What do you get when you cross a hyper focused surgeon with someone with a to release her darkness into song? Paragon Cause.
We talk about a possible meaning for their name, strange possible bandmates, influences, their respective super powers and how music can save lives.
Paragon Cause Interview
We started by talking about how close Ottawa is to Montreal. Jay and Michelle spoke highly of The Main for Smoked Meat, across from the legendary Schwartz’s Deli.
NOTE: Transcription has been edited to read more naturally.
Montreal Rocks: Just before we started, I was doing some research on the word Paragon. (Jay and Michelle laugh). I found out that in old Italian, it means Touchstone.
Jay: Yeah, that’s one of them.
MR: A Touchstone to test the purity of gold or silver by rubbing against it to discover if it was real or not. Is that what you do, become a Touchstone on issues around the world?
Jay: I think we do now, after you told us this!
Michelle: That sounds great, and he’s Italian!
Jay: We actually spent a lot of time looking for a word that meant searching for perfection. It just fit, even the gemstones from the past. I didn’t put too much thought into it, but that’s definitely the idea.
MR: You are refining your sound as you go along.
Jay: Yes, without a doubt.
MR: Both of you met on a match making website for bands called Bandmix. It was an ideal match. What were some of the less ideal matches you found on there?
(You can see the film reel of memories going through their heads.)
Jay: Oh my goodness, where do we begin? I met one person who said she was a Jazz & Funk musician who was looking for a guitar player. Her and this other person came to my house. They didn’t have any songs. They didn’t know how to play guitar. They didn’t know anything. I think they just expected me to write the music for them, and this person would just sing. It was one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had. The person that was with her said: “I’m the songwriter.”
“Oh!”, I said “So you write the lyrics?”
“No…I’m the songwriter.”
“Oh! So you write the music?”
“No…I write the songs.”
“Do you play any instruments?”
“So what do you do?”
MR: But I do play Rock Band!
Jay: Yeah, exactly!
Jay: There were these other guys that liked to drink lots of beer and play country music with their shirts off, which I felt was a little bit odd. Not really my style.
Michelle actually met these same people.
Michelle: I didn’t meet them, they just contacted me and said: “We are starting to get really big. Now is the time to jump on board. We have a show coming up.”
I was like: Neh. Then I saw the music video they released wearing wife beaters along with scantily clad hired girls. NO!
MR: Not the right philosophy of life that you are looking for. I’m glad it worked out for the both of you. The music sounds great. Definitely detecting a lot of ingredients that went into that mix. Let’s get to the root of that.
Going back to your childhood…was there a time where music went from something you heard to something you felt?
Jay: The first time I heard the song “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. The idea of cinematic music blew my mind.
I’m from Cape Breton so all I heard was fiddle music and Rita MacNeil. Michael Jackson, oddly enough, was the person that got me to progress into hip-hop. When I first started listening to hip-hop, it made music feel real. That first time hearing A Tribe Called Quest is what did it for me. It blew my mind and started me down the rabbit hole of wanting to become a musician.
Michelle: For me, it wasn’t necessarily a band. I grew up going to church twice every Sunday. My mom would sing, so I would sing all the time. She noticed I had an ear for it. She first got me an organ. I would hear these melodies in church and figure them out on the organ. “Oh crap!”, my mom said, “This girl knows what she’s doing.” Eventually I had piano lessons, so we got a piano. I also did a lot of singing.
I was always embarrassed about myself. Whenever my mom would take photos of me singing because I always looked SO into it. I always put everything in my music. It’s my way of expressing myself. Now I just embrace it, so if I look back at photo…whatever.
MR: It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there, even more so with all our little faults. That’s what makes us relatable. The people who try to be too perfect, too Photoshopped are just not relatable. They are like a cartoon that doesn’t exist in real life.
Jay: 100%. I find that a lot of mainstream Pop music is like that right now. You are looking at an online image that is created to perfectly get across a brand. It’s so real that it’s fake and manufactured.
MR: What was your first concert?
Jay: I have a photo of it! It’s me playing the song “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran when I was about 9 years old, first learning how to play guitar. I sang and played poorly. (Michelle is laughing at his side.) I was a big fan of 50s music when I was a little kid. For some reason, I was obsessed with the movie La Bamba.
Michelle: It would be going to see Les Misérables in Toronto with my high school. I was obsessed with that musical for a long time afterwards. I was fortunate enough to go, for one semester, to a high school who were the first in Canada to put on the play Les Misérables. I auditioned and got the lead role as Fantine. I love it still.
Jay: I can think back at distinct periods of my life where an artist just took over. I’m the type of person that when I find a band I like, I listen to everything over and over.
Jay: I went through The Cure, Jane’s Addiction, Pink Floyd, A Tribe Called Quest, The Raveonettes, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and Howlin’ Wolf’s blues. Those bands are my biggest influences.
I think the best concert I saw was The Cure in New York City in a small theatre. It was unbelievable.
MR: I definitely sensed The Cure’s guitar in your music….the old Cure, not the one that became popular…the deep cuts.
Jay: That’s the stuff I like, those early albums.
MR: You mentioned the Raveonnettes which is a good intro to your new EP “Lies Between Us” which is coming out September 13th. You got to collaborate with Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes just because you asked, in a Tweet. It reminds me of a TED Talk by Amanda Palmer about “The Art of Asking”. What is the benefit of putting yourself out there and asking for help?
Jay: You have nothing to lose. The worst they can do is not answer or say no. At least you tried. I heard he was a nice guy, so I wrote him to see if he would write back.
I tell bands now; it doesn’t hurt to ask for whatever you need. A lot of Indie bands these days are afraid to ask for help. We all want to do the DIY thing, but…
Michelle: You have to help each other.
Jay: Yes. You learn so much when you work with other people.
MR: Maybe we will start a new acronym: DIT “Do It Together” or doittogether.com!
Jay & Michelle: Yes! (laughs)
MR: Your producer was a tight mesh, where things seemed to flow naturally. A lot of the songs on the EP were done by the both of you jamming together. What have you learned from working together? Do you have different ways to introduce music or do you go in a session with blank slates?
Michelle: We know how we write songs together now. We’ve done it enough that we have a certain way. Jay will do more of the rhythm elements and coming up with the chord progressions. I will do a lot of the melodies. It depends on who is coming in first.
Jay: Michelle is very good at coming up with melodies on the spot.
Michelle: Yeah. I like to be very spontaneous.
Jay: I would say that 70% of the time, she already has a melody, or I already have a chord progression. I might say: “Listen to this.” She will just start singing something. Often, we will just record a quick crappy demo. We then go back and listen to it. We see where we can go with it and add layers to it.
We want to get a rough idea of the song. Once we have that, we record it no matter how good or crappy it is. We just do it. We might have 100s of these little ideas that we listen to, and sometimes they fit together like a puzzle.
We like to experiment, so once in a while we will record a song that is in a very happy and major key. The song “I Waited” is our darkest song on the EP. We have a recording of that which is a really happy folk song.
Michelle: Yeah, we wrote it on the front porch. (Michelle is swinging her head from side to side with a huge grin…reliving the memory of writing that “happy” song.)
Jay: We played it for Sune and told him we love the melody, but we don’t’ like the chords…it’s not us. So, he said we should keep working on it. We altered all the chords to make it darker. Yet, it’s the exact same melody and lyrics. It’s amazing when you hear it…
MR: It’s like from a different perspective.
Michelle: Oh yeah.
Jay: It changed the song so much. We love doing that. We record a song, then the melody comes out, then we trash the music and start from scratch with that melody. It’s really fun to do.
MR: That stood out for me in my research, how you said: “Write and record badly and quickly.” I heard the same about writing (Tim Ferriss Podcast). Write quickly and badly and don’t try to correct. It’s because it lets you stay in the flow. If you stop and perfect everything, you cut off the creativity.
Michelle: Exactly. If I’m trying to write a lyric to a song and I’m thinking for a long time…it’s not worth it. When I hear Jay play, sometimes I can’t keep up with how fast I’m writing the lyrics. I’m scribbling so fast with my hand and those are the ones that stick.
Jay: Most of the songs on the album were written the day of, or the night before we recorded.
MR: You were even given a task (by Sune) to listen to the Ramones before writing the song “Save Me”.
Michelle: Yes. It was super fun.
MR: That song deals with control. In the video, you have a bunch of people wearing masks. What do the masks represent?
Jay: We worked with this group in Ottawa to make the video. We provide a little creative input. As artists, we love working with other artists and give them a little free reign to interpret it in their own way. When they interpreted the song, it had to do with hiding from our past. There are kids and partners in the video that have masks on. It’s about not looking at your past. The song deals with that too, ignoring the past whether positive or negative and not dealing with things.
Michelle: Yes, not learn from it. It smacks you in the face…look…it happened again, but you didn’t learn from it.
MR: Like you said, that does get passed onto our children. Whatever we choose to ignore, they will eventually ignore as well.
Jay: In the video, that weird glowing orb…in the end, the woman decides that she isn’t going to pass this on anymore. She’s not going to give this to the children. She’s going to make a change.
MR: Break the cycle.
MR: We were talking a little about Social Media in that same way. Social Media is people hiding behind masks. That perfect life. You are not bringing a true representation of who you are. I think that is hurting society in the long run.
Jay: I agree. I don’t think it’s good for the brain of teenagers and kids or anyone for that matter.
Michelle: It’s weird for me. Last year, I worked in a grade 8 history class as a teacher. You see the kids interacting with their phones. They just sit in hallways taking pictures of themselves, till they get the right one…for like a half hour! They go on a walk and instead of enjoying the experience, they are thinking how can I get the best photo of this experience and make it look like I’m enjoying myself? They are all doing it…bleh.
MR: At some point we will have to go back to authenticity and being ourselves. When I was listening to your songs, yes you are paying homage to certain aspects of the past, but you are also creating something new and it feels like it’s you guys.
Jay: We appreciate that. We definitely hold our influences close to our hearts, fingers and voices but at the same time, we put them together in a very unique way. It’s us, like you said. You can tell hearing it.
MR: I want to focus on you Jay, for a second. I found it interesting that you went from being a surgeon to going “all in” music.
Jay: I still work. It’s not like I gave it up 100%. I was a musician before I went into medicine. I was actually on tour with a band from Halifax and I said: “You know what? I think I will write my MCAT.” I taught myself organic chemistry on tour and then I wrote it and passed. “I guess I should apply.” I applied and got in. It was as simple as that. I guess I have to go, if I got in!
MR: The is a quote from Shakespeare (maybe) that I like and I would like to see how it applies to this specific situation: The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.
Jay: That’s beautiful.
MR: What do you think your gift is? You have medicine and music.
Jay: My gift is focus.
Jay: When I set my mind to do something, and this is not to sound arrogant, but I set my goal and what I define as success…I’m a realist…I know what success is…what I want…and it’s rare I don’t achieve it. My goal in music isn’t to be Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake. I just want to make good music. I’m achieving that.
MR: I’m just picturing you in a Britney Spears outfit and it’s a little freaky right now.
Michelle: His legs are too muscular.
Jay: I have a skill of learning new things. Oddly enough, there is part of my mind, which also helps in medicine, which is the creativity. I’m good at ignoring the noise and focusing on the creative aspect of things and having an open mind.
MR: When you are a surgeon, aren’t there many things happening all at once? You have to monitor the patient’s life signs. You’ve got blood coming out of places you are probably not expecting. You have to coordinate a lot of things. It must take a lot of focus. When playing a gig, you have to focus on many different things.
Michelle: He’s actually hyper focused…turning one thing on, while turning another off. He’s doing 5 things at once at any given time. I’m just playing keyboards and singing…this is all good. I think you like that. How many things can I do at once?
Jay: I love the challenge.
MR: You also do live loops and samples.
Jay: We do samples and we have a drum machine I control with my feet. That, the guitar and the synthesizer. It’s a lot. We make a lot of noise, even just the two of us. Sometimes we have a bass player that joins us for shows.
MR: I saw that in one of the videos, that third person.
Jay: He looks cooler than us, so we like to have him in the video.
Jay: Except you…he looks cooler than me.
MR: What your higher purpose Michelle? What’s your gift?
Jay: It’s her honesty.
Michelle: Yeah…but it does kick me in the arse sometimes. I have to be true to myself and true to what I’m doing. I spent too long in my life faking it and questioning so many things. When I finally got over that hump, I had to be me.
Jay: You can probably hear it in the lyrics to some of the songs. You can feel the emotion and the honesty. Sune was blown away by Michelle’s ability to convey emotion with her voice. I still am, every time.
MR: You are tackling issues that are not necessarily Pop. Depression…
Michelle: Domestic abuse.
MR: The way people are being treated. Racism. Is that part of it? Being true to that message as well?
Jay: 100%. I think we wanted to be very honest. We took a little influence from Sune and the Raveonettes. A lot of their songs have this happy jangly feel and then you are: Wow…this song is about rape! That’s why we got along so well. We have a little touch of sarcasm, justice and playfulness. Just a little.
Michelle: I know it sounds cheesy, but literally music saved me. If I didn’t have that to fall back on and properly express my emotions, I would have needed a lot more money for good psychiatrists.
MR: To help you not implode within yourself.
Michelle: Yeah. I remember my sister telling me how jealous she was of me having this outlet to express myself. She noticed early on that I was able to put all the bad stuff into music. Not everyone has that ability to unload. I consider myself very lucky that I can.
MR: In one of the songs, you talk about being able to go in and help others now.
Michelle: Absolutely. You need to do that, right? I can’t just pretend that everything is happy and wonderful all the time. The idea that when you are inside something terrible, you feel like you are the only one. People have to know that there are other people thinking of them at that time.
MR: I truly believe that medicine saves lives…being a surgeon…but I believe music saves lives as well.
It’s taken a few lives as well. Some people can hide the pain.
You are able to address the pain, tap into that. Help other people say what they want to express but can’t put into words. That saves lives.
Jay: 100%. A band like The Cure probably saved thousands of lives. Just knowing someone else is going through this stuff.
MR: So…Paragon Cause saves lives!
Jay: In more ways than one. That’s our new brand!
CONCLUSION: Paragon Cause are trying to book a Quebec Ontario tour in the Fall. We hope that make their way to Montreal for some Smoke Meat and music. Until then, check out the new EP on all streaming platforms.
Interview: Randal Wark is a Professional Speaker and MasterMind Facilitator with a passion for live music. You can follow him on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. His new Podcast RockStar Today helps musicians quit their days jobs is coming soon.Share this :