ways a catalyst for me, because it wasn’t until I caught myself singing loudly along to it while alone in my house that I first had that moment where I was like, “Hey, maybe I can actually match that pitch” and for the first time was like, “I think I’m learning how to really sing”.

And then when I finally decided to go for it in February/March 2020, I had been listening to their whole discography a lot, and Jim’s playlist that he would put up. So I was starting for the first time to think about records in a way I’d never really thought about before.

  1. For one, what was most important to say? What did I want the listener to be thinking about when they heard it for the first, second, 8th, 9th, 20th time?
  2. What was the real goal of the record? Was it just to make a record for record’s sake, to have an audio-version of an event that happened in my life, or what there more to it than that? Did I just want to play and have fun with it, or was I going to try to really push it, to tour it, and so on?
  3. What type of record would Jim be a good fit for creating, and was the record I wanted to make, did it have the same goal as he might have for it? Or rather, what producer fit the vision/mission the best? Because again, there are tons of producers out there and they all make great records, and I could have brought these songs to any one of them and they could have made it sound sonically great, but I wanted someone who would understand the point of it, and not just understand in it but believe in it and live that same type of thought-process in their own day-to-day.
  4. If I only had, say, 10 minutes of this producers time to show them and give them a sense of what I wanted to do, what 3 songs best showcase that?

So that’s how I ended up settling in on those 3 songs. AQP2S, the title track, is sort of my little baby. It’s the one that takes the listener on a bit of a journey where you might not really know where its headed; It’s a little bit punk, a little bit pop, and it’s got some attitude. (I did this again later in the summer with the release of “Camp” which was also, actually, intended to bait Jim in on the full-length; I wrote it after watching one of his Podcasts).

Pressure Cooker is the tried-and-true punk-rock that I grew up listening to. Stuff I’d find on like Tony Hawks Pro Skater. A lot of my songs initially start out in that style.

And Little Fish is where I was trying to showcase a little bit of my bluesy-side, but also more of my alt-rock stuff. At this stage in the game, I really hadn’t developed my voice very well, or my playing style, so I was still trying to figure that out. That’s why I wanted to bring in another producer to work on the full-length with me, to help me hone in on the right sound for it.

I knew what direction I’d take things if I got Greig Nori on board, and I think he’d agree with one on that route; A lot of my stuff lyrically and melodically mimics the Treble Charger “Wide Awake Bored” and “Detox” records. And that route was pretty rad, the way I saw it, but, working with Jim meant it might open up other possibilities I hadn’t even considered yet, because their own record discography each one has its own distinct sound. That’s what I was looking for, someone to help me put the record into its own little box, in a way. Because I didn’t want to make a Treble Charger record, I wanted to make a Crooked Forest record.

Ultimately the thing about records, at least for me, is that everyone on the project should both understand and be excited about the point of it. After working in professional recording studios for years, I’ve been on tons of sessions with people who clearly “didn’t want to be there” or thought the artist was shit. If I was going to spend real money on this record, I needed to make sure the people I collaborated with weren’t going to “bring down the vibe” while we worked on it. A lot of people don’t realize how monotonous the process can be, so you really have to want to be there.

And I wanted to push a positive message with the record, even though a lot of the subject matter tends to be pretty dark with my stuff. This is something I think Jimmy Eat World do exceptionally well; I don’t even think a lot of people realize it, that’s how well they do it.

So, now that all those records are out, what’s the plan? Are you still looking to write and re-record for a full-length or, have you moved on to other projects?

CF: That’s a loaded question.

On the one hand I’m still not sure that people understand that everything I’ve released today is a demo, so there’s a big part of me that’s eager to get something a little more high quality on the streaming platforms as if to say, “Hey, I’m not totally shit, see!”

On the other hand, we’re still dealing with COVID, so putting together a band right now seems like a bit of a futile effort.

So, I definitely still want to make a full-length AQP2S Two, if you will (I don’t know what it would be called, of course), with a full band, with a real drummer, and of course I’d love to get a producer on board to work on it, but until I’m able to facilitate all of that, I’m holding off a bit. Because once I have that record, I’m definitely going to tour it.

So in the meantime, while I keep working on demos to pitch to people like Greig Nori (who, I’m still trying to get a hold of and hope to run into again soon), I’ve already reached out to a lot of other people in the industry who I used to either work with, for, or hope to one day, so that ball is slowly rolling along and I’m just going to keep pushing it along as best I can given our circumstances right now. But otherwise, I’m planning on releasing my first official “Jaimee Jakobczak record”, and I’ve gotten things going on that, now too.

Tell us a bit about that.

CF: Sure. Since we’re sort of stuck in COVID-19 limbo still, I’m going to be focusing more on acoustic live-streaming and acoustic shows. I have 3 songs already that I plan on re-recording, either in-studio or still at home on my own time, but I’m going to be hiring a mixing engineer and mastering engineer to make sure it can compete online with all the other great artists putting out records right now.

I’ll also have this one available in some sort of physical medium, but that’s a question for a bit further down the line, but it’ll likely be both Vinyl and CD formats.

This is a folk/acoustic record that’ll showcase a bit of a different side of me, which is why it’s not going to released under the CF name. And I hope that this one will be an ongoing project, too, popping up in between CF records with smaller-acoustic-only tours. It really just gives me more flexibility as an artist not to be bound by other players commitments/lives, so that I don’t feel like I’m sitting on my hands waiting for people.

And when can we expect that release?

CF: Pretty soon, actually. It won’t take long to track given the nature of the EP, and I’ve got a lot of people in mind already to help bring it fully to life. I’m sort of hoping to have it tracked fully by the end of this month and then mixed, mastered and pressed in October. I’ll be moving out west in late September/early October but I’d really like to track this one in Ontario before I go, since it’s my home-base.

And then you’ll tour this one?

CF: That’s the plan. Small shows, acoustic only, just me or with a session player where/if necessary. And lots of live-streaming. I’m now on Twitch! So there should be lots of opportunity to see me playing live coming up, and hopefully we can land some festivals and stuff next year, too.

Oh, and my debut show for this project is coming up! I’ll be playing at 28 Roncesvalles on September 22nd, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario. Doors 8PM, PWYC. I have a tour page where you can see all my upcoming gigs.

Well that all sounds really exciting! Thanks so much for talking with us today CF. We can’t wait to hear what you’ve got coming up next!

CF: Thanks! Thanks for having me.

To get a sneak peek on the upcoming Jaimee Jakobczak record, listen to the early-cut demos now.

Be sure to follow Crooked Forest on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Bandcamp, Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud, Sessions and Twitch so you don’t miss out on any new music as it happens; new demos drop all the time and they’re not always available on every platform, so make sure you take a walk around the woods!

Until next time, this has been A Stroll With Crooked Forest and I’ve been your host, Host!

CF performing “Quiksand” by Jaimee Jakobczak.

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