It’s early afternoon when I arrive at the little apartment Arner shares with his partner and Energy Slime bandmate Jessica Delisle. We’ve all just woken up, and Arner and Delisle offer me coffee as soon as I cross the threshold. Arner calls coffee “bean juice,” a joke I already know because I’ve been prowling his Twitter account, which literally had me laughing until I cried. The musicians are putting peanuts on the patio railing for the Stellar’s jays flitting their plump bodies from fence post to fence post. Across from the record player spinning something dance-y, there is an upright piano garnished with a baby blue synthesizer, the only type of instrument Arner covets the way some musicians do guitars. “Each one is its own precious thing,” he jokes. And if Arner is full of one thing, it’s jokes. Clearly an animal lover, Arner keeps watch over the local squirrels from his seat at the computer where he works on his music, coining such activity “squirrelveillance.”
But I haven’t invaded the couple’s personal space just to make light of their relationship to urban wildlife, Arner is about to release his second solo album, aptly called Jay II, on Mint Records. Three years, two tours and another band — Energy Slime — separate this record from his debut, Jay Arner. The nine-track album is the product of on and off songwriting, and a long stint of international travel touring Jay Arner and, later, Energy Slime’s New Dimensional.
The musician and producer has been living in what he calls “music world” since he was a teenager. It has officially been twenty years since Arner began his own record label with a couple of high school friends called Probably Records. Even though Arner later studied at the University of British Columbia and went on to work a carpentry job, his attention was always firmly focused on making music.
“I didn’t really have the guts to admit that I didn’t want a normal job and I just wanted to do music,” he says, “but I regret nothing because I wouldn’t be where I am now. I’ve always had jobs where you don’t have to think too much so I’d just write songs in my head, and I would write songs down on pieces of scrap wood.”
Delisle giggles and shows me a piece of scrap paper stacked under the computer keyboard. Arner doesn’t read music, so he jots down a notation that is incomprehensible to me but is clear as day to Arner who tells me it is the guitar part for the track “Personal Line.” The quickly jotted notes are part and parcel with Arner’s quick creative process.
“Sometimes I say ‘I feel like a song’s coming’ and I haven’t played it on any instruments or anything. I feel like a song’s coming, and then I’ll write it down and I write a lot in the middle of the night. I don’t even feel like I wrote it, I just feel like it came to me and I have to record it that way.” Arner is pretty staunch about staying true to this original impulse, and it’s one of the reasons he likes working on this project solo. On the recording, Arner plays all of the instruments, save a couple of tracks on which Delisle sings and plays keyboard. His live band consists of himself, Delisle, Adrienne LaBelle and Adam Fink.
Jay II is sonically consistent with Jay Arner: synth heavy with catchy drums and groovy bass fills. However, Jay II is dreamier, more liquid, a little bit closer to the soundtrack to a vintage alien flick. What shines in the album (even brighter than the ever-present laser noises) are the self-aware lyrics.
“It was kind of a reaction to touring so much,” says Arner. “I hadn’t left North America [before touring Jay Arner] and I was getting a sense of the bigness of the world, and how unimportant I am. A lot of my songs are personal songs and the albums are about stuff going on inside my own mind and seeing the world gave everything a context. Singing about your problems when the planet is dying is kind of absurd, but I’m not skilled enough to write a beautiful political song, so I’m just stuck writing what I’m writing.” In “World of Suffering” Arner sings, “I’ve got the perfect life blues again,” an example of the dialectic he apprehends: the relationship between one’s personal woes and larger social issues.
“I have a few songs about the idea of moving away as a way to solve your problems, but then everything just comes with you, you’re still the same person,” says Arner. “Crystal Ball” is about the idea that “even if you knew what was going to happen you’d still make the same decisions or mistakes” while the track “Wannabe,” a blatant and intentional reference to the Spice Girls, is a reflection on the single-minded pursuit of a fruitless goal. There’s even something existential about the song “Street Freaks,” which, on the surface seems to be about walking past some weirdos at the park, but echoing vocals and the final line, “Summer is gonna be over again and everybody’s gonna need a new place to go” leave the listener misty-eyed.
Jay II is both a revelation of Arner’s inner anxieties and a kind of remedy. “It seems like we’re really ramping up to the apocalypse,” says Arner. “I think we’ll see some really fucked things in our lifetime. If I knew what else to do I would do it, but I’m just that dumb music guy, so I’m just gonna keep playing my guitar even though there’s all this stuff going on.”
But Arner has a heart of gold and an aptitude for care. As we walk to Arner’s practice space, he spots a feisty cat picking a fight with a squirrel and promptly breaks up the action before blood is shed. Keeping the peace between neighborhood critters and creating thoughtful synth-pop, refusing to eschew creativity for the security of normalcy, seems to me a beautiful way to keep the apocalypse at bay.
Jay II comes out June 17 on Mint Records. Check out jayarner.bandcamp.com for more information and past releases.