Ian Fletcher Thornley
Ian Thornley is best known as the lead singer and guitarist for multi-platinum selling hard rock outfits Big Wreck and Thornley, but let’s put that aside for the time being. On his first solo album, Secrets, made as Ian Fletcher Thornley, he gets closer to the core of his musical identity than he ever has before. With 13 tracks that add up to a bold reflection of his artistic maturity, the album is slated for release on October 30, 2015 through Anthem Records/Warner Music Canada.
Accompanied only by a rhythm section comprised of Blue Rodeo drummer Glenn Milchem and Big Wreck bassist Dave McMillan, Thornley’s vision for this highly personal project was brought to fruition with the aid of producer Mark Howard, a Hamilton, Ontario native who, along with being Daniel Lanois’ longtime right-hand man on albums with Bob Dylan, Neil Young and U2, also helmed acclaimed albums for artists including The Tragically Hip, Lucinda Williams and the late Chris Whitley. Relying on Howard’s “audio vérité” approach, Secrets was laid down in a remote Northern Ontario cottage during a concentrated blast of creative energy not long after the release of Big Wreck’s 2014 album, Ghosts.
“I’d thought about doing a solo acoustic album for years, but for me there’s only a handful of artists who I consider can really pull that off,” Thornley says. “So I took some of these songs I’d been working on under that premise, and started fleshing them out with Glenn and Dave, and that’s when a vision for this record really came together. I’ve always been a big fan of Mark’s, and I couldn’t think of anyone else better suited to produce this album.”
Although Thornley admits that much of the material on Secrets was a product of recent dark periods in his life, what comes across immediately is a combination of haunting melodies and sonic textures that reveal a previously untapped well of emotional depth to Thornley’s songwriting. The opening stomper ‘How Long sets a hopeful tone of rebirth, leading into the meditative ‘Feel,’ the compellingly hushed ‘Just To Know I Can,’ and the breezy ‘On My Way.’ From there, the album expands upon these elements by varying degrees, and while its overall starkness may come as a surprise to longtime Big Wreck fans accustomed to the band’s huge riffs, the recording environment for Secrets actually allowed Thornley to explore different facets of his guitar playing, depending on each song’s mood.
“It was more about the feeling than trying to do something flashy,” he explains. “There’s one track called ‘Frozen Pond’ where I just couldn’t resist going for a real Mark Knopfler kind of vibe, which everyone picked up on right away. But it suited the song, and took it to a whole new place I wouldn’t normally go. This whole record was an exercise in working very differently for me. We’d run through the tunes maybe once or twice and then record them, so in that way it’s very much like a snapshot.”
Howard’s role—as it almost always is with records he makes—was to capture the most honest performances possible, meaning click tracks or Auto-Tune were never an option. Everything on the album was captured just as it was performed, a method rarely used any longer. For Thornley, the eternal perfectionist, perhaps the most unique aspect of the sessions was placing trust in his producer’s judgment that a take fulfilled its emotional potential, even if it contained subtle flaws only Thornley could hear. Often, there was no time for discussion about this, as Howard would have his final mix underway before the take was even finished.
While this approach may seem the simplest and most efficient way to make a record, Thornley says it put much more pressure on him than he expected. “What made this album difficult for me was mainly just the subject matter of the songs, and trying to convey that in the moment. I haven’t listened to the album much since we finished it, just because it’s all still pretty raw. There are places where I can hear the crack in my voice and it immediately leads me to recall the effort I was putting into the take. But that’s what makes Mark a master; he’s able to create an atmosphere where everybody wants to put all they have into the moment. It’s a lost art, really.”
There’s probably no better example of how effective that approach was than on the re-imagined version of “Blown Wide Open,” one of Big Wreck’s signature hits from their 1997 debut album, In Loving Memory Of…. Thornley says the idea to revisit the song grew out of an acoustic arrangement he’d come up with originally to play during radio station visits. Then one day while messing around with what he describes as a “Nick Drake-style chord progression,” he started singing the lyrics over top, and suddenly saw ‘Blown Wide Open’ in an entirely new light.
“When we were discussing the plan for this record, I was really excited about putting this new arrangement of ‘Blown Wide Open’ on it,” he says. “Being able to cut it live with a really tripped-out, lush guitar sound made it even more enjoyable. I also understand the attachment a lot of people have to the original version, so I really tried to work it out it like it was an entirely new song, which to me, this new version is.”
Likewise, Thornley wants to reassure Big Wreck fans that the band is far from over and a new album will be forthcoming. However, now with Secrets under his belt, it’s opened up the real possibility of the Toronto native joining the ranks of the great Canadian singer-songwriters he grew up listening to, including one of his strongest influences—and fellow Berklee College of Music alum—Bruce Cockburn.
“Secrets definitely sounds like a Canadian record to me,” Thornley says. “The influences come from everywhere, of course, but there’s something in the feel and the approach… I don’t even know how to articulate it, but Mark was a big part of that too. Sometimes the environment you’re in just creeps into the microphone.”