Synth ex­plorer fol­lows Wil­liam Gib­son’s foot­steps through dystopian Yorkville

NOW Magazine - - CONTENTS - mu­ | @streets­bag By MARK STREETER

CAS­TLE IF with SCOTT HARD­WARE at the Mu­sic Gallery at 918 Bathurst, Satur­day (Au­gust 25), doors 7:30 pm. $10-$12. mu­sic­

Jess For­rest has brought a small bun­dle of jour­nals with her to the dark­ened old-timey café in Yorkville that we’ve cho­sen as our shel­ter from the rag­ing heat wave out­side. As she thumbs through them, each page ap­pears dense with notes, dates, re­minders, item­ized lists and di­a­grams.

The ink-smudged pages tell a frag­mented and opaque story of Sec­tor 03, the al­bum she’s about to put out as Cas­tle If. Both cere­bral and im­me­di­ate, im­pres­sion­is­tic and re­fined, Sec­tor 03 winds an episodic nar­ra­tive through “a skewed ver­sion of Toronto.” Voices liv­ing on the fringes of a weird dystopia are art­fully con­jured by mag­is­te­rial synth melodies and voic­ings, warm tones and synes­thetic tex­tures.

The LP marks the cul­mi­na­tion of a con­cep­tual jour­ney that started five years ago when For­rest read Wil­liam Gib­son’s Neu­ro­mancer, a novel well known for its un­canny pre­science about modern un­re­al­ity.

“I think he pre­dicted all the chaos that would en­sue in the fu­ture,” she says.

For­rest wan­dered around Yorkville while work­ing on the al­bum, vi­su­al­iz­ing the neigh­bour­hood Gib­son had called home 50 years ear­lier and that in­forms so much of the ma­te­rial in Neu­ro­mancer. She imag­ined sim­i­larly an­ar­chic land­scapes, sign­posts of a weirdo-out­sider cul­ture seep­ing out from the city’s densely pop­u­lated fi­nan­cial core.

“I liked think­ing about what Gib­son saw in Toronto that in­spired his vi­sion,” For­rest ex­plains, “es­pe­cially at a time where the world has be­come star­tlingly close to what he un­know­ingly pre­dicted.”

Out of th­ese wan­der­ings came the idea for Sec­tor 03’s cover, a paint­ing of Univer­sity of Toronto’s McLaugh­lin Plan­e­tar­ium that For­rest com­mis­sioned from artist Anna May Henry, who also sup­plied the cover art for Cas­tle If’s 2017 Plant Ma­te­rial cas­sette.

For For­rest, there’s a pow­er­ful res­o­nance in struc­tures like the plan­e­tar­ium and nov­els like Neu­ro­mancer, in their func­tion as acts of place-mak­ing that tether our ex­pe­ri­ences to one an­other. She’s chan­nelled some of th­ese feel­ings into the loose nar­ra­tive of Sec­tor 03, which ex­plores the cu­ri­ous sen­sa­tion of be­ing in the world while also seem­ing to re­side out­side of it.

The al­bum’s haunted voices wan­der at the thresh­old of an in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, try­ing to tran­scend “sec­tors” of re­al­ity to ar­rive at an “in­ner place” where some­thing like a true self re­sides. “It’s very hard to de­scribe!” For­rest laughs. “But it’s like a place that gives you re­li­gious feel­ings, a space where re­al­ity doesn’t ex­ist and it’s pure cre­ativ­ity.

“There are big maps about what all the things on the record mean that just to­tally don’t make sense af­ter a while,” she says, ges­tur­ing at the pile of jour­nals. “So I don’t know if [the al­bum] is re­ally con­cep­tu­ally taut. It’s sort of all over the place. But I think if it was too mapped out, that wouldn’t be good.”

In­deed, some of the songs didn’t come along un­til very late in the process, while oth­ers were tweaked dur­ing live per­for­mances. Whole batches of work was scrapped. There was a full year of mix­ing, then a de­ci­sion to rere­cord all the vo­cals and other elements, then more mix­ing.

The labour can be heard in all the ways Sec­tor 03 finds har­mony between its su­per-pre­ci­sion and its sky­ward-look­ing im­pres­sion­ism. Some songs, like Hus­tler, chug along with Moroder-es­que re­lent­less­ness, while oth­ers like Con­tact and Voy­age con­jure emo­tion­ally vivid sound-worlds. For­rest spent count­less hours on qual­ity con­trol and op­ti­miza­tion, sculpt­ing tones to hi-def ful­some­ness, rec­on­cil­ing dis­tinct synth voic­ings into har­mony with each other, and then tidy­ing and con­ceal­ing all the seam work after­ward.

The widescreen sonic spa­cious­ness is the per­fect com­ple­ment to its neb­u­lous and open-ended nar­ra­tive, a story that is ob­vi­ously true to For­rest’s own life ex­pe­ri­ences while not be­ing ex­actly bi­o­graph­i­cal.

“I feel like mu­sic should tell a story,” she says, “even if it’s not an ob­vi­ous story.”

The out­line of a plot sur­faces now and then, but For­rest mostly uses broader themes to drive the nar­ra­tive along. Her in­ter­ro­ga­tions into alien­ation and pre­car­i­ous self­hood, of­ten me­di­ated through vocoder or other lay­ered ef­fects, seem both per­sonal and univer­sal.

“I think I just re­ally like books a lot,” she says in re­sponse. “I grew up home­schooled, and when I was 15, I read Lolita seven times,” she laughs, “and then I wrote a con­cept al­bum on it. So that was my first big project.” It was also a clear sign that she knew how to move for­ward cre­atively, one step at a time, with a strong sense of how to do it alone. It didn’t hurt that around the same time, she had an un­ex­pected and fate­ful ver­sion of “the col­lege talk” with her father.

“I’ve been putting to­gether a col­lege fund for you,” For­rest re­calls him telling her. “But I don’t think you should go to col­lege, be­cause that’s stupid. I want you to pick some­thing you want to get re­ally good at, and I’ll cover the cost of that in­stead.

“So I thought about it and I was like, ‘I’m kind of in­ter­ested in syn­the­siz­ers,’” she re­mem­bers. So he bought her a syn­the­sizer. “I didn’t re­al­ize how far I would I would take it.”

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