“I wrote this album on a hundred thousand mile journey that began over fifteen years ago. There's blood in these songs. As there is in any genuine offering. My wish is that some of this music resonates deep in the soul and offers a torch as you keep walking your own path.” --Joel Kroeker
Joel Kroeker continues his quest to stretch the borders of the pop music landscape with the release of “Closer To The Flame”
“Closer To The Flame” is the follow-up to “Melodrama,” the Vancouver-based singer/songwriter’s 2004 album on True North Records. Both were recorded with producer Danny Greenspoon at Toronto's Canterbury Sound.
A songwriter with incisive personal and political insights, Joel displays a strong sense of confidence in “Closer To The Flame.” He acknowledges that recording, as well as performing, the songs on “Melodrama” provided him with insight in how to best shape his music.
“When I approach a song I’m always looking for that moment of transformation where the light balances the shadows,” he explains. “That happened with some of the songs on ‘Melodrama’ but it really came through on this record. This is a more hopeful album.”
The title track, according to Joel, encapsulates the album’s primary theme: The quest for spiritual transformation after one's life has been swept up in an emotional hurricane. Within the calm after the storm, one picks up the remaining pieces and carries on to create a new life.
“The flame refers to that internal source within us that can guide us along the path, especially in times of personal tragedy,” he explains.
“Closer To The Flame” is filled with observations of a spiritual world traveler. Topics include dealing with the different anxieties of belonging to a troubled global community (“Sacred Heart,” “Remember The Song,” and “You Feel It.”); pressures of distractions keeping people from experiencing inner harmony (“Against Myself”); and conflicts of the heart (“King Of Hearts”).
“I’m quite proud of “Sacred Heart,” says Joel. “It’s about honestly and courageously facing that restless spirit that motivates so much of what we do in this world. It's about transformation against all odds and the internal alchemy of the soul.”
For the album Joel drew inspiration from varied sources, including from walking the strife-ridden streets of Bethlehem rife with Israeli /Palestinian tensions to growing up in the prairie flatlands.
Joel still calls himself a Winnipegger but he has been a man forever on the move. He has traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, Thailand, Mexico, Greece, Haiti and New Zealand. Since 2003, he has lived in Vancouver. “As a songwriter,” he observes, “it’s helpful to travel because you find inspiration in different places.”
“These Quiet Streets” was inspired from when Joel was in Bethlehem in 1997. The Israeli army had enforced a civilian lockdown due to a car bombing in a nearby town. Nobody could leave the area. However, Joel and some friends decided to test if foreigners were also subject to the restrictions.
As they walked toward the barricades, the 19-year-old Israeli guards there jumped to alert. At that moment, says Joel, he glimpsed the insanity of the power differentials in the world. Here were Israeli teenagers in uniform with Uzi machine guns screaming orders to Arab detainees with hands behind their backs, lined up on their knees with their heads against the fence.
“I watched an elderly Arab woman whisper words of assurance into a child's ear, probably her grandson” recalls Joel. “I realized how much more powerful the whispering voice of compassion is than the hollering of conquest. That contrast went straight to my heart.”
The chorale-styled “Hymn Number One” reflects Joel’s Mennonite heritage. “Writing that certainly took me back to my roots,” he says. “The echoes of those confessional hymns are still with me. Some times the choir would sing with such force and resonance that the church bench would actually vibrate right into my bones.”
Another song drawn from Joel’s past is “At The Drive In.” He recalls a childhood memory of laying on the roof of his dad's yellow 1974 Duster watching “Star Wars” in 1978. Joel missed much of the film because he became caught up in watching the rising moon arc across the sky.
“Driving across Canada you still see old abandoned drive-ins,” says Joel. “Hay fields with fences around them. It’s an age gone by. The song is about how we often get caught up in the mad rush of life while small pleasures can be very simple.”
Joel began playing guitar while in high school in Winnipeg, performing in different folk, jazz, world beat, rock bands over the years. Following high school, he moved briefly to New Zealand. Returning to Canada, he entered the University of Winnipeg, taking general arts. Then he completed a Bachelor of Music in Composition and Guitar Performance at the University of Manitoba. Then Joel completed a Masters Degree in Ethnomusicology and Popular Music Studies from the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
His debut CD "Naive Bohemian," released independently in 1999 by his Dancing Monk Productions, reached # 7 on the Canadian National Campus Radio Specialty chart. The same year Joel was named Best New Recording Artist by the Alberta Recording Industry Assn., and won the Film Score of the Year category for the documentary "Tokyo Gardens."
Following the release of “Melodrama” Joel's song "The Wind" was featured in the Canadian film "Ham + Cheese”; and "Joan of Arc," co-written with Lee Aaron, was featured on the soundtrack of the Canadian film "Life, Death & Mini-Golf." As well, “Endings” was used in 2006 in the American film “Immaculate Conception.”
As well, Joel has performed alongside Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer, Serena Ryder, Hawksley Workman, Colin Linden, Paul Kelly, Andy Stochansky, Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden, and Randy Bachman.
He also has co-written with Annette Ducharme, Emm Gryner, Haydian Neale, Stephan Moccio, Liam Titcomb, Simon Wilcox, and Australia’s Brooke McLymont.
"Co-writing is a such a different process than writing on my own,” he observes. “Basically, you are trying to get into the head of another person, trying to figure out what stage they are in their life. At the same time, you watch another person thinking through the same lyrical and musical problems.”
As a bonus track. “Closer To The Flame” features “Déjà Vu,” a French/English duet written and performed by Joel and Quebec star Dany Bédar. The track has been a major hit in Quebec. Its video reached #1 at MusiMax video channel in Jan. 2007.
Bédar discovered Joel when he attended his show in a local bar in Quebec City on June 24, 2004, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. Despite a sparse audience, Joel performing solo in English was giving it his all.
Bédar was so impressed he bought “Melodrama” and asked his management to contact Joel about co-writing. The two met again in early 2006 and then collaborated on the song “Déjà Vu” featured first on Bédar’s album “Acoustique… en studio!.”
“My career in Quebec has been a fascinating experience,” says Joel. “Dany is such a big star there. When we are in restaurants fans have their faces plastered against the window looking at him. It hasn’t happened to me yet. But I do get a lot of E-mail in French now.”
In the past three years, Joel’s songs have also been covered by Jonas, Pavlo, Deekaye Ibomeka, Patricia O’Callaghan, and Lee Aaron.
“Hearing other artists sing your songs is quite a trip,” he says. “After Patricia recorded ‘Naked Beauty’ I actually began to perform the song differently.”