In the first of the series of three Artist Features, ArtsNW Season 1 host Joel MacKenzie talks to New Westminster jazz bassist, composer, entrepreneur, and writer Will Chernoff about how the pandemic has led to his creativity, how he gets inspiration from mundane things, and thinking through first principles. He performs his first-ever composition in 2010, “ Makie Elkino ”.
See the performance video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_meE_WNcxmg
For more about William: https://williamchernoff.com/
This podcast was recorded on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories belonging to the Qayqayt First Nation; in a socially-distanced recording space in the Gallery at Queen’s Park.
Since 2015, the Music by the River Festival has taken place on Thursday evenings in Westminster Pier Park. However, due to COVID-19 Pandemic and the need for social-distancing, it is presented this year as a podcast series.
The season 2 ArtsNW podcast is produced by the Arts Council of New Westminster and brought to you by the Government of Canada, Province of BC, the BC Arts Council, and the City of New Westminster. The theme music for this season is composed by Benjamin Millman.
To donate to this podcast and the Arts Council of New West, go to acnw.ca/donate
See all episodes at artsnw.ca
JOEL MACKENZIE: Mostly what I wanted to talk about today was how COVID-19 has affected artists in New West, such as yourself. It’s just an unprecedented time. I remember in March, people were talking about this could last for, like, a month and now it’s looking like restrictions will continue into next year. How has COVID-19 affected your creativity since March or since whenever?
WILLIAM CHERNOFF: Right off the bat I would want to say that I will be telling an optimistic tale. Chuckles.
JM: Chuckles. Oh, good!
WC: One where I’ve sorted a lot of things out about what I enjoy most in my career and I’ve been able to reflect on all different kinds of things and figure out which things are really fulfilling and which ones aren't. The first one of those that came to a head was performance travel. I really ignited my career on live performance because that was the most obvious way to do it with my particular path where I went to music college briefly but dropped out [when] I was eighteen.
JM: Oh, really?
WC: Live performance was the one true way for me to feel like I had a music career in me, and it’s what the people in my life wanted to do. From that time in my late teens, I made it my mission to enable live performance for me and the people I worked with and bring it to the people who listened to the music that we made. I started performing a couple hundred times a year at that age.
JM: At seventeen?
WC: Yeah, coming out of high school, going into music college, and then over the next five years I tried to perform on a full-time basis. I didn’t necessarily have the full toolbox to do so but I did my best and the best example of that so far was the band that I co-founded in 2018 with three of my friends to perform at folk music festivals around Canada.
WC: We found a lot of fulfillment in performing live together. In the mixture of what a band does, we were so tilted towards live performance. An example of the other end of this tilt that I can think of is a rapper who makes great music and has millions and millions of streams but for whatever reason hasn’t hardly performed live. That’s a type of career musician that exists now.
JM: I would say [in] any genre, really.
WC: Yeah, true, any genre. I think of it particularly in the genres that are closest to the zeitgeist of music streaming but, yeah, it could be any genre. On the other end, you have the band that we started, where it’s all about the live gig and what happened on streaming stores or what happened on social media was either an afterthought or a direct consequence of the live gig. So, right off the bat the band got hit very hard [from COVID]...This was the third year of the band and the summer was shaping up to be full of folk music festivals and more. We’ve been fortunate as a band just to continue to be in touch and continue working on new music. That changed overnight.
JM: So, how are you working on new music?
WC: Well, it then turns to other projects. As an independent artist myself, I play jazz and I write jazz. The time that I had spent travelling and performing with this band, I immediately channelled it into my own jazz music, and that was really fulfilling. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one project was better than the other, but the continuity of the career continues no matter what.
JM: So you’re saying that you started working on your own solo projects?
WC: Yeah, I had just started to record and release my own music the prior year, in 2019. It was a much needed chance for me to put some more time and focus into that instead of booking gigs, travelling, and performing. I really appreciated that.
JM: That—the whole booking, managing, and all that—that is a full-time job in and of itself.
WC: For sure, it’s something that takes up a lot of the time that you spend together as a band. Just sorting out the details of something like that. That’s also true when I find performances for my jazz music. In terms of pure time spent on creative affairs, the time since March of this year has been one of the best and most fulfilling times for me. So, ultimately I feel great about the hand that I was dealt and I feel really fortunate for the situation that I’ve been in artistically.
JM: So, why is that, that this led to so much creativity for you? I’ve met quite a few people for whom this is not a creative time at all; they can’t seem to make anything because of this. Why was it so positive for you?
WC: Well, right off the bat I really enjoyed spending more time at home, so if you’re not well-suited to that angle of the pandemic, I understand the challenge that you would face. But I was coming from the position of being away from home every weekend from May until September and I didn’t really like that. That was a chore of the experience for me. And I hear other people in my inner circle talk about how being on the road is the best, but for me being on the road was always the means and the end was something else that came from the experience. The endeavour of performance travel was a necessary chore for me so to have that shut off, it opened my mind. To be able to spend more time in my own home with my spouse and my cat and my family who live in New West and my close friends who live and work with me in New West, it was great and it unlocked a lot of possibility and it has me searching for a new mission for my own independent music releases.
JM: That’s great. No matter how you slice this, this comes off as a cliché question to me. But where does the creativity and inspiration come from for you, during this time in particular?
WC: It comes from a couple of different things depending on which pieces of the puzzle you’re talking about. I don’t write songs at this point in my career. It’ll be interesting to listen back if I enter a period where I do. But right now, I write compositions - so no lyrics, [just] music. If there are lyrics, it’s because I collaborated with somebody else. So, what do I have to produce? I have to produce a melody, a harmony, a rhythm and everything else that you think of as going into the music part [as well as] a title and an artistic direction. The artistic direction can pull in all the different visual elements that you would have, any video elements that you would have, and any writing that would appear alongside the thing. Those are the nuts and bolts of what I’m responsible for. Especially as a solo operator / independent artist under my own name.
So where does the inspiration from those things come from and how did they light up in mid-March when I started to stay home? For me, titling compositions has always been pretty arbitrary. I like to pull titles from very mundane things and then watch and see if they can acquire other meaning later. One example of that would be a jazz waltz tune that I titled “Sitting to Her Left”, which can end up being a pretty evocative title. But, in actual fact, [it] came from me sitting in a lecture all and absentmindedly sketching out a melody and a set of chords during the lecture and titling it that because there was one person sitting next to me, and she was to my left. So the tune that I came up with, mid-lecture, I gave it that name just because I wanted to attach some arbitrary title to it. And now hopefully it can sound more interesting than it actually was, later.
I would say pandemic life has been full of things like that where arbitrary things can come into your mind and later you can look at them in a more curious way, and they can take on some other meaning. And then for the music part of it, I just have more time in my home office which is my favourite place to write music where I have my keyboard, my acoustic guitar, my bass, my upright bass, and my computer. Whenever I have time, that’s one of the first things that I reach for and that I want to do. I enjoy having so much access to that while I’ve been at home. And while I’ve shifted more of my work to take place in New West or take place from home, I’ve had more time for that, so I’ve been grateful for that.
JM: So, are you inspired by mundane things?
WC: Yeah, absolutely! I don’t know what else is more inspiring than that.
JM: Laughs. Uh, the opposite? I’m just kidding.
WC: Laughs. I find it very hard to artistically channel something really serious or something that feels really heavy or something that demands my attention. I find it hard to get artistic inspiration from that. It’s so much easier to get it from random things, from mundane things.
JM: That’s really interesting. The COVID-19 restrictions happened basically across Spring and now we’re in Summer. Do you find the seasons take a big role in what you create?
WC: I think more just by seasonality of work than anything else, so not really. Certainly if I had to talk about one impact on my life or my career, it was that the summer festival season wouldn’t be happening.
WC: That’s ultimately the biggest delta in terms of now versus past years. Some of my friends talk about it as, “I have no idea what I’m going to do this summer” or, “It’s so weird to have a wide-open summer in front of me.” That difference in the summer experience will ultimately be the biggest difference for me and I’m sure that’ll be great. More opportunity to see people and be artistically stimulated by mundane things. So I’m looking forward to a wide open summer.
JM: Yeah, that’s great. Do you have more albums in store right now?
WC: Yeah. So far in my independent jazz journey, I’ve released only singles. I released a couple of singles to kick things off in 2019 and then I released a FACTOR-funded series of singles pre-COVID this year and into the first couple of months of [COVID]. Now I’m taking a pause to calibrate and to get a bigger project underway. And I’m trying to think about it from first principles because I’m afraid that if I don’t, it won’t make sense.
JM: What do you mean by “first principles”?
WC: Well, because I have framed my life in terms of professional arts since I was a teenager, I’m in a bit of a bubble in that respect. So when I think about the projects that I have to do, I have to think about them in a way that I know will help me continue to get by, for lack of better words. I think that, for any artist, that the big decisions in an artist’s life are ultimately financial. Now, I don’t mean that they are ultimately all about money. I mean that they’re about tradeoffs. They’re about figuring out what you value the most and making sure that the stuff you do contributes towards that whenever it’s possible. You always have to say yes to things that people ask you to do as part of your career. But when you get to be in the driver’s seat, it’s what do I value, what am I on a mission to contribute to, and how can I do more of that and less of the other stuff.
JM: Do you do a lot of work on a voluntary basis?
WC: That’s the thing, I would say no because when I do that, it has to be something that’s part of the bigger mission. And when I’m thinking about a big independent project for my jazz music, or if my band was thinking about what to do next, the reason why we have to go to first principles is because the obvious things may not be there. Uncertainty is a big word in the pandemic environment because it’s not obvious, depending on which timeframe you’re looking at, which of your everyday assumptions about your career will be there. For example, one of the assumptions about releasing an album or a big music project or a big collaboration is the opportunity to support it with a tour.
JM: Even funding and relying on arts organizations existing next month.
WC: Yeah, and then if you start to think about it, the uncertainty really multiplies. So, we have to think quite hard about some things that are probably good habits to think about anyways. Like, who are the hundred people that this is really for, first and foremost? Who are we going to run out to and text and call and tell about what we just did? And what has been our relationship with them?
The positive trend I see here - and hopefully one of the things I’ll remember this by - is that the pandemic has put people at a bigger distance in general, but it also demands that us creative professionals really bear down on the relationships that we have in our professional and personal lives and really commit to the most important ones like we never have before to make sure that we are reaching the people who are closest to us and that our work really does mean something to them because we can’t take anything for granted and we need to celebrate that closest circle that we have. Because, in a world of uncertainty, that’s what we have. If we don’t have anything else, that’s the one thing that we can maybe still count on.
JM: It sounds like this year has been overall a positive, thoughtful experience for you. I don’t want to put words in your mouth but that’s the sense that I’m getting from you. Can you talk a little about community? You grew up in New West and you were just telling us off-air about how the community that you grew up around really helped you get into music and continue playing music. How does your community right now help you creatively?
WC: Well, I have a lot of milestones so far based on when certain people entered my life or my career and I’m not old enough to have a ton of them yet, but the major one so far was in the spring of 2016 when, in the same month, I met the person I was going to marry and I met my biggest musical collaborator to date, who I co-founded the band with and have done other projects and performances with. Before that month, I felt very lost. That double-header just defined the next three years nonstop and continues to define a lot of what I do. So, I really enjoy thinking about it from the perspective of when I meet people and the lasting impact of that.
I’m so lucky that, around the end of 2019, I met a couple more collaborators who are based here in New West and who have helped me track, and mix, and produce, and manage my jazz projects and more, all in New West and in an environment where I can walk to everything and work from home. I think I could be doing that for the next couple of years. But I never would have thought that would be the case if I didn’t meet these people at the end of 2019. You would never expect it. So, before then, I spent three or four days a week in North Vancouver for a decade even though I lived in New West through most of that time.
JM: Why North Van?
WC: That’s where my collaborators were. I had a public arts position that I had for five or six years and it was in North Van. My band was based primarily there and the Capilano University jazz community was in large part based there, so I was going there all the time. But I lived here, and now there’s more of my work here in New West than ever and that’s amazing. I want to keep doing that, partly just because I like being able to walk to everything. Chuckles.
JM: I think walkability is an essential part of what makes a community. That was one of my favourite parts of living in New West when I did live here. You can walk across it if you have an hour, maybe two. Chuckles.
WC: Yeah, and you can also walk home from house parties when you’re a teenager.
JM: Right. Laughs. So, you have your bass with you right now, right? Which piece do you want to play for us?
WC: I want to play the first composition I ever did, which I wrote in 2010 while I was at New Westminster Secondary School. And I want to use this format to have a little fun with it. It’s called “Makie Elkino'' and it’s one of the simplest tunes I have. I think what I’m going to do is I’m going to play some kind of melody or accompaniment arrangement of this tune just by myself on the bass guitar and then I’m going to do a little improvised solo where I only use one pitch. So, I’m going to play the tune in the key of E and I’m pretty much only going to use an E pitch in the little time I give myself for improvisation, unless something goes totally sideways, which is possible.
JM: Fantastic, sounds great.